Pitching a Tent, If Ya Catch My Drift: How "But I'm a Cheerleader" Taught me Queerness
As a child and (more embarrassingly) as a teenager, I harbored a plethora of haphazardly constructed plans and lavish fantasies that consumed most of my working faculties and stunted my development almost irreparably. This fantastical trend really kicked off when I decided that, after watching immunology and animated classic Balto (1995), that I was going to be a successful human-husky hybrid and have countless adventures that inevitably always involved delivering rare medication. I wasn’t going to marry an animal, like so many of my classmates (their official title was “Horse Girls”) who I mercilessly mocked, but I WAS going to genetically mutate in a way that transcended modern science’s conceptions of evolution. As I got older, my flare for the fantastical grew drastically more banal and depressing, but stayed consistently unrealistic. I was going to become a member of the SWAT and pull off elaborate drug busts on my tortuous teachers (this was, interestingly, the gayest dream job I ever entertained other than professional lacrosse coach). At some point, I was going to have an existential breakdown and the song “Boston” by Augustana was going to start playing and I was going to drive across the country to “start a new life” in a Volkswagon and become an architect (note: I was not going to trek to Boston to “start a new life,” which made the fantasy both unlikely and illogical based on the song choice). I was going to marry Brittany Murphy (I still think this could’ve happened had the tragic-inevitable not transpired). And, I was convinced, I was going to have a coming-out experience that was scene for scene identical to the 1999 surreally bizarre film, But I’m a Cheerleader.
Spoiler alert: none of these fantastical obsessions of mine came to fruition (ok, I haven’t ruled out the lupine-mutation happening at some point in the future, to be quite frank). However, experiencing a coming-out story that in some way resembled the plot of But I’m a Cheerleader ended up being the most “real.” But I’m a Cheerleader is an incomprehensible, utterly delightful film drenched in jarringly saturated hues that you make you feel like Pee-Wee Herman is fucking your elderly neighbor’s interior design, that some horrible, wretched, malodorous cunts have given a 37% on Rotten Tomatoes (look, I don’t use that lightly, so those cunts deserve it for slandering my baby). Starring a young, ravenously raspy-voiced Natasha Lyonne (before Orange is the New Black and awful, awful Fred Armisen got to her) and *RED ALERT* SWEET, PERFECT, CLEA DUVALL AT HER BABY GAY BEST *RED ALERT*, But I’m a Cheerleader tells the story of Megan (Lyonne), who finds that her attempts to violent suppress her explosive homosexuality are all but hopeless when she is sent by her parents to True Directions, a gay conversion camp, and falls uncontrollably in love with baby butch Graham (Duvall, duh). It also turns out everyone at the camp, attendees and conversion counselors alike, are abundantly gay, most conspicuously out-of-drag Ru Paul. Who has a commanding bulge. It’s an all around great time.
But I’m a Cheerleader, critically, was the first movie I obsessed over that gave me that good-good, and yes by good-good I mean actual real, unflinching gay, gay, gay as fucking shit action. Gay LADY action, specifically. As I’ve made it abundantly and probably obnoxiously clear in other posts on here, it’s a uniquely isolating yet easily recognizable and unifying trait of queer folx of a certain age to have an almost automatic proclivity to “queer the absence,” or make certain, otherwise very hetero texts and characters very queer because a. it’s fun; b. they probably are anyway; and c. because growing up queer or trans* with an appalling paucity of representation or positive, meaningful characters and story-arcs that speak to your experience unfortunately demands that you, the marginalized one, must do double-duty and make gay wherever you can so you don’t absolutely fucking lose your mind in a fit of depression. So much of this blog is devoted to those texts and moments that I queered growing up for that very reason.
