Equal parts love story, social satire, and broad teen sex comedy, But I’m a Cheerleader has had an enthusiastic following among the LGBTQ+ set (and others) for almost two decades. It’s easy to see why: the actors are full of sweetly winning charm, the satire (of “reparative therapy” camps) is pointed and richly earned, and the story arc is mercifully non-tragic—a rarity for the longest time in queer cinema. For those of us who came of age with mopey, lugubrious lesbian love stories like Desert Hearts (1985), Claire of the Moon (1992), and High Art (1998), it’s impossible to overstate what a blast of fresh air this film was when it first arrived in theaters. (Even today, in fact, a quick Google search of “lesbian movies” gets you hits like “Why are all lesbian movies sad?” and “17 Awesome Lesbian Movies Where No One Dies at the End.”) As we revisit But I’m a Cheerleader well into the new millennium, the film feels every bit as fresh, funny, fun, and necessary as it did when it first came out.
But I’m a Cheerleader follows the adventures of Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a naïve teen who begins the film completely unaware that she’s a lesbian, despite the fact that her orientation is obvious to everyone she knows. In an interview with Stacie Stukin in the Advocate, director Jamie Babbit reveals the autobiographical elements of the character:
“I never thought of myself as lesbian in high school, but everyone else thought I was,” recalls Jamie Babbit . . . . Babbit, who grew up in Ohio, says her image of lesbians never transcended athletic, butch dykes who excel at softball. Of course, Babbit didn’t think she was one of those. In fact, when she came out in college, her baffled mother said, “But you were never good at sports.”
The autobiographical influences on the film don’t stop there. Babbit’s mother ran a 12-step based halfway house for young people with substance abuse problems. In the movie, this kind of program becomes the 12-step gay-rehab “True Directions” camp where Megan’s parents send her to straighten out. However, apart from these real-life elements (and, of course, the basis of the camp in the reality of conservative “reparative therapy”), the film unfolds in a fantasy world of cartoonishly bright colors, outlandish plastic-and-mesh costumes, and hyper-real set design. Absurdities abound: all the camp’s personnel are gayer-than-gay despite their insistence on their straightness, and every training exercise in straightness that they require of the campers backfires spectacularly. The exaggerations are part of the film’s pleasure, from the vibrant safety-orange sports bras of Megan’s cheerleader friends to the plastic flowers dotting the landscaping of the pink-and-blue Barbie’s Dream House-style camp headquarters. Critics have noted the obvious influence of the campy, outrageous films of John Waters on But I’m a Cheerleader—but this influence stops at the film’s aesthetic. Of the inevitable (and sometimes unfavorable) comparisons to Waters, Babbit has this to say:
I can’t tell you how many times I heard that and how irritated I am by it . . . . Okay, let’s think about what I wanted to do. I didn’t want to make an entirely camp film. I also wanted straightforward emotional scenes. I wanted a counterpoint. I really fought for those scenes. I also wanted a romance. I believe in love at first sight and true love forever. That’s just the way I am. I’m not cynical. (IndieWire, July 10, 2000)
That romanticism and sincerity pervades the film, making it hard for almost anyone to resist its many charms. Granted, the film has had its detractors. Some older queer viewers in particular found fault with the way the film resurrects stereotypes of queerness (the sissy, the butch softball player) as part of its comedy. And even among audiences who love the movie, those of us who identify as bisexual, pansexual, or otherwise “other” within the queer world might lament the fact that everyone in the film is a Kinsey 6. (Representation is important.) It helps a little that the film relentlessly subverts its own stereotypes: the sissiest character (Andre: “Actor. Dancer. Homosexual.”) ends up being among the boldest and most forthright; the mustachioed softball player eventually realizes that she’s actually straight. Ultimately, it’s hard not to get caught up in the fun when all of the actors just go for it—especially Cathy Moriarty as Mary, the uptight, perpetually apoplectic ultra-femme camp boss, and Eddie Cibrian as her son, the so-gay-it-hurts camp assistant Rock. RuPaul, out of drag as barely-repressed camp co-director Mike, is a blazing flame of pure gay joy, about to burn right through his short-shorts and “Straight Is Great” t-shirt.
As far as the campers go, there’s not an unappealing character in the bunch. Herein lies film’s chief virtue: even though the kids at the camp are mostly just sketch outlines of real people, we care about every lonely, hapless, hopeful one of them. As Megan undergoes the camp’s over-the-top attempts to “convert” her to straightdom and as she gradually figures out who she is, she falls in love with grouchy sister-camper Graham (Clea DuVall), who is eventually won over by Megan’s sincerity and enthusiasm for just about everything—but especially cheering. There’s no room for cynicism here, either from Graham or from us. The essential absurdity of trying to eradicate gayness is lampooned as earnestly as it deserves to be, and afterwards, there’s only slapstick comedy, some killer fit-and-flare dresses, a sugary ‘90s indie-pop soundtrack, and true love forever.
But I’m a Cheerleader is playing at the Central Cinema.