I can’t recall exactly when I first saw But I’m a Cheerleader, whether I was in high school or my first year of university. But I remember exactly how it made me feel: joyous, hopeful, and seen.
A quick recap for those of you who haven’t seen it, or perhaps just need a refresher: cheerleader and church-goer Meghan (Natasha Lyonne) gets sent to conversion therapy camp by her parents, who realize long before she does that she’s lesbian thanks to her vegetarian lifetyle and love of Melissa Etheridge (girl, same). There, Meghan meets and falls in love with Graham (Clea Duvall) as she comes to realize that she can, indeed, be both a lesbian and a cheerleader.
An important coming-of-age film for young sapphics, But I’m a Cheerleader is so much more than your average story of teen love. While it was skewered by critics when it premiered over 20 years ago, it has since become a queer cult classic.
While the vivid blues and pinks – described by director Jamie Babbit herself as as “Barbie Dream House” meets “Edward Scissorhands” – and crushworthy cast are enough to make the film stand out, But I’m a Cheerleader also has an emotional resonance with queer femmes that that has us still talking about and recommending it almost 20 years later.
I asked friends, colleagues, and strangers in online queer spaces what the film meant to them, and why they thought it was so important to queer women and women-aligned millennials.* After over two hundred responses that included a lot of tender nostalgia and stories of how the film helped people realize or accept their queerness – or even come out – a few main themes emerged.
“It has a happy ending”
But I’m a Cheerleader is, by all definitions, a rom-com, and it comes with the requisite happy ending. The fact that it follows the formula is deceptively ground-breaking: there weren’t a lot of depictions of queer romance back then and lesbian characters were often subject to the “Bury Your Gay” trope – i.e., they often ended up dead. As Carolina, 40, pointed out, “it is one of the first mainstream film to show a positive ending in a queer film. I think about how before that a lot of the lesbian relationships in films ended in death or someone going back in the closet. But that was the first to show the couple potentially ending up together and happy.”
For so many of us, this was the first time that we saw women-loving-women get a happy ending, and it’s hard to describe how formative and validating that was. Pam, 28, shared that “I saw the movie shortly after I came out and it was reassuring to see that queer people can find love and be happy too.”
While it’s easy to want to believe that we’ve moved past a need for this kind of saccharine representation – and there are certainly many more films now that portray a happy ending for queer folk – it seems that it’s still resonating with young queers. At least some Zoomers who responded (especially those who grew up in more rural or conservative areas) felt it resonated and several of them also said it was the first time they saw a happy ending depicted for queer women, even if they only saw it a few years ago.
“You could be a dyke and a cheerleader, all at once.”
People have long associated masculinity in women with lesbianism, to the point where many queer women found themselves questioning whether it was possible for them to like women if they were femme.
“As a child growing up in Virginia, I quite literally believed, because I was femme and didn’t desire to cut my hair short, that I couldn’t be gay,” wrote Ainsley, 25. “Megan’s character showed me you could be a dyke and a cheerleader, all at once.”The whole point of the film is that your gender or gender presentation is not related to who you want to shack up with, and that piece really resonated with a lot of young sapphics. Kendra, 39, shared, “I saw this when I was still wearing men’s pants and tiny Ani Difranco concert tank tops because I didn’t think I was ‘gay enough’ if I wore all feminine clothing…That I could be a totally valid queer woman in a dress and heels was revolutionary!”
And on the other end of the spectrum, as Marissa, 37, points out: “[a]nother thing that is incredibly refreshing is that the stereotypically butch character actually realizes she’s not gay at the end of the film. She’s just assumed to be based on her gender presentation. That was really progressive at the time!”
“This was the first queer movie I saw that was fully queer.”
Another theme that emerged is that the film is distinctly queer, in its aesthetic, its writing, and its humor. “For me,” Thea, 38, wrote, “But I’m a Cheerleader is special for its aesthetics…The high-camp aesthetic both mocks straight culture (think the scenes where the kids are ‘learning heterosexual roles’), while creating a queer aesthetic at the same time.”
