Sunday, November 15, 2020

Jamie Babbit | But I'm a Cheerleader


by Douglas Messerli

Brian Wayne Peterson (screenplay, based on a story by Jamie Babbit), Jamie Babbit (director) But I’m a Cheerleader  / 1999, USA 2000

One can just imagine the wealth of good intentions that Jamie Babbit and her screenplay writer Brian Wayne Peterson planned for their tale of a cheerleader unaware of her lesbian inclinations who, sent away for conversion therapy, discovers not only her sexuality but finds her true love.

     Babbit has noted it was her desire to not only to feature the icon of an American femininity, a cheerleader, as her hero, but to represent the lesbian experience from the femme perspective as opposed to the butch lesbian heroes of Rose Troche’s Go Fish of 1994 and Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman of 1996.

     Peterson, who had worked with reparative therapy in a prison clinic for sex offenders, wanted, moreover, to make a film that would not only entertain with its satiric presentation of such conversion therapy clinics, but that might make people angry enough to actually discuss the issues the film raised.

     At the same time, their satiric take on such clinics as the New Directions featured in the film could also demonstrate the absurdity of gender-defined notions of behavior, which would help their cinematic audience to comprehend that queerness in general, and lesbianism, in particular, came in a broad range of behavior patterns, most of them incomprehensible to the narrow-minded normative structured societies in which these individuals had been raised.

      Buoyed by the popular films of John Waters and others who, setting their LGBTQ tales in a vague sense of the past which mixed perspectives from the 1950s and early 1960s, Babbit and Peterson determined to also set their illustrative fiction within the context of highly theatrically-lit and colored-saturated sets that nodded to James Bigood’s Pink Narcissus (created from 1963-1970) and embraced films such as Jacques Demy’s The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967) and his earlier heterosexual romance, The Umbrellas of Cherbourg from 1964. In an odd sense, you might almost compare production designer Rachel Kamerman’s, art director Macie Vener’s, and costume designer Alix Friedberg’s transformation from a world of beige, tans, and browns into a rainbow spectrum from baby blue to hot pink as a kind of 1990s version of The Wizard of Oz’s radical shift from black-and-white to Technicolor. 

      As Mollie Pyne wrote in her review on the blog AnotherMag:

 “Sartorially, beige can be elegant and classic: camel or nude or mushroom. But to be beige is different, it is burdened with a singular meaning: boring. In the film, Megan’s parents wear various shades of beige and her friend Kimberly (Michelle Williams) is seen in an all-brown look. Jared (Brandt White), Megan’s boyfriend, wears a tan jacket over his football jersey with matching trousers; his car is tan with an equally subdued interior. The school’s lockers are brown, as well as everything inside Megan’s family home: furniture, decor, lighting. Within the first five minutes, beige is established as symbolically repressive. It covers or replaces the passionate and fiery red of cheerleading outfits or jock uniforms. Beige reflects the rigidity and sexual oppression being enforced by Megan’s family, friends, True Directions founder Mary J. Brown and society.”

     Finally, the creators of this “fairy tale” must have delighted in being able to cast drag queen RuPaul in a supposedly “straight” role as a New Directions graduate—meaning he has been successfully converted from gay to normative heterosexual sex—who is now that organization’s scout and team leader; John Waters’ friend and regular actor, Mink Stole as Nancy, the major character’s mother; Bud Cort, who played the iconic suicidal character Harold in Hal Ashby’s 1971 film Harold and Maude, acting in this film as Megan’s father; and the hunky, good-looking actor Eddie Cibrian as the unknowingly gay Rock, son of New Directions leader Mary Brown.

      Moreover, the creators’ “good intentions” seemed to pay off. The film earned a substantial profit, despite its R-related rating, and was ranked in 2011 as the 73rd highest all time box-office selling LGBT-related films. Despite several negative reviews at the time of its release, it has remained popular with LGBTQ audiences, even gaining over the years since its release in popularity among gay, lesbian, bi-sexual, and transsexual audiences.

       All of which suggests to me that despite the remarkable increase of LGBTQ films since 2000 that many of these do not present the same complexity of thinking as did so many such films of the 20th century, even if sometimes their expression of queerness was often muted and even hidden. In a world of filmmakers such as Akerman, Almodóvar, Cocteau, Denis, Fassbinder, Haynes, Hitchcock, Jarman, Pasolini, Téchiné, Visconti, and even lesser known figures I’ve written about in these pages such as Christensen, Da Campo and Savel, a work such as Jaimy Babbit’s is not only lightweight but laughable as an exemplar of substantial filmmaking.

       There is no doubt that it’s great fun to see a story in which an innocent cheerleader like Megan (Natasha Lyonne) fantasizes about her fellow female cheerleader’s bodies while enduring the deep and clumsy tongue kisses of her supposed jock boyfriend, and then, given that she has taken to eating tofu, listening to the songs of  Melissa Etheridge, and has grown fond of Georgia O’Keefe’s gynecological flowers, is sent away to a conversion therapy house, where she leans from the authoritarian leader Mary Brown (Cathy Moriarty) that she is not the normal young enthusiast that she perceived herself to be, but a horrifying lesbian—all on account of the fact that while her father temporarily was unemployed, her mother became the household source of support. It’s even fun to become friends with the gay boys trapped in New Directions for the very same reason. And it’s so very pleasant to see the cheerleader finally in love with the seemingly cynical, but actually quite vulnerable Graham Eaton (Clea DuVall) who is not as fearful of being a lesbian as she is of losing her family inheritance if she doesn’t reform. These, after all, are the standard tropes of LGBTQ coming of age romances, despite the unlikely location in which these events transpire.

