Notes on camp/anti-camp
Se Camper (Fr) – to pose in an exaggerated fashion
In this essay I will argue for a broader, if not necessarily desirable, definition of camp, expanding it to include a variety of subcategories, and providing examples, to wit:
Classic “Gay” Camp
Carmen Miranda * Mae West * Joan Crawford Bette Davis * Whatever Happened To Baby Jane * Art Nouveau * Art Deco * the Catholic Church * George Kuchar * Franklyn Pangborn * Edward Everett Horton * Paul Lynde * Charles Nelson Reilly al The Boys in the Band * The Killing of Sister George * John Waters movies * Divine * Maria Montez * Holly Woodlawn * Candy Darling * Jackie Curtis * Liberace
Bad Gay Camp
Will and Grace * Queer Eye for the Straight Guy * Misogynist Drag Queens Neil Patrick Harris * Contemporary Broadway Musicals * Certain Ken Russell Films (The Boy Friend) * Perez Hilton * Adam Lambert * Liberace
Good Straight Camp
Woody Allen’s dramatic films such as Interiors and September * Certain Robert Altman films such as That Cold Day in the Park, Images, and 3 Women * Certain John Cassavetes films such as The Killing of a Chinese Bookie and Minnie and Moscowitz
Bad Straight Camp
Stanley Tucci in The Devil Wears Prada and The Hunger Games * Twilight * The Black Swan * Il Divo * Star Wars * Adam Sandler movies * Che Guevera * Damien Hirst * Tim Burton movies (except for Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Ed Wood) * Arnold Schwarzenegger * Jeff Koons * Tropic Thunder * Benny Hill * Beyonce * Lady Gaga
Oscar Wilde * Jean Cocteau
Vaudeville.’ Burlesque * Bawdy humour ‘J Moms Mabley * Sophie Tucker Bette Midler’s bathhouse routines
Mae West performing ‘Love Will Keep Us Together’ in Sextet * Elizabeth Taylor and Noel Coward in Boom! * Myra Breckenridge * Valley of the Dolls
Bad Ultra Camp
Liza Minnelli performing ‘Put A Ring On It’ in Sex and the City 2
Jerry Lewis’ sixties movies such as The Ladies Man, The Patsy, and The Big Mouth * Midnight Cowboy * Looking For Mr. Goodbar * Cruising
Rock Hudson/Doris Day movies * Roddy McDowell’s Tam Lin * Brett Anderson of Suede * Pee Wee Herman
Tyler Perry * Eddie Murphy * Heavy Metal
Dr. Ruth * Rev. Al Sharpton * Shepard Fairey’s Obama Hope poster
Kirk Cameron * Sarah Palin * Newt Gingrich * Mitt Romney * Ann Coulter * Fox News * The Iron Lady
The Shining * Casino Royale with Daniel Craig * Green Acres (TV Show)
Lost in Space (TV Show) * Eyes Wide Shut * J. Edgar * Valley of the Dolls * The Iron Lady
Good Intentional Straight Camp
Russ Meyer movies * Carry On movies
In order to gain a new perspective on camp, let us first re-examine some of the precepts of Susan Sontag’s seminal if problematic essay ‘Notes on Camp’, published in 1964. First and foremost, Sontag points out that camp is a sensibility, and more significantly, a variant of sophistication. As a prime example of camp that perhaps fits outside of its ‘normal’ definition, let us consider John Cassavetes’ masterpiece The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. The ultra-campy M.C. of the strip joint that Ben Gazarra owns and operates in the film calls himself ‘Mr. Sophistication’. The role is played by Meade Roberts, who wrote the screenplay for Tennessee Williams’ Summer and Smoke (which verges on (good gay) camp: Geraldine Page’s mannered acting style, especially her performances in films like Williams’ Sweet Bird of Youth and Woody Allen’s Interiors, always err on the side of camp), and who also appears in Cassavetes’ brilliant Opening Night, which I would argue, along with The Killing of a Chinese Bookie, can be classified as (good straight) camp. Theatrical stages and performance figure prominently in both films, a particular earmark of camp, but both works also contain his trademark improvisational, naturalistic, almost documentary style, a tendency that would seem to run against the high artifice and theatricality of classic camp. Therefore one could argue that Cassavetes’ oeuvre generally embodies two essential qualities that para-doxically both reaffirm and eschew camp, evincing a high sophistication of form that would tend to reinforce the former.
The essence of camp, according to Sontag, is its love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration. She points to its esoteric nature, amounting to a private code or a secretly shared badge of identity. Further, she states that `to talk about camp is to therefore betray it’, simultaneously reinforcing and rejecting her own deep connection to the camp sensibility. She goes on to say that `to name a sensibility… requires a deep sympathy modified by revulsion’, a remarkable statement considering that her own article on camp can be considered both camp in itself and a betrayal of it. (Sig-nificantly, Sontag was in a long-term relationship with Annie Liebowitz, a purveyor, in her theatrical photography style, of camp, or, arguably, bad lesbian camp.)
