In a scene in the pilot episode of the television drama Friday Night Lights, which debuted on NBC in 2006, Lyla Garrity (Minka Kelly), a beautiful cheerleader, asks her boyfriend Jason Street (Scott Porter), star quarterback for the Dillon Panthers, a series of questions meant to mimic the questions asked by a barrage of reporters that had interviewed him in preparation for the upcoming Texas high school football season. The reporters had demonstrated awe and reverence for Jason’s football skills and future prospects as a college - and even professional - football player; Lyla exaggerates their admiration, asking questions like, “Mr. Street, is it true that you can throw a 400-yard touchdown pass to three different receivers at the same time?” and “Is it true that you have superhuman powers and can demolish buildings and hurl fireballs?” He responds to each question with a gravely serious, “This is true,” to which she replies, “Then you must kiss me.” Though her questions are exaggerated, her adoration for him is genuine; when he declares that he loves her more than anything in the world (except, he qualifies jokingly, maybe football), it becomes obvious that the feeling is mutual. Nevertheless, he is clearly the star player in their relationship; throughout the episode, Lyla is shown primarily in relation to him. If she isn’t glued to his side while he is being interviewed, she is supporting his team at a pep rally or football game, decorating baked treats for the football team, or rushing to mark her territory when another girl dares to flirt with him. Lyla Garrity, it seems through much of the pilot episode, exists - both in the narrative of Friday Night Lights and in the character’s own mind - to support and pamper Jason Street.
Lyla is not the only stereotypical character introduced in the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights. Within the pilot episode, we are also introduced to “bad boy” Tim Riggins (Taylor Kitsch), who we meet waking up with his girlfriend on top of him, empty beer bottles strewn across his coffee table; the aforementioned girlfriend, Tyra Collette (Adrianne Palicki), whose literal entanglement with Tim, as well as the obvious manner in which she flirts with Jason Street and other players, quickly establishes her as the “school slut”; arrogant African-American running back Brian “Smash” Williams (Gaius Charles), who in an interview with a reporter is almost instantly asked about racism on the team; studious Julie Taylor (Aimee Teegarden), the coach’s daughter, who sassily informs would-be suitor Matt Saracen (Zach Gilford) that she doesn’t date football players; Saracen, underdog back-up quarterback for the Panthers; and, of course, Street himself, the “golden boy” quarterback. Though Friday Night Lights earned a great deal of critical acclaim upon its premiere, some early reviews criticized the broad strokes with which its characters were initially painted: “Over time, Lights would be wise to desanctify Street and add some nuance to the town tramp,” a USA Today article cautioned, also suggesting that “while the portraits of the self-centered black star Smash and his sassy mama are not necessarily inaccurate or offensive, they are awfully familiar. It would be nice to see a few more characters, black and white, who surprise us." Indeed, many of the main characters initially seem not so different from those seen in other sports films (Street, Saracen, and Riggins, for example, closely resemble characters played by Paul Walker, James Van Der Beek, and Scott Caan in Varsity Blues, which like Friday Night Lights focuses on a fictional Texas high school football team). Further, all are initially almost solely defined by their involvement (or lack thereof) with the football team.
Until their world is tipped on its side.
At the end of the pilot episode, Jason Street receives a hit on the football field that renders him a quadriplegic, not only ending his football career, but leaving him confined to a hospital bed for the show’s first several episodes and to a wheelchair thereafter. With this event, every single character has to adjust to their new positions in a universe that no longer has Street at its center. Thus, the events depicted in the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights set up a series of questions around which the first season of the show is built: how will Street reimagine his identity and his future now that football is no longer at the center of his life? How will the team recover from the loss of their star quarterback? Will back-up quarterback Saracen be able to fill his shoes? If so, how will his new role - and the fame that comes with it - affect him and the people in his life? Will Williams and Riggins have an opportunity to shine now that the team does not have one undisputed star? And what will Lyla, a young woman whose life has almost solely revolved around being the quarterback’s girlfriend, do with herself now that her boyfriend is no longer the quarterback?
