Representation in Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) oscillates between subjectivity and stereotype, taking root in a sharp politicization of camp sensibilities and conservative culture. The release of the film’s director’s cut marks twenty years since titular cheerleader Megan (Natasha Lyonne) acquired romance during her stay at reparative therapy camp True Directions. But today, Megan's position in the cultural imagination is multifaceted; both silly and political, serious and unserious. Though cut from the cloth of nineties rom-com, her campy construction is not straightforward, in fact, quite the opposite.
In an interview with Nitrate, Babbit said that if she was going to write a paper about her film, she’d say "it’s a feminization of the camp aesthetic, bringing emotion to something that's hyperrealized."1 This feminization of camp, a descriptor prevalently attached to gay men, is clear from the start, through the form of a cliché male fantasy: close-ups of cheerleaders’ bodies in acrobatic synchronicity. Though the camera lingers on sexualized bodies, because this scene is from Megan’s point of view it also elevates feminine detail: intimacy, pompoms, pleats of polyester. Thus, although this sequence recognizes a male, especially American, sexual role-play, it omits men from their own fantasy; it is reconfigured to include the gaze of women. The camerawork is tactile, there is no distance or inequality between Megan and the girls she admires. Therefore rather than merely representing a lusting spectator, though she certainly and deliberately is, Megan is also a participant in this exchange. To the memorable score of April March's Chick Habit, this opening montage is unequivocally self-aware, setting the precedent for the film proper: we begin in a heteronormative space queered by subjectivity, and here we shall remain.
As the pinnacle of all-American femininity, cheerleading is Megan’s beard, hence the film’s defensive title and proffered by her outburst: “I’M NOT PERVERTED, I GET GOOD GRADES, I GO TO CHURCH, I’M A CHEERLEADER!” Cheerleading is, or is supposed to be, an anchor to Megan’s femininity and therefore, in the eyes of her reactionary peers, surmises her heterosexuality. Fragile as this beard may be, it is the film’s greatest satire: Megan’s muddled sense of self-awareness and, more pressingly, her own adoption of homophobic justifications.
In turns truly camp, the film is far more perceptive of Megan’s sexuality than she: it detects the façade and unveils its artifice. This artifice is not the act of cheerleading itself—as confessed to Graham, Megan does genuinely love to cheer—yet, cheerleading’s visual homoeroticism, reliant on an absence of boys, enables her to encounter her homosexuality in ways unsuspecting to those around her. This performativity is emphasized by Lyonne’s interpretation of the role. For Criterion, she revealed “I was sort of actively taking the piss out of that type of person, this perfect blonde girl.” While Megan is notably affectatious in the company of her friends and boyfriend, gleefully rejoicing “it’s playoffs!,”2 she pushes her identity in the opposite direction to that intended. No one is convinced she is straight. Except us, as the initially uncertain audience, who deliberates how to perceive these stereotypical affectations.
This uncertainty is because we first take Megan’s behavior as part and parcel of the nineties rom-com. Lyonne herself confirms this, revealing to Criterion that she was unsure if the script knew how camp it was. Cher Horowitz, from 1995's Clueless, is crafted from a similar archetype of adolescent, exaggerated femininity. By contrast to its genre-peers, however, the hyper-femininity and unbridled silliness of But I’m a Cheerleader is just a veneer; the film slowly uncovers layers of self-awareness that gradually, lyrically come to fruition.
Amongst an arid landscape, the True Directions camp sticks out like a sore thumb. The sunbaked Barbie dream-house is furnished with blues and pinks; all objects appear dipped in paint, emphasizing the gender of all things, or, rather strikingly, the luster and artificiality of their taxonomy. Stereotypes come to empower the subjective, one is vital for the other. Babbit has made clear her departure from John Waters’ vision of camp, though a similar "hardcore art" aesthetic is certainly evident. True Directions is littered with phallic objects and bold artificiality—fake campfires and flowers—all a reference to the likes of Tim Burton's Edward Scissorhands (1990), an advocate of utilizing conservative gender ideas as enforcements of theatricality.