BUT SOMETIMES, A GAY WHITE WHALE WOULD COME ALONG (also, just so we’re clear, the white whale was gay self-expression and Captain Ahab was A Gay. Just in case you missed that.). A movie, book, television show or person would enter into my world that was unequivocally and assertively GAY, and, encountering those things as an eleven, twelve, thirteen, fourteen and fifteen-year-old with not a lot to do and not a lot to look forward to was monumental. Cheerleader was perhaps THE MOST monumental of these films—for its accessibility, its relatability, and its, uh, its cinematography during, certain…sequences (SEX there is very good GAY SEX it is great and GAY). It wasn’t just a film that made gay-ok and provided really stellar spank-bank material (LOOK, I’M TACKY, IF YOU’RE NOT WITH IT BY NOW, GIT TO GITTIN’), but it was grungy, and awkward, and approachable in a way that other queer media that I could maybe access (HI, L WORD, YOU’LL FUCKING GET YOURS SOON ENOUGH) was not—because of exoticizing; because of harmful erasure; or because of sheer, enraging lack of understanding about what being a queer woman meant (did you know straight cis white men do not understand a lot about queer women? I know! It is wild! Otherwise, they are a completely infallible demographic! Weird!). And in the course of several months in 2004, in which I accrued a unfathomable, record-breaking amount of late fees at Hollywood Video and alienated the 1.5 friends I had, But I’m a Cheerleader allowed me to be queer, in a queer space, and develop a passion for a queer aesthetic that made me the miraculous bisexual mess that I am today.
Much of what was so significant about But I’m a Cheerleader relative to my queerness was how it transformed me into the best Camper that ever was. To clarify, aside from sports and architecture day camps (which I cried and hyperventilated during), I’ve never been to camp, I have never had any hint of a desire to go to camp, and the idea of having to socialize as a child with mental illness and social anxiety at camp makes me convulse with unrest even thinking about it retroactively. But I’m a Cheerleader allowed me the chance to healthily and mirthfully participate in Camp in a way I never could have conceived possible. And what a special camp it was! A different camp! A gay camp (not quite as gay as Jewish Summer Camp, which as I have been told, is PROFOUNDLY gay)! With no physical or social interactions! Pioneered by one of my beloved Theory Wives, Susan Sontag, Camp is a mode of aestheticism, a sensibility that cannot be forced or intentionally construed but can be recognized or demonstrated in film, art, fashion, people’s behaviors, your dead aunt’s tchotchkes, etc. In Sontag’s own words, “Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric—something of a private code, a badge of identity, even, among small urban cliques.” She might as well just be bellowing, “HEY, GAYS, HERE’S THIS GAY AESTHETICAL MODE, IT’S YOURS, QUEENS, PONY UP, CALL YOUR LEATHER DADDIES, LET’S GO TO THE SHOW” (that’s not quite as astutely academic and eloquent as what she wrote, but I have a Masters and I’m very good at deciphering the subtextual gay, ok?). Sontag goes on to reference a panoply of things that epitomize camp, such as Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, Flash Gordon comics, the hauntingly beautiful (yet hauntingly vacuous) androgyny of Greta Garbo, woodcuts for novels such as Lynn Ward’s God’s Man, and every single quill-queef produced by Oscar Wilde (again, not her exact words, but I’m *DECIPHERING* in highly *SCHOLARLY* way). And I would venture to guess had But I’m a Cheerleader been made in the time when Sontag penned Notes on Camp, it would have absolutely been included in her Camp canon.
But I’m a Cheerleader is the paragon of Camp. There is nothing about this movie that is subtle, and nearly every scene swells with decadent tackiness (and I say that with the most adulation and adoration possible). The cast is a Camp all-stars lineup, both for their cult referentiality and their general auras. As mentioned, Ru Fucking Paul is just there as a rabidly “normalize the gay away” counselor who desperately wants to fuck the camp directors outrageous twink of a son (Eddie Cibrian, aka Mr. Leann Rimes). Cathy Moriarty, who made her mark as Robert DeNiro’s tortured girlfriend in Raging Bull (1980), revives her tough-as-dogshit persona to play the “reformed butch” camp director, who gets to bark one of the best lines of trashy 90s cinema: “YOU DON’T WANT TO BE A RAGING BULL DIKE.” The non-elders of the cast had a certain prestige all their own—Natasha Lyonne was in Camp B-flick Slums of Beverly Hills (1998) and personified dumpster 90s boho; Melanie Lynskey had made her mark as the sapphic teenage murderer infatuated with Kate Winslet (DON’T WORRY, KATES DAY WILL COME, TOO) in Peter Jackson’s cult Camp debut Heavenly Creatures (1994); and Dante Basco, a fellow gay-suppressor, established cult Camp notoriety as Rufio (the “Looky looky, I got Hooky!” kid) in Hook (1991)! Furthermore, the entire concept for True Directions, which capitalizes on ripe satire material of AA and actual Gay conversion therapy and the ideology that fuels them, is preposterously Camp, and perhaps more cutting in its Campiness because of the touchiness of the subject material and the borderline tactlessness of the films presentation of it. And stylistically, well, it seems incontrovertible how this film would be Grade A Camp.