As the first season of the series explores these questions, something important becomes evident: the stereotypical roles presented in the pilot - star quarterback; devoted cheerleader girlfriend; bad boy; school slut; cocky black running back; coach’s daughter; and underdog backup quarterback - are not, as seen by the creators of Friday Night Lights, simply generic “types” meant to fill various narrative functions in the plot of a sports story. They are very real labels that the characters have been living with for a long time. Some chose their labels for themselves; others acquired their labels through behavior, ability, gender, skin color, social class, family ties, or a combination of the above. Those labels have affected how they are treated, how they see themselves, and how they are expected to behave. Over the course of the first season of Friday Night Lights, the characters will learn how difficult an unwanted label can be to shake, how difficult an idealized label can be to live up to, and how devastating a favored label can be to lose.
For no character is that truer than Lyla Garrity who, in the first season of Friday Night Lights, struggles as she reluctantly loses one label and even more reluctantly acquires another. Her character’s first-season journey provides an apt case study for examining how labels can affect one’s perception of self, as well as one’s treatment by others, while her second- and third-season storylines allow viewers to see how a character’s life progresses once those labels (and the expectations that come with them) have been taken away. Further, her character demonstrates how even a role that has traditionally been stereotyped and undervalued can become complicated in a narrative that allows that character to be fully realized.
Before looking more closely at Lyla’s storylines, it is first important to note the ubiquity of her character type - that of supportive girlfriend and cheerleader - in the sports film. As Todd F. McDormand et. al. note in their discussion of Jerry Maguire, For Love of the Game, and Any Given Sunday, “women in [sports] films are largely depicted as supportive characters that live vicariously through the men whom they emotionally support.” Thus, it is very common for a sports film to have a character in the “supportive girlfriend” role - and somewhat uncommon for that character to be given much to do beyond support her athlete boyfriend.
Scholar Dayna B. Daniels offers an even more negative reading of the role of women in sports films: “Once the games are over, women are for sex, and the only role for a woman during the game is to be a pretty cheerleader.” Indeed, perhaps even more ubiquitous in the sports film is the role of the cheerleader, which, as multiple scholars point out, carries with it a host of connotations and stereotypes. Kate Torgovnick notes, “in popular culture, cheerleaders are generally portrayed as the queen bees - the ones at the top of the social pyramid whom everyone admires and/or fears.” However, as she points out, images associated with the cheerleader are often contradictory: “In many cases, they are set on high pedestals, objects to be admired from afar. Other times they are airheads without much going on upstairs, vapid and obsessed with how they look. Sometimes they are snotty, even cruel, to the people below them on the totem pole. Often, they are sluts.” The image of the cheerleader as “slut,” however, is often intertwined with an ideal of the cheerleader as innocent: in the words of Mary Ellen Hanson, the cheerleader is often “a wholesome, extroverted, enthusiastic Good Girl.” As she asserts, “these qualities mirror cultural definitions of appropriate female roles. Women are valued for youth and beauty, which convey status, and for their social role as behavioral gatekeepers and providers of emotional support.” It is in Hanson’s characterization that we find the most apt description of the particular incarnation of cheerleader that Lyla personifies in the pilot episode of Friday Night Lights: she is pretty and perky, wholesome and supportive. While viewers might easily assume that she and Jason have a sexual relationship, the character is not defined by her sexuality; she is defined, as previously established, by her relationship with Jason.
Lyla’s first appearance in the second episode of the series highlights her devotion to Jason. Viewers first see her as she strides confidently down the hall of the hospital, balloons in hand. The person at the front desk greets her by name, indicating that she is a familiar figure at the hospital; the fact that she enlists a flabbergasted doctor to help her hang a banner she has brought for Jason further illustrates how at home she feels there.
It quickly becomes clear, however, that she is in denial about both the severity of Jason’s condition and the extent to which their futures have been altered. She encouragingly tells Jason of cases she has read about in which quadriplegic patients have walked again. When Jason warns her that it would take a miracle for that to happen in his case, she tells him firmly, “You are Jason Street, and I am Lyla Garrity, and everything is going to work out just the way we planned it.” It is not long before other characters become concerned both about Lyla’s denial and the extent to which she continues to base her future plans around Jason.