Sontag identifies camp as ‘a sensibility that converts the serious into the frivolous’ (rendering her article another kind of betrayal by taking camp far too seriously), and as a matter of ‘taste’ that ‘governs every free (as opposed to rote) human response.’ Camp, then, is also an existential con-dition as much as a sensibility: an enormously serious frivolity.
Sontag rightly points out that camp is a certain mode of aestheticism, which is not to say beauty, but a high degree of artifice and stylization. (One could easily argue that the contemporary abandonment of the aes-thetic dimension in favour of realpolitik and mundane, conventional so-cial issues has been disastrous to the gay experience and its former camp sensibility.) But her most crucial betrayal of camp comes in her statement that camp is ‘neutral to content’, and thereby ‘disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical’. This is where I most strongly disagree with Sontag’s idea of camp. My idealized conception of camp is that it is by its very nature political, subversive, even revolutionary, at least in its most pure and sophisticated manifestations.
As I mentioned, Sontag’s camp manifesto of camp was published almost fifty years ago, and it’s clear that it is no longer adequate to lump together all styles and modes of camp. Distinctions must be made, and the evolu-tion or devolution of the sensibility, it’s movement through (accelerated) history, must be taken into consideration. I would go so far as to argue that ‘camp’ has replaced ‘irony’ as the go-to sensibility in popular cul-ture, and it has, at the risk of generalization, long since lost its essential qualities of esoteric sophistication and secret signification, partly owing to the contemporary tendency of the gay sensibility to allow itself to be thoroughly co-opted, its mystery, and therefore its power, hopelessly diffused. In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, I will argue that now, in this moment, the whole goddamn world is camp.
A critic in Harper’s Bizarre once identified irony as ‘the ideological white noise of the nineties’, a proclamation that always stuck with me. This wasn’t to say that irony no longer operated as a useful device or sensibility, or that it could no longer be used to subtle or witty effect. It simply meant that irony had itself been normalized and generalized into the default sensibility of the entire popular culture, thereby rendering it more difficult to detect and less effective to use unless expressed very carefully and consciously for a particular effect. The net result was that much of the general populous (now roughly equivalent to ‘pop culture’) had adopted the posture as a given to the extent that people generally lost track of its meaning or purpose: there was a kind of ironic detachment from every-thing. People started routinely to say the opposite of what they meant, and meant it, failing to understand that their ‘sensibility’ had become a betrayal of their actual former set of beliefs or tastes, which they even perhaps once held sacred. So in a sense, irony became a malaise, a kind of generalized disaffection that infected the dominant culture. I would argue that this is what opened up the floodgates for the rise of camp culture, which you might go so far as to call the ideological white noise of the new millennium.
Camp is now for the masses. It’s a sensibility that has been appropriated by the mainstream, fetishized, commoditized, turned into a commodity fetish, and exploited by a hypercapitalist system, as Adorno warned. It still has many of the earmarks of ‘classic camp’ – an emphasis on artifice and exaggeration and the unnatural, a spirit of extravagance, a kind of grand theatricality. It’s still based on a certain aestheticism and styliza-tion. But what’s lacking is the sophistication, and especially the notion of esotericism, something shared by a group of insiders, or rather, out-siders, a secret code shared among a certain ‘campiscentf. Sadly, most of it falls under the category of ‘Bad Straight Camp.’
What is Bad Straight Camp? Examples would include the exaggerated and stylized streetwalker/stripper style co-opted by many contemporary pop music celebrities, from Rihanna to Britney and Christina on down, a performative femininity by females filtered through drag queens that has transmogrified into an arguably more ‘avant-garde’ style (Lady Gaga, Nikki Minaj) characterized by hyper-referentiality, extreme hyperbole, a crudely obvious, unnuanced female sexuality, and even a vaguely por-nographic sensibility which, unhappily, is post-feminist to the point of misogyny: a capitulation to the male gaze, to classic tropes of objectification and a collusion with patriarchal institutions. Obviously it’s not the form itself that is reactionary: strippers, street-smart drag queens, female porn stars and hookers have often evinced a radically exaggerat-ed appearance that transcends and deflects patriarchal co-optation. The problem is its utter and complete normalization and de-contextualization away from subversive or transgressive, countercultural impulses in the service of capitalist exploitation, utterly heteronormative in practice and corporate in tone. The great gay camp icons of the past – Barbara Stanwyck, Tallulah Bankhead, Marlene Dietrich, Mae West – had a sexual ambiguity (all were either practicing lesbians or bisexuals, or, in the case of West, played with androgyny to the degree that her final performance – her autopsy – was necessary to prove her biological femaleness) that extended deeply into real life. The modern gay camp icons are decidedly straight, although perversely they still attract throngs of homosexual admirers, who seem now to prefer their idols to be sexually convention-al females dressed up in extreme and flamboyant style. One need look no further than battered-wife syndrome star Rihanna or super-conven-tional, baby-bump exhibitionist Beyonce, both utterly content to express themselves in the traditional wife and/or mother roles. (Interestingly, more contemporary camp musical icons like Michael Jackson and Whitney Houston, who most likely evinced unorthodox and ‘deviant’ sexuality in their real lives, tend to come to a bad end.)
