Tuesday, June 27, 2017

But I’m A Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999)

I wrote this review for In Step (I think), a Milwaukee gay magazine/bar rag, at the time of the film's release. That "where else would we go" line really got under my skin. To quote Homer Simpson, I will *never* tire of the bar scene. But I did have friends who could not imagine life outside of it and by my late twenties when this was written, it became oppressive. In retrospect, the review captures that Midwest sense of inadequacy whereby you imagine a more varied life on the coasts when you were already living a perfectly fabulous one with cheap rent and great coffee. I'm sure I'd be more charitable to the film now (as I am to Milwaukee) but doubt I'd still like it much. D-minus. Wow!

But I'm A Cheerleader 
     Megan (Natasha Lyonne) is on the cheerleading squad in high school. She has a dreamy boyfriend, lots of friends…everything seems so sugar and spice. But both her friends and her parents (Bud Cort and Mink Stole) suspect that she is a lesbian and send her off with former homosexual Mike (RuPaul out of drag) to True Directions – a homosexual rehabilitation clinic run out of the home of its homophobic director Mary (Cathy Moriarty). Megan goes along with all the comic counseling and ridiculous programming until she meets fellow inmate Graham (Clea DuVall), a butch dyke who resists all of Mary's gay reversal techniques.
     Director Jamie Babbit's feature film debut, But I'm A Cheerleader, uses this backpatting framework for a putatively satirical investigation into stereotypes and how they smother us. To this end, she paints True Directions with vivid, hyper-real, even Lynchian colors…you know, to deconstruct what's considered normal male and female behavior and stuff. But because heterosexuality is presented as a pea-brained idealization in pink and blue, Babbit never gives you the impression that she has any idea how it's actually lived, e.g. in the lives of Megan's high school friends. It's a measure of how glib her conception is in that we never get to see Megan apply the lessons she's learned (and unlearned) back at school. By ignoring this site of the origin of normalization, Babbit never brings her "deconstruction" full circle which would have aimed it right back at heterosexuality where it belongs.
     Instead, we get a flabbergastingly impoverished view of homosexual resistance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the scene where Graham and some other inmates escape after lights out. Megan reluctantly joins them but freaks out when she discovers that they took her to a gay bar to which Graham replies "Where else would we go?" Where else, indeed! The only thing this scene accomplishes is the reinforcement of a tired myth – the bar/club as actually constitutive of gay identity. Watching it in Milwaukee is doubly depressing given how so many gays and lesbians in this city do not even feel gay or lesbian if they haven't sufficiently barhopped over the weekend. I dig RuPaul and, especially, Mink Stole and do not have such a jaded view of gay bars as to ignore their frequently positive impact on political mobilization or education or emotional strength in numbers, etc. But the impossibility of imagining gay life outside of these smothering (that word again!) bearers of gayness is a formidable obstacle for queer identity politics. That But I'm A Cheerleader steers clear of this confrontation shows up its utter conventionality and ultimate uselessness.

Grade: D-

—Kevin John

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