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+ But I’m a Cheerleader review by Stephen Tropiano


We’re all walking a tightrope


In an alternate universe, Jamie Babbit might have been a cheerleader. She could pass for perky; and has the kind of self-confidence, wit, and good humor that seem necessary for such a high-energy line of work. But she’s not a cheerleader. She’s a 20-something filmmaker who’s determined to make a difference. And so perhaps it’s not surprising that she’s already had her share of first-time-out kind of troubles with her first feature, the highly stylized romantic comedy, But I’m a Cheerleader.


The cotton-candy-pink-and-blue-colored parody of 12-stepping homophobia initially received an NC-17 from the MPAA, who cited, among other things, a non-graphic lesbian scene between stars Natasha Lyonne and Clea Duvall. Babbit trimmed the scenes for an R rating and then learned that Fine Line was dropping the film two months before its April 2000 opening. Lions Gate picked it up soon after, and Babbit’s happy with their handling of the film. For better or worse, Babbit is used to dealing with censors, as both an independent director (in 1998, she made the acclaimed short, “Sleeping Beauties”) and as a producer and director on the WB’s campy high school series, Popular. With all this behind her, Babbit is a lively interview subject, quick on her feet and refreshingly honest.



Cynthia Fuchs:

How did you put the film together?



Jamie Babbit:

I’ve worked my way up in film over the past eight years, as a PA [production assistant], through the ranks, starting in New York. I moved to LA because I fell in love, and the girl I fell in love with is a producer [Andrea Sperling]. I was pretty miserable on some of these jobs, and she encouraged me to make a change. She produced “Sleeping Beauties” and I directed it. And after that, we were brainstorming for a feature idea, and I had worked out an article on an ex-gay conversion camp, like 4 years ago. I couldn’t write it, because, though I’ve never been formally trained in either area, I know more about directing than writing. So we found this random guy [Brian Wayne Peterson], who just graduated from USC Film School in the Writing Program and had written a script about a gay cowboy, which I liked, and I presented him a ten-page treatment, plus a stack of research on conversion camps, and he said sure. She was able to pull the financing together, for $1 million, and then we called everyone we knew—we’ve both been in the business for a while—and had a great casting director, who contacted a lot of different talent, who took the film seriously, even though it was low budget. If you’re super-determined, things can work out.



CF:

How was it working with your partner on this first feature?



JB:

It can be hard, but I’ve always had a second producer. I think it actually made our relationship better. My girlfriend is really good at her job. She’s produced 12 films, some of them for complete assholes, with whom she’s still friends, much to my chagrin. She’s so good at her job that I never once had a question about what she was doing, and I think I’m a lot nicer than some people she’s worked with. It worked well for us.



CF:

Talk about the style of the film, which has been compared to John Waters more than once.



JB:

I have a pop sensibility, but the film includes other types of things that I like, whether it’s John Waters or photographs by David La Chapelle. Edward Scissorhands was a really big influence on me, and the whole Barbie collection: Barbie dreamhouse, Barbie clothes, Barbie Barbie. The script is so simple and conventional, a romantic comedy, I wanted to layer the material in other ways. So I wanted the production design to reflect the themes, like the artificiality of gender construction, like you’re more of a man if you can chop wood. It’s so stupid. The production designer and costume designer and I worked out a progression from the beginning where the look is more organic, to something more plastic. So, in the first scene in Megan’s house, here’s wood furniture and it’s brown, like earth. As soon as she drives to the conversion camp, True Directions, the world becomes more Technicolor-fake, and she goes from wearing cotton to wearing polyester. In the end, everyone’s wearing plastic and everything is more and more absurd, like the fake sky behind the door. And we tried to give it a very homoerotic aspect, so that on all the boys’ sets, there are lots of phallic objects, as jokes, but also showing how if you repress something, it comes out in other ways.



CF:

And how are you using camp in the film?



JB:

The history of camp has pretty much been defined by gay men, so I wanted to be sure that the film, while using camp, also had real emotional moments, that it was a romance. John Waters hates romantic comedies; he thinks they’re cheesy. But there’s a certain part of me that is cheesy. I’m a small town girl when it comes to relationships, and I wanted to tell a conventionally romantic story. So while there are scenes of high camp, there are also scenes of the girls sitting on a hill, talking about their lives. Some people say that I’m trying to be John Waters but the film doesn’t have that bite; I don’t want it to have that bite. What’s important to me is to have an emotional center for the comedy. If I were writing a paper about it, I’d say it’s feminization of the camp aesthetic, bringing emotion to something that’s hyperrealized.



CF:

How do you work with our given vocabulary for gender, visual as well as verbal, where all the terms are binary?



JB:

You make fun of it while celebrating it. It is a love-hate relationship. We are stuck with this, the language, images, history, archetypes. For all of that I feel like it’s possible to challenge and empower ourselves through it. It’s not unlike black people appropriating the word “nigger.” It’s a shitty word, with a bad history, but if you use it enough times within your own context, it loses power. So, in the past, “feminization” could mean something really negative, like a weakening, but now it’s different.