In the show’s third episode, Lyla’s mother, Pam, expresses dismay when Lyla informs her that she will be spending her own birthday visiting Jason in the hospital. Later, Lyla overhears her mother telling her father that Lyla is “living in a fantasyland…she’s not thinking about college, she’s not thinking about her own future. I mean, what’s she going to do? She’s put all of her eggs in one basket, and I’m sorry to tell you this, but you and I let her.” In episode five, Tami Taylor (Connie Britton), the school guidance counselor and football coach’s wife, demonstrates a similar concern. Tami begins a meeting with Lyla by congratulating her on her record of straight A’s and enthusiastically asking her which colleges she is considering, only to quickly become dismayed when Lyla informs her that she had always figured she would wait to see what school Jason was going to play for - probably Notre Dame. Tami gently tells her that she was actually asking what, “separate from that,” Lyla might want to do. It is clear from the surprised look on Lyla’s face that she has absolutely no idea.
The concern that Pam Garrity and Tami Taylor display over Lyla’s devotion to Jason is significant, as is the mention of Lyla’s outstanding grades. As previously noted, the role of the “supportive girlfriend” in the sports narrative is not uncommon; however, in this iteration, characters actually vocally express concern that this life might be unfulfilling and leaves few options for the girlfriend once the boyfriend’s sports career is over. Thus, while the stereotypical role is present in this narrative, it is also critiqued. Further, because the show devotes significant time to exploring how Lyla deals with the aftermath of Jason’s accident, she has the opportunity to become a fully realized character, as opposed to one who is only there to provide support for the “more important” sports star. The development of her character beyond that of the “supportive girlfriend” is further illustrated by the fact that Lyla continues to be an important character on the show even after she and Jason eventually break up; she is shown dealing with events in her own life, including her parents’ separation and divorce and, in the third season, college plans that do not include Jason. Additionally, the mention of Lyla’s grades demonstrates that Lyla has potential to be more than simply someone’s girlfriend, even if she herself doesn’t yet realize it. This fact itself runs counter to the popular stereotype of a cheerleader; as Tami herself acknowledges, “it’s not true what they say about cheerleaders, that you’re all just a bunch of T and A and nothing between the ears.” The creators of Friday Night Lights, then, are clearly cognizant of the stereotypes surrounding those in Lyla’s position and actively seek to complicate them.
Her character becomes more complicated still when we consider her reaction to Jason pushing her away, which he does on the night that she spends her birthday visiting him at the hospital. When he expresses regret that she spent her birthday that way, she perkily tells him that they’ll go to dinner next year, “when [he’s] all better.” Her repeated assertions that he is going to fully recover finally get to him, and he lays it on the line for her: “My life? As we knew it? Over. Football? Over. Notre Dame, going pro - all that, gone. You and me? We’re not getting married. So I need you to do something for me, all right? Get out.” Though she doesn’t comply right away, after he shouts repeatedly at her to leave, she does, telling him quietly that she will be back the next day.
On her way home, she encounters Tim Riggins, Jason’s best friend, who had similarly tied his future to Jason’s; in the show’s pilot episode, he enthusiastically lays out his plan for the two of them to buy a ranch together when Jason is finished with the pros. However, unlike Lyla, who has only increased her devotion to Jason in the aftermath of the accident, Tim has completely avoided Jason; he was on the field when Jason was injured and feels that he could have done something to prevent the accident. That night, Lyla finds him walking home in the rain and pulls over, taking her frustration out on him: “What is wrong with you? Jason is in the hospital, and you won’t even go and see him! You can walk! You can walk on your two feet to get another glass of beer, if that’s what you want to do. Why don’t you get it?” She slaps him in the face. “You make me sick.” She pushes him. “Why won’t you go see him?” She continues to rail at him, pushing him, taking him by the shirt and shaking him, and slapping him again, all the while shouting at him: “He’s your best friend! He asks about you all the time! Why won’t you help me?” She finally concludes, “He’s never going to walk again!” It is clearly the first time she has accepted this as fact, and she finally breaks down crying. Tim holds her while she cries, and after a few moments, the two kiss passionately.