Other examples of Bad Straight Camp might include the genres of extreme gross-out comedy (The Hangover franchise, Melissa McCarthy movies), certain instances of torture porn (the horror genre has large-ly been infused now with a camp sensibility, whether self-consciously (the Scream franchise) or otherwise (Martyrs, High Tension, etc.); and of course, last but not least, Reality TV, including such camp-fests as Mob Wives, The Real Housewife franchise, Toddlers and Tiaras and Jersey Shore, to name only a few. (The fact that all are probably gay-friendly does little to ameliorate their general heteronormative, capitalist and materialist tenor, with the notable exception of Honey Boo-Boo.)
This new annexation and corruption of the camp sensibility now exists largely without the qualities of sophistication and secret signification that were developed out of neccessity by the underground or outsider gay world, which originally created camp as a kind of gay signifying practice not unrelated to black signifying, or even black minstrely. It was devel-oped as a secret language in order to identify onself to like-minded or similarly closeted homosexuals, a shorthand of arcane and coded, almost kabbalistic references and practices in order to operate safely apart and without fear of detection from a conservative and conventional world that could be aggressively hostile towards homosexuals, particularly effeminate males and masculine females. In the contemporary world, in which gays have largely assimilated into the dominant order, such signifying practices have become somewhat obsolete, and the previous forms of camping and camp identification have long since been emptied of camp or gay significance, rendering them easily co-opted, commercialized, and trivialized.
This phenomenon has also led to the rise of what I call ‘conservative camp.’ For what are Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain other than conservative camp icons enacting a kind of reactionary burlesque on the American political stage? Wholly without substance, their views exaggerated and extremely stylized, and evincing a carefully contrived posture of ‘compassionate conservatism’, they function merely as a crude spectacle that mocks the unwashed masses by pretending to be one of them while simultaneously offering them policies that are directly an-tithetical to their authentic needs. Conservative camp has always been around – William F. Buckley, Jr. is a prime example – but it has now be-come an entire genre, entrenched and consumed by the American public. Alarmingly, with the rise of gay conservatism, there is also another new category of camp to contend with: Conservative Gay Camp. My most favourite recent example is the Hollywood movie ‘J. Edgar’, featuring two wildly camp performances by presumably straight actors, Leonardo DiCaprio as longtime director of the FBI J. Edgar Hoover, and his reputedly platonic lover, Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer. Written by a young gay screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, and directed by a classical heterosexual Hollywood director, Clint Eastwood, whose macho posturing has always bordered on straight camp, the film combines a serious, hyper-masculine style with a mocking, self-consciously queer contemporary sensibility that results in a strange confluence of straight and gay camp. The project of the film could be characterized as ‘conservative drag’, a loose reworking of Hitchcock’s Psycho that attempts to recuper-ate the ultra-reactionary, cross-dressing J. Edgar by presenting him as a pathetic, repressed Mama’s boy who could have been a great American hero if only he had been allowed to have an open, sexually honest, and of course monogamous relationship with his handsome, doting right hand man, Tolson. This is the essence of gay conservative camp – a baroque fantasy of revisionist history that projects contemporary homosexual conservative values and morals into the past in order to recuperate and reclaim these complex, monstrously pathological characters as them-selves mere ‘queer’ victims of a repressed and homophobic society. (Judi Dench as J. Edgar’s mother telling him she would rather have a dead son than a ‘daffodil’ is quintessentially camp.) Aside from amounting to questionably reductive pop psychology (the smothering mother, etc.), it belies the reactionary impulse to attribute sexually ‘deviant’ behaviour (cross-dressing, extreme aestheticism, dandyism) to a negative conse-quence of corrupt and oppressive systems, as opposed to instances of rebellion and revolt and a healthy acting out against such regimes.
In other words, such ‘deviance’ wouldn’t be necessary if only the system was liberalized and reformed to reflect a healthy, normalize, and assimilated homosexuality, one that is indistinguishable from the heterosexual status quo save only for its preference for same sex partners – in a word, `homonormativity’.
This kind of conservative camp tends to ignore or revise historical and political context in order to bolster its recuperative project; other recent examples would include The Queen and The Iron Lady. The new tendency of conservative camp runs in diametrical opposition to the impulses of classic gay camp, which sought to celebrate, elevate, and even worship the qualities of deviance, difference and eccentricity that characterized the highly aestheticized homosexual experience of past eras. If I have expressed a rather depressing and unhopeful analysis of camp, or perhaps what might now reasonably be termed ‘anti-camp’, I can only offer by way of an antidote an express wish to radicalize camp once again, to harness its aesthetic and political potentialities in order to make it once more a tool of subversion and revolution. Camp itself should almost be defined as a kind of madness, a rip in the fabric of reality that we need to reclaim in order to defeat the truly cynical and cold-hearted ‘sanity’ of the new world order.
This article was first published in IDEA POLL, edited by Michalis Pichler (MISS READ, Berlin, 2021). Re-published in herri with kind permission of the Author.