Synthesis #3: Suppressing and Igniting Lesbian Desire in But I’m a Cheerleader

The image of the fragmented, objectified female body – in this case, a cheerleader’s – is offered in the opening credits sequence of director Jamie Babbit’s  joyfully sardonic 1999 film, But I’m a Cheerleader. Interspaced with the credits, we behold close-up shots of cheerleaders practicing in a high-school field, which include a focusing of the lens on the long, toned-legs of a cheerleader being tossed in the air, a back shot of cheerleaders’ bare midriffs and undulating buttocks, a frontal shot of a women being flipped that rolls over her panties in a sexualized manner, a frontal shot centering on the cheerleaders’ bare midriffs as they kick their legs up high, and the sight of cheerleaders spreading their legs as they are tossed upright in the air. Typically, such images have been included in various teenage sex comedies of the 1980s, films projecting heteronormative conceits of adolescent sexual awakenings with members of the opposite sex. With  But I’m a Cheerleader, however, we quickly learn that these objectified camera shots of practicing cheerleaders have not been provided to reaffirm Laura Mulvey’s concept of such imagery satisfying a “male gaze[i]” but to provide POV shots articulating fellow Freemont High School cheerleader Megan’s latent queer desires.

As Megan awkwardly makes out with her boyfriend Jared in a parked car after cheerleading practice, these images are repeated. Ironically, then, at this moment, she is both the object of feminine desire for Jared and fantasizing over females herself. Jared’s grotesquely licking tongue relentlessly probes into Megan’s face and mouth, but her physical repugnance toward his sexual advances noticeably mark her discomfort. Once they stop kissing, Jared begs Megan for them to continue, and she acquiesces. In a similar fashion, Audre Lorde, writing in Zami: A New Spelling of My Name (The Crossing Press 1982), discusses her “expected” sex with her boyfriend Peter: “Sex seemed pretty dismal and frightening and a little demeaning, but Peter said I’d get used to it, and Iris said I’d get used to it, and Jean said I’d get used to it, and I used to wonder why it wasn’t possible to just love each other and be warm and close and let the grunting go” (104-105). Trying to fit in with heteronormative society’s reinforcing of opposite-sex courtship, mating, and reproductive values, Megan and Audre both suffer until their suppressed lesbian desires can be fully consummated.

But Megan lives in a world where such desires are forbidden, which is reflected in the following scene’s close-up shots of her family’s “meat and potato” dinner, symbolizing their heteronormative values. Moreover, her parents’ white middle-class hegemonic influence over Megan is intensified when Jared and her cheerleading friends stage an intervention in order to coerce her into going to True Directions, a gay rehabilitation camp. Supervising this intervention is Mike[ii], a black male (played by drag queen Ru Paul), who identifies himself as ex-gay. The camp itself offers a multiplicity of race and religion through its campers,[iii] who are attempting to learn how to embody heterosexual desires and lifestyles. As for its location, True Directions is situated on a campground filled with acres of nature and forest areas. In Greta Gaard’s introduction to Queer Ecologies (Indiana University Press 2010), she argues, “Clearly, notions of sexuality have shaped social constructions of nature, as seen in the familiar concepts of and creation of wilderness, national and urban parks and car camping” (115). To this list, Gaard could easily add campgrounds such as True Directions, where an attempted rehabilitation of “sexually deviant” homosexuals exists as a locus for both a reinscription of heteronormative values and a resistance and evasion of them as queer desires are honed and given voice in the furtive areas of the natural landscape and within the human-built cabins.

During one group therapy exercise, led by Mary, the True Directions head counselor, the campers are instructed to find a partner in order to learn “one of the most wonderful things about being a heterosexual – friendship.” Megan is paired with Graham, who is resistant to her forced transition to heterosexuality. That night, Megan shows a flashcard to Graham, in which a smiling woman is pictured placing garbage into a receptacle. After Graham fails to identify the woman’s function, Megan tells her that the woman is a mother, adding, “Women have roles. After you learn that, you’ll stop objectifying them.” In this moment, Megan is attributing sexist masculine traits to Graham. The only way, in her opinion, for Graham to become fully feminized, i.e., straight, will be for her to relinquish her internalization of a man’s objectification of women while simultaneously embracing the role of a woman as domestic (and by extension, sexual) servant to the man. Put another way, sex (biologically male or female) and gender (culturally masculine or feminine) are not interchangeable descriptors for Megan at this point. Even more disturbingly, she remains mentally trapped in the car with Jared, as she continues to make herself and other women objects of lust as much as she is trying to free Graham of her same-sex objectification.