CF:

Do you think there’s a generational shift in thinking about gender and sex identities and conversion camps?



JB:

Well, Exodus is certainly an extreme in 50s thinking. It’s a joke. But at the same time, it is all around us, just more subtle and insidious than it might have been once. My parents are super-liberal, but my brother still had army men on his wallpaper, and I had flowers and dolls.



CF:

Mary Brown [the camp’s head mistress, played by Cathy Moriarty] seems the major embodiment of this extremity.



JB:

Well, yeah. She’s germophobic, so everything is plastic, and she’s all about AIDS-paranoia and all that stuff. And it’s everything that’s against nature, so she doesn’t have real flowers, she has plastic flowers. She doesn’t want anything organic, because it’s scary. That’s in some ways based on my mother, whose parents were hardcore alcoholic drug addicts. So for her, if a room is messy, then her mom’s getting wasted. For me, it’s just a messy room, but it makes her depressed, and that’s how Mary feels. Everything has to be ordered, and if not, it relates back to her son or herself, or her husband [whom we never see] who’s run away to San Francisco.



CF:

How do you see the film working through or challenging the desire to be “normal”?



JB:

The thing about being gay is that it doesn’t necessarily mean that you’re a strong person. There are plenty of people who can’t deal in life and who happen to be gay also, so it seems like just another reason to be unhappy. In the film, Megan [Natasha Lyonne] starts off as a cheerleader, that icon of American femininity, which establishes the dichotomy, “normal” and “perverted.” And at the end, it comes together, “pervert” and “cheerleader.” So the title has two points. At the beginning, it’s “but I’m a cheerleader, I’m not gay,” and at the end, it’s “but I’m a cheerleader and I am gay.” That’s why she does the cheerleading at the end, because I wanted her to be gay but still be who she was, and not get on a Harley and ride off. Brian kept telling me we needed to earmark her change somehow, but I wanted her to keep her identity as a cheerleader. In that way, the film challenges the stereotypes even within the community.



CF:

How are you thinking about the Rainbow guys, who protest the camp, as stereotypes and counter-stereotypes?



JB:

The ex-ex-gays? Well, I wanted to poke fun at the Religious Right, but also at my own community. I certainly know people who own everything Rainbow ever made, the mugs and the coasters and the wallpaper. It’s a little much.



CF:

Can you talk some about the media representations of gay teens, say, on the WB, where on Buffy, Tara and Willow haven’t been able to kiss yet on screen (only in a cut away to Xander’s reaction), but on Dawson’s, there’s a brief kiss between boys, and then a big letdown.



JB:

The WB said that we could have a kiss [on Popular], and two girls kissed, and then they made me cut before the kiss. It was a big deal, because they said yes and then no and then yes. And they ended up saying, “You can put in the kiss, but it will draw attention to the show.” And right now, we have so many lesbian references in the show that they would then probably not get by the censors. So the executive producer, who’s gay, decided not to include the kiss. We’re always negotiating and getting things by, so that some people don’t notice, but our gay audience can get it. We’re all walking a tightrope. A lot of the higher ups at the WB are gay, and it’s just a matter of not pissing off the Christian Right so they don’t go to the advertisers, and Maybelline doesn’t pull its ads off Buffy. The public’s tolerance is getting higher and higher, and now that Dawson’s Creek has done it, it’s set a precedent.



CF:

Is it easier to do any of this in films than on television?



JB:

In independent films you can do whatever you want, but then you have to find a distributor. Lions Gate has been pretty open, and I don’t think they would have minded it being more graphic.



CF:

How does it play for different audiences?



JB:

We did a lot of test screenings early on, and the people who respond the most strongly are women, gay or straight, it doesn’t matter, mostly under thirty. That happens to be who the filmmaker is, so maybe that’s part if it. But that’s why it’s important for more women to direct. There are so few.



CF:

What do you make of the overwhelming whiteness of our pop cultural landscape?



JB:

For my film, we always had RuPaul’s character as black, and the two boys at the camp as Asian and Latino. So I made an effort, and I do feel like you need to be responsible, as a filmmaker, to cast that way. There’s so much racism at every level of making movies. The casting directors don’t bring them in, the agents don’t sign them because there’s less work, so you have to look harder as a director, but I feel it’s your responsibility to do that. Fifty percent of my crew was African American, because I had an awesome line producer who hired them. But at the WB, there’s not one person of color who works as a writer, producer, or director. And there’s maybe three who work on a crew of like 150. And for women, it’s just as bad. I totally believe in affirmative action in hiring and everything else. Actually, my first choice for Megan, before Natasha Lyonne, was Rosario Dawson, but my executive producer wouldn’t let me. He had a point, that I was creating this All-American character. And he said, “Jamie, she’s Puerto Rican,” and I said, “Yeah, but that’s American!” We have so many battles to fight.

Cynthia Fuchs is director of Film & Media Studies and Associate Professor of English, Film & Video Studies, African and African American Studies, Sport & American Culture, and Women and Gender Studies at George Mason University.


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