The fact that Cheerleader was so brazenly flamboyant and carnally gauche in its Campiness (which, lez be honest, is what garnered those abysmal Rotten Tomato ratings), and the fact that that quality was so inextricably linked to the queerness of the film, had an indelible impact on me. While I certainly wanted queerness to be a transmutable thing (because it is, just so we’re clear), I wanted to see something that was resoundingly QUEER—not the gaggingly charming gay best friend situation; not the gay romcom but oops they’re actually all straight malarkey; not the “are these hot, vaguely androgynous lady-hackers also occasional lesbians?” tropes that were all superimposed to genres and aesthetics very much colonized by heteros. But I’m a Cheerleader and I found each other when I needed to see that my comic sensibility, which was virulently snarky, hyper-referential, scathingly-critical, and absurdist, EVEN AS A FOURTEEN YEAR OLD (I was CUTE and FUN TO BE AROUND!), not only was a byproduct of my sexuality, but could help me articulate and further my identity as a queer person. The laughable repulsiveness of heterosexuality, the way the “pray the gay away” mentality and compulsive-binarism were portrayed as flimsy veneers that deserved mocking, helped give me a sense of assuredness and belonging that I otherwise would’ve lacked had I not literally called the Hollywood Video in my town every Thursday night to see if they were going to have the movie in so I could watch and rewatch it the entire weekend.
But I’m a Cheerleader gave me carte blanche to be the defiant, sardonic queer I already was. But most importantly, the movie radically redefined my sense of attraction and sexual desire in terms of my queerness. So much of what was presented to me in media and in life (I loathe how that sounds but it’s the best I’ve got) made the blatant statement that to be sexual and to be desirable, there had to be a certain, relatively unachievable or unrelatable level of astronomical hotness of a certain brand. And those models of sexuality were certainly important to my own development and sense of queerness (usually masturbatory, but, whatever), but the aesthetic of queer sexuality and desirability that But I’m a Cheerleader offered a chance for me to be profoundly aroused and intensely engaged with representations of queerness that looked like me and members of my community. Even though the film was far more binaristic than I would’ve liked—for example, I don’t think my identity as a bisexual would’ve been celebrated in the way strictly gay identities were—and even though my coming-out didn’t resemble the movie (though, my school was replete with authority figures who non-satirically espoused the ideals of pray the gay away), But I’m a Cheerleader was a defining moment in my queerness. And what was more, as hokie and even, say, CAMPY as it sounds, the concluding message of the film--that not only did the two girls in love not die tragically or break up, but that Megan got to retain her identity as an uber-femme cheerleader and be a full on lez--was precisely the encouragement I craved for my identity as a young teen. What can I say, I was a sentimental queer.
Oh, and as a major aside/conclusion, you may have picked up on my mild infatuation with Clea Duvall. No one singular person has had an effect on my sexuality than Clea Duvall. If I could have a moment of silence every day for Clea Duvall and the things she’s done for her my happy alone time throughout my life, I would (I suppose I could, it’s my fucking moment of silence). In the words of Ariana Grande (in a song I’ve never actually listened to because it’s trash, so shout-out to the one who taught me love who has terrible taste in music for clarifying the lyrics): “one taught me love, one taught me patience, and one taught me pain.” Except the one was just Clea Duvall. And the me was…well, it’s me, but like, a smaller me. An easily stimulated me. You know that me, right?