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Filmbespreking: But I am a cheerleader

Beeldvorming en identiteit van mannen en vrouwen. <br>Rolpatronen, stereotiepen en beeldvorming van mannen en vrouwen in mythen en maatschappij. Gender, transgender en androgynie.

Filmbespreking: But I am a cheerleader

Berichtdoor Tiresias » za 17 feb , 2007 13:20

Filmbespreking verschenen op:

But I Love Lipstick: The Reinscription of Stereotypes in Jaime Babbit's But I'm A Cheerleader!

By Raina Lenney


But I'm A Cheerleader is a satirical comedic sketch of life in an ex-gay reform camp. In this film her peers and parents suspect Megan, played by Natasha Lyonne, of lesbianism. The evidence-she is a vegetarian, likes Melissa Etheridge and Georgia O'Keefe, keeps pictures of girls in her locker, and doesn't like to kiss her boyfriend (who happens to be the captain of the football team)--is tallied and Megan is determined gay. In an act of concern, Megan's parents enroll her in a six-week program at True Directions, a rehabilitation center for gay men and women. It is through this six-week, five-step program that Megan indeed discovers her "true direction." Although Megan is initially skeptical of her own lesbianism, within the completion of the first two steps she falls in love with the rebel of the bunch, Graham, and the two girls discover an inability to shed their lesbian identity. The movie culminates with both of these girls escaping this program, thereby demonstrating the "truth" or innateness of their lesbian identities. Although no specific time is stated, it is assumed (by the iconography of Melissa Etheridge), that the movie takes place in the present. Also, the location is not specifically determined, but one might assume, from the small-town feel and the limited representations of minority characters (except as the exaggerated male homosexuals) that the film is intended to represent a "normal" town in middle America. The movie itself is extremely campy, and this style contributes to an inability to determine the exact time and location.

Jaime Babbit, the director, when questioned on the motives for producing such a campy, absurdist film, stated: "I'm really into constructed reality worlds…I wanted to make the world of the movie very artificial and polyester. I think it's a great comment on the artificiality of gender identity" (The Advocate, 51). Babbit is a self-identified lesbian who is interested in exploring femme lesbian roles. Babbit stated that her own image of lesbians, at least early on, "never transcended athletic butch dykes who excel at softball" (The Advocate 48 ). As she did not perceive herself in this manner, it was difficult to identify as a lesbian. Babbit "wanted to make a movie from the femme point of view, since so many pictures about lesbians feature characters who are more or less butch" ( Thus, in this film Babbit attempts to deconstruct traditional, heterosexual, gender roles to demonstrate that not all people fit into these limited formulas, and to expand the available roles and identities accessible to young people. She is interested in suggesting that lesbians may be feminine and still be lesbians. However, I would suggest that the exact opposite has occurred. I would like to propose that in her exaggerated renouncement of stereotypical roles for males and females, Babbit actually reifies and solidifies the difference between gay and straight. This solidification of the binary between gay and straight leaves little room for variations in lesbian identity (or in any identity, for that matter). Through the depictions of what it means to be heterosexual, the viewer comes to learn that these activities are diametrically opposed to the definition of homosexual. In this way, Babbit reinscribes the strict categories that she seeks to deconstruct.

In this paper I will utilize social constructionist theory to oppose the essentialist notions of gender and sex that are evident in But I'm A Cheerleader. I will demonstrate, using Anne Fausto-Sterling's remarkable book, Sexing the Body, that Babbit's essentialized identities in this film are exclusive to the multiple, fluid bodies and sexualities that are present in our society. I will utilize Michel Foucault's The History of Sexuality, Volume I to reveal the construction of sexuality historically, and I will extend these ideas to illustrate the necessity of a fluid definition of sexuality and gender. I will demonstrate that while Babbit seeks to create greater room for diversity, the exclusivity of the film rejects this possibility. I will demonstrate, through a comparison with a study of Polynesian gender liminality, that our culture's firm dualistic ideas of sexuality and gender are difficult to deconstruct, and even more difficult to surpass; in fact it becomes almost impossible not to reify these same restricted, binaristic notions.

