In the 1990s, LGBTQ+ representation in the media began to gradually change, albeit with a few missteps and false starts along the way. The heteronormative mainstream had seen a shift towards creating a greater visibility of queer characters, with varying degrees of success.
For example, comedienne Ellen DeGeneres’ character in the sitcom Ellen became the first character in a US TV sitcom to come out as gay in an episode broadcast in April 1997, with DeGeneres revealing her own sexuality at the same time. In September 1998, Will & Grace pushed gay characters to the forefront, and at the turn of the new millennium Buffy The Vampire Slayer featured Willow Rosenberg coming out as a lesbian, although this was criticised for being rather poorly handled, with accusations of bi-erasure.
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If these faltering steps on television were not controversial enough in their own way, then Hollywood was guilty of some egregious sins, with ‘90s cinema seeing many examples of LGBTQ+ characters in films being reduced to little more than cyphers, cliches, or even harmful stereotypes which did little to advance the cause of acceptance. Thankfully, things have since seen an improvement, although there are still too many cases being seen of the ‘Bury Your Gays’ trope.
In an effort to try and better reflect the community’s voices and truths in media representations, a cinematic movement began during that decade, where LGBTQ+ filmmakers were making pictures which were much more honestly reflecting their lifestyles, and also showing them as people rather than empty vessels into which others’ prejudices were projected. Film professor and writer B. Ruby Rich coined the phrase of ‘New Queer Cinema’ to describe that explosive powerhouse of creativity and celluloid activism.
Much of what formed New Queer Cinema was informed by the trauma which had been wrought on the community as the AIDS crisis was taking hold, leading to fearmongering about gay and bisexual men in particular. In Derek Jarman, Gus Van Sant, Jennie Livingston, Todd Haynes, Gregg Araki, Tom Kalin and others, marginalised stories and people were now being given a proper forum. Queer cinema’s roots could be traced right back to Germany’s Weimar Republic, as well the works of Jean Cocteau and Andy Warhol, and New Queer Cinema took that torch and ran with it.
However, it did not find favour with everyone, and a young lesbian filmmaker called Jamie Babbit found herself struck by the sudden realisation that not many LGBTQ+ movies were dealing with issues other than processing the trauma being felt by the community due to HIV and AIDS; not only were there very few LGBTQ+ comedies, but there was not a lesbian-centric comedy that she could think of. This set her on a course to devise something to fill that void, and make a movie which Babbit once said that she had hoped would be the gay Clueless.
Babbit had directed two short films, one of which featured Clea DuVall in a lead role, and she found herself wanting to include the actress in a full-length feature. In the mid-‘90s, Babbit was in a coffee shop in San Francisco when she read an article in a free newspaper about a man who had gone to a homosexual rehabilitation camp, which had left him filled with self-hatred, and she found herself being fascinated by this, as she had been unaware that such facilities existed, so she wanted to attack this through the use of comedy.
It was a result of this that Babbit came up with the idea for But I’m A Cheerleader, which was to also become her first feature film. She had some personal insight into the rehab programme concept, as when she was growing up, her own mother had run a halfway house for young people who had drug and alcohol issues, under the name New Directions; in fact, Babbit said that the 12 step recovery programme was actually posted up on the wall above her bed when she was growing up.
Babbit worked with her girlfriend, Andrea Sperling, on the storyline for the movie, which they essentially boiled down to a one-sentence pitch: “Two high-school girls fall in love at a reparative therapy camp”. Having noticed there were few femme lesbian characters featured in queer or mainstream cinema, Babbit found a lack of representation for anybody like herself who did not identify with the notion of lesbians being predominantly butch, pushing back against some of the prejudice which she perceived against femme lesbians within some LGBTQ+ circles.
With that in mind, Babbit saw this movie as an opportunity to take a satirical dig at the religious right and the notion of conversion therapy, in addition to certain parts of her own community, who may not be as open or accepting of those outside certain defined roles or types as they really should be. In order to emphasise her point, Babbit made her main character a cheerleader, which is not just the typical slice of apple pie Americana, but something which Babbit felt to be reflective of that nation’s pinnacle of femininity, giving it a neat spin by subverting those ideals.
The story Babbit and Sperling came up with saw seventeen year old Megan Bloomfield being suspected by friends and family of being a lesbian, for such reasons as eating tofu, as well as having posters of Melissa Etheridge. She gets sent to True Directions, a conversion therapy camp which is run by Mary Brown, a strict religious fundamentalist, hell bent on straightening out gay teens. While she is at True Directions, Megan starts to come to terms with her own sexuality, and a romance blossoms with a female camper, Graham.
