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Satire in 'But I'm A Cheerleader'

by fleuralplants

But I’m A Cheerleader, written by Brian Wayne Peterson and directed by Jamie Babbit, is a satirical rom-com from the late 90s outlining the problems associated with sexual orientation conversion therapy. The main character of the movie is Megan Bloomfield, a high school student with a boyfriend who is sent to conversion therapy by her family and friends to ‘fix’ her sexuality. Everyone around her has picked up on certain ‘lesbian behaviors,’, and have decided to send her to a residential conversion therapy camp. Although Megan was not aware that she was a lesbian, she discovers that information about herself by going to conversion therapy, which is arguably the opposite of what is supposed to happen in such a place. The movie is a clear satire that exploits the traditional ideas of gender roles to make a point about the ideology behind conversion therapy and the fallacies associated with it. The writing, combined with the costume and set design, utilizes the traditional aspects of satire (parody, exaggeration, incongruity, reversal) to effectively attack conversion therapy. But I’m a Cheerleader provides a comical, yet critical, approach to a heavy and contested topic.

One of the main concepts of the satirical situation is parody. The basic definition of parody is a comical imitation of another work. In this case, the definition of parody is slightly tweaked from the usual; in this case, it is a comical imitation of anti-gay and traditionalist propaganda. Throughout the entire movie, there is a parody of traditional gender roles. These roles are made fun of by the outfits worn by the characters attending this conversion camp, in which the boys solely wear blue outfits and the girls pink. By comically dressing all (including the characters with a more alternative sense of style) of the characters a certain way, the film manages to make a commentary on the needless assigning of colors to certain genders done by traditional gender role followers. Additionally, there is a moment in the film where one of the leaders of the conversion camp, Mike as portrayed by RuPaul, wears a shirt donning the phrase ‘STRAIGHT IS GREAT’ (But I’m A Cheerleaderfirst seen at timestamp 6:20). This is a comical approach to anti-gay sentiments. Along with creating a parodied anti-gay campaign, But I’m A Cheerleader has several one-liners that are a clear parody of social ideas surrounding what may ‘cause’ a person to be gay. For example, Graham, whom Megan later runs off with, announces that the root of her homosexuality was the fact that her mother was married in pants. This again parodies traditional gender roles and the idea that parents can ‘make their children gay’ by committing certain wrong actions, utilizing a comical one-liner. Although Graham’s root is particularly comical due to its delivery, the entire scene of the conversion therapy residents disclosing their roots parodies ideas about what might ‘cause’ children to be gay, such as being allowed to dress up in the opposite sex’s clothing, sexual abuse, or being surrounded with too much of the same sex (But I’m A Cheerleaderseen at timestamp 25:00-25:48). As for the root of Megan’s homosexuality, it is declared by her family that one of the reasons that they believed she was a lesbian was due to her vegetarian diet (But I’m A Cheerleaderseen at timestamp 8:49). This parodies the idea of the liberal, gay, vegetarian young person who has been ‘corrupted’ and brought astray from traditional Christian values. As it is a comedy movie, parody plays a huge role in the movie’s use of satire as a means of attacking conversion therapy.

Exaggeration, similar to parody, is present throughout the entire movie. The idea of traditional gender roles is exaggerated through the costume design of the movie and the set design, in which everything the girls touch is pink and everything involved with the boys is blue (though we see more of the girls’ color palette, as the main character is a teen girl forcibly attending the camp). The girls’ communal bedroom is all pink and girly with an over-the-top theme, similar to what might be found in a young girl’s room. The use of exaggeration comically criticizes the people who genuinely believe in such extreme traditional gender roles. This exaggeration is meant to find weak-points in the argument that ‘pink is for girls, blue is for boys’ by creating an all-or-nothing approach to color scheme.

