Performing Femininity in “But I’m a Cheerleader”

Graham: “You’re really manly, I like that.”

Joel: “Yeah, I feel like the aggressor.”

This weekend, I re-watched the movie But I’m a Cheerleader with this class in mind.  First of all, it is an incredible, funny, and touching movie that I recommend everyone watch as soon as possible.  It is also perfect for this class in that it perfectly satirizes how we are taught (at least in America) to perform our gender identities and sexual preferences.

But I’m a Cheerleader is about a high school cheerleader whose family and friends set up an intervention where they inform her that she is a lesbian, then send her off to a sexual redirection/rehabilitation camp.  Though she is stereotypically feminine, is a cheerleader, and has a boyfriend, the facts that she is too touchy with her female friends, doesn’t like kissing her boyfriend (who is shown to be a clearly horrible kisser), and has “gay iconography” in her room (in the form of a Melissa Etheridge poster) prove to everyone around her that she is definitely a lesbian–though she has not realized it yet.  This alone is problematic because, although she is in fact a lesbian, it is no one’s place to out her until she decides to do so herself.

The film lends itself perfectly to the topic of this class when she actually arrives at the camp, which is called “True Directions.”  Everything at the camp is color-coded and designed in adherence with gender norms, i.e. the girls wear pink and learn how to vacuum while the boys wear blue and learn how to be soldiers. The school’s curriculum has five steps to lead the kids back into their “true directions,” the second conveniently called: “Rediscovering Your Gender Identity.”  This is the step when they learn the aforementioned lessons, as well as the girls trying on wedding dresses and the boys chopping wood, among other things.  In line with the film’s satirical tone, these lessons set up circumstances for the kids to act on their sexual desires (i.e. grazing another girl’s breast as you pin her white wedding dress). These lessons also provide a space for dialogue, for one of the girls, the visually most butch of the group, to unsuccessfully attempt to come out as straight before quitting the program. The girl, Jan, has short hair and an untouched mustache; paraphrasing her own words, people thought she was gay because she wore baggy pants, played softball, and isn’t as pretty as other girls, but she can’t help it, she’s straight.  Even after this emotional confession during a group therapy session, no one believes that she is straight because she is not performing her straight identity in the normative, feminine way that they expect straight girls to look/sound/act like.  On the same note, when the main character, Megan, escapes from True Directions and goes to a home for ex-ex-gays (run by True Directions alumni), she asks them to teach her how to be a “real lesbian,” to show her how they live and act, to which the directors of the program have to explain to her, and in effect to the audience, that there is no way to do that because there is not just one way to be a lesbian–like there is not just one way to be a girl or a boy or person of any gender identity or sexual preference (or race, or religion, or whatever other categorization happens to be at hand). 

This film was also controversial because, upon it’s first viewing by the MPAA (Motion Picture Association of America), it received an NC-17 rating.  As discussed in the documentary This Film is Not Yet Rated, the director, Jamie Babbit felt that the film was discriminated against (by receiving such a restricted rating) due to the homosexual themes. To reduce the rating from NC-17 to R, Babbit had to cut out a scene in which someone alludes to Megan having oral sex with her partner, Graham–not even because there is an actual scene where this is shown.  On IMDB, the R rating is justified because of “strong sex scenes,” i.e. one passionate kissing and a short scene featuring comedically-depicted female masturbation.  Two things that are shown without a second thought when featuring heterosexual couples or when the young person masturbating happens to be a male.  Though it may not be obvious because film ratings are not usually explained and explicated so thoroughly, the restrictions placed on this satirical film exemplify Hollywood’s fear of homo- and female sexuality in a way that cannot be ignored.

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