‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ Made Internalized Homophobia Fun

In “Lost Movie Reviews From the Autostraddle Archives” we revisit past lesbian, bisexual, and queer classics that we hadn’t reviewed before, but you shouldn’t miss. This week is Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader.


I wrote just about everything down in my journal, back then, so of course I wrote about August 1, 2000, the night I saw But I’m a Cheerleader in a packed movie theater in downtown Ann Arbor. I described the film in all-caps as FUN. However, that assessment came at the end of an entry that wasn’t about the film at all, but about the conversation I’d had with my friend Kelly prior, in which I’d learned that Kelly had dated a girl during her first year of college. I wrote in my diary that Kelly’s admission does not really surprise me at all, which I imagine I felt because Kelly had always been such a hippie, you know? Even in middle school, which is where we knew each other from. She was the first of several friends throughout my life with whom I’d bonded over the Indigo Girls, who we’d both adored even as 12-year-olds. She cared a lot about the environment and cats and she wore a lot of necklaces and she was really empathetic and sentimental in a way that I somehow already knew to be a lesbian trait. So I wasn’t surprised that she’d dated a girl but I was, maybe, a little surprised by her nonchalance.

The conversation with Kelly went on from there into more unexpected places — including me telling Kelly about a girl I’d hooked up with at boarding school, which was something I hadn’t told very many people. I’ll get back to that in a minute, but I mention it now because it was a formative conversation for me, although it’s one I imagine Kelly has long since forgotten, and it led to But I’m a Cheerleader occupying a very specific place in my heart. I was host to so much internalized homophobia back then, a situation it’d take me many more years to identify and recognize, and internalized homophobia, in many ways, is the topic of But I’m a Cheerleader. Yet the film manages to take these dark feelings of shame and confusion, of family rejection and religious persecution and betrayal, and make it funny and cool and even a little romantic.

I’m not sure why I decided to see But I’m a Cheerleader with Kelly from middle school, except that I basically saw every independent film about girls that came out back then. It was a fantastic time to be a then-aspiring filmmaker, because female-fronted cinema, and independent film specifically, was truly blowing up in the ’90s. (I kept up on what was coming out through the Sunday New York Times and Entertainment Weekly.) I was likely drawn to But I’m a Cheerleader because it starred Natasha Lyonne (who I’d loved in Slums of Beverly Hills) and Clea Duvall (who I’d loved in The Faculty and Girl Interrupted) and Melanie Lynskey from Heavenly Creatures and Michelle Williams from Dawsons Creek and RuPaul, who I’d never seen out of drag before.

I remember being surprised that Kelly was eager to see it, too, and maybe asking her if she wanted to go was an invitation not just to the movie but to what we talked about beforehand.


But I’m a Cheerleader tells the story of Megan (Lyonne), a cheerleader at a suburban high school whose friends and family suspect she’s gay and thus ship her off to conversion therapy. At True Directions, patients are asked to reorient themselves away from homosexuality towards the light through aversion therapy, identifying the roots of their sexual deviance, and participating in exercises that emphasize traditional gender roles. Girls wear pink, boys wear blue, and the facility itself is decked out in that precise color scheme with a vivid, punchy visual language director Jamie Babbit says was inspired by by Barbie, David LaChapelle and John Waters.

Megan, who’d previously had no clue she was the only girl who hated kissing her boyfriend and the only cheerleader who thought so much about the breasts and asses of her teammates, finds herself eventually romantically drawn to surly cynic Graham (Clea Duvall), who’s wealthy parents are zealously attempting to stick their square peg of a daughter into a round hole.

Like conversion therapy in real life, True Directions is obviously unable to actually “cure” anybody of homosexuality, because of course conversion therapy is a fundamentally flawed, scientifically inaccurate and inhumane practice. But it’s also a fail because, as But I’m a Cheerleader reveals subversively, conversion therapy itself is super gay and extremely horny. The activities designed by True Directions leaders Mike (RuPaul) and Mary (Cathy Morarity) fail to mask Mary and Mike’s own obsessions with gay sex, or quiet the urges of their students. They discuss the evils of homosexuality with a kind of wistfulness. Gender itself, and particularly our most stereotypical expressions of it, is undeniably queer, and so utterly campy.

One of the film’s most powerful moments is when Jan, an athletic butch with an alternative lifestyle haircut, stands up in group therapy and declares that although everybody thinks she’s a big dyke because she “wears baggy pants and plays softball,” in fact she actually loves men. It’s a brief scene that nods to the conservative conflation of gender presentation with sexual orientation, a sentiment also backed up by the film’s title and Megan’s character. Sexual orientation is below the surface, in a part of ourselves that we’re either born with or we choose, but it can’t be altered by wearing pink outfits, playing with plastic babies, or having fake heterosexual sex with each other in full-body nude suits.