On designing the film, Babbit has said "if you repress something, it comes out in other ways." These other ways are indebted to the hyperreal aesthetic, whose presence means we never experience the film as realism. We envisage our position somewhere far into the apertures of Megan’s hyperreality, and this is imperative. Though this subjective feel means we assume private access to Megan’s interiority as she admires other women, in oscillation with her ‘straight’ persona, it becomes increasingly apparent that our access to Megan’s subjectivity is far from restricted. Megan’s interiority is not private, and neither is any aspect of the film. But I’m a Cheerleader is objectivity turned inside out; every symbol yields to the aesthetic; feelings emerge from all sides.
One figure who absolutely confers the feeling of camp is, of course, camp-leader Mike (RuPaul), a self-described “ex-gay.” Casting mainstream drag queen RuPaul as a strait-laced, reparative therapy instructor, especially rewatching the film in a post-Drag Race world, was psychically genius. There are comedy beats every time he towers over the room in machismo, sporting blue hot-pants and a t-shirt that reads “straight is great.”
With Mike in particular, the film’s Sontagian influence is visible, specifically, Sontag’s idea that “camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp;’ not a woman, but a ‘woman.’"3 For a piece entitled Gentlemen, What the Hell Has Become of Us? in American men’s magazine Esquire, Stephen Marche claims “the more manly you act, the less manly you probably are.”4 Throughout his article, Marche emphasizes the omnipresence of fragile masculinity, how the most camp figures of American visual culture are the most protective of their masculinity: hyper-macho men who frequent television shows wherein they fish, drive trucks, and fight each other. Though this departs slightly from Sontag, who believes camp is the masculine in women and the feminine in men, it evolves her definition. Returning to RuPaul, who in the cultural eye conflates hyper-femininity as a drag queen and gay masculinity as a man, Mike’s layered portrayal is salient. He is masculine in conventionality, teaching young boys car mechanics and how to chop wood, but he is “masculine” within the film’s logic of irony and play.
Disparate to the girls’ therapy, which consists of painting each other’s nails and domesticity, Mike’s treatment for male rehabbers involves a lot of boyish pastimes and “masculine” costuming. During one memorable scene, the boys ogle Mike, who, beneath a car with his crotch exposed, shouts “shove it in and out, put some muscle into it.” It is precisely RuPaul’s over-the-top delivery of these lines, in fact, all his lines, which (in)appropriately scores the boys’ gazing, and therein enables Babbit to queer a seemingly hetero space through the act of looking.
Looking is forbidden because it is, according to True Directions, the biggest indicator of homosexuality. As the boys and Mike himself lust over Rock, camp-leader Mary’s son who, like an apparition, frequents the background engaged in various groundskeeping tasks wearing a tight tank and hot-pants, Mike scolds “if I catch you looking at another man like that again, you’ll be watching sports the whole weekend.” Every one of RuPaul’s lines would have received approval from his panel of judges on Drag Race: the trinity of being hammed up, silly, and making the most of each moment. More critically, for the boys and girls respectively, it is here the film expresses its own adage: looking is forbidden, doing is not. Unlike the charged interaction of looking, partaking in exercises which can be visually coded homoerotic, like sports and other activities which absent the opposite sex from their company, are perfectly acceptable.
There is one sequence wherein the boys, uniformed in effeminate blue plaid shirts and high-waisted jeans, chop wood in front of a phallic, blue theatre-set-style tree until one of the boys throws an axe into the air. Everyone ducks down, giving opportunity amongst the distraction for two of the boys to hold hands. Similarly, with the girls, there is a scene in which the girls are taught to change diapers, but the image of two mothers to a crib actually evokes a sapphic reality of motherhood. It seems then, absolutely intentionally, each of these gender-confirming tasks is a balancing act between performing a role and unearthing opportunities to destabilize homophobic thought.