The moment is shocking, to the viewer and to both characters, though somewhat understandable; as Lyla tells Tim the next day, “what happened came from feelings about Jason.” Less understandable - at least initially - is the fact that not only does it happen again, but their relationship quickly becomes sexual, even though Jason apologizes for pushing Lyla away almost immediately and the two quickly reconcile. However, the motivations behind Lyla and Tim’s actions quickly become clear. Tim develops genuine feelings for her, while Lyla’s mother makes a rather astute observation about Lyla without even meaning to: “I think it’s really great you’re doing something for yourself,” she cluelessly says one morning when Lyla announces that she is going for a run instead of heading straight for the hospital to see Jason. Her mother would likely feel differently if she knew that Lyla was running over to Tim’s to have sex (though she is understanding and nonjudgmental when she later learns the truth); however, the observation goes a long way in explaining why Lyla would be unfaithful to Jason, who she otherwise appears to love. Lyla has been clearly established as a character whose entire life has been wrapped up in her boyfriend’s; both her daily activities and future plans have been entirely determined by Jason’s. This situation has changed, and she has no idea what her next step should be, or even who she is without him. While it perhaps follows that she would respond to this change by looking for another relationship, she feels guilty about leaving Jason after his accident; thus, she chooses a person that she would have to be with secretly, with whom a public relationship wouldn’t be possible. It should further be noted that Tim is perhaps the only person with whom Lyla feels comfortable being completely herself. With Jason, with her parents, with people at school, she is, to some extent, playing a role (perfect girlfriend, perfect daughter, perfect cheerleader); with Tim, she says whatever is on her mind and does whatever she wants. He is, perhaps, the only person who accepts her for who she really is. Thus, while their affair is still something that might seem unacceptable for many reasons, because both Lyla and Tim, in this narrative, are allowed to become fully realized characters, it is possible to understand their choices.
Eventually, however, Jason learns of Lyla and Tim’s affair, as does the rest of the school. It is here that we receive telling insight into the expectations placed on the “supportive girlfriend” and the repercussions for stepping outside of that role. Scholarship on the sports film is helpful in explaining what would typically happen to a female character in Lyla’s position. As McDormand et. al note, typically women who do reject the “supportive” role in the male athlete’s life “are reviled for their nontraditional paths and painted as without romance and rejecting traditional values and ethics.” Those in the cheerleader role might face similar treatment; as Torgovnick observes, “Cheerleaders straddle the fault line between the virgin and the whore. They are a group onto which our culture projects its complicated beliefs about women; they can be one extreme or the other, and rarely can we deal with the fact that, in reality, most women fall somewhere in between.” With this understanding comes the implication that should a cheerleader fail to uphold “virgin” standards of behavior, she might quickly be labeled a “whore.”
Scholar Sarah Hentges further demonstrates that such labels and expectations are not limited to those in the “supportive girlfriend” or “cheerleader” roles, or, indeed, to characters in sports films at all. In teen films, she observes, while even “good” female characters sometimes have sex, it almost always takes place in a committed romantic relationship: “in the mainstream, sex and romance are so intricately intertwined that sex rarely appears unless it is romantic and if it does, then sexuality outside the expectations of the dominant is punished, sometimes severely.” Thus, one might expect that since Lyla and Tim are engaging in a relationship that is not only almost wholly sexual, but that takes place while Lyla is committed to Jason, she might be punished. She is, primarily by other female characters; however, the storyline is presented in a way that illustrates the hypocrisy of societal expectations for male and female sexuality.
