• Sun. Jul 14th, 2024

Cult Column: But I’m a Cheerleader

ByRomy Gaisbichler

Feb 27, 2023
Clea Duvall

I am obsessed with But I’m a Cheerleader. I’ve seen it three times, which might not sound like much, but I only first watched it in February 2022 (and I’m not an avid repeat viewer).The irreverence of its satire, the tenderness of its representation, the playfulness of its design – this movie is supremely special. It’s a breath of fresh air, one thrillingly ahead of its time. 

Unfortunately, nothing makes this clearer than the initial reviews. With a measly 42 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes, most are negative or tepid. Of those, some are downright nasty. They also miss the point of the film entirely.

The plot follows Megan (Natasha Lyonne), a bubbly cheerleader, whose family and friends suspect that she is a lesbian. Clues for this include her vegetarianism and locker pictures of bikini models. As devout Christians, her parents (Mink Stole, Bud Cort) are concerned and send her to True Directions, a conversion therapy camp. Megan is ready to confront her homosexuality and get back to her normal life, but instead finds a gentle romance blossoming between her and Graham (Clea DuVall), another camper. 

True Directions is a technicolour explosion of artifice with the aim to reorient campers by enforcing traditional gender roles: girls learn to keep a clean house and care for babies, boys to chop wood and throw a football. These ridiculous activities do an excellent job of skewering rigid views on gender. As an added bonus, they’re hilarious to watch (RuPaul, playing a counsellor, is side-splitting). Campers are also encouraged to discover their ‘homosexual root’ – i.e. the thing that made them queer. These are, similarly, hysterical and teasing, with my favourite being that they were born in France.

Early reviews coming from straight critics find this humour either distasteful or mean-spirited. Conversion therapy is too serious a topic for jokes is one argument. Scoffing at gender roles only serves to offend straight people is another. One critic sincerely wrote that the film making fun of heterosexuality is wrong because it would be bad if a film did the same of queerness. Of course, Cheerleader isn’t making fun of heterosexuality. It isn’t concerned with it. What it is making fun of is narrow-mindedness and confining people to arbitrarily defined roles. Equally, the film doesn’t attempt to minimise the cruelty of conversion camps, largely because it refuses to engage with it. Rather, it aims to show their absurdity by offering you a cast of diverse, loveable characters you want to see thrive, not just survive – you’re shown the community they form with one another and the weightless way they act on the nights they sneak out. You want that freedom for them all the time. A relentless depiction of abuse mostly has you wanting the abuse to stop.

Another strength of the film is Megan and Graham’s sweet, convincingly adolescent relationship. While many queer relationships are portrayed in media, it’s still rare for them to be this wholesome. They’re often woefully mishandled. If not, they’re tragic or subtextual, sometimes achingly complex and mature. There’s room for such dynamics, yes, but it’s an absolute joy to see a pure, reassuring queer romance instead. It’s something that comes from a film made by and for LGBTQ+ people, letting characters exist beyond their angst and as fun-loving, witty, and youthful. 

But I’m a Cheerleader doesn’t shy away from the barriers and discrimination faced by queer people; it just chooses to deconstruct them through a lens of love and affection, rather than through a lens of hate and pain. It’s all the more revolutionary for it. 

Image “Clea DuVall” by ffets is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.