Another important aspect of satire is reversal- a form of satire that presents the opposite of the normal order. It provides the audience with the opposite of what is expected. In But I’m A Cheerleader, this is seen in several aspects of the movie. For one, it is demonstrated simply by the casting of the movie. RuPaul is an openly gay man with stereotypically feminine characteristics, famous for his part in RuPaul’s Drag Race. In the movie, he plays an ex-gay conversion therapy leader who is supposed to teach the young men about ‘being a man’ and how to portray themselves as more manly. A stereotypically feminine man teaching a group of young men about how to be masculine is a clear demonstration of reversal; it is not what would be expected by an audience. Audiences are usually rather stereotypical, and reversal utilizes that by exploiting what they expect. Along the same lines, a masculine woman doing tasks seen as feminine by society (even when they are as gender neutral as cleaning, in reality) is a similar example of reversal. An audience seeing a very stereotypically masculine woman cleaning a floor does not give them the easy image of a housewife with long hair and manicured nails completing her ‘womanly duties’. Another example of satirical reversal in But I’m A Cheerleader is the character of Jan, one of the young women placed into conversion therapy. She presents as traditionally masculine and by looking at her from a stereotypical viewpoint, she would appear to be a butch lesbian. She has a visible mustache and a buzzcut mohawk. It would be expected for her character to be a lesbian, but it is revealed later in the movie that she is not; she is actually straight, as seen around fifty minutes into the movie. This is a reversal of what is expected by society, and it is used to critique society’s ideas about what a masculine woman or feminine man ‘should do’. This reversal shocks the audience by going against what they would expect from a masculine woman. Reversal is a major satirical device utilized in But I’m A Cheerleader.

Finally, incongruity is the last main part of satire displayed in But I’m A Cheerleader. Incongruity presents something unexpected, absurd, or out of place into a scene to critique a social ill. In this case, Sinead, a goth character sent to conversion therapy by her parents, is a clear case of incongruity meant to critique the idea of conformity presented by conversion therapy. One of the ideas propelling conversion therapy is conformity; getting people to conform to heterosexuality and fall into traditional gender roles is a main facet. Sinead is a goth teenager with the famous line ‘I’m Sinead. I like pain. I’m a homosexual’ and demonstrates incongruity with the contrast between her dark clothing and the bright pastel palette and cheery on the outside demeanor of the movie. Although her outer outfit is pink and girly, she retains her dark makeup, alternative hairstyle, and dark underclothes. Incongruity is demonstrated through Sinead’s appearance- she is out of place in contrast with her surroundings.

But I’m A Cheerleader ends with Megan and Graham, who grew closer during their stint in conversion therapy, getting their happily ever after and running away together. Truly, this demonstrates the idea that conversion therapy can not change a person’s sexuality; even after conversion therapy, Graham and Megan are still lesbians, and end up together in a romantic sense. The first half of the movie is focused on satire, and the second half moves toward the ‘rom’ in rom-com, ending with an extreme romantic gesture. The movie utilized the four main aspects of satire to make a huge point in a timely manner of one hour and twenty five minutes. Satire is sometimes the most effective way to criticize an audience, because it is a form of criticism that is indirect and does not make an audience feel attacked. But I’m A Cheerleader criticizes conversion therapy and ideologies associated with conversion therapy through the use of mostly comical and extreme satire, and presents a clear point arguing against conversion therapy.

Is this a review?



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Tue Sep 20, 2022 7:42 am
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LadyBug wrote a review...

Hello! As someone who loves this movie and as someone who likes to look at old articles on YWS, I thought this would be the perfect thing to read. Let me get straight into a review.

I liked your argument, it was well researched, presented, and concluded. You bring a few new terms as you go and explain them all well with great detail. I also enjoyed the cultural context you played in the essay, showing how society affects this movie and vice versa. I liked your mention of "gender roles," and how much this movie relies on them to show an average man and woman, even though nobody, even straight people outside the camp, live up to these ideals (even as much as a gay person in the movie.)

My one point I would like to add is how characters are portrayed through Megan's eyes. Many men, like her boyfriend, were constructed as disgusting, (like in the infamous kissing scene) while women were seen as desirable. I believe this movie, along with being satire, is also a discussion on mindsets, perspectives, and how our view of a movie is altered by the main character'sviewpoint. I would have liked to see more inclusion of this idea.

I really enjoyed reading this!


fleuralplants says...

Thank you!!

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Sun Jul 17, 2022 4:49 am
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Liminality wrote a review...

Hi there fleuralplants!

First Impressions

I thought this was an interesting write-up. You’ve presented at least two well-argued points showing how the movie uses satire and why it’s important to the effect the film has on the audience. I had heard of the movie before, but didn’t know what it was about, so I appreciated how you were able to deliver the scenes and context important for your essay. I found it easy to understand. At times, the argumentation felt a bit repetitive, while at other times, I felt that I had missed a step in following the logic. Writing literature essays is super hard, though, and I can imagine you had a time limit on this one, so that’s not really a deal-breaker for reading this article.

Context and Structure

The introduction seemed pretty polished, as it covered the plot and concerns of the movie plus gave me a good idea of what the essay was going to be about, namely how the movie critiques conversion therapy by showing that it’s supposed to do one thing, but ends up doing something completely different. It also suggests that conversion therapy is based on false assumptions/ premises, though that’s mostly an implicit point in the article.

