According to a recent study by the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, film criticism is a field overwhelmingly dominated by (surprise, surprise) white men. Not anymore. In Refinery29's new series, Writing Critics' Wrongs, our female movie critic will give fresh consideration to the movies we love, hate, or love to hate. It's time for a rewrite.
Megan Bloomfield (Natasha Lyonne) doesn’t believe that she’s a lesbian. After all, the chipper 17-year-old protagonist of But I’m A Cheerleader is a poster child for the All-American Girl. She’s blonde, gets good grades, goes to church, and is dating a football player. Sure, his kisses are kind of gross — but maybe he’s just not very good at it? And doesn’t every young woman fantasize about their girlfriends’ long, lean legs? Nevertheless, one day, she comes home to find that her family and friends have staged an intervention. This sudden turn towards vegetarianism, the Melissa Etheridge posters in her room and locker, the vaginal motifs in her carpet, the signs are all there! “Honey, we think you’re a…lesbian” her mother Nancy (Mink Stoll) confesses in hushed tones. And so, Megan is enrolled at True Directions, a gay conversion center run by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty), an aggressively terrifying cross between Nancy Reagan and Barbie in a bubblegum pink suit, who drills her wards in how to behave like straight people.
Directed by Jamie Babbit and written by Brian Wayne Peterson, the biting satire – so prescient today, in Trump and Mike Pence’s America – pushes society’s traditionally binary views of gender responsibilities to their absolute extreme, and in doing so, demonstrates just how absurd they can be. The result is a gloriously campy film that skewers heteronormative expectations with performances that balance humor and heart.
However, when But I’m A Cheerleader premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1999, it was critically panned, derided for everything from its subject matter to its too-colorful set design.
“Pandering to the audience without subtlety, the film makes the most obvious choices,” Emmanuel Levy wrote for Variety. “The teenagers in the camp are all stereotypical characters, particularly the boys, who are mostly whining sissies.” Over at Entertainment Weekly, Owen Gleiberman gave the film an “F” rating, calling it a “jejune fantasy of prison-camp homogenization,” adding that “Any self-respecting lesbian should rear up in horror at a movie that tells her that THIS is how she’s supposed to be.” In Film Journal, David Noah sneered at Babbit’s directorial choices: “But I'm a Cheerleader is a candy-coated, completely negligible bit of fluff that plays like emasculated John Waters.”
The film holds a 35% critical rating on Rotten Tomatoes, and though the praise for Lyonne was near-universal, her castmates weren’t so lucky. In his New York Times reviewLINK?, Elvis Mitchell described Cathy Moriarty’s performance “so butch that she's capable of emasculating any man within a five-mile radius.” As for RuPaul, who plays Mike, a former True Directions student turned counselor, Noah dismissed his “ultra-fey presence,” noting that “after this and his abysmal appearance on the VH1 Diana Ross tribute, it should be said that a fierce wig, gown and attitude are simply not enough, even for a most-of-the-time transvestite performer.”
In spite of those scathing, now-tone-deaf reviews, But I’m a Cheerleader was ahead of its time, and has since become required viewing in the canon of LGBTQ+ movies. And even then, the film was a lot more tame than Babbit had originally envisioned. In 2014, the director told HuffPost that she had to cut two scenes in order to avoid an NC-17 rating from the MPAA, which would have severely restricted her intended audience: teenage girls. The first, a scene showing Megan masturbating, was simply shortened. The second, which included an allusion to Megan and Graham having oral sex, was cut entirely, a decision that Babbitt called sexist, especially given the fact that a similar joke involving men was deemed acceptable. “It was really very sexist — it was homophobic, yes, but it was also more just about that it was women,” she told HuffPost. “[MPAA officials] were very uncomfortable with a woman masturbating, with a woman saying she’s going to go down on another woman.”
That’s not all that surprising given the political context from which the film emerged. The 1990s marked a time of increased visibility for the LGBTQ community within the public sphere. But the flip side of that progress was an equally public strain of virulent homophobia, the impact of which we still feel today. At the time of But I’m A Cheerleader’s release, Will and Grace had barely wrapped its first season on NBC. Ellen DeGeneres’ “Yep, I’m Gay” 1997 Time Magazine cover was still fresh in the collective imagination. Bill Clinton’s “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy was less than a decade old. Just the year before, in October 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student at the University of Wyoming, had been viciously beaten to death, and tied to a fence for 18 hours, an act of violence that shocked the nation. In June 1999, James C. Hormel was sworn in as the first openly gay U.S. Ambassador. During his nomination process, Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott of Mississippi compared being gay to a disease,"just like alcohol...or sex addiction...or kleptomania.''
In that vein, the True Directions (dubbed “Homosexuals Anonymous” by Megan’s mom) curriculum espoused by Mike and Mary is a five-step program that starts with an admission of homosexuality and classes in gender-normative behaviors (diaper changing and housework for the girls, football and car repair for the boys), and ends with a simulation of heterosexual sex. (“Foreplay is for sissies. Real men go in, unload, and pull out!”)