        We can even grant that the work’s true villain, Brown, has a notion of reality that ignores the logic of transitions that occurred in the culture over the last several decades, but why the writer and director focus on normative sexual values that were already eroding by the late 1950s is a bit harder to explain. Even within the sort of “out of time” logic in which these all-American figures exist,  to have a young tofu-eating lover of Melissa Etheridge, a trendy neighborhood gay and lesbian bar, alternative groups offering homes to young rejected queer teens, a goth-like young lesbian figure, and PFLAG (Parents and Friends of Lesbians and Gays) meetings all inhabiting the same space in which women are defined only by their abilities to cook, produce and care for babies, clean the house, and wait hand and foot on their hubbies’ every whim appears more than a little anachronistic. 

         Yes, we know that even working women today still are largely responsible for childcare, cooking, cleaning, and the sexual satisfaction of their husbands, but not in the pop-up picture of reality Babbit has cooked up. Today balancing those many roles may be even more complex and difficult than they were in our stereotypical vision of the 1950s whipped up by TV shows such as Leave It to Beaver, Ozzie and Harriet, and Father Knows Best, but that is precisely my point. Gender roles may never have been so simply defined in reality as they are in Babbit’s picture. And frankly, a more subtle and complex vision of how those roles are defined might be of far greater interest dramatically than are the silly tableaux of But I’m a Cheerleader. One need only to be reminded of Jan Oxenberg’s 1973 film Home Movies, in which she describes and shows an old home movie of herself as a cheerleader, where a bit like Megan, she clearly enjoys being with other women, even fantasizing about them.

     Yet, Oxenberg’s short is so very much more convoluted. She suggests that she perhaps became a cheerleader precisely because she was a lesbian, arguing that at the time maybe if she could be what women were presumed to be on the outside she could still be a lesbian on the inside. She feared that if she might become a lesbian on the outside, actually kissing another woman in her cheerleading outfit it would shock the entire community. “I mean, we weren’t even allowed to chew gum!” In other words, cheerleading was not so much a pleasurable activity by a way of survival.

       For Oxenberg, being a cheerleader was not a mindless thing the way it is for Megan, but a complexly layered way of playing a role in order to maintain just enough balance to remain within the normative society until she could later escape. Babbit’s cheerleader has apparently no self- knowledge, even needing to convinced by those who would “reform” her that there is something within her that needs to be reformed. It appears that Babbit’s cheerleader is such a stick figure that it’s not until she can abandon her ideas of being a cheerleader that she can become a lesbian who’s capable of love and still enjoy the cheers.

       At least the lesbians of Babbit’s film represent various “kinds” of Sapphic love, whereas the males of But I’m a Cheerleader are all sissy boys forced in their gender role-playing to fix automobile carburetors, run obstacle courses, and shoot off guns. When was the last time any urban husband who didn’t work as a mechanic was asked to fix the family auto carburetor, let alone change the car’s oil? I would argue that most of the heterosexual males I know have never shot a gun—although given the number of guns owned by males throughout the USA, I admittedly must be acquainted with a special breed of heterosexuals. Even soldiers sometimes have difficulties running obstacle courses, even if in Beau travail Claire Denis makes it all seem like ballet.

       What’s even more disturbing about Babbit’s and Peterson’s work is the idea that a conversion therapy organization is truly something which might simply be satirized out of existence. Anyone who has seen Joel Edgerton’s Boy Erased (2018), in which students are brutalized, physically tortured, with one later committing suicide, will find it difficult to laugh about even the milder but equally absurd tactics of New Directions.

       Finally, we have to ask precisely which audience was Babbit attempting to reach in this propagandistic-like film. As Stephanie Zacharek, writing in Salon argues:

 “And then, of course, there are the central messages of But I'm a Cheerleader, wrapped up in all that candy-colored coating: Be the person you were meant to be; don't let anyone try to change you; beware the strictures of society, particularly suburbia, that threaten to squelch who you are; no one should be bound by conventional notions of masculinity or femininity; and, of course, we must accept those who are different from us. If you haven't yet learned these lessons, or if you've never seen an actual starburst clock, you might get something out of But I'm a Cheerleader, but you're not likely to go in the first place. Babbit is only preaching to the converted.”

      Similarly, NitrateOnline’s Cynthia Fuchs writes: “....the film leans too hard on its bubble-gummy look and non-scary send-ups of homophobes, making everything so huge that no one who is phobic might recognize himself in the film. ....Its most appreciative audience will likely be the converted (the film has been selected to close the gay and lesbian film festivals in Philadelphia and San Francisco, and appeals to teen girls, according to pre-release tests). But the audience who might benefit most from watching it either won't see the film or won't see the point.”

     Ultimately, after watching this film we remain in a kind of no-man’s-land in which we can neither believe in the characters and gestures of its queer figures nor the film’s ridiculous sexually normative beings. Even as Megan swoops down to save her lover Graham and Dolph coaxes his gay lover Clayton away from “graduating” into the denial of their sexual identities, to where are these “truly” saved beings hoping to escape, particularly in a world in which you may not even be allowed to chew gum.

Los Angeles, November 15, 2020

Reprinted from My Queer Cinema blog and World Cinema Review (November 2020). 

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