But I'm a Cheerleader is a 1999 satirical romantic comedy film directed by Jamie Babbit and written by Brian Wayne Peterson. Natasha Lyonne stars as Megan Bloomfield, an apparently happily heterosexual high school cheerleader. However, her friends and family are convinced that she is a homosexual and arrange an intervention, sending her to a residential inpatient reparative therapy camp to cure her lesbianism. At camp, Megan soon realizes that she is indeed a lesbian and, despite the therapy, gradually comes to embrace this fact. The supporting cast features Clea DuVall, Cathy Moriarty, RuPaul, Mink Stole and Bud Cort.
But I'm a Cheerleader was Babbit's first feature film. It was inspired by an article about conversion therapy and her childhood familiarity with rehabilitation programs. She used the story of a young woman finding her sexual identity to explore the social construction of gender roles and heteronormativity. The costume and set design of the film highlighted these themes using artificial textures in intense blues and pinks.
When it was initially rated as NC-17 by the MPAA, Babbit made cuts to allow it to be re-rated as R. When interviewed in the documentary film This Film Is Not Yet Rated Babbit criticized the MPAA for discriminating against films with homosexual content. The film was not well received by critics who compared it unfavorably to the films of John Waters and criticized the colorful production design. The lead actors were praised for their performances but some of the characters were described as stereotypical.
At True Directions, Megan meets the founder, Mary Brown (Moriarty), Mary's son Rock and the group of young people trying to "cure" themselves of their homosexuality. With the prompting of Mary and the other campers, Megan agrees that she is a lesbian. This fact, at odds with her religious upbringing, distresses her and she puts every effort into becoming straight. Early on in her stay at True Directions, Megan discovers two of the boys, Dolph and Clayton, making out. She panics and screams, leading to their discovery by Mike. Dolph is made to leave and Clayton is punished by being forced into isolation.
The True Directions program involves the campers admitting their homosexuality, rediscovering their gender identity by performing stereotypically gender-associated tasks, finding the root of their homosexuality, demystifying the opposite sex and simulating heterosexual sex. Over the course of the program, Megan becomes friends with another girl at the camp, college student Graham (DuVall). The group is encouraged to rebel against Mary by two of her former students. The ex-ex-gays Larry and Lloyd take the campers to a local gay bar where Graham and Megan's relationship develops into a romance. When Mary discovers the outing, she makes them all picket Larry and Lloyd's house, carrying placards and shouting homophobic abuse.
Megan and Graham sneak away one night to have sex. When Mary finds out, Megan, now at ease with her sexual identity, is unrepentant. She is made to leave True Directions and goes to stay with Larry and Lloyd. Graham, afraid to defy her father, remains at the camp. Megan and Dolph, who is also living with Larry and Lloyd, plan to win back Graham and Clayton. They go to the True Directions graduation ceremony where Megan performs a cheer for Graham and tells her that she loves her. They drive off with Dolph and Clayton. The final scene of the film shows Megan's parents (Stole and Cort) attending a PFLAG meeting to come to terms with their daughter's homosexuality.
Babbit says that her influences for the look and feel of the film included John Waters, David LaChapelle, Edward Scissorhands and Barbie. She wanted the production and costume design to reflect the themes of the story. There is a progression from the organic world of Megan's hometown, where the dominant colors are orange and brown, to the fake world of True Directions, dominated by intense blues and pinks (which are intended to show the artificiality of gender construction). According to Babbit, the germaphobic character of Mary Brown represents AIDS paranoia and her clean, ordered world is filled with plastic flowers, fake sky and PVC outfits. The external shots of the colorful house complete with a bright pink picket fence were filmed in Palmdale, California.
Babbit made a conscious effort to cast people of color for minor roles, in an effort to combat what she describes as "racism at every level of making movies". From the beginning she intended the characters of Mike (played by RuPaul), Dolph (Dante Basco) and Andre (Douglas Spain) to be African American, Asian and Hispanic, respectively. She initially considered Arsenio Hall for the character of Mike but says that Hall was uncomfortable about playing a gay-themed role. As Mike, RuPaul makes a rare film appearance out of drag.
