Many Battles to Fight
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 20something filmmaker who's determined to make a difference. Which makes
it unsurprising that she's 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 about their handling of the film. For better or worse,
Babbit is used to dealing with censors, as both an independent director (she
made th e acclaimed short, 1998's "Sleeping Beauties") and as a
producer and director on the WB's campy high school series, Popular.
her experience, it's probably no surprise that Babbit is a lively interview
subject, quick on her feet and refreshingly honest.
How did you put the film together?
I"ve worked my way up in film over the past eight years, as a PA, 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 I 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.
How was it working with your partner on this first feature?
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, and has
produced 12 films, some of them for complete assholes, whom she's still friends
with, 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.
Talk about the style of the film, which has been compared to John Waters more
I have a pop sensibility, but the film includes other types of things that I
like, whether it's John Waters or photographers by David La Chapelle. Edward
Scissorhands was a really big influence for 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 her house, there'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.
And how are you using camp in the film?
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 when 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, but 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
That raises an interesting question, which begins like this: those who would
like to think of ourselves as enlightened or working through definitions and
constructions of gender, and gendering as a process, we're still stuck with a
vocabulary. So that, in the film, there's a clear visual vocabulary of gender.
Right, 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.
Do you think there's a generational shift in thinking about gender and sex
identities and conversion camps?
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.
Mary Brown [the camp's head mistress, played by Cathy Moriarty] seems the major
embodiment of this extremity.
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 if your 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.
How do you see the film working through or challenging the desire to be
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, and at the end of the film, 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 in 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. I that way, the film challenges the stereotypes even within the
community. Just last month, we had a review in the San Francisco Chronicle,
which gave a synopsis of the film, because it was the closing night film for the
San Francisco Gay and Lesbian Film Festival. But the reviewer said that it was
"the story about a girl who's straight, who goes to rehab and becomes
Did he see the movie?
He did see the movie, and that's what he saw. And I swear to god, if she had
short hair and a motorcycle jacket, and the plot continued exactly along the
same lines, she would have been a gay girl who went to rehab to become straight.
That's exactly what I'm challenging in the film, not just that conversion
doesn't work, but we don't need to stereotype within our own community.
How are you thinking about the Rainbow guys, who protest against the camp, as
stereotypes and counter-stereotypes?
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.
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.
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 these 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
their 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.
Is it easier to do any of this in films than on television?
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.
How does it play for different audiences?
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.
In terms of his pop cultural landscape, what do you make of the overwhelming
whiteness of it, in particular for queer representation, for instance on the tv
shows we've been talking about. I can only think of Michael Boatman on Spin
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.
Click here to read Cynthia Fuch's review.