But I’m a Cheerleader

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999)
★★★ / ★★★★

Jamie Babbit’s uproariously funny “But I’m a Cheerleader” is a satire of conversion therapy programs and the idea that sexuality—a trait that is genetically hardwired—can be altered or fixed “if you just try hard enough.” What makes it special is that although humor is painted with broad strokes at times, stereotypes coming hard and fast, it has bite: it does not shy away from the cold fact that this pseudoscientific practice is ineffective, harmful, and inhumane. One minute you’re laughing and the next you’re horrified by some of the things loved ones say to their sons, daughters, friends. They claim to love their gay son or lesbian daughter. But reality is that their love is not unconditional.

This is not the kind of LGBTQIA+ picture that is prudish with its subjects’ sexuality. On the contrary, what’s fresh about it is that its images are so over-the-top, some of the jokes fly right over your head because there are instances where you sort sit back and absorb what had just been shown or said. It is meant to shock and overwhelm, as if its purpose is to make up for the collective American culture’s longstanding history of homosexual repression. I admired it most when the movie is clearly angry, livid, just underneath its playfulness.

An early example involves our protagonist, Megan (Natasha Lyonne), coming home after school to find out that her parents, her friends (Michelle Williams), and her boyfriend (Brandt Wille) have conspired to send her to True Directions, a two-month, five-step program for heterosexuality led by Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty). The humor comes in the form of why Megan’s inner circle feels Megan might very well be a lesbian: her vegetarianism, posters of women in her bedroom and locker, the fact that she does not enjoy making out with her boyfriend. But something chilling: Nobody bothers to ask Megan whether she wants to attend the program or how she feels about the idea. She is forced to do so because others feel the need to have her corrected. She must be corrected or else they do not want her to be in their heteronormative lives.

The picture is criticized for its stereotypes, particularly its portrayal of the “campers.” I think those who see weakness within this aspect of the film have missed the point. (My issue is with its throwaway ending; its vision is so original for the majority of its running time that surely we deserve a more daring final few minutes.) The movie is a satire and so exaggeration is one of the tools that can and, I think, should be employed to get the point across. Some of the male homosexuals are shown to be feminine in a hyperbolic way (example: nasal voice, hanging wrists, being terrible at sports, and the like). But that’s the point.

Because in True Directions, males’ feminine behavior (and in turn females’ masculine behavior) must be eradicated, erased. And then they must be taught “traditional” behaviors (men are strong so they should be able to chop wood; women are dainty so they must excel at housework). There is no room for political correctness in effective satires. To do so is an act of removing teeth from material that should have a harsh bite. I would even go as far to say that satires—good ones—should be offensive. Because if a satirical work doesn’t offend anyone, then who is the movie for? More importantly, who or what is the movie against? What is its stance?

Notice that although the material makes fun of everyone on screen—yes, even the campers—the screenplay by Brian Wayne Peterson shows a real love for its young subjects. It allows them to talk to one another in comic and tender ways—sometimes deeply; it is willing to show their sexual desires; the hurt they feel someone calls them “dyke” or “faggot,” especially their parents; the relief that takes over them when a person accepts them for who they are rather than their masks. This is not a comedy without a soul or a brain. Behind the chuckles and laughter are truths that everyone call relate with, gay or straight. And that is why “But I’m a Cheerleader” has gained a cult following—and will continue to do so for many decades to come.

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