Reasons for homosexual behavior, or “roots” are established for each student. Graham’s (Clea Du Vall) mom “was married in pants;” Sinead (Katharine Towne) was “born in France;” Joel (Joel Michaely) “had a traumatic bris;” Clayton’s (Kip Pardue) mom let him “play in her pumps.” The idea is that recognizing the root cause of one’s homosexuality is the key to resolving it. And voila! Straight!
Of course, that’s nonsense, a fact that’s apparent from the second Mike tells Megan he “was once a gay,” clad in a “Straight is Great” t-shirt, when he spends half the movie trying to suppress his lust for Rock (Eddie Cibrian), Mary’s son, who is himself held up as a model of straight masculinity despite his penchant for hitting on male campers mesmerized by his Daisy Duke cutoffs. True Directions only works if everyone is turning a blind eye.
With its candy-colored palette, and ambiguous-to-surreal setting, But I’m A Cheerleader’s aesthetics feel like a mesmerizing hybrid of John Waters, Tim Burton, and Wes Anderson. But where Anderson’s style sometimes feels like frosted window dressing, Babbit uses the trappings of wholesome suburbia to underscore the nightmare they conceal. The girls’ dorms at True Directions are a wash of pink and frills, as are their uniforms. The boys’ area, of course, is a sea of blue. Pat Irwin’s teeny-bopper score reinforces this fake atmosphere of wholesome Americana, a world in which all the women dream of marrying their high school sweethearts, and the men idolize Gary Cooper.
Lyonne gives a nuanced performance, committing to Megan’s sweet and clueless nature without veering into the ridiculous. She and Clea DuVall, who were friends before being cast in the film, have wonderful chemistry as they cling to each other in this place committed to making them hate themselves. Their love scene is the one time that Babbit holds off on parody, giving the moment the respect and weight that it deserves. The director has gone on to direct some of the most influential TV shows about women, including episodes of Gilmore Girls, The L-Word, and Girls. Lyonne would of course go on to star as Nikki in Netflix’s Orange Is The New Black, a show that has itself been groundbreaking in its honest and tender depiction of female same-sex romance over the last six seasons. Clea DuVall has built a career on portraying a wide spectrum of LGBT characters on TV and in film, and eventually cast Lyonne in her directorial debut, The Intervention, in 2016.
What makes But I’m A Cheerleader so emotionally affecting is that despite the cotton-candy exterior, the film never lets its audience forget that these are people undergoing a traumatic experience. Melanie Lynskey is particularly striking as Hilary, an Australian student who adopts the persona of the class mom. She respects the rules, and polices those who don’t, behavior that would usually brand her as a suck-up, to be mocked and despised. But it’s hard to make fun of someone who is so clearly acting out of deep-rooted self-loathing, and so desperate to be “normal” that she’d rather spend her life pretend than be comfortable in her true identity.
Babbit based the story on an article she read in the early 90s, and pulled from her own experiences as a gay woman in order to keep the story grounded. The film successfully represents a wide spectrum of gender performance — not all girls are butch, and not all boys are effeminate. It’s only at True Directions that gender automatically dictates certain behaviors. In fact, when Megan encounters Larry (Richard Moll) and Lloyd (Wesley Mann), two former disciples of Mary’s who now devote their time to showing the next generation that they have options, she asks them to teach her how to be a lesbian. What do they wear? Where do they live?
“There’s not just one way to be a lesbian,” Lloyd tells her. Nothing makes that more clear than when Jan (Katrina Philips) a softball player with a shaved head, declares in group therapy that she’s attracted to boys. The only True Directions student who fits the institution’s ridiculous idea of what a lesbian should look like is, in fact, straight.
Nearly twenty years after its release, Cheerleader remains ominously relevant. Hollywood is just now starting to embrace LGBTQ+ stories with female leads, the most recent example being The Miseducation of Cameron Post, Desiree Akhavan’s film about a teenage girl sent to a gay conversion therapy camp in the early 1990s, which even appears to pay tribute to Babbit’s work in its final scene. The fact that Vice President Mike Pence reportedly supports the controversial practice — now banned in several states — just adds to its urgency.
Babbit recently made an appearance in Half The Picture, Amy Adrion’s documentary highlighting the injustices female directors face in Hollywood. Asked about But I’m A Cheerleader’s lasting impact, she said: “I was making something relevant to people that I knew.”
Evidently, that has resonated. Lyonne recalled that when the film screened at Sundance, she and DuVall were approached by young girls who told them the film had inspired them to come out. “I feel very privileged for being a part of something like that,” Lyonne told Huffpost in 2014. “I mean, it’s great to make a great movie and have people like you and want to sleep with you and think you’re cool, but rarely have I ever been a part of something that helped people figure out who they are.”
“But I’m A Cheerleader” is available to rent on iTunes, YouTube, and Amazon Video.