LGBTQI Week: Stranger in a Queer Land: How ‘But I’m a Cheerleader’ and Susan Sontag Defined My Trembling Identity

This is a guest review by Eva Phillips.

It might come off as a bit absurd, even an effrontery to some, to suggest that a film in which RuPaul must resist the titillation of a faux-fellatio on a pitchfork and bigotry is gleefully bellowed in the hate mantra “Silly faggots, dicks are for chicks!” is the very film responsible for one of my most pivotal coming-of-age realizations. But rarely do we get to choose the moments or media that have the greatest impact upon us. And such was the case with But I’m A Cheerleader.

What was most profound and even revitalizing for me the first time I watched—quite literally hunkered in my basement as if I was viewing a contraband edition of Cannibal Holocaust (for which I would provide a link, but I think the title alone is umbrage enough to the nature of its content)—But I’m A Cheerleader was not that it featured a panoply of beautiful shots or striking cinematography, nor that it was steeped in witty yet complex banter. Before it seems like I’m vilipending the film, I certainly don’t want to underplay it’s merit—it’s terribly amusing, sneakily provocative, peculiarly heartwarming, and, OH, YEAH, IT HAS RUPAUL AND CATHY MORIARITY IN THE SAME DAMN CAST. However, the film instantly became my most cherished nugget of queer cinema for reasons that pertained to the movie’s machinations in my life outside the film, and it’s hand in my self-construction of a queer identity. But more on that shortly. The film’s diegesis is certainly worth exploring and even worth praising. Jamie Babbit–who would later go on to direct such Sapphically scintillating films as Itty Bitty Titty Committee (a film which also appealed to my naughty nursery rhyme sensibilities, though I was disappointed it was not some salacious re-envisioning of a Dr. Seuss universe)—emerged from her short film cocoon to direct, and conceive of the story for, Cheerleader, her first feature length released in September of 1999. And, my, what an ostentatiously-hued emergence it was. Centering around the foibles and frustrations of an ostensibly “normal” (or, heteronormal, as the film exploits) high school cheerleader Megan, the narrative rests on the peculiar, raspy-throated charm of Natasha Lyonne.

Let’s pause for a moment to give due reverence to Miss Lyonne. Yes, she’s had her fair share of indecencies aired as fodder for the public eye in the years since Cheerleader and American Pie. But if ever there was an underappreciated icon for blossoming queer sexuality, it’s Lyonne, at least for my money. She’s got the vibe of that moderately unbalanced, untraditionally gorgeous upstairs neighbor who knows every Dario Argento film that you encounter when you first arrive to Chicago, downtrodden but full of potential, who fearlessly flirts with you and subtly teaches you how to be audacious and open in your amorous and creative passions. (Sometimes I go on run-on tangents when I imagine my future….). She made the gravely-voiced-teen rad long before Miley Cyrus and her “I’ve-been-chain-smoking-for-30-years-even-though-I’m-17” droning. And she has a Rufus Wainwright song penned in her honor. Come on. Give the girl a shot.

But I digress. Megan, who lives in an ultra-saturated world—filmed brilliantly with an idyllic tint that gives the perfect every-town suburbia a feel of being all too artificially ideal—begins to show the terrible, if not purposefully clichéd, symptoms of Lesbianitis. She ogles her fellow coquettish cheer-mongers, she loathes the kiss of her quintessentially-90s-studly beau (although, his frenching finesse leaves a lot to be desired), her locker is adorned with images of other gals, and, if those weren’t sufficient red flags, she’s a Melissa Etheridge enthusiast (Yes. It’s perfectly acceptable to grimace. Subtlety is not a bosom buddy to Babbit or screenwriter Brian Wayne Peterson. But that’s sort of why I love it.). After being confronted by her disconcerted parents (cast as the drabbest Norman Rockwell caricatures imaginable) and haughty, disgusted friends (wait a minute, is that Michelle Williams??? Could this movie be any more deliciously 90s??), Megan is shuttled off to a reparative therapy camp—which, with it’s flamboyant heteronormative decadence, must’ve been a throwback to Miss Lyonne to her days on the Pee Wee’s Playhouse set—despite her refusal that she is “plagued” by homosexuality. Megan is brusquely welcomed by the equally sandpaper-toned Cathy Moriarty as the Hetero-Overlord Mary Brown, and told she must accept her sexuality so she can begin to overcome it. From then on much merriment at the expense of heteronormative parodying ensues: Megan meets her fellow recovering homosexuals—including the blithe Melanie Lynskey (and heavens knows I adore Kate Winslet, but I can’t help but feel a twinge of anguish that Lynskey’s career didn’t flourish as brilliantly as Winslet’s post-Heavenly Creatures)—goes through a series of absurd therapy treatments, including Edenic-Behavioral 101; and falls in love with Graham, played by the utterly incomparable Clea DuVall. Without delving much deeper into a plot analysis, let’s just say the film has the gayest of all endings. Think Cinderella in the back of a pickup-truck.

