Jezebel Rewatches ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’: The Brilliant Queer Cult Classic Starring Natasha Lyonne

The 1999 film, which the director said she wanted to be a "gay Clueless," was initially rated NC-17...since it featured intimate scenes between two women.

Jezebel Rewatches ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’: The Brilliant Queer Cult Classic Starring Natasha Lyonne

Last week, The Hollywood Reporter did what it does best: convened two beloved actors—this time, Natasha Lyonne and Melanie Lynskey—you’d actually consent to hear in a conversation about their craft. They had a good giggle about their enduring friendship and peaking in their 40s but their heart-to-heart inevitably turned to But I’m A Cheerleader, the queer cult classic that was about as well-received 24 years ago as any other of the time, which was not well.

“At the time, nobody liked it, and now everybody likes it,” Lynskey said. “I do feel like the movie was very ahead of its time.”

The film, starring Lyonne as Megan Bloomfield—a vegetable-eating, Melissa Etheridge-loving, high school cheerleader whose parents send her to a rehabili-straight-ion camp in suspicion of her sexuality—and Lynskey as her goodie-two-shoes co-camper, was initially rated as NC-17 by the MPAA since it featured intimate scenes between two women. Its director, Jamie Babbit, was forced to make cuts for it to be downgraded to an R rating. Babbit—who’s since said she’d sought out only to make a gay Clueless—criticized the MPAA for discriminating against films with gay content. Film critics, too, took issue with the movie, and while the lead actors (Lyonne, Lysnkey, Clea Duvall, RuPaul Charles) garnered praise for their performances, other characters were criticized as being stereotypical…which, of course, is very much the point of But I’m A Cheerleader.

Frankly, anyone who’s seen the film would tell you that Lynskey’s observation about its continued resonance is an understatement. There are several reasons people can’t stop blabbing about it, or borrowing from its brilliance. The movie has everything: The style of John Waters! The borderline violent color palate of Barbie! A butch (well, kind of) RuPaul! And best of all, it’s a queer love story that doesn’t end in tragedy or outfit one of its lovers in a polonaise.

When it premiered in 2000, I was 5 years old and lived in a hamlet of Ohio where any idea of progressivism pretty much stopped and started with the existence of two Chinese restaurants on the same road. This is to say, I didn’t see But I’m A Cheerleader until 13 years later when I escaped to a liberal arts college two hours away. I’ve watched it a handful of times since, but because it’s been a while, and Pride Month is coming to an end (as some brands have already indicated), I thought I’d hunker down, crack a Bud Light (just kidding!), and rewatch it again.

1:23 – Close-up shots of cheerleaders’ bodies feel wrong anywhere else but right here, right now. To me, that’s cinema. I’m also suddenly inspired to do my yearly crunch.

1:40 – Wait, are these cheerleaders chanting: “Freemont power! Freemont pride! Be aggressive! Drive! Drive! Drive!” Also, Freemont? Yes, there are a lot of Freemonts, but Jamie Babbit is from Ohio and there is, in fact, a Freemont in my home state. In my mind, Megan is from Fremont, Ohio. Trust me, it tracks.

1:50 – OMG! Infantile Michelle Williams! Wearing plastic barrettes!

2:02 – There’s something so inexplicably perfect about Natasha Lyonne’s 65-year-old smoker’s rasp coming from a teenage girl’s mouth. No notes.

2:40 – Welp, Megan’s getting tongued by her boyfriend who appears to be no less than 32 years old. Who among us hasn’t experienced intrusive homoerotic thoughts when kissing a dude who doesn’t know what he’s doing? God, it won’t stop.

3:55 – Yeah, this story definitely takes place in Ohio. Megan’s parents are primed to send her to a conversion camp because she doesn’t eat meat and has a Melissa Etheridge poster. I’m having PTSD flashbacks to that time I came home from college with pink hair, a few bad tattoos, and bell hooks under my arm and my grandmother cried and told her friends that I was “just going through a phase.”

5:38 – “Maybe he just doesn’t do it right,” Megan bemoans about her boyfriend’s fish-flopping-around-on-dry-land-tongue. Exactly! You’re 17, babe. Try his friend! Or his dad! Granted, she just opened her locker to reveal posters of half-naked hotties, so I don’t know…maybe not.

6:27 – I want to watch RuPaul playing “straight” for at least two more hours.

7:22 – Oh, one of my favorite parts: The intervention scene. RuPaul is telling Megan about True Directions, a rehabilitation camp for queer youth.

8:00 – It will never not tickle me that all of the straights in the room are wearing some variation of a drab brown.

8:21 – Genius line-delivery: “I, myself, was once a gay.”

Megan’s parents and Melissa Etheridge. Photo:IMDb

10:20 – Poor Megan has arrived at True Directions. Save for the colors, the Victorian home that houses the hell that awaits her is akin to the Practical Magic house. If only.

10:51 – Fucking hell. I forgot Eddie Cibrian (pre-Brandi Glanville divorce) is Mary the camp director’s gay son. The shorts! The dimples! The triceps! If I’m Megan, I’m kissing that guy at least once before I commit to any one lifestyle. Sorry.

12:20 – “I don’t think it’s unnatural,” Megan tells Mary of her meatless, Melissa Etheridge existence. Agreed!

12:47 -Enter Melanie Lynskey, speaking with her native New Zealand accent. Absolutely no one plays quietly eccentric better than this woman.

13:00 – Megan meets her living quarters (and future love interest, Duvall’s Graham) which is outfitted in the pink vinyl bedding of my dreams. Megan is clearly struck by the masc vision—even in a corny bubblegum button-up—that is Graham.

