CampTHE HISTORY OF CAMP
THE END OF CAMP?
Camp is often a confused and confusing term; it is sometimes said that one either "gets it" or one does not. Camp has been called a sensibility, a taste, and an aesthetic, and it is frequently associated with homosexual or queer people who use it as a means of humor, self-definition, and critique. Camp shares similarities with literary tropes such as parody, irony, satire, and black comedy, as well as aesthetically pejorative terms such as schlock or kitsch. John Waters (b. 1946), one of the most well-known camp filmmakers, defined camp (when he was a guest star on TV's The Simpsons [Fox, beginning 1989]) as the "tragically ludicrous" or the "ludicrously tragic"—something so seriously sad, bad, or inept, that the only response one can make is to laugh at it. Such a double or conflicted response is key to understanding the phenomenon of camp. Camp (as a reception paradigm) might thus be described as a negotiated reading strategy that ironically calls into question certain aspects of mainstream taste, and especially how those aspects of taste relate to issues of gender and sexuality. As a style of production, camp texts are those that encode a self-aware irony into their very fabric, assuring that audiences will find them (deliberately) "over-the-top" or "bad."
There are at least four overlapping (and possibly many more) types of camp that theorists have identified. The first is naïve camp, in which audiences decode mainstream "serious" texts as campy; thus cliché-ridden, badly acted Hollywood films like Showgirls (1995)—or any number of older melodramas from Cobra Woman (1944) to Valley of the Dolls (1967)—have been called camp.
Deliberate camp is created by the producers of the text (and not the spectators, as is the case with naïve camp). The Batman TV show (ABC, 1966–1968), Pink Flamingos (1972), and The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975), are all self-conscious, deliberate camp: they invite audiences to laugh at their deliberately wooden acting, bad dialogue, and cheap sets. Queer camp is camp that forthrightly calls into question dominant notions of gender and sexuality, and queer camp can be both naïve or deliberate. For example, Ed Wood Jr. (1924–1978) made the sex-change exploitation film Glen or Glenda (1953) in all seriousness, yet it is extremely queer and thus might best be classified as naive queer camp.
Pop camp is the mainstream appropriation of camp into styles or texts less challenging to dominant notions of gender and sexuality. Pop camp often verges on simple parody, in that it wants audiences to laugh at its stylistic or textual excess, without necessarily thinking about issues related to normative gender and sexuality. For example, the movie Barbarella (1968) might be best understood as deliberate pop camp: it is trying to be "cheesy" and "over-the-top"—but not to the point of deconstructing traditional concepts of gender and sexuality (as does the deliberate queer camp of Rocky Horror). Nonetheless, some theorists have suggested that all camp should be considered queer-at-heart, as it always skews or distorts mainstream film practice (if not always gender and sexuality) in provocative ways.
The word "camp" may come from the French term se camper (to flaunt)—in this case the flaunting of one's homosexuality. Camp style can be traced back to at least the early eighteenth century and the rise of homosexual subcultures within western European cities. Camp was thus a way of performing a hitherto unseen identity; early camp style celebrated a certain degree of gender-bending, wit, and aestheticism. These attributes became somewhat synonymous with homosexuality and/or homosexual style through the public persona and writings of the playwright Oscar Wilde (1854–1900). Wilde's camp sensibility infiltrated film directly via several silent film versions of his novel The Picture of Dorian Gray (1913, 1916). Other silent films—perhaps most famously Alla Nazimova's film of Wilde's play Salome (1923)—also employed camp style via overly mannered acting, highly stylized settings, and bizarre narrative events. (As such, camp styles have often blurred into various art or experimental cinemas—the attention to surface style, often at
b. Mary Jane West, Brooklyn, New York, 17 August 1893, d. 22 November 1980
The classical Hollywood star Mae West was a camp icon for much of the twentieth century. It is often said that she acted as if she were a man impersonating a woman—that she was in fact a female drag queen. Her bigger-than-life persona (over which she maintained strict control), sexually provocative dialogue (which she wrote herself), and ultimately her refusal to go quietly into retirement with dignity made her a favorite among gay men and other camp aficionados. Even today she remains a much-discussed figure among feminist and queer theorists.
West began her career as a child star in vaudeville and burlesque, playing both boys and girls. As she started to mature, she was sometimes billed as "The Baby Vamp." During the 1920s she appeared on the legitimate stage and began to write her own sexually frank (for their era) comedies. In 1926 her play Sex caused such a furor she was sent to jail for ten days, and her play The Drag was one of the first to deal with homosexual characters. West made a huge impression in her first Hollywood film, Night After Night (1932), and she was signed to a contract at Paramount. She Done Him Wrong (1933, based on her stage play Diamond Lil), and I'm No Angel (1933) were huge box office hits and catapulted West into instant stardom. Many straight men in the audience lusted after her, while women and gay men responded to her ability to use her sexuality as a playful yet powerful weapon.
