But I’m a Cheerleader: hilarious parody with a heart

Come one now. It’s a gay classic at this point.

You’d think that a whimsical comedy about queer kids forced to attend conversion therapy camp wouldn’t work at all… but it so does. Let me tell you why.

But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999) focuses around the story of Megan (Natasha Lyone), a timid 17-year-old coming to terms with her sexuality. At an intervention, her friends and family affront her with hilariously problematic lesbian stereotypes that she seems to follow, such as “being a vegetarian” and “liking Melissa Etheridge’s music”. They decide that she should be sent to “True Directions”, a gay conversion therapy camp that imposes 1950s-style gender roles on its unwilling teenage attendees.

Now, you don’t need me to tell you what’s going to happen when you make a load of queer teens live together and sleep in gendered rooms. Quite poetically, the plot writes itself.

Biggest Gay Mood: how could I just pick one? Eating tofu, thinking about cheerleaders when you’re kissing your boyfriend, wearing a camo boiler suit ー and that’s just the lesbian ones. The list is endless.

But I’m a Cheerleader convinces you of the ridiculousness of conversion therapy by presenting the whole affair as satire. Even the title of the film itself wants to be said in tilted-head, doe-eyed, mouth-ajared irony, (although, frustratingly, no one ever says it in its entirety in the dialogue of the film). Natasha Lyone plays Megan’s innocence and naivety exquisitely as she is forced to come to terms with her homosexuality; the first step in her “true direction.” Again, this should be traumatic ー and it is, but at the same time it manages to be light-hearted and hilarious.

The film’s true brilliance is pulled off in its quasi-surrealist stylisation. The camp’s matriarch, Mary, comes to the door in a pink PVC frilly dress and white-blonde curled hair. Mike is the leader of the boys ー played by global superstar drag queen RuPaul, of course ー and wears blue workout gear featuring so-short-they’re-undeniably-homoerotic shorts. Once inside the camp, the teens enter the hyper-gendered world of blue and pink outfits, bedrooms, and daily activities. The girls are taught to clean floors, wash dishes and keep house; the boys are taught mechanics, wood chopping and sports.

Hidden within these gendered activity montages are moments of subtle (and not so subtle) homoeroticism. Blue army silhouettes mimic phallic shapes with guns. On the floor cleaning, the girls’ arms brush up against one another (and alongside the tense eye contact this is basically a hardcore sex scene for 90s lesbians.) Rock, Mary’s son, holds a broom handle I-don’t-think-I need-to-tell-you-where, showing off for the boys. At one cleverly tongue-in-cheek moment, Rock is strimming the grass with his headphones on, mincing around to a gay pop anthem by none other than real-life RuPaul. Mary tells him to “turn it off” but, of course, he cannot. In any way.

Britney Line Time: “Think that you know me now but you don’t / Think that I can’t stand on my own / It ain’t my philosophy / Won’t you just let me, let me be?”

All of this happens against a backdrop of an all-American suburban house straight out of a 1950s infomercial.

The quintessentially 90s soundtrack exposes the camp’s 50s aesthetic ー and with that, its purpose ー as grossly outdated. Taking this further, the grotesquely heterosexual setting and design are contrasted with a myriad of gay stereotypes in the teens’ characterisation. Andre, for example, introduces himself as “actor, dancer, homosexual”. At one point in the film, he wears a boa. Need I say more? These stereotypes are drawn out by Mary in ‘counselling’ sessions as reasons, or “roots”, for each character’s homosexuality. One girl’s root is simply, and deadpanly, “I was born in France”. 

Top Tip: it’s meant to be satire. Don’t take it too seriously babes x

Ultimately, But I’m a Cheerleader is one of the most obviously satirical films I’ve ever seen. Yet, when referring to critical opinion, its wikipedia page states that “some of the characters were described as stereotypical”. This ridiculous understatement proves that, even today, a lot of (straight) people still don’t seem to understand this film. Having been made 21 years ago now, I am inclined to say that it was decades ahead of its time.

All of this is not to say that But I’m a Cheerleader is devoid of emotion. Far from distracting from the on-screen relationships, the heightened parody only serves to enhance the real heart inside the story. The sensitivity of intimate scenes between characters stands out.

In one such scene (I won’t reveal which one for spoilers but if you’ve seen it, you’ll know), soft flurries of light in darkness show body strokes and tender touches. We see different body parts lit up in an intimate montage whilst different parts of each of the girls’ selves are revealed, realised and explored. Mature minds and bodies beside girlish pink bed sheets and purple nighties reclaim the space in which they exist, two bodies gliding smoothly between, through and around one another. Alongside physical connection comes emotional intimacy, and the girls reveal their deeper feelings and secrets. The soundtrack to this scene is so beautiful that one girl made an hour-long playlist trying to recreate the feeling “because fucking spotify doesn’t have the song.” That’s powerful.

Soundtrack Stand Out: Tattle Tale, Glass Vase Cello Case

In last week’s review I discussed how the straight rom-com’s ‘grand gesture’ trope was problematised in Love, Simon by the necessarily high stakes implicated in a public (and sort of forced) coming out. In But I’m a Cheerleader, those stakes are removed entirely by the plot; they’re all at a conversion therapy camp for fuck’s sake, everyone knows they’re queer. Although the experience of coming to terms with that is deeply traumatic for some of them, melodramatic acting only serves to drive home the film’s central moral around how ridiculous this whole thing is. 

And this really is But I’m a Cheerleader’s greatest achievement. Once again, by contrasting with exaggeration, all the emotion behind the grand gesture ー as well as that bubbling beneath the surface of all the teens throughout the movie ー feels that much more earned, honest and impactful. It avoids problematics by parodying them to the extreme. It is at once ridiculous and heartfelt, insane and understated; parody and authenticity, all in one.

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