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.