The year before Bring it On hit it big, Jamie Babbit’s film But I’m a Cheerleader debuted, featuring Natasha Lyonne as Megan, a 17-year-old girl whose family and friends send to an ex-gay conversion camp after deciding she is a little too interested in Melissa Etheridge and vegetarian cusine.
“The reason we wanted to have the lead character be a cheerleader is because, for us, it was sort of the pinnacle of the American dream, and the American dream of femininity,” Babbit told Reel.com. “The idea that girls grow up and they are brainwashed to want to be a cheerleader, you know, while, like, the guys play the aggressive sports and make millions of dollars. The girls cheer them on, you know, and make five cents, and show their legs. We just wanted it to be like this sort of stereotypical, you know, teen, teen — teen dream.”
As Babbit noted, in the ‘90s, cheerleaders were seen as feminine and the teenage ideal for a lady, and lesbians were the antithesis of that. And it worked out well — the juxtaposition of a young girl who was so out of touch with her sexual desires and orientation having to then own up to it and try to shake it off among her gay peers was funny and smart and also socially conscious. It wouldn’t have worked as well for Megan to be a softball player or something stereotypically lesbian — the point was that a lesbian could look like anyone or be anyone — even someone who wears skirts and thrusts pom pons in the air.
Megan was a lesbian character that managed to escape the lesbian character problem so many others have: Being a sex symbol to men or being sexless. She was a normal girl and she was gay. She was also a cheerleader.
”I’d seen a short film that Angela Robinson did in film school that was a documentary about a big cheerleading competition,” Babbbit said. “It had a lesbian filmmaker vibe to the camera’s gaze but I’d never seen lesbian cheerleaders per se.”
At the time, lesbian visibility on television and film was considerably low. There were gay female characters on All My Children and Dark Angel, but that was about it. ER didn’t have their lesbian storyline until the following year, and even Lost and Delirious wasn’t released until 2001. So most representations of lesbian life were tragic (they died) or completely de-sexed (the character referred to herself as a lesbian but never engaged in physical contact with another woman).
So when But I’m a Cheerleader focused on a normal young woman who realized she wanted to embrace her homosexuality instead of repress it, and she didn’t die in the end, it was a great success. Even today, the film remains a favorite in the LGBT and indie film communities.