Fortunately, Graham inspires Megan to join her one night to sneak out of the True Directions camp and go to a gay bar with her and other rebellious campers of both sexes. Their drivers, Lloyd and Larry Morgan-Gordon, two self-identified “ex-ex-gays” and former apprentices of True Directions, offer what Megan names an “underground homo railroad.” The Morgan-Gordon’s rebellion provides a movable space of sexual expression and freedom with their van[iv] and a safe geographical queer space with the gay bar, Cocksucker, itself[v]. In Cocksucker, a queer sexual egalitarianism exists, where gay men and lesbians alike commingle. As the camera pans around the bar, we see a butch lesbian couple kissing, gay and lesbian bartenders serving drinks, gay men and femme lesbians dancing together, and a burgeoning teen-queen from True Directions dancing like a disco star. In this space, Megan first slow dances with another girl. After she runs from the bar in fear and disgust of her actions, Graham catches up with her outside, and, in proximity of this queered space’s exterior, they experience a mutually satisfying kiss that reflects their shared sexual objectification of – and, subsequently, satisfaction with – one another.

Before Megan can fully embrace Graham as her lover, her problematic love of cheerleading must be addressed. Later, in the film, after the two sneak out of their dorm room and have sex in a secret spot in True Directions, they discuss Megan’s passion for cheerleading:

MEGAN: So it sounds stupid to you, but I really love it. Cheerleading’s the one thing that’s kept me happy. It’s exhilarating.

GRAHAM: I would love to see you cheer.

MEGAN. Don’t make fun of me!

GRAHAM: No I’m not, I’m not. Don’t you think maybe I’m just jealous that you love something?

For Megan, her heteronormative role of being cheerleader, despite her fellow cheerleaders not accepting her queerness, is one for which she feels a passion that approximates the intensity of her feelings for Graham. Her lover, in contrast, embodies Megan’s love of cheerleading as an incorporeal rival for her affections.

By the film’s climax, Megan has been booted out of True Directions as punishment for her queer rendezvous with Graham, and, unlike, her lover, she has refused to engage in the final test for graduation: sexual simulation with an opposite sex partner. At graduation, Megan nonetheless shows up dressed in her cheerleader uniform and expresses a personal cheer for Graham: “One, two, three, four, I won’t take no anymore. Five, six, seven, eight, I want you to be my mate. One, two, three, four, you’re the one that I adore. Five, six, seven, eight, don’t run from me ‘cause this is fate.” Thus, the gap of separation between Megan and Graham has become sutured as the heteronormative nature of the cheer, formerly a feminine device for encouraging male athletes to achieve victory in their respective testosterone-fueled sports, has been reengineered as a queer solidarity anthem for love and understanding between two women.


[i] Found in “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema,” Chapter 3 of Visual and Other Pleasures (Indiana University Press 1989).

[ii] Interestingly, it is the figure of Mike who made me think about the Combahee River Collective’s 1977 Statement, particularly their stance regarding allying themselves with black-male dominated political groups if they could forego any sexist attitudes. Perhaps they may have first extended this olive branch to black gay men, so that they could form a connection through a double commonality of color and queerness.

[iii] As part of their heteronormative rehabilitation process at True Directions, the females are dressed in pink outfits and dresses whereas the males are garbed in blue, although the latter’s clothing includes shiny suits and see-through shirts.

[iv] Regarding the automobile as an in-motion queer space, it would be appropriate to quote Karen Tongson in her conclusion to Relocations – Queer Suburban Imageries (New York University Press 2011), when she encourages “shifting our spatial fantasies about sexuality from one kind of street life to another: to the compensatory forms of motion and contact in spaces seemingly (if not actually) bereft of the urban luxury known as walking culture” ( 213).

[v] Definitely not situated in a metropolitan area, Cocksucker is probably located in a small town or rural space. Since the film does not mention specific locations, we should parse Cocksucker based on its virtue as a space for queer egalitarianism rather than its geographical exactitude.


One thought on “Synthesis #3: Suppressing and Igniting Lesbian Desire in But I’m a Cheerleader

  1. alexislothian

    But I’m a Cheerleader is one of my favorite films, and I enjoyed reading your analysis! The connections to queer ecologies and to Herring and Tongson’s analyses of queer rural/suburban space were especially interesting; I think the film could work well as a lens through which to analyse those texts, considering for example why the Morgan-Gordons choose to stay in the rural area near the homophobic camp once they have become “ex-ex gay”.

    There’s also so much in the film about cultural markers for queerness — the way Megan’s family stages an intervention due to factors that have more to do with her Melissa Etheridge fandom than anything they actually know about her desires, and the butch Latina character at the camp who identifies as straight, but no one will believe her due to her gender presentation. Your synthesis made me think about the way those markers could intersect with urban, suburban and rural as well as racialized identities, and about the places where in Sedgwick’s terms the meanings “don’t line up.” Are the characters queered by their cultural affiliations and gender tendencies regardless of their relationship to same sex desire?


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