Art critique

‘But I’m A Cheerleader’ Outfits Criticize Ridiculousness Of Gender Norms

by Jamie Babbit But I’m a cheerleader stars Natasha Lyonne as Megan, a teenage lesbian sent to a conversion therapy camp where she meets a quirky cast of characters and finds love with a cool, tough girl. The 1999 comedy is a delightfully subversive dispatch of homophobia and ridiculously rigid gender roles that still feel all too relevant more than 20 years after its release. Rather than portraying the depressing world of conversion therapy in drab colors, Babbit takes the new approach of making the camp positively sinister, with every inch of the screen covered in candy-colored pastels that intentionally give the setting a good amount of absurdity. The film’s sly humor, charismatic stars and gloriously kitschy costumes have made it a queer cult classic.

The film opens with shots of cheerleaders energetically jumping in front of a bright blue sky while wearing white and orange sports bras and pleated skirts. These images, which could be objectified in other contexts, are meant to convey Megan’s queer desire. She can wear the cheerleading uniform herself, but seeing the rest of the team move effortlessly in the same outfit as her makes everything more exciting.

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The cheerleader is not presented here as a fetish for leering men, but rather as a powerful symbol of being so near and so far when it comes to one’s object of affection. So it’s no surprise that Megan brings her pom poms with her to True Directions, the sinister conversion camp run by Mary Brown (played by Cathy Moriarity) where most of But I’m a cheerleader takes place.

Before arriving at True Directions, Megan wore earth-toned dresses with retro stitching. Once at camp, she and her fellow students are required to wear clothes designed to enforce gender expectations – the boys are given a wardrobe of blue outfits, while the girls wear pink. Every element of True Directions is a perverted visual joke. Adorned with a style reminiscent of Barbie Dreamhouse art directed by John Waters, True Directions humorously proves the inherent idiocy of conversion therapy by portraying it as a world of gay hype. (One of the workers there, an “ex-gay” named Mike, is played by RuPaul in a rare standout appearance, in case the irony wasn’t obvious enough already.)

Photos by Mark Lipson/Kushner-Locke/Ignite/Kobal/Shutterstock

The colors of True Directions are so soft they’re almost sickening, and the oppressive yet campy aesthetic provides the backdrop for Megan’s rebellion. She soon catches the eye of Graham (Clea DuVall), and the two girls’ relationship blossoms as they wear matching pink shirts and cardigans. At the camp, they are forced to perform clichés of women’s work by scrubbing the floors and changing the dolls together.

Graham has a devilish vibe that no amount of heteronormative suits can contain. The more Megan and Graham fall in love with each other, the more ridiculous the clothes start to look. There are empire-waisted pink nightgowns that wouldn’t be out of place in a 60s suburban housewife’s boudoir and bright fuchsia dresses reminiscent of an awkward prom. Meanwhile, the guys are wearing schoolboy-style short-sleeved blue shirts with blue ties and switching to blue mesh tops for athletics. By the end of the film, the fundamental failure of the conversion camp becomes even more explicit, thanks to their increasingly desperate attempts to disguise the characters as straightness.

Photos by Mark Lipson/Kushner-Locke/Ignite/Kobal/Shutterstock

It turns out that latex tuxedos and faux nude bodysuits with fig leaf embellishments do absolutely nothing to convert gay teens into straight guys, and might even make them even more gay. Unlike many queer movies, But I’m a cheerleader has a happy ending. Megan eventually escapes from True Directions and returns to save Graham, while donning her cheerleading uniform from the beginning of the film and performing a soft cheer to express her love. Then they run away together, and finally they can wear whatever they want, no pink necessary.