In honour of Pride month, I think it is high time to revisit an old classic of cult cinema: Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader. Released in 1999, it has all the fun, campy quirks of a Y2K chick flick but is thematically way ahead of its time. In fact, I may go so far as to say its ahead of our time, since the lesbian cinema genre still has a ways to go. The plot is relatively straightforward. Megan is an all-American girl, and more importantly a cheerleader, who shows some worrying signs of “lesbianism”, leading her parents to stage an intervention and ship her off to conversion camp. She herself is shocked at the news- a cheerleader simply can’t be gay- but eventually learns to embrace her sexuality in spite of the camp’s attempts to reprogramme her.
The cast is fantastic, a young RuPaul and an even younger Natasha Lyonne dominate the stage as counsellor and inpatient- adding some camp, comic relief to an otherwise horrifying situation. The tone and satire are reminiscent of a John Waters film, think Pink Flamingos or Hairspray, wacky and slapstick but ultimately critical, in this case emphasising the absurdity of trying to reprogramme a person’s natural state. The film’s message is constantly re-enforced through its bright, vivid cinematography, with the girls dressing in pastel pinks and the boy’s in baby blues. It may be precisely this on-the-nose satire that turns some viewers off the film. After all, homophobia continues to be a deeply prevalent issue in much of the US and the world and it is truly saddening to know that the damaging conversion therapy parodied in But I’m a Cheerleader still goes on today. So, the film could be construed as insensitive or exploitative.
Yet I for one take a very different stance. I won’t pretend that watching this film was the ticket to discovering my sexuality- it is perhaps a little too comedic for that- but it did speak to a number of identity crises that many a budding lesbian will be able to relate to. But I’m a Cheerleader is one of the only films I have seen that thematises the difficulty of marrying two identities: femininity and homosexuality. Terms like ‘lipstick lesbian’ or ‘femme’ may be thrown around nowadays but are still relatively new to people outside the community. In 1999, the phenomenon of being both a cheerleader and a lesbian was practically unheard of and rarely seen on the silver screen outside of male sexual fantasies. Furthermore, while films like Boy Erased have done wonders in depicting the deeply harmful effects of conversion therapy, But I’m a Cheerleader does something equally powerful: it takes the intimidation factor away and exposes conversion therapy for what it is: a farce!
But I’m a Cheerleader has cemented its reputation as a cult classic, and with good reason. It’s funny, creative and appeals to all audiences- gay or straight. I would highly recommend giving it a watch this month!
Image: Peabody Awards via Wikimedia Commons