Lyla and Tim’s affair comes to light in the ninth episode of the first season: “Full Hearts.” While Jason and Tim’s football teammates punish Tim by smashing the windows of his pick-up with a baseball bat, for him, that is as far as the punishment goes; his “sin” is forgotten on the football field. Lyla, however, is publicly castigated; other girls taunt her as she cheers at a football game, shouting things like, “Hey, slut, Riggins is that way!” and “Hey, Lyla, does Riggins prefer boxers or briefs?” The treatment hasn’t let up by episode ten, tellingly titled “It’s Different for Girls”; Lyla’s fellow cheerleaders write “slut” and “whore” on her gym locker, and when she loses her balance at the top of the pyramid at cheerleading practice, another girl loudly comments, “I guess Tim Riggins banged the balance right out of her.” By the next practice, the same girls are purposely dropping her from the top of the pyramid; meanwhile, a “Lyla Garrity Slam Page” is posted on the internet.
The difference in her classmates’ treatment of her vs. their treatment of Tim is underscored in a scene in which students discuss The Odyssey in English class. The female teacher asks the class to “note Homer’s double standard in how Ulysses is treated with extreme forgiveness for his dalliance with Circe.” Smash pipes up that “Ulysses was a pimp”; he continues, “It’s all about the seed and the egg, the flower and the bee. The man’s job is to spread the pollen, and the woman’s job is to grow it.” Some students laugh loudly, while others, like Julie Taylor, look disgusted. Lyla puts the same concept into more concrete terms when Tim sits down with her at lunch that day: “It’s different for girls. You can sleep around all you want, and people think you’re cool. I make one mistake - and it was a mistake.” She trails off, telling him to leave her alone - he’s just making it worse. Thus, not only is the hypocritical nature of the double standard discussed overtly, but it is presented as cruel and unfair.
It is later in the same episode that Lyla finally articulates the reasons for her affair in a conversation with Jason: “Seeing you in the hospital broke my heart. I was so lost and alone, and I screwed up. And if you choose to never forgive me for that, I understand. Believe me when I say that you are all that I have in the world. All I have.” With these words, she acknowledges that his accident affected her, too, and that she had to find a way to deal with it. While she is not proud of the way she chose to do so, she understands why the affair happened and is sick of being punished for it.
Throughout the episode, Lyla is shown slowly processing the way she is treated, along with what she has done: she demonstrates first shame, then anger, then a real understanding of why she did what she did. It is in the episode’s final scene, however, that she is shown finally, publicly rejecting her classmates’ treatment of her—with the help and support of Tim Riggins. It is typical for an episode of Friday Night Lights to end with a football game; this episode, however, ends with a cheerleading competition, which Lyla has decided that she will not attend. Tim, however, encourages her to compete: “You’re an amazing cheerleader and I think you have that same feeling I have when I play - that ‘nothing else matters’ feeling, and I think you need that right now.” This point is significant because previously Lyla’s cheerleading has been portrayed as something that she does for Jason; in this scene, Tim describes it as something she should do for herself.
When she arrives at the competition, it is clear that that is exactly who she is doing it for. When she checks in, the man who takes her name does a double take and gives a knowing, “Ohhh”; she looks him square in the eye and says, “Yeah, the whore with the website.” She takes the new, unwanted label that has been thrust upon her and throws it back at him, showing that it doesn’t have the power to hurt her anymore. The episode ends with many of the show’s main characters watching her compete in the competition: most of the football players look on with only vague interest; her parents, who have been supportive throughout, watch with pride; Tim watches with barely disguised adoration; and Jason (who by this time has learned to use a wheelchair) watches with pain his eyes. Back on the floor, Lyla grins, doing something just for her, knowing what everyone thinks of her and, at least in that moment, not caring.
Lyla Garrity’s first season journey showcases the character’s struggle with the loss of one label - star quarterback’s girlfriend - and the acquisition of other, unwanted labels - slut and whore. Ultimately, she must learn not to let either label define her and simply figure out who she is on her own, without the labels. She will reject cheerleading for good at the end of the first season, unceremoniously leaving her cheerleading uniform in a maid’s cart at a hotel following the Panthers’ state championship win. As the second season opens, we see that during the time that has elapsed between television seasons (throughout the show’s tenure, each season typically lasted about as long as one high school football season, meaning that several months in the characters’ lives often passed offscreen in the interim), Lyla has already begun the process of reinventing herself.