But I'm a Cheerleader is not only about sexuality, but also gender and the social construction of gender roles. One of the ways in which Babbit highlighted what she called the artificiality of gender construction was by using intense blues and pinks in her production and costume design. Chris Holmlund in Contemporary American Independent Film notes this feature of the film and calls the costumes "gender-tuned". Ted Gideonse in Out magazine wrote that the costumes and colors of the film show how false the goals of True Directions are.
Gender roles are further reinforced by the tasks the campers have to perform in "Step 2: Rediscovering Your Gender Identity". Nikki Sullivan in A Critical Introduction to Queer Theory says that this rediscovery is shown to be difficult and unsuccessful rather than the natural discovery of their latent heterosexuality. Sullivan says that the film not only highlights the ways in which gender and sexuality are constructed but also takes the norms and truths about heteronormative society and renders them strange or "queer". Holmlund says that Babbit makes the straight characters less normal and less likable than the gay ones. Sullivan says that this challenge of heteronormativity makes But I'm a Cheerleader an exemplification of queer theory.
The film premiered on September 12, 1999 at the Toronto Film Festival and was shown in January 2000 at the Sundance Film Festival. It went on to play at several international film festivals including the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras festival and the London Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. It first appeared in U.S. theaters on July 7, 2000, distributed by Lions Gate Films. Fine Line Features had intended to distribute the film but dropped it two months before it was due to open following a dispute with the film's production company, Ignite Entertainment. It closed after 8 weeks, with its widest release having been 115 theaters.
The film was released on Region 1 DVD by Lions Gate on July 22, 2002 and by Universal Studios on October 3, 2002. Other than the theatrical trailer, it contains no extras. It was released on Region 2 DVD on June 2, 2003 by Prism Leisure. In addition to the trailer, it features an interview with Jamie Babbit and behind the scenes footage.
The film was a hit with festival audiences and received standing ovations at the San Francisco International Lesbian and Gay Film Festival. It has been described as a favorite with gay audiences and on the art house circuit.
Writing for The New York Times, Elvis Mitchell described the character of Megan as a sweet heroine and Lyonne and DuVall were praised for their performances. Mick LaSalle called Lyonne wonderful and said that she was well matched by DuVall. Marjorie Baumgarten said that they "hit the right notes". Alexandra Mendenhall, writing for AfterEllen.com felt that the relationship between Graham and Megan, having great chemistry, does not get enough screen time. Mitchell called their love scenes "tender". Other characters, particularly the males, were described as "offputting" and "nothing but stereotypes".
Several reviewers compared the film to those of director John Waters but felt that it fell short of the mark. Stephanie Zacharek called it a "Waters knockoff" while Ebert said that Waters might have been ruder and more polished. Babbit says that although Waters is one of her influences, she did not want her film to have the "bite" of his. She states that whereas John Waters does not like romantic comedies, she wanted to tell a conventionally romantic story. The production design, which was important to the overall look and feel of the film, drew mixed responses. LaSalle described it as clever and eyecatching and James Berardinelli called it a standout feature. Others found it to be gaudy, dated, cartoonish and ghastly.
Stephanie Zacharek, writing for Salon.com said that with regard to issues of sexual orientation and homophobia, Babbit is preaching to the converted. Cynthia Fuchs, for NitrateOnline.com, agreed, stating that "no one who is phobic might recognize himself in the film" and that "the audience who might benefit most from watching it either won't see the film or won't see the point". David Edelstein said that the one sidedness of the film creates a lack of dramatic tension and calls it lazy counterpropaganda. In contrast, LaSalle said that "the picture manages to make a heartfelt statement about the difficulties of growing up gay" and Timothy Shary said that the film openly challenges homophobia and offers support to teenaged gay viewers. Chris Holmlund said that the film shows that queer identity is multi-faceted, using as an example the scene where the ex-ex-gays tell Megan that there is no one way to be a lesbian.
Reviews from the gay media were similar to those from the mainstream press. Jan Stuart, writing for The Advocate, said that although the film tries to subvert gay stereotypes, it is unsuccessful. She called it numbingly crude and said that the kitsch portrait of Middle America is out of touch with today's gay teenagers. Mendenhall for AfterEllen.com called the story predictable and the characters stereotypical. Despite these comments she said that overall the film was funny and enjoyable. Curve called the film an incredible comedy and said that with this and her other work, Babbit has redefined lesbian film.
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