But I’m A Cheerleader! is a 92-minute long film that came out in 1999 directed by Jamie Babbit. The title is actually found within the first section of the movie when Megan (played by Natasha Lyonne), an all-American, feminine high school student is approached by her friends and family. Based on her recent behaviors, she returns home from school to find them sitting in a circle – waiting to tell her, “Honey, we think you’re a lesbian.” “But I’m A Cheerleader!” This frames the rest of the plot for this queer, satirical show.
Megan is surprised to find out that she is a lesbian, but in order to help her “become cured,” they send her to True Directions- a reparative therapy camp run by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), based on teaching members of the LGBTQ community to “overcome their homosexuality”by admitting their feelings, continually performing gender-normative behaviors, finding their “root” (or the traumatic moment that “made” them gay), and, eventually, simulating sex with another camper of the opposite sex. Although the campers continue with their pursuit of hetereosexuality, feelings begin to arise, as Megan develops a crush on her fellow camper, Graham (Clea DuVall), and she begins to realize that perhaps her family and friends were correct: she is, in fact, a lesbian. As the movie progress, Megan gets kicked out of the camp for getting caught sleeping in bed with Graham, forcing her to be a letdown to her family for her entire life. However, Megan seeks shelter with two gay men – both of which were once campers of True Directions themselves. With their advice, Megan shows up at the graduation to claim her homosexuality and love for Graham, which is met with love in return (Sperling, 1999).
Throughout the film, Babbit plays on gender stereotypes as a way to criticize our cultural obsession with the gender binary. For example, one of the campers’ daily
activities is to perform tasks that are perceived as masculine for the boys and feminine for the girls. The boys are given jeans and axes and are brought outside to chop wood
and work on cars. On the contrary, the girls are assigned to clean up the kitchen, take care of children, and prepared food while remaining demure and looking pretty (Sperling, 1999). These are direct representations of gender stereotypes that we find throughout history that are still found in our culture today.
The irony that can be found within this section of camp is Mary Brown’s son “ex-gay” Rock. Throughout the show, Mary reference to him as the reason she got into this business or the reason she is the expert. However, although he and his other “ex-gay” camp counselor, Mike (Rupaul) can always be found in stereotypically butch clothing, it is discovered later in the film that have actually failed to repress their homosexual feelings (Sperling, 1999). Shocking. The clash between Mary Brown’s professed expertise and the reality of the situation cause for one of the beautiful, ironic message of this film: you cannot cure homosexuality.
Although But I’m A Cheerleader! may just seem like an overrated cult-classic, this film actually made a profound statement for queer culture. It uses comedy and sarcasm to relate messages of self-assurance and queer acceptance. But I’m A Cheerleader! “undeniably preaches a sermon of self-acceptance while poking fun at those who are threatened by the queer community simply because those within it find the self-assurance to live their lives on their own terms by openly rejecting societal norms when it comes to gender performance and sexual desire” (Coates, 2015). Society at large demands us to behave accordingly to gender roles assigned to us. Those who do not are marginalized, branded as outcasts, and are very often the victims of violence and discrimination. Many states have even passed laws that would force therapy that are much more harmful than True Direction, including electroshock therapy and forced heterosexual pornography (Coates, 2005).
In addition to re-framing the LGBTQ communities, this film also relays an important message about gender norms. Throughout the film, Megan and her camper peers are constantly struggling with what it means to be a boy or a girl or a lesbian or a gay man. In one of the final scenes, Megan is discussing her distress, for not knowing how to be a lesbian, since society has always told her the lesbians are unfeminine, and she does not identify as such. The two gay men that she is staying with assure her, “There’s not just one way to be a lesbian. You have to continue to be who you are,” (Sperling, 1999). Through Megan’s story, the audience is able to release that love is a feeling, and feelings have no gender restrictions. In a world where it is so easy to fall into stereotypical traps, But I’m A Cheerleader shows not only that you do not have to, but uses comedy to prove how ridiculous that is.
“Babbit perfectly mixes a light-hearted, comical tone with an otherwise dark subject matter, which is perhaps why the film has achieved a cult-classic status in the last decade, particularly among the queer community” (Coates, 2015). But I’m A Cheerleader is a masterpiece that used irony sparked change in the perception of LQBTQ communities- within themselves and heterosexual populations. As a member of the LGBTQ community myself, I would absolutely recommend this movie to anyone and everyone. Hopefully, this film has, and will continue to shift perspectives, so that the next time someone hears “we think you’re a lesbian,” the answer will not be “But I’m a cheerleader!”
Coates, T. (2015, March 04). Was It Good For The Gays: ‘But I’m A Cheerleader’.
Sperling, A. (Producer), & Babbit, J. (Director). (1999). But I’m A Cheerleader! [Motion
picture]. USA: Lionsgate.