“But I’m A Cheerleader” skewers heteronormative culture with pleasure

Jamie Babbit’s coming-of-age queer satire from 1999 screens on June 12 at Memorial Union Terrace at 9 p.m.
Two young women, Megan (Natasha Lyonne) and Graham (Clea DuVall), lean closer to one another. They both wear similar pastel pink and teal attire, complemented by the set design and color scheme.
Megan (Natasha Lyonne) and Graham (Clea DuVall) scrub floors and get close at the New Directions conversion therapy camp in “But I’m A Cheerleader.”

Jamie Babbit’s coming-of-age queer satire from 1999 screens on June 12 at Memorial Union Terrace at 9 p.m.

I was 18 years old when Jamie Babbit’s But I’m A Cheerleader first appeared, like a beacon, in my local Blockbuster Video store. I wasn’t out yet (no more than saying “I think I could be attracted to someone regardless of gender, but I dunno” to a few close friends), but I sure as shit was watching every scrap of queer and even subtextually queer media I could get my paws on.

I don’t remember how many times I rewound and watched the steamy scene in the punishment clubhouse (you know the one, or you will, once you go see this movie at the Memorial Union Terrace on June 12). It was an oasis in a desert. A breath of air after a long time underwater. It was, and still is, sadly, in this age of legislative backlash against LGBTQ+ people everywhere—revelatory and subversive and funny and topical as heck.

A few of the most acclaimed movies of 1999 were Fight Club, The Matrix, and American Beauty. Gay marriage was not yet legal, and some states still outlawed “sodomy” (i.e. gay sex) entirely. Queer cinema existed—where it existed at all—very much at the margins, in the art houses, and seldom seen by mainstream audiences. The exception was the occasional token, funny but sexless or tragic and doomed queer character playing second fiddle in an otherwise straight film.

All of this and more is what makes the release and existence of But I’m A Cheerleader that same year all the more extraordinary. Not only does it feature a mostly queer cast of characters (and several queer actors), skewer heteronormative culture, and offer a non-tragic ending, the film is also packed to the gills with talent. This was queer director Babbit’s debut feature film before she went on to make a name for herself mostly directing TV, including the excellent (and also very queer) A League Of Their Own adaptation last year. And the always incredible Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall are the leads, playing opposite the likes of Melanie Lynskey (Yellowjackets), RuPaul, Mink Stole (of many a John Waters movie fame), Dante Basco (RU-FI-OOOO), and Cathy Moriarty (from, like, everything). Oh, and RuPaul plays a “formerly gay” counselor at a conversion therapy camp. You can tell everyone is having a blast.

It’s a teenage coming-of-age story with a super gay twist: Lyonne’s Megan, oblivious to her hilariously obvious same-sex attractions, is thrown under the bus by her fellow cheerleaders and sent to a reparative therapy camp for teens, where she meets and eventually falls for DuVall’s Graham, a brooding and unapologetic lesbian. It’s a bitingly satirical takedown of gender roles and just about every ridiculous anti-gay argument that’s been made. It’s perfectly campy and then lovingly serious just when it needs to be. And the production design is all wonderfully over-the-top, colorful kitsch.

In short, it’s a queer miracle that this movie exists at all, let alone that it came out when it did. It’s depressing how relevant it remains in light of the over 600 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced in state legislatures so far this year and the associated increase in attacks on queer and trans people nationally, but impressive how it holds up simply as a great movie after all this time, too.

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