A lot has changed since the summer of 2000: Gay marriage is now legal throughout the United States, RuPaul has an Emmy-award winning TV show, and more and more public figures, from politicians to influencers, have come out as gay, bi, or trans. But one thing remains constant: Jamie Babbit’s debut film from that time, But I’m a Cheerleader, still offers something incredibly powerful to queer audiences.
Critics initially panned Cheerleader for its use of stereotypes and campy, exaggerated production design, but it’s become a cult classic in the years since. The movie tells the story of a cheerleader named Megan (played by Natasha Lyonne) who gets sent to a conversion therapy program when her family and friends suspect her of being a lesbian. When I first saw the movie in my late teens, it helped cement a point that I was struggling with at the time: that being queer doesn’t require you to check certain boxes with regard to the way you look or act. As Megan learns, being a girly-girl—a cheerleader, even!—doesn’t have anything to do with your sexuality. Neither does having a masculine look or hobbies. Cheerleader emphasizes and celebrates the fact that queerness comes in different forms. The only wrong way to be queer is to try to deny or limit yourself to someone else’s standards. In the world of the movie, fitting a mold is just absurd heterosexist nonsense.
What sticks with me to this day, and why this movie is so beloved in the queer community, is that despite the weight of the subject matter, the movie is relentlessly tongue-in-cheek, depicting the conversion camp in shades of “gender reveal party” pink and blue, where the activities include learning to perform gendered chores and mimicking laughably awkward missionary-style sex. It takes a serious subject and makes it anything but.
For context, let’s look at Boys Don’t Cry, another queer indie film that came out right around the same time. Kimberly Peirce’s film about the life and death of murdered trans man Brandon Teena was lauded by critics for its importance, crediting the film with shedding light on the horrific subject matter of violence against trans people. Boys Don’t Cry is gritty and rough, showing tenderness, love, and sex but also lots of violence and hatred. The film’s overall aesthetic is one of harsh realism, exposing a dark corner of humanity for all its ugliness. It’s been considered an important film, masterfully made, but it’s, to say the least, a major bummer—and it doesn’t really offer anything new to queer viewers.
Movies like Boys Don’t Cry are great for educating straight, cis audiences about the horrible realities often faced by LGBTQ+ people, but Cheerleader offers something different. If you are a queer person or you love one, you already know there are people and institutions out there that want to do you or your loved ones harm. When you relax with a movie, you don’t necessarily want to be reminded of that. That’s why Cheerleader works so well—aesthetically and narratively, it’s the virtual opposite of a serious, awards-bait drama. Everything is heightened, dramatized, and prettified.
It may be about an equally dark, violent topic—conversion therapy—but rather than something in the vein of Boys Don’t Cry or 2018’s Boy Erased, another gritty realistic film that’s also about conversion therapy, its purpose is not to shock, horrify, and educate. It’s to make fun of rigid gender roles and expectations that suit pretty much no one. It’s to point out how arbitrary our cultural hierarchies and assumptions are; it’s to indulge in color and decoration and femme-on-femme sensuality. It’s to entertain and uplift.
The movie doesn’t pretend it’s all girly fun and games being a sapphic teen though. There’s still plenty of dramatic tension as the characters come to terms with their identities and forbidden desires. But those very real problems are depicted in a way that brings viewers more joy than pain. During the scene when Megan admits to herself that she is, in fact, “a homosexual,” she reaches her emotional peak with a dramatic ugly-cry, cross-eyed and drooling. While it’s made clear that Megan herself is having a mental breakdown, it’s not distressing for the audience—it’s just funny. No matter how upsetting it can be for some people to accept they’re queer, viewers are invited to find the humor in Megan’s situation—and perhaps their own. Laughter, after all, is a survival skill.
The most powerful thing about But I’m a Cheerleader is its power to let enough light in to make even bad things enjoyable. Rather than re-traumatizing LGBTQ+ viewers who are already well aware of how violent the real world can be, Cheerleader invites us to heal and proves that movies don’t need to be stark and gritty to provoke an emotional response. And while initially, critics didn’t appreciate the movie’s wry, absurd satire, it’s probably time for the rest of the world to give But I’m a Cheerleader a second chance. Culture has shifted since the film came out in the summer of the 2000. Queers have loved this movie as long as the average TikToker has been alive—maybe everyone else is ready now.
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