Teen Movie Times: But I’m a Cheerleader

So far:
Bring It On

And today, But I’m a Cheerleader!

Poster image

What Happens?

But I’m a Cheerleader is almost the other half of Saved!. Where that movie has a boy sent to a Christian rehab centre that fixes gay, and focuses on the girl he leaves behind, But I’m a Cheerleader follows the story of a girl sent to True Directions, a gay rehab centre based on the AA “steps” and “higher power” rehabilitation.

Megan is a cheerleader, a pretty blonde with a jock boyfriend and a collection of adorable dresses. Her friends and family host a gay intervention, tell her she’s a lesbian, and send her to True Directions, where Mary and “ex-gay” Mike try to straighten her out, along with other boys and girls whose families think they’re queer.

Megan quickly falls for sardonic Graham, and during a sneak-out to the local gay bar, Cocksuckers, the two girls kiss. Later, they make love, but are informed upon by an envious fellow inmate. Megan is kicked out, while Graham, frightened of her dad’s threats, makes amends to stay in the program. Megan seeks help from a gay couple and returns on graduation day to convince Graham of her love. The two girls run away together.

The Message?

Gender roles are constructed choices. Sexuality is not.

The evidence Megan’s friends and family produce for her being queer is ludicrous. She’s a vegetarian! She has a Melissa Etheridge poster on her wall! She likes to hug her friends! She doesn’t want to kiss her boyfriend, who is hilariously inept at it. Therefore, she must be gay.

They’re right, but that’s purely coincidence.

What the movie says, over and over, is that sexual orientation is neither a choice, nor a lifestyle – whether you’re gay or straight (bi, as disappointingly usual, is left right out of the equation. The movie’s mockery of strict binary gender roles doesn’t extend to the het/homo binary, nor acknowledge that there are more than two genders available). “You are who you are,” Graham says. “The trick is not to get caught.” When Andre is kicked out, having failed his test, he says, “Congratulations, liars! You know who you are and you know who you want. Aint nothin’ gonna change that, shit! ”

Instead, the movie suggests the true choice queer kids make is whether to come out or keep quiet. Larry and Lloyd, two ex-True Directions followers say it best:

Lloyd: We’re just trying to provide you all with a balanced perspective, to see that there are options. In the end, it’s up to you whether you choose to live a…
Larry: Lie.
Lloyd: Whether you want to be who you are or keep it hidden is really more what we’re about.

At True Directions, heterosexuality is amazingly camp. Boys wear blue uniforms, and girls wear pink ones. Their straightening exercises are based entirely on practicing 50s ideals of what “real men” and “real women” do. Real men work on cars, chop wood, and play war. Real women diaper babies, practice their vacuuming, and scrub dishes. And in the cringe-inducing final exam, they simulate sex.

Flowers and fig leafs

Women lie on their backs and “open their legs like a flower”. Men insert themselves and pump up and down in a passionless pushup.

“What about foreplay?” Joel asks, and Mary snarls: “Foreplay is for sissies! Real men go in, unload and pull out!”

Which, no, and also, ew.

For Mary, the “roots” of homosexuality are based in any confusion of these rigid and limited gender roles. She has the kids parrot their “roots” at her, which, as well as being hilarious, are incredibly sad – because this is what some people really think “makes” kids gay:

The girls:
“My mom got married in pants’.”
“Born in France.”
“All-girl boarding school.”

The boys:
“My mom let me play in her pumps.”
“Too many locker room showers with the varsity team.”
“Traumatic bris.”

Vacuuming practice

The actual origin stories of the kids are diverse, in both ethnicity and interests. They are athletes (a cheerleader and a varsity wrestler) and artists (“actor, dancer, homosexual”), naive (Megan) and knowing (Graham). One girl likes pain, one boy works in retail. Most interesting is softball player Jan, the most overtly butch girl, who has a moustache and shaves the sides of her head.

She’s actually straight:

“Everyone thinks I’m this big dyke because I wear baggy pants and play sports and I’m not pretty like other girls but that doesn’t make me gay,” she says. “I mean, I like guys. I can’t help it. I just want a big, fat weiner up my-” “Amen, sister,” Andre says, and she leaves.

Megan, with her soft voice, her styled hair and her ensemble of sundresses and Mary Janes, fits right into the aesthetic of this ideal womanhood. “You were supposed to be the role model!” Mary hisses at her.

Natasha Lyonne looking femme in "But Im A Cheerleader."

The truth is, of course, there’s no right way to be straight. There’s no right way to be gay. You can’t tell someone’s sexuality by what they do, what they eat, or how they dress.

But until nearly the end of the movie, Megan is still confused. When she’s kicked out of True Directions, and runs to Larry and Lloyd for help, she says, “I was hoping you could teach me how to be a lesbian. What they wear, where they live.”

It’s Lloyd, compassionate and sincere, who breaks it to her: “Megan, there’s no one way to be a lesbian. You just have to continue to be who you are.”

And Megan does. She’s a cheerleader, she’s gay, and she loves Graham. So she shows up at the graduation ceremony for the “former homosexuals”, and, after an aborted attempt to rescue Graham in camo gear, puts on her uniform, picks up her pompoms, and cheers her heart out: “One, two, three, four, I won’t take no anymore. 5,6,7,8 – I want you to be my mate. 1,2,3,4 – you’re the one that I adore. 5,6,7,8 – don’t run from me cause this is fate.”

And Graham, who graduated as a hetero barely ten seconds earlier, runs not from her, but towards her.

The movie acknowledges that for many kids, there can be serious consequences to coming out, although, being lighthearted fare, it doesn’t go into the physical dangers of being out in a homophobic society – the one instance of physical bullying involves Graham throwing a stone at a queer boy during a picket Mary drags them to.

Mary and her picket sign: Silly faggots, dicks are for chicks

But the movie does make it clear that Megan and Graham face ostracization at school and parents who won’t have them in the house if they refuse to conceal their sexuality. Megan’s father has a change of heart – the last scene in the movie, partway through the credits, is of him proudly introducing himself at a PFLAG meeting. However, Megan and Graham proceed on the understanding that in choosing to openly love each other, they are giving up their families forever.

And coming out is portrayed as being up to the individual.

“She’s scared, and she’s maybe making the wrong choice,” Dolph tells Megan. “But it’s her wrong choice to make. You have to be willing to walk away.” And if his lover Clayton “can’t make a stand, he just can’t make a stand.”

Ultimately, if improbably, both of their lovers do make that stand. And in the film’s final fuck you to gender colour-coding, the credits first give the major contributors a variety – indeed, a rainbow – of colours, and then the cast, crew, and music credits scroll by in pink and blue sections – whatever their gender.

Graham and Megan hold hands in the happy ending

Other Things:

– Dolph is played by the ever-excellent Dante Basco. If you don’t think I didn’t cackle at Prince Zuko’s voice introducing himself as a “homosexual varsity wrestler” you possibly don’t know me so well.

– I cannot at all overemphasise how camp these heterosexual exercises are, nor how queered up they get. Mary, on demonstrating how to use a vacuum cleaner, makes sure that the girls know how to get into “every little crevice”.

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