In the next section of the paper, I will utilize the five-step program present in the film to discuss the representations of sex, sexuality, and gender. This method will be useful in illustrating the strict construction of gender roles that Babbit seeks to oppose, as well as illustrating the slim definitions of identity that remains for those who deviate from normative sexualities.

Step One: Admitting You're a Homosexual

In this step, the members of the group must admit that they are homosexual in order to eradicate their homosexuality. Although this might seem like the approach of a social-constructionist (in other words, if they can eradicate homosexuality within the confines of this program, then all sexuality must be produced within specific social contexts), it becomes apparent in several ways as the movie progresses that a constructionist definition of sexuality has not been offered. The lead character, Megan, serves as an excellent example. Although initially reluctant to view herself as homosexual, she is aptly convinced when she reviews the evidence; Megan is a vegetarian, her favorite rock musician is Melissa Etheridge, she looks longingly at the other cheerleaders during practice, and most importantly, she does not like to kiss her boyfriend. All of these examples demonstrate what heterosexuality is not, and at the same time, solidify and normalize a definition of lesbianism. In this way, the roles of a heterosexual and a homosexual become essentialized, until it becomes extremely clear that there is only one of two ways to be: gay or straight.

Step Two: Accepting Your Proper Gender Roles

In this step, the members of the group are socialized to perform certain tasks. The boys struggle with chopping wood and changing the oil, and the girls change the diapers of doll babies and scrub the hardwood floors. The girls also do each other's hair and make-up, and practice walking and sitting in proper ladies attire. This gender role socialization is complicated by the fact that the instructors are themselves a jumble of proper gender roles. Although Mary, the instructor (played by Cathy Moriarity), is attired in pink, she is the ruthless, domineering leader of this group, a trait that becomes inextricably located as male in this movie. Similarly the leader of the boys, Mike, (played by Ru Paul), although ostensibly a successful ex-gay, spends a large portion of the movie drooling over the director's attractive and scantily clad son. This gender play suggests an inability to move beyond essentialized definitions of sexuality. For each of the characters involved, the pull of their "real" sexuality is too difficult to ignore, and it becomes obvious that to graduate from the program, the members of the group are going to have to lie to themselves, and to the other members of the group. While the satirical nature of the film does an apt job of portraying the coercion of the ex-gay movement as negative, the result of casting these elements as "good" or "bad" is that the range of identities available becomes smaller and smaller. It is obvious after Step Two that to be straight means that you get married, have babies and scrub floors if you are a woman, and chop wood, change oil, and do the yard work if you are a man. These identities are not shifting or fluid, they do not bleed together or contain elements of one another, and they do not allow room for anything outside of a gay/straight dichotomy.

Step Three: Family Therapy

In this step, the members of the group are encouraged to converse with their families in a group setting in an effort to debunk tension and create an environment where each individual may reveal the "root" of their temporary homosexuality. In this film, the "root" of each character's "problem" is used as a means to assure both the parents and the children that they are curable; one of the boys reveals that his mother used to let him dress up in high heels, one of the girls was sexually molested (this is a delicate subject that is badly mishandled in the film), and for Megan, her root is revealed as the time that her mother was forced to take a part-time job to assist the family's income. Each of these "roots" symbolizes a time of gender role confusion for the characters, and the stereotypical nature of these underlying reasons for homosexuality (reasons that must be inverted to reify the message of the film), further constrict the definitions of gay and straight.

Step Four: Demystifying the Opposite Sex

This step has the least amount of screen time, and consists mostly of Mary (the instructor) conducting a slide show to demonstrate the looks, actions, and feeling of a proper heterosexual couple. This slide show includes pictures of couples holding hands and kissing, and Mary uses these images to demonstrate the joy and rapture possible if the students commit themselves to hetero-normative behavior. Step Four is minimal, but speaks to Babbit's concerns about the construction of gender. Babbit wishes to expose this construction, but through this lesson the students are taught to conform to these heterosexual models to be heterosexual or repudiate them entirely if they wish to remain true to their essential nature (i.e. homosexual).