In the premiere of the second season, “Last Days of Summer,” we first see Lyla dressed in white, being baptized in a river. In the next scene, Tim and Lyla run into each other while she is placing flyers for an organization called Christ Teen Messengers (which Lyla describes as “young Christians coming together to worship and spread the word of Jesus”) under car windshields in a parking lot; he has just come from buying beer and drinks from a can throughout their conversation. Though both remain calm throughout much of their exchange, it is clear that both have an agenda: he wants to get a rise out of her and, perhaps, determine if she still has feelings for him; she wants to make it clear that she wants absolutely nothing to do with him. When he flirtatiously tells her that she looks good, she responds, “Thanks. It’s probably because yesterday I was baptized and accepted Jesus as my Lord and savior.” When she condescendingly adds, “What’d you do recently, Tim?,” he tells her that he had a three-way with a pair of sisters. She gives no indication that this surprises or bothers her, only telling him that she wouldn’t brag about spending his “entire summer in a drunken stupor.” He suggests that she is jealous; she sarcastically says that yeah, she is, and turns to walk away. His next words, however, stop her dead in her tracks: “Hey, uh, just so you know - you’re still number one. Still the best I’ve ever had.” This comment renders her speechless; when he assures her that it’s true, she tells him not to talk to her like that and says goodbye. Their parting turns into a struggle to get the last word - “Enjoy Jesus!” “Yeah, enjoy your depraved hedonism!” - and the scene ends.
Though Tim and Lyla’s encounter is brief, the scene catches the audience up on events that took place between seasons while simultaneously serving as a reminder that in many ways, Tim and Lyla are still very much the same people they were in the first season. First of all, from virtually the beginning of Tim and Lyla’s relationship, it was clear that she didn't want to be with him at least partly because he was not who she imagined herself with; that is, Tim didn’t fit in with the vision she had of herself and for her life. While still true, the image she has of herself and for life has changed; while previously she rejected him because she saw herself as the perfect cheerleader/star quarterback’s girlfriend, now she rejects him because she wants to be a good Christian. Additionally, she has always seemed a bit scared of the side of her that he brings out: with him, she is less in control than she is by herself or was with Jason; she doesn’t trust herself around him. This scene makes it clear that that is still the case; she responds to his attempts at flirtation by telling him (and perhaps reminding herself) about her faith, letting him know that sex is now off the table. However, the scene also establishes that Tim can still see through her. Before, he was the only person that she could truly be herself around; now, by his repeated attempts to get under her skin, he lets her know that though she might be trying to be someone else, he knows who she really is (a fact that he will state outright to her later in the season, after she has begun dating someone else: “You can’t tell me that he knows everything I know about you”). What’s more, he likes who she really is.
Also brought to the forefront in this scene is Lyla’s sudden embrace of Christian values. One might be skeptical of this transformation, perhaps reading it as a superficial attempt to rehabilitate her image in the wake of her affair with Tim. Alternately, one might consider it her way of “repenting” for the “sin” of cheating on Jason. (Characters on the show react to her interest in religion in various ways; her parents are accepting of it but not openly encouraging, while both Tim and Jason, at least at first, seem skeptical of the sincerity and potential longevity of her commitment to the Lord.) When it is revealed that none of these explanations properly describes her motives, we are once again reminded that, in the context of the narrative of Friday Night Lights, Lyla is not solely defined by her attachment to the show’s male athletes. In Lyla’s next appearance in “Last Days of Summer,” we are reminded that Lyla has been dealing with a major event in her own life that has nothing to do with her own romantic relationships: her parents’ separation. In a later scene, we see Lyla, along with her younger brother and sister, sitting down to dinner with her mother, Pam, and Pam’s new boyfriend, Kevin. While Lyla is ostensibly pleasant during the meal, the thinly veiled comments she makes when she leads the family in prayer make it clear how she really feels about the situation: “I pray that You will guide me and everyone at this table to help respect You, and make good choices. For example, to not take advantage of the vulnerability of a recently separated but not yet divorced woman, and in turn to give others at the table the strength to remember that a mother of three should not be wearing skinny jeans.” It is obvious, then, that she is not entirely happy with all of the changes in her life. She attests to this directly in episode twelve, “Who Do You Think You Are?,” when her new boyfriend, Chris, asks her how she came to the church: “I felt lost. You know, my whole life sort of blew up in the previous months…God was just the only source of comfort at that time, and that relationship just grew and grew.” Her interest in religion, then, can be read as an understandable response to the sudden changes in her life.
