The Arts world is one filled with self-expression and introspection, whether from artist or from audience member. Naturally, this translates into many different ways of approaching the LGBTQ+ experience. For Pride Month, Daily Arts wanted to cover this self-search and love through our favorite forms of art, with this experience revealing more to the reader and writer about how many ways there are to celebrate and reflect on queerness.
Sometimes I can’t believe that “But I’m a Cheerleader” exists. A movie that features RuPaul as a goateed “ex-gay” named Mike who introduces himself by saying, “I, myself, was once a gay,” in its first few minutes feels unreal. It’s like it came out of the ether fully-formed, specifically to make me happy.
The film has a somewhat bleak premise on paper — Megan (Natasha Lyonne, “Russian Doll”), the titular cheerleader, is placed in a gay conversion therapy camp called True Directions after a number of factors (including but not limited to her vegetarianism, Melissa Etheridge posters in her room and the fact that she doesn’t like to kiss her boyfriend) lead her parents to believe that she is a lesbian. More recent movies about gay conversion therapy, like “Boy Erased” and “The Miseducation of Cameron Post,” might prime newcomers to “But I’m a Cheerleader” to expect a serious tone, intense religiosity as a central theme, a sort of beigey color palette and a bittersweet ending. I love it because it has none of those things.
More than anything else, “But I’m a Cheerleader” is an incredible piece of satire. Part of True Directions’s five-step program is finding the “root” of each camper’s homosexuality; Graham’s (Clea DuVall, “The Intervention”) is that her mother wore pants when she got married; Sinead’s (Katharine Towne, “Beauty and the Least: The Misadventures of Ben Banks”) is that she was born in France. The house True Directions operates out of is a technicolor wonderland, and the people who staff it are barely but hilariously repressed. It’s clear that none of the campers will ever be converted, despite how much some of them might try to convince themselves they have been. They remain, as ever, unshakeably gay.
It could be argued that gay conversion therapy shouldn’t be treated with levity. “But I’m a Cheerleader” leans into and lampoons the absurdity of the idea itself. It refuses to recognize the notion that conversion therapy is anything but completely illogical. It refuses to wallow. Almost nothing but the love story that eventually takes center stage is treated with any reverence or gravity, and why should it be?
At the risk of sounding a little gatekeep-y, I love this movie because it’s filled with references and in-jokes — maybe all it is is one big in-joke. My friends and I have sat around discussing what our roots would be (mine is that I grew up with a single mom, which by True Directions’s logic probably means that I never learned to respect men). RuPaul playing a straight man, even if his character is sort of failing at it within the context of the movie, is funny because it’s inconceivable. Legend has it that if you mention the names Natasha Lyonne or Clea DuVall in a room full of queer women, every head will turn toward you.
Even though it sounds sort of incongruous to call a movie about a gay conversion camp “joyful,” “But I’m a Cheerleader” really is joyful. Not to rehash a grievance that I’ve already aired at length, but when most of the movies about lesbians that have come out in the past five years are grey, gloomy and sort of miserable altogether, this colorful, hilarious gem of a film is necessary, if only to be reminded that there are other kinds of lesbian movies out there.
“But I’m a Cheerleader” is free with ads on YouTube and it’s, delightfully, only 90 minutes long. Watch it with your queer friends (they’ll know exactly when to laugh), and maybe get a little wine drunk for the RuPaul classic “Party Train” because, just like everything else in this movie, it’s perfectly placed.
Daily Arts writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.