Of course, prohibition of looking is at odds with the film’s beguiling visuality. Even the editing and narrative framing encourages looking. Established through title cards, the narrative is cut up into “steps,” the first, “admitting you’re a homosexual,” bracketed in stars to the sound of extradiegetic sparkles. In ways reminiscent of a home-ec textbook, we are encouraged to encounter the film’s comedy as tuition, as a how-to program. This is surely commentary on America’s steadfast culture of self-help, and its disposition to serialize human experience into simplified acts of self-improvement. In terms of homosexuality and reparative therapy, these steps to eradicate homosexuality are both comedic for their futility and harrowing for their historic reality.
Proof of its own self-awareness, language is noticeably militant at True Directions, a name which is, in itself, ironic as it seems to positively imply the fixity and innateness of homosexuality. Rehabbers are referred to as soldiers and described to embark on a “battlefield of temptation.”5 20th-century homophobic policy and the “deviance” of homosexuality are abundantly referenced. Mary (Cathy Moriarty) is atop the pyramid of these ideas, literally so as a camp-leader, and as the central figure for the film’s critique of homophobia: “she’s germaphobic, so everything is plastic, and she's all about AIDS-paranoia.” Mary’s program pathologizes homosexuality; Megan is punished for her initial reluctance to admit her “sickness,” read sexuality, and is forced to wear a hospital gown. Eventually promoted into pink uniform, identical to the other girls, Megan’s costuming correlates with “individual progress,” i.e., admission of the problem and steps to its resolution. It is here that in particular that linguistic and sartorial vocabularies intersect. Clothes are performative and exterior, and at True Directions, they trace the internal. They visualize punishment and ostracization, and much like spoken affirmations, they aim to modify interiority from the outside in.
At least from a cinematic viewpoint, attending a conversion camp, with other marginalized sexualities in close proximity, inadvertently facilitates queer romance to flourish. This is true to other films, such as Saved!, a kindred satirical comedy released a few years after But I’m a Cheerleader. During her stay at True Directions, Megan is met with coolly resistant rehabber Graham (Clea DuVall). In layers tenderly ironic, Graham takes the form of the “mysterious girl” at home in the rom-com genre, except in Babbit’s imagination, she is not a barely-there projection nor a vapid fantasy, but legibly masculine and autonomous.
After a typical rom-com trajectory of will-they-won’t-they, the film climaxes in ways maximally camp. In accordance with the step-by-step framework, the film ends on graduation day. Indeed, graduation from True Directions takes the visual form of a wedding ceremony, just in case the heterosexual goals were unclear. Girls wear pink, PVC prom dresses as they tentatively walk down the aisle to an audience of their parents, only now reaching Mary’s apogee of synthetic hyper-femininity. Except Megan, who, following her expulsion from the camp, is absent from the ceremony. Unable to return to her intolerant parents, she seeks out the company of the “ex-ex gays” at their rainbow-decorated safe house. Through Babbit's inclusion of these gay older men, she borrows what were once homophobic stereotypes and plays with their representation; planting Megan, a young unsuspecting lesbian, into this space tenderly entwines both generations of sexual expression.
Megan’s love-language is cheerleading, so for the punctuative reconciliation of her sexuality with her femininity, she crashes the "wedding" (graduation) to proclaim her love for Graham through a cheer, replacing what are usually lines of brazen smack-talk towards a rival sports team with professions of love. This elevates Babbit’s reimagining of the rom-com genre to accommodate layers of acute self-awareness; we watch this penultimate scene unfold in ways both absurdly funny and thoroughly romantic. By presenting cheerleading as an integral part of Megan’s identity, Babbitt deconstructs its performativity. She recognizes how one can negotiate performance and genuine feeling, and this balance sums up the film proper.
Babbit is part of a minority of writers and directors who affords her lesbian characters a happy ending. Correspondingly, the Gen Z LGBTQ+ community generally herald But I’m a Cheerleader as a rom-com not just about them, but for them. Thus when Graham and Megan escape the throes of the ceremony, paying homage to iconic finales such as The Graduate, they conform to a canon of heterosexual cinematic ends, all the while liberating their own queer emendation.