It is also worthwhile to note that Christianity, in and of itself, is not unusual for the residents of Dillon. Coach Taylor is occasionally shown leading the players on his team in prayer, which no one seems to have a problem with; one secondary character, Landry Clarke, is part of a Christian rock band called Crucifictorious; and many (if not most) of the show’s characters are regular churchgoers, as established both by conversations between characters and scenes that show characters worshipping together on Sunday morning. Lyla, herself, was known to lead prayer meetings for Jason Street in the show’s first season, and once expressed the fear that she would “go straight to Hell” for her dalliance with Tim. However, while most of the show’s characters are shown attending traditional, mainstream Protestant worship services, Lyla, in the second season, is shown attending an evangelical megachurch. Though the distinction might seem minor to some, it can be seen as significant in that Lyla is rejecting the particular brand of Christianity she was raised with and seeking out a religion that works for her - doing something for herself (which, we learned in the first season, she has only recently started doing). Lyla is not accepting the labels or life choices that have been determined for her by others, but is actively seeking out something different for herself.
However, in the fifth episode of the season, “Let’s Get It On,” Jason Street likens Lyla’s Christianity to Tim’s frequent drinking, suggesting that perhaps both of them are looking for easy solutions to their problems: “Maybe I’ll just let some Jesus freak dunk my head under the water and wash all my troubles away,” he challenges when Tim and Lyla try to talk him out of undergoing an experimental surgery that he believes will allow him to walk again. “It’s that easy, right? Maybe I’ll just grab a twelver. Right, Riggins? That’ll fix my spine right up.” His underlying message is clear: perhaps Tim and Lyla should try fixing the things they don’t like about themselves and their lives rather than seeking comfort from external sources (the bottle and the church, respectively). Though all three characters have problems that are too big to fix quickly and his words do not have the immediate effect of changing either Tim’s or Lyla’s behavior, by the beginning of the third season, Tim and Lyla have at least found themselves in a more honest place: back together.
Though Tim begins pursuing Lyla in earnest late in the second season and their first scene together in the third season features her hiding him in her bedroom closet following a tryst, their relationship gets off to a rocky start. Though in the third season premiere, “I Knew You When,” Tim reveals to his brother, Billy, that he and Lyla have been seeing each other for six weeks, Lyla has yet to acknowledge their relationship in public; on the first day of school, when a classmate sees them walking down the hall together and asks if they are a couple, Lyla is quick to say no. Billy is unsurprised to hear this: “I told you from day one that Lyla Garrity was never gonna take you seriously…She went to bed with Jesus and woke up with you.” He tells Tim that for Lyla, he is just a summer fling. When Tim confronts Lyla about this fact, she finally vocalizes what has caused her to hold him at arm’s length for so long: “You scare me. You’re Tim Riggins! You show up drunk to school; you don’t do your homework - you have rally girls do your homework for you; you don’t go to class; your relationships last about twenty minutes.” Not only is he not who she imagines herself with, then, but he has many habits and characteristics that lead her not to trust him.
Indeed, as their relationship progresses, he will be the one who must prove himself worthy of her, which stands in drastic contrast to Lyla’s relationship with Jason when she was deemed “unworthy” of Jason by her classmates and was constantly doing things for him; in episode three, “How the Other Half Lives,” when Tim is a no-show at a party that he and Lyla were supposed to attend together, she warns him, “So many people have warned me about getting into this with you. You know what I tell them? I tell them that they don’t know you like I do. I tell them that you’re a good guy…Please don’t make a fool of me.” While her relationship with Jason was primarily dictated by Jason’s wants and needs, then, it is Lyla who makes it clear to Tim what is required to make a relationship with her work.
