The term ‘cult classic’ gets used more than I’m comfortable with what with having been in a cult and not being considered classic by anyone, but I do think it’s important to recognise that the term has some weight. For example, this movie, D.E.B.S, pronounced ‘Debs’ is considered a cult classic of LGBTQ media. It does this in a way that if this movie came out in 2023, it would be considered a pretty funny epsiode of a TV Show, with no edge or bite to it. It looks like a pretty fun Onlyfans promotional poster. It has the overall aesthetic of The Porno Version Of Itself. D.E.B.S. is a lot of things and one of them is cheap.
But it’s also a lot of fun.
Content and Spoiler Warning: I think it’s important to say up front that despite being a pop-punk comedy movie from 2004 renowned as a ‘cult classic’ in queer communities, this is a movie that both asks and tells, and to my surprise featured just one instance of ‘oh well that didn’t age well’ in the form of an incidental drop of the r-word. I’m also going to spoil the whole movie’s plot but don’t worry if you’ve ever seen a TV Show you’ve probably already spoiled it for yourself.
D.E.B.S tells the story of a something-like-a-college where young women from I think mostly just schools in the United States, who else does the SAT? Oh, France, I think. So France and the United States. Anyway, it’s a test that runs under the SAT that finds out if you’re secretly good for recruiting into the D.E.B.S, which stands for… something, it doesn’t matter. You know the vibe of like, Josie and the Pussycats? Yeah, that, that, it’s that kinda thing. What, that’s not a universal touchstone?
Look this is a camp superhero special effects driven James Bond style movie that looks like a really fancy episode of a TV show. And when I say camp, I mean it – there’s this persistent reliance on excess in its presentation. You don’t just see a viewscreen of a shouting boss, you see every frame in the building a viewscreen of that shouting boss. And let me tell you when Michael Clarke Duncan shows up and shouts as the opening of your movie on a hundred screens, you’re kinda setting the tone for how subtle you don’t want to be.
This movie, which you might notice I keep calling ‘this movie’ instead of its actual name because typing out its name is annoying, is notable for being one of a long list of box office failures that some people think is great. For example, John Travolta is probably a pretty big fan of Gotti, a movie with a budget of 10 million dollars that maybe made a generous six million dollars. This means that Gotti‘s difference between its budget and take is about 3.6 million dollars, which just happens to be about the combined budget and box office take of D.E.B.S. Which is to say, this movie cost about 3.5 million to make and made maybe a hundred thousand. If we’re generous on the rounding.
I guess I should also say that when I say ‘this is a gay movie’ I mean it. This movie asks and tells. This movie is about two women who are of the time I think meant to be particularly hot, but not, you know, improperly hot, who get involved with one another and there are makeouts and they’re shown in bed and someone else calls it a lesbian fling and they ride off into the moonlight together. It’s not just unambiguously gay in the way we say that about anime where the girls touch each other’s hands, it’s like, gay enough that active denial runs aground.
You might be kinda surprised to learn that this wasn’t super common. Sure, girl on girl kissing showed up in things but it wasn’t like it was a proof of anything gay – Cruel Intentions was a franchise spun out of, essentially, one girl-on-girl kiss from characters we spent decades arguing isn’t really actually lesbian. You see women making out in The Sopranos, it doesn’t make that a piece of great gay media of the 00s. But it is surprising! Effort was made and these are two distinct-from-one-another women, one openly lesbian, one curious-then-considering-then-committing, and they have a relationship with disagreements and common interests and this shouldn’t be so bloody remarkable!
Stripped to the studs this is just a typical high school drama story set in the generic space between 15 and 20 that is meant to be young enough to be universally relatable but old enough that nobody needs to consider it’s probably a crime to want to see anyone’s nipples. It’s in the same it’s just a school drama story with dating but the school drama is about spies, and instead of the head cheerleader and the prom and the will-they-won’t-they-quit where the bad boy gets a haircut and learns to talk nicely to someone’s parents, are a Sexy Spy, the prom is the Best Spy award, and the bad boy is a bad girl.
I’m not about the somewhat muddy politics of the ambitious black member of the group being lying and conniving and in the way, until she’s not. It’s one of those things where in a cast of four characters, where you have to dole out the roles of Main Character, Idiot, Asshole, and Narc, the only place in the calculus where the black girl doesn’t get handed a stereotype ball to run with is main character and while this movie was trying interesting things, it wouldn’t try something as interesting as letting a black woman play the central protagonist in a queer action comedy with an otherwise principly white cast.
Which is a shame because that sure would be interesting.
What else is there, hmm, oh yeah, the characters have terrible trigger discipline, but also the guns are pretty comically shiny and silly. Like I’m sure a serious gun person could watch this movie and dismantle all the silly ways the guns are handled. Oh yeah the soundtrack whips, it’s not like true bangers of the era but it’s the kind of sound, the vibe of the times. Scud. I like Scud. I think Scud is pretty funny and walks the line between obviously evil and obviously hilarious. Uhhh what else then, what’s left.
And, uh, it’s fun! It’s really fun! It’s a funny movie, though not for the reasons it necessarily thinks it is, and it’s a movie that’s trying to be funny. It’s funny because it’s a little bit awkward and a bit cringe and it’s trying hard to do things that are at the time pretty fun and positive, even though it’s just…
It’s not good at it.