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But I'm a Cheerleader: an LGBT cult classic
By Erin Lewis (they/them)


Image: But I'm a Cheerleader (1999)

There may be a subsection of filmmakers who do not think lesbians existed after 1900. Whilst the rise of queer cinema has allowed for voices of different backgrounds to highlight their experiences - there seems to be a gap in lesbian cinema. Whilst queer men and trans people have films centred in both the historical and the present it seems that with the exception of Booksmart (2019) that almost all films featuring lesbians are set in a time before the lightbulb was invented.

However, when this appears to be the case it feels important to highlight a film that is able to centre present day lesbian relationships whilst being hilarious and making interesting commentary on heteronormativity and LGBT identities. It also features RuPaul’s line “I myself was once a gay” said with an earnestness that should have won him an Oscar.

But I’m a Cheerleader (1999) follows Megan (Natasha Lyonne) who is unknowingly ousted from her conservative American family for being a lesbian. I say unknowingly because Megan believes that her behaviours, having exclusively pictures of girls in her locker, not really liking her boyfriend and being vegetarian, are all entirely normal. It’s only when her family sends her to True Directions, a religious conversion therapy camp, that she begins to bond with other queer people and understand who she is more.

Unlike more recent films like Boy Erased (2018) and The Miseducation of Cameron Post (2018), True Directions is never treated with any seriousness. Each element of it is played to the extremes to show the farcical nature of the gender roles assigned to these characters and the conversion camp itself. All the characters spend their time at True Directions in either fluorescent pink or blue as they are made to spend time fixing cars or hoovering floors with equipment that intentionally looks like they’re made from plasticine. When the group are told to talk about their ‘root’ that ‘made’ them LGBT each person lists preposterous things like “my mother got married in pants [sic]”, “I was born in France” and “Traumatic breasts”. There is also the fact that True Directions is run by Raging Bull star Cathy Moriarty who exudes the energy of a malicious Stepford wife and RuPaul who, even in the late 1990, was seen as an LGBT icon - a status likely cemented by his performance in this film.

Once Megan has found her root, which is “seeing Mom kind of being the Dad” when her father became unemployed, she begins to become more integrated with the other members of the camp. Some of the memorable characters, like Sinead, a goth lesbian, and Dolph, a gay varsity wrestler with nineties style gelled hair, only have brief interactions with Megan compared to the others in the group that she grows close to. In particular she develops a close relationship with Graham (Clea DuVall), a rebellious lesbian who was sent away after being caught with another girl. Whilst she seems to be resistant to the programme, rolling her eyes at most things and dragging other people to the local gay bar, she never takes it to the point where she leaves because, like everyone else, she is trapped there.

The connection that blossoms between Graham and Megan is sweet to watch, especially when it becomes more of a key factor later on in the film, but it never feels as though it exists in a vacuum. Both of them are constantly aware of what their relationship means and what will happen to them if they are caught.

There are films that seek to explore lesbian relationships and experiences in contemporary settings, most recently the film Bottoms (2023) which follows two queer girls who start a fight club in order to get closer to their crushes and Tár (2022) which explores the demise of a renowned female conductor partially due to her inappropriate behaviour with younger, female musicians.

But there is still something special about But I’m a Cheerleader: the kindness and depth it affords to all its characters, how witty and intelligent the commentary is and how aesthetically pleasing it is.

Upon it’s initial release, several comparisons were made to the work of cult filmmaker John Waters who’s bright, counter- culture films, including one where a drag queen eats dog excrement, brought him to prominence in the 1970s. Instead, But I’m a Cheerleader is earnest and heartfelt, presenting holistic views of its characters and treating them empathetically whilst never holding back from making jokes about the world in which these characters inhabit.

Published Online: 02/10/2023

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