This parodies the idea of the liberal, gay, vegetarian young person who has been ‘corrupted’ and brought astray from traditional Christian values.

I think it’s interesting that you’ve identified a cultural stereotype/ archetype here. Cultural context plays a lot into understanding a film and especially the comedy in a film, so that bit of context helped in making your point. If you’d like to revise this, it might be interesting bring in more specific context, for example, maybe that the gay rights movement of the 70s comes from the progressive side of the political spectrum, so there’s that association with other ‘progressive’ political positions like vegetarianism. (Though I’m not American nor very well-studied on this, so correct me if I’m wrong.) That could be a bit more concrete than saying “the idea of”, which seems more general and untethered to the cultural sphere.

I like your paragraph on reversal, because all the evidence was clearly linked to making the point. All the evidence was of the same kind, showing how the casting and characterisation of the film characters were meant to defy audience expectations surrounding gender and sexuality. You also used sentence structures with contrasting adjectives like “A stereotypically feminine . . . how to be masculine” which makes it clear what is being reversed and what each bit of evidence has in common.

Missing Steps in Argumentation

At times, I felt like I couldn’t quite follow the argument based on what was written. I could infer or imagine where the argument was going next, but since it wasn’t set in stone, I wasn’t quite sure, and it didn’t feel so satisfying to read.

Often when it is written that something is a “comical” way to express (some topic), it’s not explained exactly what about the scene makes it comical or makes it about that topic. For example:
Additionally, there is a moment in the film where one of the leaders of the conversion camp, Mike as portrayed by RuPaul, wears a shirt donning the phrase ‘STRAIGHT IS GREAT’ (But I’m A Cheerleaderfirst seen at timestamp 6:20). This is a comical approach to anti-gay sentiments.

What exactly about that slogan represents anti-gay sentiment? What about it makes it funny? My guess is that it’s anti-gay because it’s a call for people to ‘just be straight’, and that it’s comical because it’s exaggerated and the shirt is on RuPaul, who is not straight. However, that’s not written explicitly in the essay, so someone else reading it might not arrive at this same message, making it harder for your big picture argument to be communicated.

Another example is the paragraph on incongruity:
Incongruity is demonstrated through Sinead’s appearance- she is out of place in contrast with her surroundings.

The topic sentence of that paragraph says that the incongruity is used to “critique a social ill”. However, Sinead being out-of-place at gay conversion therapy doesn’t explain what social ill there is and why it is bad. There’s no explanation of why it’s relevant. Is the point that Sinead’s alienation from her environment shows how anti-gay sentiment alienates individuals? Without that extra link, it makes the paragraph look like it’s just saying it’s bad somehow for a goth to be in a preppy place, which doesn’t really link back to the topic of the essay.


I think this essay shows some good ideas on satire and how it’s been employed regarding this theme. There’s a lot of specific moments from the film being presented, which helps me understand it as someone who’s never watched it before and also makes the argument stronger. It avoids that common mistake where a lit essay just becomes a ramble. The most convincing point from this essay for me is the one on reversal, and the second most convincing point would be the one on parody/exaggeration (though at times those two points seem to meld into each other). I think you’ve managed to name and discuss a few different threads of the film’s message, such as the ‘reversal of expectations’ aspect and the ‘gender roles’ aspect, which is really good. What could help take it to the next level would be working on how the claims/ topic sentences are linked to the evidence and the conclusion.

Hope this makes sense and is helpful! Feel free to ask for more feedback, or for clarification on something I said!

fleuralplants says...

Thank you for the review!! :)

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Sat Jul 02, 2022 10:23 pm
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Sunflowerdemon3712 wrote a review...

Sunflower here for a quick, not exactly review!

So I love this essay, you did a great job on it thought I might be a bit biased due to my love for this movie! You structerd everything very well from when I can see and all your points cam across very smoothly and I have to applaud you for that because personally I love a well-structured essay! I love the way you display your point and I admire your writing abilities. You also chose a great move that I actually avoided watching for the longest time because I had thought it was going to be some stereotypical movie about a cheerleader falling for a nerd or something, but it subverted all my expectations. Over all you did a great job and I'm happy to know other people actually know about this move!

That's all from me, have a great day/night, bye!

-best wishes Sunflower

fleuralplants says...

Thanks so much!!

No person can be a great leader unless he takes genuine joy in the successes of those under him.
— W. A. Nance