“But I’m a Cheerleader” Will Remind You of All The Queer Movies You’re Missing Out On

8 mins read

I was out of town for L.A. pride two weekends ago, which was a bit of a shame, but my friends and I managed to remedy it by creating a Gay Day for ourselves in which we got brunch in West Hollywood. Afterwards, we came home to my apartment, and my roommate and resident Lesbian Identity Guru rented But I’m a Cheerleader with the promise that it would have all of the gay campiness a bunch of queer film school alums could want.

But I’m a Cheerleader is, as it happens, actually about a gay camp–well, a straight camp. “True Directions,” manned by a closeted RuPaul and a neurotically heterosexual Cathy Moriarty, is where our lead Megan, played by Natasha Lyonne of Orange is the New Black fame, finds herself after her parents and friends stage a lesbian intervention to get her to act more, uh, normal. Megan doesn’t buy that she’s gay at first, but after developing a more-than-friendship with another camper, Graham (Clea DuVall), she realizes her identity and knows it’s worth protecting.

The movie was deeply unloved by critics, but is, so I’m told, a cult classic. I have a blind spot when it comes to queer media, since my main forays into the genre have been Orange, a very serious prison drama that gives its lesbian and bisexual characters less-than-pleasant endings, and Black Swan, which immediately repulsed me into stopping halfway through when I saw the scene where her dance instructor fingers her (without her consent?). Part of this lack of media knowledge is because I came into my identity about two years ago, and it’s been a work in progress. I’m sure you’ll forgive me.

Natasha Lyonne in “But Im A Cheerleader.”

But But I’m a Cheerleader isn’t concerned with playing sexy. It’s, frankly, a teeny bopper satire (R rating aside). There is a sex scene, but the energy is loving instead of sexually charged, bringing viewers into an experience as emotionally intimate as it is physically. Most of the movie is dedicated to our lead and her friends wading around in the confusing waters of self-exploration. Megan goes from just dipping her toe into the pool of her lesbian identity to doing laps by the end of the film.

One of the reasons the movie was disliked by critics was the somewhat predictable plot. It is very straightforward, with Megan winning the girl, losing the girl, and winning the girl back. A thousand movies have been made where someone goes through this loop–usually, though, that “someone” is a male character with a chip on their shoulder. They’re a nerd. They have a secret identity. They’re a superhero. Etcetera.

Megan, though, is just a lesbian. She isn’t a man, and that alone was refreshing. Another refreshing subversion: the girl she won, Graham, is more masculine than her. How often in those straightforward (pun intended) boy-gets-girl movies do the female leads look like Megan? All the time. But Graham, while not necessarily butch, has a masculine attitude and a bristly character consistent through the whole film. She’s the object of Megan’s desire. That’s enough subversion to make the plot a little less boring for me.

That it satires conversion camps is also pretty ballsy. The stakes of a conversion camp are extremely high in real life. The strain on the mental health of queer kids who go through that is enormous. But I’m a Cheerleader doesn’t concern itself with the truly dark aspects of these places, which is a good choice; this movie is meant to show our simple lesbian getting the girl because real lesbian kids need to be shown that this is a feat they too can accomplish. The focus on showing the stupid irony of heterosexual lines of thought that create these camps, rather than focusing too intimately on the kids mental health, allows for a rare spot of light in lesbian media. (I don’t know of a lot of movies and TV, but I do know that we often end up alone or dead.)

That the movie is rooted in Megan’s wide-eyed innocent perspective allows us to see this overt heterosexuality, championed by Mary Brown and her ex-gay assistant Mike, for what it is: an essentially meaningless farce. If girls do girl things, like cook, clean, and wear wedding dresses, they’ll be straight. If boys do boy things, like play football, fix cars, and chop wood, they’ll be straight. It’s nonsense, but also not nonsense: heterosexual people have been using gender identity to control queer folks for centuries. The movie examines the disconnect by making sure we’re laughing with the queers and at the hetero-obsessed Mary Brown. When Megan talks about how cheerleading makes her happy, it doesn’t say anything about her sexuality, and we are never asked to accept a newly-butch Megan as her “true” self. In fact, she’s told at one point in the film that there’s no one way to be a lesbian. You just have to go with it, and keep growing.

There’s a lot of media that I still need to see to really feel caught up with the culture of queer film. You’d think it’s right up my alley, but there’s something about dealing with being queer that makes us choose strange paths when we might need others. I like movies, and I like TV, but I want to know there’s more queer cinema like this out there: light, funny, happy, and colored like pop-art, where the girls get the girls in the end and I don’t have to worry about plunging into a depressive episode by the end.

In case you could tell, I think But I’m a Cheerleader was very good, and I’ll be returning to it again.

Rachelle Martin is a writer, media analyst and graduate student at the University of Southern California. You can find her rewatching her favorite kid's shows, writing furiously about gender, and weeping over the ‘folklore’ album. She is always wearing a sweater.

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