Megan approaches the work from a different angle than her peers — while they’ve been aware of their homosexuality and tried to fight it before, she comes newly diagnosed, and therefore far more hopeful about a potential fix. Like my friend Kelly, who simply met a girl, liked her, and went for it, Megan never had time to develop internalized homophobia. She tries to fix her homosexuality but finds more fulfillment in her relationship with Graham than she does in continuing to appease her parents through repression. Why fight what feels good? Ultimately, But I’m a Cheerleader gamely delivered a happy ending, something that was rare in lesbian cinema.


But back to that pre-film conversation. Kelly told me that another middle school friend, Chelsea, was presently in a lesbian relationship, which I qualified in my diary as a bit shocking. I just couldn’t imagine Chelsea participating in any sort of alternative lifestyle. Chelsea and I reconnected that year when I started at the University of Michigan (having spent my first post-high-school year in New York). We met every week for a dinner ritual that kept me grounded through that strange year, and although she never came out to me, but eventually I’d move in with her and her rugby friends and it would all become very obvious. I’d sit on the grass at the Indigo Girls concert watching Chelsea and her friends drink and dance and eat and smoke and wish I could be that free in myself, too. And then I’d go home and call my boyfriend who didn’t read books.

Kelly was so non-judgmental and open always, including in that conversation, and I was surprised to find myself wanting to tell her about my high school hookup with my best friend, and for maybe the first time, I talked about it as a thing that might mean something about me instead of a thing that absolutely didn’t. Kelly mentioned my mom, asking me why I hadn’t told anybody about her coming out as a lesbian when I was 15. I don’t remember how I answered, only what I wrote in my journal: I used to be scared when I was a kid that I would grow up to be a lesbian. I do think I’m bi — because I was attracted to Astrid for real, I think. Kelly thought it was funny that I didn’t tell anyone about my Mom. I think one of my biggest fears was people thinking I would be a lesbian too. Now I’m secure enough in myself that it doesn’t matter.

And then we watched this movie, and I think it’s a pretty early entry in what would eventually become a more storied tradition of lesbian camp, and it’s definitely the first lesbian comedy I’d seen. Previously, the LGBTQ+ movies I’d watched had been dramas, often dark and tragic dramas — Philadelphia, Boys Don’t Cry, I Shot Andy Warhol, Gods and Monsters, My Own Private Idaho, Heavenly Creatures, Velvet Goldmine, Gia, The Talented Mr Ripley, Six Degrees of Separation. Gay comedies were rare, and those that evoked something like queer joy usually centered on gay men, drag queens or both, like The Birdcage and The Object of My Affection and Too Wong Foo, Thank You For Everything Julie Newmar.

This movie, though? This movie was different. This movie had a female lead and it was funny, and smart, and had cool actors and music I loved and at the end we didn’t cry ’cause someone died, we cried because love is love and love won.

Of course Kelly thought it was “funny” I hadn’t told anybody about my mom, because it is funny. Internalized homophobia is ridiculous and the ways we deal with it are funny, as this movie makes very clear. Maybe that’s why after writing, in my journal, I could see *maybe* being with a girl… but not forever. It might just be part of my general desire to do things that are risky and weird. I also wrote, We’ll see. I know that “we’ll see” was hard for me to even consider, then, but I know it was a big step.

And then, finally, the entry ended with my review, which I stand by to this day: Good movie though — FUN. 


But I’m a Cheerleader is available for free on Tubi.

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Riese

Riese is the 41-year-old Co-Founder of Autostraddle.com as well as an award-winning writer, video-maker, LGBTQ+ Marketing consultant and aspiring cyber-performance artist who grew up in Michigan, lost her mind in New York and now lives in Los Angeles. Her work has appeared in nine books, magazines including Marie Claire and Curve, and all over the web including Nylon, Queerty, Nerve, Bitch, Emily Books and Jezebel. She had a very popular personal blog once upon a time, and then she recapped The L Word, and then she had the idea to make this place, and now here we all are! In 2016, she was nominated for a GLAAD Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism. She's Jewish and has a cute dog named Carol. Follow her on twitter and instagram.

Riese has written 3202 articles for us.

3 Comments

  1. Thanks for writing this. It reminded me of how I felt when I first saw But I’m A Cheerleader. I’ll never stop loving this movie! And your beautiful penultimate paragraph reminded me of my own “we’ll see” moment — mine unrelated to the film, but still. Ooft.

    OK, going to go rewatch But I’m A Cheerleader Now.

  2. I first saw But I’m A Cheerleader when you, Autostraddle, actually put it on one of your top movie lists, while I was trying to watch/read/listen my way to being Informed (because research is power); so thank you both for that, and for this excellent piece! The last paragraph + sentence are really beautiful.

  3. But I’m a Cheerleader is my root! I was 16 and had never considered the idea that I might like girls. I watched this movie at a big friend sleepover and then stayed awake late that night, after the rest of my friends had all gone to sleep, googling bisexuality. That was a decade ago and I still remember the intimacy and love in the bed scene. But I’m a Cheerleader will always hold a special place in my heart :)

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