But to fully appreciate why this film is the most important piece of queer cinema for me, it’s necessary to ponder for a moment its Sontag-ian merit. That’s right, Susan Sontag, or S-Squared as nobody calls her. Even typing it I acknowledge how flimsily pretentious it seems to throw her name around–it’s like the fledgling English major who arbitrarily wedges Nietzche into every conversation, or that one guy who insists on wearing tweed and skulks in the shadows of your dinner party only to utter things like “You don’t know jazz. You can’t until you listen to Captain Beefheart. He teaches you to HEAR sound.” But Sontag, a stellar emblem of queer genius, and the extrapolations she makes on the aesthetic of “camp” are particularly fitting when unpacking Cheerleader and why, to this day, it still holds such a prized place in my heart. Sontag was a woman who had her fingers in many pies (which is not necessarily meant to be innuendo, but in her case the tawdry joke is also applicable), and her theories like that on the role of modern photography on cultural memory solidify her as one of the preeminent minds of the 20th century. She also had a longtime romance with Annie Leibovitz. And she had an affinity for bear suits.

But her groundbreaking insights on the style of camp, (a fully fleshed out adumbration of which can be found here) are most manifest in Cheerleader. A sensibility that is dependent on the grandiose, on double-entendres, and on the flamboyant satire of normalcy, camp is a rampant in Cheerleader. RuPaul teaches outdated masculinity adorned in the skimpiest shorts imaginable (and rightfully so, with those sensational gams); Cathy Moriarity barks, in one of the film’s many remarkably self-reflexive moments, “You don’t want to be a Raging Bull Dike!”; Megan woos Graham with a saccharine cheer at the mock hetero-graduation. Furthermore, the film’s style and wardrobe was inspired by John Waters, the reigning Emperor of camp and anemic mustaches. But what left such an indelible mark on me was the film’s campiness and the world of artifice it created that gave me a safe space to explore my identity. Certainly, it was ludicrous at the moment. But often times the preposterousness of it made it much more provocative to me. Moreover, the films tinkering with style and double meanings lit a spark in my fourteen-year-old cinema-phile self that led to my passion for film criticism, for the Mulvey’s and Sontag’s of the world that could offer me a deeper appreciation of cinema, and most critically, ignited the feminist fervor in me that has served me so well to this day.

But attesting to the notion of safe-space, outside of the film’s beloved campiness, But I’m a Cheerleader is my unrivaled top piece of queer cinema because it was the first film I felt secure watching, enjoying and acknowledging images of sexuality that I had previously abnegated. My existence up until that point had been one of self-imposed exile in a very dismal, skeleton littered closet, in which I, like Megan, vehemently denied the glimmers of “alternative attractions” that flittered (and by flittered I mean stampeded) across my mind daily. I firmly believed that if I were to witness any acts of same-sex canoodling or affection, I would instantly be emblazoned with some Scarlet-Letter-esque marker, so that all my peers would know I’D SEEN THE GAY AND NOW I WAS ONE OF THEM (fear not, I’ve evolved). The closest I came to queer cinema prior to Cheerleader was when I superimposed my own ideations on particular scenes in the film Nell in a hotel room in Florida, only to have to flee said hotel due to a hurricane besieging the coast. I thought the elements were literally chasing the queerness out of me. But then I mustered up my courage and watched But I’m a Cheerleader. And then I watched it again. And again. And so on. And so forth. And I had the epiphany that I was not meant to be punished for queerness, and that there was a place, even if I felt my feelings to be ineffable, where I could watch and develop my own sensibilities without the fear of judgment that I so often quaked in the shadow of. I give Cheerleader absolute credit for this. So, sure, it’s brash and occasionally tacky. Sure, the soundtrack has the insufferable whine of so many 90s queer-cinema-compilations. But it’s got moxie and balls (neon, tightly-clad balls). And it gave me the queer sanctuary I so desperately needed at fourteen.

And if nothing else, YOU GET RUPAUL.

Eva Phillips may or may not be the unapologetic leader of the Milla Jovovich Adoration Army. When she is not studying every one of Madam Jovovich’s films, she is earning her degree in English at the University of Virginia. With an affinity for film, obsessive alphabetizing, and listening to infomercials for possible auguries of the impending apocalypse, she also cherishes writing poetry and convincing everyone of the merits of rescuing physically handicapped felines (of which she’s adopted several). She is not ambidextrous and is damn bitter about that, too.