Step Five: Simulated Sexual Lifestyle

This is the last step that the students must complete before graduation. In this portion of the program, the students must pretend to have sex, missionary style, with a member of the opposite sex. The students are dressed in nude-colored body suits (to simulate nudity), with only leaves to cover the "delicate" parts. The characters in the film are horrified by this step, especially Graham, who must simulate heterosexual sex with Rock, the instructor's son. This step is particularly telling, as the character's blatant disgust for sexual acts concerning members of the opposite sex leave no room for other sexual experiences. The binary that Babbit constructs in this film between homosexual and heterosexual is firmly cemented in this final scene; there is no room for bisexuals, transsexuals, transgendered, intersexed, or a host of other individuals in this setting. One must be firmly male or female and firmly heterosexual or homosexual.

It is evident that gender and sex roles are firmly prescribed in But I'm A Cheerleader. Babbit's attempt to alleviate the strict policing of sex roles results in the reinscription of heterosexual and homosexual stereotypes and is demonstrative of the difficulty in transcending the dualistic notions that frame and support our culture. In Third Sex, Third Gender: Beyond Sexual Dimorphism in Culture and History, Gilbert Herdt surveys the attempts that have been made to document the emergence of third-sex and third-gender categories. Herdt posits that in certain historical frameworks, these categories have emerged in various places around the world (21), and his book is an examination of these emergences and their specific cultural manifestations. Herdt himself states the difficulty of perceiving this third category outside the realm of accepted dualistic notions, and posits some reasons: "We must conclude that it is indeed rather difficult to create and maintain third-sex and third-gender categories; and perhaps the imperfect fit between personal and sexual desire and social duty or customary roles helps us to explain the reason" (80). The attempt to establish a third-gender or third-sex category is rife with difficulty in this book; one might say that it does not succeed in establishing a valid argument for the existence of a third-gender or third-sex outside of binaristic thought.

One of the collection's essays is exemplary of this failed attempt to establish a third-gender category. In "Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space" Niko Besnier is forthright about his inability to perceive the gender play in Polynesia as anything that transcends the existing Western, dualistic notions of sex and gender. He states, "…I shy away from referring to the category under question as a 'third gender'" (286). Although he concedes a cultural and social definition of gender, he is reluctant to name the gender-blurring activities that take place as a third gender, and prefers the term "gender-liminal" (294-295). Besnier explores the historical construction and cultural context of this category and concludes: "In short, there is no compelling reason to treat gender liminality as a challenge to gender dimorphism" (320). This conclusion is indicative of the complexity inherent in contesting binary gender and sex roles. In But I'm A Cheerleader, Babbit is confounded by an inability to transcend a dualistic notion of sexuality; although she seeks to challenge a heterosexual/homosexual binary, she reinscribes formulaic ideas of what it means to be lesbian. Besnier similarly describes the reinscription of female roles onto the males who are perceived as gender-liminal. He states: "In urban settings, liminal men are superb secretaries and coveted domestic help. In this sense, liminal persons are more womanly than women, a theme that recurs elsewhere" (297). Thus it is evident that the disruption of binary gender and sex roles is difficult to conceive and nearly impossible to execute-one must foist the definition of the familiar onto that which appears to transgress. Babbit's film is beset with this difficulty as well; unfortunately her characters do not transcend available notions of sex and gender.

In The History of Sexuality, Volume I, Michel Foucault chronicles the emergence of exacting sexual identities. In the first section of the book, Foucault describes the myth of the "repressive hypothesis," and outlines instead the emergence of multiple discourses on sex and sexuality. He refutes the notion that Westerners, for the past 200 years, have been in the grip of a maddening silence surrounding sex, and states instead that it is talk, not silence that has proliferated (17-28 ). He states:

The society that emerged in the nineteenth century bourgeois, capitalist, or industrial society, call it what you will- did not confront sex with a fundamental refusal of recognition. On the contrary, it put into operation an entire machinery for producing true discourses concerning it. Not only did it speak of sex and compel everyone to do so; it also set out to formulate the uniform truth of sex…As if it were essential that sex be inscribed not only in an economy of pleasure but in an ordered system of knowledge (69).

