Hang Up the Chick Habit: I rewatch “But I’m a Cheerleader”

Hang Up the Chick Habit: I rewatch “But I’m a Cheerleader” June 10, 2019

So after Revoice ended, a couple of us were still high on the excitement and decided to watch this 1999 comedy about a cheerleader (Natasha Lyonne) who’s sent–by mistake! surely!!–to an ex-gay camp. I liked it well enough when I first saw it but remembered the actual humor as being predictable and insufficiently incisive. I thought more highly of it this time around, so here are some notes.

# The look of it is relentlessly cartoony, televangelism as drag. I loved it and it reminded me of nothing so much as Shock Treatment, the criminally-underrated semi-sequel to The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

# The humor often is predictable, especially around the villains and the gay boys. It seems like the writers (Jamie Babbit & Bryan Peterson) put more thought into what would be funny in the girls’ characters. There’s an underexplored insight in the way that lesbianism shades so subtly into normalcy, which isn’t true at all for male homosexuality: Our cheerleader protests that it’s normal to have pictures of girls in bikinis on your wall and in your locker, everybody looks at girls’ bodies!, and the thing is, she is completely right. One v. butch girl has the revelation that she’s been straight all along, and everybody just thought she was gay because of her haircut and her love of softball–and the fact that she was molested, we get that ferocious detail in a one-liner.

The movie doesn’t quite know what to do with these elements. Is Megan the cheerleader making a point about the way women are defined as object, even to ourselves? Not really; her friends and family were right to read her gaze at other women as a gay gaze. Butchy little Jan is there to make a fairly banal point about how stereotypes are sometimes wrong. They both have this weird situation where the same actions could be normal (pants, sports; bikini posters) or queer depending on what others think would motivate them, and yet the film doesn’t ask any questions about why that happens. ETA: It’s a question about interpretation, right? We often don’t know ourselves, so who does know us? When should we interpret desire as sexual (in order to be honest, for example), or nonconformity as membership in a specific other community, and when should we seek alternative interpretations?

Still, though, some especially insightful comedic elements: the girl who gets turned on by her aversion-therapy shock treatment (this is in Foucault, there’s a pleasure in exercising the power of defining, examining, surveilling etc but there’s also a corresponding pleasure in “showing off, scandalizing, or resisting,” and the former inevitably creates the latter);

the careful use of “Higher Power” and not “Jesus,” and the inclusion of a Jewish family–Maia Szalavitz’s terrific, harrowing Help at Any Cost: How the Troubled-Teen Industry Cons Parents and Hurts Kids explores the ways abusive treatment centers have used any philosophy at all, even explicit moral relativism, in order to maintain control and gain recruits;

the fact that the alternative to the ex-gay camp, the place they escape to, is a bar with an obscene name. A place created for sex and alcohol, where love and care nonetheless have sprouted up like porcelainberry, with nowhere else to grow, an invasive species.

# That last point seems parallel to the gay/queer Christian’s situation w/r/t queer art. We too have these unacceptable alternatives: the deadly alternative of simply never encountering our stories in art, or the secular alternative of finding one part of our stories told, never the most important part. The forms of love the movies are about are not the form of love on which we center our lives. At least not until we begin to make the movies ourselves.

# And last–I should say that I’d remembered the opening sequence quite vividly, a kind of objectification montage of cheerleaders’ skimpily-clad, bouncing body parts. It’s ridiculous, it’s exaggerated to an absurd extent, a parody of Swimsuit-Issue semiporn, and maybe that parody aspect makes it not especially arousing to others? Maybe other people would need to practice Custody of the Eyes during the extremely predictable actual sex scene later. The music in the actual sex scene is contemporary soft-lesbian type music rather than the ’50s pastiche music of the opening credits. It’s all very artsy in that specific “my tastefully-shot teenage gay sex scene” way, thanks, I hate it. The good thing about this particular style of sex scene is that I cannot possibly be less turned-on by it.

Whereas there’s something, uh, more provocative than I was prepared for, in the objectification montage. Perhaps because there’s something inescapably personal in exaggeration, whereas the actual sex scene felt like it could be in any movie at all, about any characters fulfilling their roles as self-actualizing romantic heroines of their own lives. Or perhaps because the absurdity makes any response to it humiliating. Even my sex drive is a self-parody! [ETA: Possibly I am just a woman of simple tastes.] I would say it’s better to be turned on by humiliation than by romanticism but I suspect my confessors would be like, “…Man is the rationalizing animal.”

Cheerleader rampant via Wikimedia Commons

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