The Individual Politics of the Coming Out Process in “Kissing Jessica Stein” and “But I’m a Cheerleader”
Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color, is set to hit U.S. theaters at the end of October. The first queer film to ever win the Palme D’Or, controversy has surrounded the film for its explicit sex scenes. Even before its U.S. release has garnered the film an NC-17 rating, being banned in Idaho and having reviews focus more on the sex scenes rather than the rest of the film.
While Keichiche’s film is flawed, many critics of the sex scenes bring up extremely valid points about the length, lack of realism and potential creepy exhibitionism that permeate these scenes. However, despite the questionable direction of Keichiche and the behind the scenes drama between the director and his actresses, Lea Seydoux and Adele Exarchopoulos give tremendous performances as two women falling in love and in particular Exarchopoulos as a woman who is struggling to figure out her sexuality.
The coming out process has been depicted in gay and lesbian films in a multitude of ways. It’s a process that obviously differs from individual to individual, the way Adele figures out her sexuality in Blue is the Warmest Color is completely different than the trajectories of Jessica in Kissing Jessica Stein or Megan in But I’m a Cheerleader.
Unlike Blue is the Warmest Color, both Kissing Jessica Stein and But I’m a Cheerleader certainly did not have the kind of dramatic or critical clout that the award winning drama has. Both could be seemingly written off as being merely fluffy lesbian romantic comedies, but both films have nuanced, individual portraits of women coming out and figuring out their sexuality.
Released in 2001, Kissing Jessica Stein, co-written by and starring Jennifer Westfeldt follows Jessica as she navigates her dating life in New York. She’s in her late twenties and has been going on a series of awful blind dates with a bevy of terrible men. When a particularly poignant (and favorite) Rilke quote appears in the women seeking women section of the personal ads, Jessica tentatively answers it. She meets Helen, the writer of the ad, an art gallerist.
The two embark into a relationship–neither having previously experienced being in relationships with another woman. Jessica is more hesitant than Helen when it comes to negotiating their relationship. She puts time tables on their sex life. However, when Jessica finally lets herself go, she and Helen’s relationship blossoms into everything Jessica had been looking for.
What’s not the easy part of the equation, for Jessica, is admitting that she’s in a relationship with a woman. Even though the people around her can see an obvious and happy change in her demeanor, Jessica is hesitant to tell her friends and family that she’s with Helen. She tells her friends but still is afraid to tell her family leading up to her brother’s wedding.
The two break it off, which clues Jessica’s mother into realizing that she’s been seeing Helen. In a particularly touching scene, her mother has a heart-to-heart with her ending simply with “she’s [Helen] a very nice girl.”
Her mother’s acceptance gives Jessica the strength to bring Helen to her brother’s wedding and come out to the rest of her family. Things get serious between Jessica and Helen but eventually don’t end up working out, but remain friends. While the status of Jessica’s sexuality is uncertain at the end of the film, which for many could be a detractor, Jessica came into her relationship with Helen as a straight woman and came out as something more ambiguous. But Jessica still went through her own coming out process which will ultimately help her to figure out what she wants in a partner and what she wants in terms of herself.
While Kissing Jessica Stein isn’t outrightly political with Jessica’s coming out process, though it can be argued that coming out in anyway is inherently political, Jamie Babbit’s But I’m a Cheerleader despite its candy-coated, campy veneer treats the coming out process in squarely political terms.
Released in 1999, But I’m a Cheerleader starred some of the up and coming teen stars Natasha Lyonne (American Pie) and Clea DuVall (The Faculty) in a decidedly queerer package than their teen film contemporaries.
Lyonne stars as Megan, a popular cheerleader, who has great parents and a great boyfriend but something is off. And Megan isn’t the only one who can sense it. Her friends and family stage an intervention because they think that Megan is a lesbian.
She’s sent to a gay conversion camp, led by Mike (RuPaul – inspired casting). In the series of steps that Mike and the other instructors teach Megan and her fellow “students” learning traditional gender roles, speaking about family problems and even simulated heterosexual intercourse in order to get rid of the gay. Megan bonds with her fellow classmates, learning more about them during lunches and illicit trips to gay bars. In particular, she becomes close to Graham (DuVall), a melancholy gothy-punk girl, who is very aware that her gay cannot be cured away.
Megan and Graham, despite their very different personalities, begin to fall for one another. When they are discovered sneaking out to have sex, Megan is kicked out of the camp and Graham is unwilling, due to her fear of her family disowning her, to follow Megan.
Megan joins another former classmate at the home of Larry and Lloyd, a couple who were also two ex-students of the camp. Megan and Dolph (Dante Basco) plan to infiltrate the graduation to reclaim their loves. In a poignant, tearful and extremely political moment, previously straitlaced, religious Megan takes her straight-girl cheerleader drag and uses it to acknowledge who she is and to win over Graham. While Megan’s cheer to Graham could be written off as a merely cheesy romantic gesture, it is instead a powerful political statement that takes cultural perceptions of the heterosexual cheerleader and queers them. Megan coming out in this manner, gives her the agency to reconcile both her lesbian identity with who she has always been, making it clear that she doesn’t have to change one or the other to be who she truly is.
No matter the manner in which the coming out process is done–from Jessica’s hesitation, Megan’s brave, cheerful declaration or in Keichiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color, Adele’s non-coming out–acknowledging one’s sexuality in anyway is a highly personal, brave and always political process.