By Kelly McDonnell
This article was first published December 1, 2020 in Tagg Magazine here.
But I’m A Cheerleader is a perfect satirical film. Its explicit and ironic criticism of conservative and religious ideas of sexual orientation and gender identity in the 1990s shines a light on contradictions of the time.
Between liberal government policies that banned sexual orientation discrimination and the continued social brutality against LGBTQ people, like Matthew Shephard who was murdered in 1998 for being gay, Jamie Babbit’s 1999 feature film was an over-the-top critique of inequality. The film’s re-release on December 8 with new scenes and interviews with creators and cast will hopefully add to the film’s successful campy narrative that reminds audiences of resilience.
Netflix’s Russian Doll star Natasha Lyonne plays Megan, who is 17 years old when her parents send her to a conversion therapy home called “True Directions.” But Megan can’t be a lesbian! Doesn’t everyone fantasize about their teammates in short skirts? Well, Babbit wants you to, as the camera close-ups focus on a girl’s short skirt or on her breasts. These glimpses into Megan’s imagination shows what she wants and what she denies herself.
There are five steps to convert back to straightness at True Directions. Step one is admitting your homosexuality. To get to step five, Megan and the other women campers learn how to wash dishes and change diapers while the men campers play football and fix cars. This is a re-learning process of the natural order dictated by True Directions, despite how mundane and inconsequential all of these tasks are. By step five, the campers should be cured to heterosexuality.
When she first admits she’s a lesbian, Megan’s face twists into an indiscernible mixture of fear and relief. Her eyes crinkle and fill with tears, but her lips fill into an almost smile, stiff but on the verge of shining. The other campers hug her. Admittance is the first step, but does it guide Megan down the straight, and narrow path?
The film has coded campy coloring, with girls dressed in Barbie pink outfits and the boys in button-up blue suits. The house is always being cleaned and the furniture is wrapped in clear guards, a nod to the discriminatory idea that gayness is contagious and to the lingering 90s AIDS fear.
Babbit is re-releasing But I’m A Cheerleader as a director’s cut in 4K HD on December 8 with never-before released scenes and a reunion interview with the film’s cast, which also includes RuPaul and Michelle Williams.
The film’s resurgence is especially pertinent as politicians have revamped their support for anti-LGBTQ policies. Amy Coney Barrett’s recent confirmation to the United States Supreme Court was a loss for the LGBTQ community, particularly because of Barrett’s history as a trustee at private Christian schools with anti-gay policies.
The Trump administration has also taken legal action that would restrict LGBTQ access to support shelters and schools based on gender identity assigned at birth. Attacks against LGBTQ individuals are still making national news, especially this year with several Black and Brown trans women and men being murdered at record numbers.
The conservative and religious-based ideologies that targeted homosexuality in the ’90s and prompted Babbit to create this campy satire haven’t gone anywhere.
The re-release of But I’m A Cheerleader is exciting for a queer cult-classic getting some fresh air, yet it’s evergreen applicability is disheartening. But as Megan confronts crushing conversion attempts from clueless hypocrites, we can, too.