Pride Month, Retrospective Review: “But I’m a Cheerleader”

Year: 1999
Runtime: 85 minutes
Director: Jamie Babbit
Writers: Brian Peterson
Stars: Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall, Melanie Lynskey, RuPaul, Cathay Moriarty, Douglas Spain, Joel Michaely

By Morgan Roberts

Do you ever remember watching a movie when you were younger and thinking, “Oh.  My worldview is about to be drastically changed by this piece of art”?  Well, that’s how I felt upon my first viewing of Jamie Babbit’s satirical romantic comedy “But I’m a Cheerleader” (1999).

I should preface this with the fact I am tragically heterosexual.  I get that “But I’m a Cheerleader” has been a defining movie for queer people – especially queer women – everywhere. And while it did not bring me an “ah-ha!” moment on my sexuality, it did give me unrealistically high expectations for LGBTQ+ films.

“But I’m a Cheerleader” chronicles All-American high school cheerleader Megan Bloomfield (Natasha Lyonne) being sent to a residential inpatient conversion therapy camp.  Conversion therapy camps are “designed” to “turn” people straight – had to use quotes because as we know, conversion therapy doesn’t work!  While there, Megan meets a host of others suffering from being gay, such as goth (Katharine Towne), timid Hilary (Melanie Lynskey), actor, dancer and gay Andre (Douglas Spain), Jewish Joel (Joel Michaely), and rebel Graham (Clea DuVall).  

Melanie Lynskey, Natasha Lyonne, and Clea DuVall in But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) | Photo Credit: Cheerleader LLC, Hate Kills Man (HKM), Ignite Entertainment

The camp, run by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty) and her assistant Mike (RuPaul) has a bit of an AA structure.  The residents are put through tests, expected to adhere to gender roles, and essential shame themselves into heterosexuality.  It is not all doom and gloom as Megan forms friendships with the other girls, especially with Graham. The two young women end up falling for each other in the hostile setting.

““But I’m a Cheerleader” showed that even with struggle, even with challenges, queer people can have and deserve to have love.”

Earlier, when I said that this film gave me unrealistically high expectations, it is because despite the story taking place in the context of a conversion therapy camp, there is a lot of humor and heart and hope.  Very few LGBTQ+ films give us this.  “Disobedience” (2018)?  Sad.  “Lost and Delirious” (2001)?  Depressing.  “Portrait of a Lady on Fire” (2019)?  *Insert uncontrollable sobs here*  None of those films are bad, but none of those films made me feel great afterwards. “But I’m a Cheerleader” showed that even with struggle, even with challenges, queer people can have and deserve to have love.

Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall in But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) | Photo Credit: Cheerleader LLC, Hate Kills Man (HKM), Ignite Entertainment

The juxtaposition of the dark comedy with romance gave us one of the few hopeful love stories in an LGBTQ+ movie.  The film uses the absurdity of gender roles and gender expectations to enhance how much we would root for Megan and Graham as a couple, and Megan as a person.  Megan is a cheerleader.  She likes dresses and pink and having her hair done. But she also likes women.  She does not subscribe to the stereotypical idea of lesbian. 

Neither does Graham.  Yes, she has masculine traits but she balances them out with other feminine traits.  There is no all-or-nothing approach to her gender/self-expression.  There are stereotypes throughout the film and represented in all of the characters.  Slowly, though, all of those stereotypes are seen in the context of the person, and they end up being mere character traits rather than the full summation.  That is pretty radical for 1999.

Clea DuVall in But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) | Photo Credit: Cheerleader LLC, Hate Kills Man (HKM), Ignite Entertainment

“But I’m a Cheerleader” is a film that no matter how much time has elapsed between re-watches, it still feels fresh and vibrant and hopeful.  It is a truly special film.

Watch for Free on IMDb TV.

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