While most of the film is in the third person perspective, it starts out with the audience looking through Megan’s eyes, and “she’s checking out bouncing boobs and looking up skirts of the other cheerleaders,” as Marissa, 37, pointed out. “It’s refreshing and funny but really unmistakably queer. I’m hard pressed to think of such a blatant depiction of femme/femme desire without thought for the male gaze, even more than twenty years later. Megan and Graham’s relationship is all about the two of them, there’s no male gaze in play, there’s no mention of men at all.” Films that don’t cater to the male gaze are, broadly, harder to find, and like in this case, often point to the director being a woman.
In terms of humor, a lot of people mentioned that it felt validating for heterosexual society and roles to be the butt of the jokes, rather than queer people. “This was one of the first pieces of media I ever encountered that portrayed queer stereotypes, characters, and situations as humorous without making them the butt of the joke,” shared Eve, 28. “[T]he movie frequently evokes gay stereotyping for jokes but it never condemns gay characters for their presentation or desires. It’s always clear that the characters actually worthy of derision and mockery are the ones that try to force straightness and gender conformity on queer people. And because it’s so funny I’m able to watch this movie that’s actually about very traumatizing experiences and mistreatment but not feel devastated at the end…I come out of Cheerleader feeling optimistic. I think the irreverence and camp allows it to be a movie premised on the mistreatment of queer people that actually treats it’s queer audience well, with affection and encouragement.”
Part of what makes But I’m a Cheerleader feel so good for queer audiences is that it’s not only is the film about queer people – it’s clearly made by and for them, too. Bella, 30, put it succinctly when she said “this was the first queer movie I saw that was fully queer.”
“It made conversion therapy absurd, hilarious, and homoerotic.”
Not everyone remembered But I’m a Cheerleader quite so fondly. The same things that made it a favorite of many – that it was frivolous, fun, silly – were disliked by those who felt the subject matter required serious treatment. Conversion therapy, after all, is quite literally life and death. The film was largely met with horror in the queer community: making a comedy about conversion therapy camps, and making a comedy in the wake of the destruction of AIDS in the queer community, did not win Babbit a lot of fans.
Even now, a handful of responses to my query focused on the fact that it minimized the realities of conversion therapy camps in a way that was potentially triggering and harmful, rather than healing. “I first watched this movie about a year ago,” share Annika, 25. “As much as I enjoyed it and recognize the huge impact it had on the queer community, especially for queer women, I personally had a really hard time getting past the fact that it’s a comedy set at conversion therapy. While I appreciate the desire, and sometimes need, to laugh at things that are traumatic, coming from a very religious background I felt that this movie in some ways minimized and painted too nicely a practice that is in reality mentally, emotionally, and often physically abusive.”
On the flip side, for many people, this humorous treatment of serious topics was what really stood out for them. Marissa, 35, opined that “It made conversion therapy absurd, hilarious, and homoerotic.” Some even found it helpful to ease their own fears, such as Abby, 30, who shared “[I]…was super afraid of conversion therapy as a teen, they were at the top of google for ‘lesbian + my town’ – seeing this movie poke fun at these places helped me feel less afraid.”
While it’s not for everyone, humor is often a way for people to cope with trauma and hardship.
“It’s…really powerful to see something so traumatic and painful flipped in a way that makes fun of the idea — that doesn’t ignore the bad shit but exists for us to control the narrative and have fun doing it” said Gianna, 30.
Having first watched the film in high school, Zoe, 32 pointed out that the humorous approach also helped it feel like it was both by us and for us: “I love that the film addresses queer trauma in a way that isn’t retriggering and traumatizing. By using humor and John Water-esque camp sensibility, it feels like a queer person recounting the infective and ghoulish nature of conversion therapy and the ridiculousness of cis-heteronormativity instead of the cis-het exploitative lens that seeks to devour gay trauma for cred.”
The aspects of But I’m a Cheerleader that ended up being so impactful for millennial queer sapphics (and beyond!) are the very things that Babbit, a queer woman herself, knew would resonate. Babbit gifted the world with exactly what she set out to: a campy, defiant, and gay AF love story that challenges our ideas of gender and sexuality and has a happy ending. As Jan, 38, put it: “That film made me laugh, cry and felt seen…It felt like finally someone saw those of us who survived it and were trying to blossom.”
*Folk responding had a variety of identities, though most volunteered that they are women or identified as a woman at the time they first saw the film, and were some flavor of sapphic.