Clea DuVall as Graham. Photo:IMDb

15:17 – There are cute boys here, too! Like Dolph, the “homosexual wrestler” who’s played by none other than Rufio from Hook.

16:30 – “It’s really easy to be a prude when you’re not attracted to him isn’t it?”: Ms. Lynskey delivers the drag of the century after Megan confides she hasn’t yet had sex with her boyfriend because she’s “a Christian.” This line should have its own line of merchandise.

18:31 – The drool hanging from Lyonne’s mouth as she tearfully admits she’s a homosexual? Give her a belated Oscar.

19:00 Graham is the only camper eating sushi while the others tuck into some sad-looking sandwiches. Is this supposed to communicate she’s spoiled? An alumnus of Kanye West’s school? It’s never made plain.

20:00 – “No more sipping!” Mary barks at Cibrian’s Rock as he takes pulls of a cocktail from a bendy straw. “Chug it like a man!” He does and it’s comic genius. I’m suddenly a little sad that Cibrian is only known for his affair with LeAnn Rimes.

21:00 – Megan’s ready for bed but her roommate is using what appears to be a vibrator in the bed next to her—only it’s not. Ironically, it’s a shock therapy tool for impure thoughts. She’ll later use it to masturbate because, duh. Who doesn’t like a little pain?

‘But I’m A Cheerleader’ has everything: The style of John Waters! The borderline violent color palate of Barbie! A butch (well, kind of) RuPaul!

24:00 – A snort-inducing montage sequence that sees the campers performing traditional gender roles like splitting wood, cleaning the floors, etc., etc.

25:37 – Now a discussion about the root of their homosexuality. “I was born in France,” one camper offers.

31:00 – Mary prescribes Megan with the childhood trauma of witnessing her mother having to get a temporary job to make ends after her father was laid off. A fine justification of her queerness!

33:00 – Megan is inspired to write a cheer. “5, 6,7, 8, god is good! god is straight!” Honestly? I’m shocked I haven’t heard this used as a counter-protest to a drag story hour yet.

35:19 – I have dreamed about the daisy wallpaper in this bathroom scene since the first time I saw this movie. Actual daisies! Covering every square inch of the walls! Taste!

36:00 Dolph got caught going bump in the night with another camper. Good for him. He’s banished though.

40:00 – Ope! We have another god-tier montage. Megan and Graham are falling for each other. Aw.

43:00 – I’m sorry, gay elders picking 18-year-olds up in a windowless van with a fake ID in the dead of night? To dance at an establishment called the Cocksucker? I dreamed of nights like this.

45:00 – A cool woman asks Megan to dance and she declines. Then, the woman politely accepts rejection and just…walks away. Wow! An interaction that can only happen in a gay bar.

46:00 – OK it’s always bothered me that Megan and Graham are slow-dancing to a techno song—and with other people—here. Unrealistic!

47:00 – Cute! They’re finally kissing. And in an alley, to boot! Again, who among us hasn’t?

52:39 – Graham has deftly lied that she has a crush on a very flattered Joel, a fellow camper. Now any suspicion of her and Megan swapping spit is supplanted with confusion.

55:38 – Mary has discovered that the elder gays, Lloyd and Larry, were responsible for the field trip to the Cocksucker. Now, she’s making the campers protest outside their home. The internalized homophobia is leaping out of Graham and this scene is, frankly, too real in these * trying * times.

1:03 – And here we’ve reached the tender, beautifully shot love scene between Megan and Graham. I think Babbit should’ve kept whatever constituted the NC-17 rating but this is cool too.

1:03:52 – Apparently, gay sex feels like cheerleading to Megan. OK!

1:05:52 – Once again, Eddie Cibrian deserves awards for his performance with this power tool alone.

1:06:10 – Our lovebirds have been busted.

1:07:30 – Megan gets kicked out of True Directions and opts to live with Lloyd and Larry in their gay safehouse that looks like it’s decorated in nothing but the Target merchandise conservatives protested. They, too, giggled at the Live, Laugh, Lesbian t-shirt and without a doubt own at least one GAY boilersuit. Meanwhile, Graham remains at True Directions.

Gender norms! Nice. Photo:IMDb

1:09:43 – The campers are getting closer to graduation and are now being directed to simulate heterosexual sex with each other. Is it weird that Mary is directing her own son? Yes. Do I imagine conservative homes functioning similarly? Not no.

1:12:13 – “Foreplay is for sissies!” Mary instructs. Forget the fact that she operates a conversion therapy camp. This alone is a red flag.

1:14:35 – Megan intends to break Graham out of the camp and for some reason, that requires a flatbed truck and a camouflage set.

1:16:31 – The graduates are walking down the aisle to their heterosexual dooms wearing blue vinyl suits (for the boys) and pink vinyl dresses (for the girls). Personally, I’d like both in my closet stat.

1:17:29 – Megan has shown up to break Graham out and…is now performing a cheer. “Glass Vase Cello Case,” by Tattle Tale is playing and I’ll be damned if this isn’t one of the most romantic scenes in cinematic history.

1:18:50 – “5, 6, 7, 8, don’t run from me cuz this is fate!” Megan cheers. Damn it. It gets me misty-eyed every time. How do you refuse that? As Graham learns, you simply cannot.

1:19:00 – And off into the sunset, they ride toward their truest directions.

Lynskey, to no one’s surprise, is right. But I’m A Cheerleader doesn’t just hold up fine—it’s even more of a reminder today of the queer experience in its entirety. The good and bad, silly and serious, just downright sad and really fucking joyful.

Love? Sometimes, it wins.

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