Was the world ready for But I’m a Cheerleader in 2000? Queer filmmaker Jamie Babbit doesn’t think so. She also doesn’t care.
The satirical lesbian rom-com — a pastel-hued camp-fest about a bubbly cheerleader who is shipped away to a conversion-therapy camp — was Babbit’s feature-length debut. She was in her 20s at the time and had only worked on shorts. The film’s stacked cast includes Natasha Lyonne, Clea DuVall, and a young RuPaul, whose out-of-drag appearance was a rarity at the time. Speaking to NewNowNext, Babbit describes it as “a Riot Grrrl version of Clueless“: “There were only depressing movies about gay people, and I knew that queer women didn’t really have comedies to watch that were fun movies with happy endings.”
Today, But I’m a Cheerleader is considered a classic among LGBTQ cinephiles, so much so that Babbit, now 50, and the cast reunited for a new 20th-anniversary director’s cut, out today (Tuesday, December 8). But when the film first premiered, it elicited an entirely different reaction from some queer viewers: distaste.
But I’m a Cheerleader was slammed with an NC-17 rating for featuring a non-explicit lesbian sex scene, which Babbit has openly contested (“I called the ratings people and said, ’Why did I get an NC-17? There’s nothing in this film.’ They said, ’Well, we think in the darkness, there’s a lot of things happening.’ And I was like, ’Okay, but it’s just really dark, and there’s actually nothing happening.'” The ratings board made her lighten the footage and send it back to them to verify.)
The film was panned by critics, including older gay men, who took issue with its depictions of gay male characters. “They also didn’t like that it was making fun of a serious topic because the AIDS crisis was still in deep tragedy in the gay community,” she says. “There weren’t a lot of comedies being made, to be honest, so I think they really resented the tone.” Entertainment Weekly even gave But I’m a Cheerleader an F, something Babbit, an avid EW subscriber, had never seen before. Meanwhile, younger queer people in Babbit’s circle loved the movie.
If she were a different person, Babbit would have quit directing after critics tore her first feature to shreds. But she was emboldened by the bad reviews, not deterred. “I knew I struck a chord, which I kind of liked,” she remembers. “Like, ’Oh, I didn’t get a C or even a B. I got an F. The older generation hates this movie.” She cites the Riot Grrrl movement’s DIY ethos as a source of inspiration: “They were very empowering because they were like, ’You don’t need a record label, just fucking make your music.’ So I was like, ’I don’t need these people. Fuck Entertainment Weekly. They were never going to help me, anyway, sexist pieces of shit.'”
Her instincts proved right. In the 20 years since But I’m a Cheerleader, Babbit has had an impressively wide-ranging career as a director and filmmaker, working on episodes of everything from Gilmore Girls to Netflix’s Russian Doll. She was nominated for a Primetime Emmy Award in 2017 for her work on Silicon Valley. What’s more, But I’m a Cheerleader has also nabbed the attention of Starz, which plans to eventually adapt the film into a TV series (the project is currently stalled, Babbit says). A musical based on the film is in the works, too.
Among Babbit’s lengthy list of directing credits is Popular (1999–2001), the first television show from the now-prolific Ryan Murphy (Glee, Pose). The short-lived WB series was also a first for Babbit, who at the time had yet to direct for TV. After seeing one of Babbit’s shorts, Murphy invited her to direct an episode of Popular. They hit it off, so Murphy asked her to come back. She said yes and directed 11 episodes over the course of two years.
At the time, Babbit was immensely grateful that Murphy took a chance on her so early in her career. Years later, she also understands how special that opportunity was: “It’s not like Ryan had any power. He was brand new. He’d never done anything, but he [must have told execs], ’Fuck you. I’m hiring her.'”
Babbit has tried her best to pay it forward and empower other LGBTQ people in film. “A lot of directors have come to me and said ’thank you,’ ’you were inspiring,'” she says.
Her work has gone a long way toward shattering lavender ceilings, too. A prime example? But I’m a Cheerleader, which was arguably the first rom-com of its kind about a lesbian couple. It paved the way for a new generation of queer genre films — including Happiest Season, Hulu’s hugely popular queer Christmas movie directed and co-written by But I’m a Cheerleader star Clea DuVall.
Babbit still keeps tabs on But I’m a Cheerleader cast members like RuPaul, who has gone on to break barriers and snatch Emmys with RuPaul’s Drag Race. (Babbit has seen “every episode,” and her favorite queen is Bob the Drag Queen.) She’s also stayed in touch with DuVall and Lyonne, both of whom were her friends prior to starring in her movie. She and DuVall even had a friendly rivalry over casting out actor Victor Garber, who ended up in Happiest Season. “I’m very proud of Clea,” Babbit gushes. “Obviously, it’s a dream to see a Christmas movie with gay content.”
“I was punished for [But I’m a Cheerleader],” she adds. “I really, really was. I was just like, ‘I don’t care. I’m just going to do my own weird stuff, and hopefully the world will catch up.’ And I think it did, which is great.”
The director’s cut of But I’m a Cheerleader is out now.