But I'm a Cheerleader is 15 years old. The cult classic about discovering your sexuality and learning that it's not accepted by your family and friends — though not necessarily in that order — came before Glee, before GBF, and before a single state had legalized same-sex marriage.
It could be easy to dismiss the film as hopelessly dated compared to today's pop culture landscape (and now that all 50 states have marriage equality) but the film isn't just about a gay teen who's trying to be something she's not — which remains an important issue, since 40% of today's homeless youth are LGBTQ. But I'm A Cheerleader is a film about sexual and gender identities, labels, growing up, and trying to sort your own desires and dreams from everyone else's expectations.
There are certainly religious overtones to the film's "True Directions" conversion camp and the protagonist's family's disapproval, and much of the activities the gay teens are asked to perform are about "rediscovering gender identity." In cartoonish blues and pinks, the girls primp while the boys spit; pinks clean and blues fight. Now that trans acceptance is finally at the forefront of the news (and mainstream culture is being introduced to people who are gender-fluid or gender-neutral), the idea that everyone could be put in one color or the other — not even getting into the reductive, stereotypical tasks — is as relevant as it is ridiculous.
But I'm A Cheerleader is also a movie about trying to fit in to a certain image, even within the LGBTQ community. When Megan (Natasha Lyonne) leaves the camp and moves in with ex-ex gays, she still wants to be told what her sexuality should look like. She asks her new mentors to teach her "how to be a lesbian — what they wear, where they live." One gently explains, "There's not just one way to be a lesbian." Though there are definitely more gay and lesbian characters on TV and in films today than there were in 2000, portrayal of LGBTQ characters is often still super-stereotypical — the sassy, gay best friend and the over-sexualized or extremely butch lesbian.
Author Chelsea Pitcher compares watching the film when it first came out and seeing it now: "When I first watched But I’m a Cheerleader, the experience was personal. I watched it with my girlfriend. We got caught up in the story — in the humor the characters found in spite of a tragic situation. Watching the movie now, it feels like a political statement. A bold act of defiance against a world that only recently began to ban harmful "conversion therapy." Now, more than ever, But I’m a Cheerleader is important and necessary."
Possibly the most important moment of the film is the mid-credits clip showing Megan's parents at a PFLAG meeting, her dad loud and proud and her mom desperate not to be seen. It's a moment that stands between the two poles of LGBTQ acceptance that are often portrayed in film and TV for teens — the parents ready to flaunt their rainbow-colored clothing vs. the entrenched, villainous homophobes. As campy as the film is, it presents a realistic middle ground: Conservative parents might have a hard time accepting their kid's sexuality, one might come around sooner than the other, but often (though of course, not always) parental love wins out over prejudice.
Plus, But I'm a Cheerleader deserves a re-watch because it's still fun. The soundtrack is amazing, with plenty of '90s girl pop, and the whole movie turns into a great game of "How do I know that actor?" (yes, that is Rufio). So add it to your nostalgia-watch list — and maybe recommend it to your teenage cousin. She's got to get her film education somewhere.