A Timeless Queer Classic: “But I’m a Cheerleader”

MacKenzie Peterson, WSC Student

“But I’m a Cheerleader” is a satire, comedy, queer romance movie directed by Jamie Babbit in 1999, with a screenplay by Brian Peterson. With performances that blend humor and compassion, the outcome is a delightfully campy picture that challenges heteronormative norms. But when “But I’m a Cheerleader” debuted at the Toronto International Film Festival in September 1999, it was widely ridiculed, with critics attacking everything from the film’s subject matter to its overly colorful set design. I think they may have struck a tiny nerve.  

The camp features an AA structure, which is supervised by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty) and her colleague Mike (RuPaul). Residents are subjected to examinations, are expected to follow gender stereotypes, and are essentially shamed into heterosexuality. 

I really think that the small details of the film are what make it so good, during the boys’ lessons on how to fix a car, an erected wrench with two wheels on the side sits on the side, or during their lessons on fighting as a man should, there is an angle the audience is shown of sculpture of a man holding his gun but when looking at it in the way presented to us, he seems to be offering his “gun” to the mouth of a sculpture of another man kneeling down, obviously hinting at you know what.  

The homophobia toward queer individuals was pushed to the max, resulting in insults of being gay becoming downright ridiculous and as a result, hilarious. In addition to how serious Megan’s parents were noting her change in diet and having vaginal motifs and gay iconography in her room, I enjoyed how serious Mary explains how being gay stems from a moment in your life, asking everyone to find their “roots” of homosexuality. 

The intimate encounters become so much more sensitive and purer as a result of the amount of outrageous and insane mockery. Megan and Graham’s first kiss, or them making out in bed, was incredibly sweet. It was interesting how their surroundings seemed real, rather than fairy-tale-like, during such intimate times, as if to refer to the idea that queer love is real and gays are humans just like heterosexual people. Dark and natural lighting washed out the rich and clashing hues, emphasizing the intimacy between the two female figures. Megan’s final scene, in which she cheers for Graham and expresses her unconditional love for her, was really adorable—watching Graham’s stunned expression gradually transform into a pleased smile made me feel all fuzzy inside.  

There were also some important queer lines in the film, such as Lloyd assuring Megan that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to being a lesbian, and that all we have to do is be ourselves. I really liked Jan’s story on how your appearance should not determine your queer identity. They were all only lightly touched, maybe as a result of the film’s shallow, jokey tone. However, while I would have enjoyed it if the film had gone more into gay identity, I believed the interaction between Graham and Megan, as well as the other homosexual rehabbers in the facility, sent a clear and appropriate message to the public as a whole. 

Megan establishes bonds with the other females, particularly Graham, and things aren’t all doom and gloom. In the harsh environment, the two young women end up falling in love. The dark comedy was juxtaposed with romance, resulting in one of the few hopeful love tales in a queer film. The ridiculousness of gender norms and gender expectations is exploited in the film to increase our desire to cheer for Megan and Graham as a partnership and Megan as a person. Megan is a cheerleader for her team. She enjoys wearing dresses, pink, and having her hair done. She does, however, enjoy ladies. She does not classify as a lesbian in the typical sense, which is a gross stereotype. Graham does not either. She possesses masculine characteristics, yet she balances them out with feminine characteristics. When it comes to her gender and self-expression, there is no all-or-nothing approach. Stereotypes are evident throughout the film and are embodied by all of the actors. Slowly, though, all of those stereotypes come to be seen in the framework of the individual, and they become just character qualities rather than the entire picture.  

This is a fantastic film; as a fan of queer, primarily lesbian, romantic films, it succeeds brilliantly. Lesbian films are frequently depressing, with homophobia, fear, and violence tearing them apart, killing one of them, or simply causing the relationship to fall apart. I believe lesbians are treated unfairly in the film industry, and I am sick of it. So, it was lovely to witness these two battle for what they believe in and deserve: love, despite the ignorance of others.