In the early part of the season, it seems that no matter how hard either of them try, however, issues in class and background might render them incompatible: his brother’s fiancée (a stripper) and her family consider Lyla “prissy and judgey,” while at a dinner at the country club with Lyla’s father and family friends, Tim is monosyllabic and cluelessly orders rare squab (“raw pigeon,” as multiple characters will refer to it throughout the episode). However, it later becomes clear that both help each other to be their best: Lyla encourages Tim to go to college and helps him prepare for meetings with recruiters; when Lyla falls into a funk after her father loses the money set aside for her college education as a result of a bad investment, Tim grows concerned, taking her to church to “cheer [her] up” and eventually simply urging her to snap out of it: “I’m not here to solve all your problems, Garrity. I’m not. I’m here to support you no matter what choice you make, that’s why I’m here. I’m your boyfriend, and I think I’m a pretty darn good one. You know what, your dad threw you a good curveball. But this self-pity that I’ve been seeing, it’s gotta stop. You’re better than that.” He will use the same words when, even after her father arranges to borrow the money for her education from a relative, she insists that she will forego attending Vanderbilt in favor of going to “party school” San Antonio State with Tim: “You’re so much better than that…I’m not gonna be that guy to stop you from achieving your dreams.” At the end of the show’s third season, then, Lyla makes plans to leave Texas to attend Vanderbilt on her own; when she briefly returns in the fourth season, it's hard to remember that her character was ever simply the star quarterback’s cheerleader girlfriend.
It is important to note that Lyla Garrity is not the only character that has moved beyond the stereotypical role they initially seemed to inhabit. Tyra Collette, the “school slut” who was introduced literally on top of Tim Riggins, for example, was ultimately elected student council president and accepted to the University of Texas at Austin - but not before the show similarly explored the ways in which the “school slut” label influenced the way that other characters saw her and the way she saw herself. In the first season, Tyra is hurt when she learns that Tami Taylor considers her a “bad influence” on her daughter, Julie. She is downright angry when, in the premiere of the show’s third season, she is encouraged to set her sights on community college rather than the universities to which she wants to apply. Interestingly, late in the third season, she reveals that it was actually Jason Street’s accident that made her want to transcend the labels that had been thrust upon her: it was that event, she says, that made her realize that life is unfair for everyone, not just her.
It is perhaps unsurprising that she would cite Jason Street’s accident as a major turning point in her life; it was, in fact, a major turning point for many of the characters in Friday Night Lights’s first season. For that reason, viewers of the show have had the opportunity to witness characters that, at the show’s conclusion, have moved far beyond the stereotypes presented in the pilot episode: a “bad boy” who has shown that he is capable of stepping up and being “good” when necessary; a “cocky black running back” who has dealt with injuries and relationship issues in addition to facing racism; a coach’s daughter who has actively rebelled against her parents and her “good girl” persona; and an underdog backup quarterback who has dealt with his grandmother’s Alzheimer’s disease and the return of his absent mother in addition to the pressures of stepping up into an elevated role on the football field. In each case, the character’s individual journey complicates the stereotypes that each character represents.
This fact is particularly significant in the cases of the female characters on the show. As previously noted, it is rare for female characters to play as large of a role, or to be given as much nuance, in a sports narrative as a character like Lyla does, which demonstrates that characters do not have to be presented as stereotypical - that beneath the surface of such oft-repeated types are characters that can be expanded and explored without sacrificing the story’s sports narrative. I suggest that other traditionally male-centered genres might successfully complicate common character types. In doing so, further discussions of stereotypes - and our long held conceptions of “appropriate” gender roles - might be prompted.
Not the least of which is whether there might be more to the cheerleader than meets the eye.
From guest contributor Molly Brost, University of Southern Indiana