This transformation or remapping of the desires and pleasures of sex into specific sets of knowledge leads to a homogenized version of acceptable sexual practices. Initially acts of sex conducted within marriage (and presumably for purposes of reproduction) were the most heavily policed, but as the married couple achieved "normal" status they earned the right to more privacy (37-38 ). Attention turned elsewhere, and the focus shifted to "deviant bodies": women, children, and those with perverse sexual tendencies (104-105). This attention was coincidental with a rise in medical power and demanded the emergence of the homosexual body; this body reified the normalized heterosexual bodies.

In Gender Trouble, Judith Butler solidifies and extends Foucault's notion of a compulsory system of heterosexuality that is constructed and sustained in opposition to the homosexual body. Butler critiques Monique Wittig's concept of the lesbian body as a "radical departure from heterosexual contexts" and the means by which to ensure the "downfall of the heterosexual regime" (154). Butler contends that if lesbianism is a self-named action that contests available gender categories, then there is nothing that differentiates the notion of lesbian from a compulsory category as well (162). Thus the idea of "lesbian" as a distinct category with the power to dislodge existing heterosexual regimes actually reinscribes a new binary-that between lesbian and "not lesbian". In other words, the categories of lesbian and "not lesbian" become essentialized, thus losing the ability for fluidity and possibility. It might be said that Babbit suffers from this reinscription of categories as well; Megan must relinquish her old life in its entirety in order to claim her lesbian identity.

Feminists have critiqued Foucault's inability to distinguish between the male and female body, thus universalizing the notion of the white male body as the normative sexual body. In Unbearable Weight, Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Susan Bordo reminds us that the body is the supreme cultural text, and a failure to take into account differences may have severe repercussions for women. She suggests that Foucault's notion of power fails to account for hegemonic power structures that further restrict women; these structures may lead women to become destructive. She states, "Through the exacting and normalizing disciplines of diet, makeup, and dress-central organizing principles of time and space in the day of many women-we are rendered less socially oriented and more centripetally focused on self-modification" (166). She suggests that a feminist incorporation of Foucault's theories might allow for the description of power as "constitutive" rather than repressive (167). In this instance, Foucault's notions of a sexuality constructed by regimes of power are useful for critiquing Babbit's essentialized notions, however, it is important to remember Foucault's limitations for the interpretation of women's bodies.

Foucault and Butler outline the construction of sexual identity in a compelling fashion; although Babbit may be convinced of the validity of these cultural constructs, she is unable to solidify these theories in her film, but rather reifies essentialized versions of straight and gay. This reinscription of the binary of gay and straight is similar to Butler's critique of Wittig's The Lesbian Body. One troubling example of Babbit's inability to transcend traditional Western notions of sexuality is the premise of the film; although Babbit seeks to expose the monstrous nature of ex-gay reform camps, the fact that the camp (which is representative of the pathologization of homosexuals) contains a myriad of stereotypical gay characters reinforces the notion that homosexuals consist only of those who exhibit deviant forms of behavior. This disturbed one reviewer as well, who stated, "Worse yet, the movie is predicated on the embarrassingly retrograde view that most straight people view gay men and lesbians as aberrant" ( Although this sentiment certainly exists, it is not a simplified model; gay men and women are not monolithic categories.

Another problem with the film is the narrow definitions that remain for lesbians and gay men. In Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction of Sexuality, Anne Fausto-Sterling outlines a brief history of hermaphroditic persons existing in Western culture (30-44). She demonstrates the presence of ambiguously sexed babies (and adults) from the 1800's to the present, and she seeks to create a space for greater acceptance of diversity. Her argument centers on a nature/nurture divide: if she can demonstrate that nature and nurture are inextricably linked (as are constructed and essential bodies), then perhaps a space may open where multiple sexes proliferate. She offers three basic instructions for gender investigation: "First, nature/nurture is indivisible…Second, organisms -human and otherwise-are active processes, moving targets, from fertilization until death…Third, no single academic or clinical discipline provides us with the true or best way to understand human sexuality" (235). In these guidelines Fausto-Sterling posits no distinction between nature and nurture, and instead advocates for new navigational techniques to explore the possibilities for sex and gender that lie in this liminal space. In Babbit's film this space does not exist. With the exception of one character, Jan, who flees the program proclaiming that she has always been heterosexual, she just likes softball, the young people in Babbit's film reflect the dichotomy that society enforces between gay and straight.