Despite coming up with a ten page treatment for the movie, Babbit felt she would be unable to actually write the script herself. A friend introduced her to a gay screenwriter, Brian Wayne Peterson, who was a recent graduate in writing for film and television from the USC School of Cinematic Arts. Peterson – who later went on to work on the TV Beauty And The Beast reboot, as well as Smallville – had worked as an intern in a prison clinic which treated sex offenders, and he had seen the harm caused by the conversion therapy which was being used, so he brought his experience to bear on the script.
It seemed the ideal vehicle for Babbit to reunite with DuVall, who was offered the part of Graham; DuVall later said being in But I’m A Cheerleader helped with her own experience of coming out, as she was closeted when it was being made. On a visit to DuVall when she was filming on another project, her longtime friend Natasha Lyonne – who would later appear in Russian Doll, which she also co-created – found the script for But I’m A Cheerleader lying around in DuVall’s car, and after reading it she immediately wanted to be considered for the part of Megan (Rosario Dawson was under consideration at one stage, and Babbit’s first choice turned her down, due to being a devout Christian).
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With Lyonne on board, she also brought her friend Melanie Lynskey (whose breakthrough part was her acting debut, in Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures) for a supporting role. Babbit was fortunate in assembling a remarkable cast for a relatively small feature, some of whom have since gone on to become much better known; Michelle Williams, for example, has a minor part as one of Megan’s cheerleading squad. The character of Mike – camp counsellor, and a self-proclaimed ex-gay – was initially offered to Arsenio Hall, before RuPaul Charles was given the part.
Bud Cort and Mink Stole were cast as Megan’s conservative parents, with Cathy Moriarty landing the role of tyrannical True Directions founder Mary. Even the relatively minor part of a ‘lipstick lesbian’ in a gay bar was played by Julie Delpy in a cameo. With such a remarkably impressive roster of talent having been assembled, Babbit was then able to increase her budget from the original $500,000 which Sperling had been able to drum up, nearly tripling the total sum to $1.3 million, just based on the strength of the cast.
Babbit’s look and style for the picture was described by her as being very much coming from a pop sensibility, with her visual influences stemming from such sources as David La Chapelle, Edward Scissorhands, John Waters (appropriately, Mink Stole was a regular turn in Waters’ movies), and Barbie. The intense, in-your-face look of True Directions, with all of its dayglo pink for girls and vivid blue for boys, was a way for Babbit to point out the ridiculousness of society’s enforcing gender roles onto young people, and the artificial polyester tackiness of True Directions seeks to highlight the falseness lying behind its goals.
The film was not without its difficulties after completion of filming, as the original distributors – Fine Line Features – dropped the film two months before release, over a dispute with the production company; Lionsgate stepped into the breach. Babbit was also informed by US censors she would need to remove some brief references to sexual content in order to avoid having an NC-17 rating; however, American Pie (released the same year in the US, and featuring Lyonne) was allowed to get away with far more, which led Babbit to conclude there was prejudice against gay films, and a double standard among censors.
But I’m A Cheerleader grossed just over $2.5 million around the world, but received a very mixed critical reception at the time of its US release in 2000, with many reviewers failing to get the film’s point. There was also a backlash coming from some parts of the LGBTQ+ community, with the satirical digs at some of their conventions being seen as an attack, rather than good-humoured ribbing; in addition, some felt that it was a contentious move to have Megan retain her femininity throughout, instead of adopting a more stereotypical butch persona by the end.
Despite all of that, But I’m A Cheerleader has since become something of a cult classic, and has been repeatedly hailed as one of the best lesbian movies ever made. Babbit went on to work regularly in television, on such programmes as Russian Doll, The L Word, Ugly Betty, Supergirl, The Orville, Gossip Girl and The Marvellous Mrs. Maisel, and she announced on Twitter in 2018 that she was developing a TV version of But I’m A Cheerleader for Starz (the current status of the project is, however, unknown).
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A musical stage adaptation of But I’m A Cheerleader had its off-Broadway premiere in 2005, and hit the London stage in 2019 at The Other Palace Theatre. For the 20th anniversary of its original release in the US, a Director’s Cut of But I’m A Cheerleader was released on digital platforms in December 2020; the BBFC has classified this, so it would appear that a UK release will be forthcoming (although all of the material which was added into the US release was already included in the cut which was put out in the UK when it hit cinemas here in 2001, and later on its UK DVD release).
Two decades on, But I’m A Cheerleader remains something of an overlooked gem, so hopefully it will now start to get a reappraisal, as well as getting long-overdue appreciation by a much wider audience, thanks to its anniversary re-release. It’s here. It’s queer. Get used to it.