Director Jamie Babbit’s “But I’m a Cheerleader” is a hilarious 1999 cult romantic comedy that successfully satirizes the gay community, the social construction of gender roles, heteronormativity and the religious right.
The plot is centered on the life of Megan (Natasha Lyonne), who appears to be an all-American, heterosexual, Christian high school girl with a passion for cheerleading and a handsome boyfriend.
Even though Megan appears perfectly “normal” on the surface, her friends and family believe she is homosexual, and arrange an intervention.
During the intervention, Megan’s friends and family offer hilariously stereotypical evidence to prove she is a lesbian.
Her mother points out how Megan’s been eating tofu, her father showcases her Melissa Etheridge poster as “gay iconography,” her best friend argues she only has pictures of women in her locker and her boyfriend whines that she doesn’t even like to kiss him.
Using this evidence, Megan’s parents send her to an expensive, reparative therapy camp called “True Directions,” a program designed to “cure” homosexuals by re-establishing their gender identities and roles in society.
The camp is run by strict disciplinarian Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), and “ex-gay” Mike (RuPaul).When Megan arrives, she promptly meets Mary’s son Rock, who is supposedly heterosexual, and a group of misfit homosexuals who are trying to “cure” themselves with Mary’s five-step program.
The first step in True Direction’s rehabilitation process is admitting to being homosexual.
Megan initially denies her homosexuality and deems the stereotypes as illegitimate evidence. After a fellow member of True Directions points out how Megan may think it normal when she looks at other girls, she just “assumes everyone else is thinking the same thing.”
Megan then realizes her homosexuality, and is deeply disturbed due to her religious upbringing.
The second step is for members to redefine gender identity by “finding your root,” which is establishing what “turned” the campers gay in the first place.
After establishing everyone’s root, the camp is divided by sex, so the men and women are forced to do stereotypical tasks related to their respective gender roles.
For example, the girls practice cleaning house and changing diapers while the boys learn to cut wood, fix cars and play football. The “root” discussion makes fun of many hilarious homosexual stereotypes.
The girls’ roots to explain what turned them gay include, “I was born in France,” “I went to an all-girls boarding school,” “My mom got married in pants,” etc. The boys’ roots are “I played in my mom’s pumps as a child,” “too many locker room showers with the varsity team” and one boy says his mother had “traumatic breasts.”
While “But I’m a Cheerleader” pokes fun at some stereotypes, it does not reinforce character stereotypes. The gay males are not all depicted as effeminate, and the females are not all masculine. The varying appearances and personalities create an interesting dynamic.
The other steps in the program include family therapy, demystifying the opposite sex, and the final step, simulated sexual lifestyle, but only for campers who Mary believes are able to “graduate” as “happy heterosexuals.”
Though Megan is initially determined to “cure” herself, she ends up falling in love with Graham (Clea DuVall), a college student who isn’t even remotely interested in being “cured.”
Megan’s stay at True Directions and her interaction with Graham causes her to embrace her sexuality rather than reject it or bury it with attempts to appear heterosexual.
Graham’s character development is one of the film’s strongest aspects.
Her crude language and tough attitude stem from her parents’ verbal abuse and threats regarding her homosexuality, which becomes clear to viewers during True Directions’ family therapy. Despite her tough attitude, she slowly opens up to Megan.
The dialogue and society’s gay stereotypes are not the only satirical themes. The set and costume design at True Directions reinforces the artificiality of gender roles.
For example, every room, piece of clothing and object the girls use are bright pink and often look fake and/or plastic. The same applies for the boys, except everything is bright blue.
“But I’m a Cheerleader” was not well received by critics, who claimed Babbit tried too hard to imitate John Waters with her colorful sets and overtly artificial scenery.
Babbit stated that Waters was one of her biggest influences, though she was not aiming for the same “bite” as a Waters film.
Regardless of critical reception, the film quickly gained a cult following and has become one of the most popular LGBT romantic comedies in America. For those who can appreciate the satirical dissection of stereotypes related to gender and sexuality, “But I’m a Cheerleader” is an absolute must-see.