Many of the reviewers expressed concerns similar to those above. A reviewer for Entertainment Weekly says: "Forget pink dresses and housework: Any self-respecting lesbian should rear up in horror at a movie that tells her that THIS is how she's supposed to be" (, while a reviewer for FilmJournal International states, "If anything, the film might prove popular among real homophobes because the images of gays and lesbians she presents are so stereotypical and off-putting" ( These comments speak to a nervousness surrounding the conscription of gender roles, as well as anger at the stereotypes that pervade this movie (and many others). These are encouraging signs that the public might be ready to move past these stereotypes and embrace more broad definitions of identity and sexuality. This can be dangerous as well; if gay iconography becomes (as it seemingly has) more and more mainstream, more heterosexualized, then the potential exists for a loss of identity. In Foucaultian terms this is not a bad thing, as competing identities exist only to shore up the image of the proper heterosexual, and certainly Fausto-Sterling would welcome a breakdown in categories, but the danger remains that normalized bodies would be (as they are) automatically coded as heterosexual, and deviant bodies would symbolize homosexuality. This tension exists in the reviews, although it is not explicitly defined. However, a perusal of the reviews indicates disappointment that Babbit has not been able to transcend the popular perceptions of gays and lesbians, and instead has reinforced behaviors specific to particular sexualities.

But I'm A Cheerleader is an ambitious project with an even more ambitious mission. In this film, which is a campy, simplified portrayal of the oppression one lesbian felt as a result of her sexual preference, Babbit seeks to map the constructedness of sex and gender. As demonstrated though the use of Butler and Foucault, the terrain of constructed sexualities and constructed genders is difficult to navigate. Thus Babbit was bound to fail, as the humorous tone of the film lends itself to stereotypes and simplicity, and does not allow for the emergence of a liminal, fluid space where multiple bodies may prosper. With such simplicity, and the typical characterizations of gays and lesbians (as well as repressed heterosexuals) Babbit is unable to transcend the binaristic notions that she seeks to expose and deconstruct. Rather, through her strict stratification of the "gay" world and the "straight" world, Babbit lends credence to the belief that these worlds do not, and need not collide, but rather are and should remain, separate and opposite entities.


:pijl: Babbit, Jaime, Dir. But I'm A Cheerleader. With Natasha Lyonne and Clea DuVall. Universal Pictures, 2000.
:pijl: Besnier, Niko. "Polynesian Gender Liminality Through Time and Space."
Third Sex, Third Gender. Ed. Gilbert Herdt. Zone Books, 1996.
:pijl: Bordo, Susan. Unbearable Weight, Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. U of California P, 1993.
:pijl: Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble. Routledge, 1989.
:pijl: Fausto-Sterling, Anne. Sexing the Body: Gender Politics and the Construction Of Sexuality. Basic Books, 2000.
:pijl: Foucault, Michel. The History of Sexuality, An Introduction: Volume I. Vintage Books, 1978.
:pijl: Mascia-Lees, Frances E. & Nancy Johnson Black. Gender and Anthropology. Waveland Press, Inc., 2000.
:pijl: Mitchell, Elvis. "Don't Worry. Pink Outfits Will Straighten Her Out." New York Times. 7 July, 2000.
:pijl: Noh, David. "But I'm a Cheerleader." Film Journal International. (
:pijl: Stukin, Stacie. "But I'm a Cheerleader Director Jaime Babbit Takes Her Comedy Seriously." The Advocate. 4 July, 2000.
:pijl: Thomas, Kevin. "But I'm a Cheerleader Works Against Its Goals." Los Angeles Times. 21 July, 2001. (
:pijl: Zacharek, Stephanie. "But I'm a Cheerleader." ( 7 July, 2000.
:pijl: "About the Story." But I'm a Cheerleader Official Website.
:pijl: "But I'm a Cheerleader." EW Online. 5 July, 2000.(
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