But West hit Hollywood at exactly the wrong time. The Motion Picture Production Code was in the process of being revivified and actually enforced, and West was attacked repeatedly in the press by religious and secular reformists who saw her as the embodiment of decaying morality. The title of her next film, It Ain't No Sin, had to be changed to the less suggestive Belle of the Nineties (1934), which was also a big hit. However, throughout the rest of the 1930s, West's characters and dialogue faced increasing censorship and continued harangues from a prudish press. After The Heat's On (1943), she retired from films and returned to the stage, touring for decades with her sexually provocative plays and nightclub acts.
In 1970 West returned to the screen in Myra Breckinridge, a deliberately campy sex comedy about a male-to-female transsexual. In her final film, Sextette (1978), the eighty-five-year-old West was still playing a sex goddess, a campy turn that bordered (according to many critics) on the grotesque because of her advanced years. Although she made only twelve films throughout her long career, West's importance to the shifting terrain of gender and sexuality in twentieth-century America was immeasurable.
Night After Night (1932), She Done Him Wrong (1933), I'm No Angel (1933), Belle of the Nineties (1934), Klondike Annie (1936), My Little Chickadee (1940), Myra Breckinridge (1970), Sextette (1978)
Curry, Ramona. Too Much of a Good Thing: Mae West as Cultural Icon. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1996.
Hamilton, Marybeth. When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.
Robertson, Pamela. Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1996.
West, Mae. Goodness Had Nothing to Do with It. Revised by the author. New York: Macfadden-Bartell, 1970. The original edition was published in 1959.
Harry M. Benshoff
the expense of content, was and is a hallmark of camp taste.) Deliberate and queer camp can also be found in the work of the gay Hollywood director James Whale (1889–1957), most famous for directing the classic horror films Frankenstein (1931), The Old Dark House (1932), The Invisible Man (1933), and Bride of Frankenstein (1935). These films all feature a highly stylized mise-en-scène, contain much ironic humor, and make pointed jibes against bourgeois heterosexuality.
Such deliberate queer camp was a rarity in Hollywood after the enforcement of the Production Code (1934), but queer spectators nonetheless continued to decode Hollywood films from non-straight perspectives. A sort of "cult of camp" coalesced among urban gay men (and some women) of the era. This cult laughed at the excesses of Hollywood's naïve heterosexual melodramas, while simultaneously celebrating the indefatigable drive and bigger-than-life personas of actresses such as Joan Crawford (1904–1977), Bette Davis (1908–1989), Mae West (1893–1980), Barbara Stanwyck (1907–1990), Lana Turner (1921–1995), and Judy Garland (1922–1969). Many gay men emulated the style and bitchiness of these leading actresses, identifying with their performativity, their subordinate (but often resistant) position within patriarchal culture, and their frequent romantic troubles with men. Indeed, so strong was the impact of the cult of camp on gay identity during this highly closeted era that some homosexuals covertly identified themselves to one another as "Friends of Dorothy," an allusion to Judy Garland's role in The Wizard of Oz (1939). "Bad" actresses such as Maria Montez (1917–1951), "bad" or cheap movie-making (B movies), and the outlandish stylistic excesses of certain genres (the musical, the horror film, the melodrama) were also celebrated within the cult of camp. As such, it was not unusual to see drag acts and stage shows in urban gay bars that simultaneously celebrated and mocked favorite camp movie stars and the creaky vehicles in which they appeared.
That type of parody/pastiche/appropriation found its way into the work of 1960s experimental filmmakers such as Kenneth Anger (b. 1927), Jack Smith, and Andy Warhol (1928–1987), all of whom made deliberately queer camp films that critiqued or interrogated Hollywood style. For example, Anger was obsessed with Hollywood history, especially its seamier side. In addition to making films that explored gay desire in relation to Hollywood icons (such as Scorpio Rising ), he wrote the trashy tell-all book Hollywood Babylon. Smith's most famous work, Flaming Creatures (1963), poked fun at the idea of the Hollywood bacchanalia as envisioned in countless Orientalist, biblical, and/or Roman epics. Warhol's minimalist long-take films (such as Haircut , Blow Job , and Harlot ) countered Hollywood's continuity editing style, while the films' actors—drag queens, hustlers, lesbians, trade boys, etc., who proclaimed themselves "Superstars"—critiqued notions of Hollywood celebrity. Warhol even made a film entitled Camp (1965), a sort of queer variety show made up of various camp performances. The work of these and other underground filmmakers was an important influence on John Waters, whose independent features starring the cross-dressing actor Divine (1945–1988) (including Pink Flamingos , Female Trouble , Polyester , and Hairspray ) brought deliberate queer camp style to ever-widening audiences.
Camp stresses the performative nature of gender and sexuality—the idea (more recently expanded upon and explored within Queer Theory) that allegedly stable categories of gender and sexuality are in fact shifting and complex subject positions that must be repeatedly performed in order to maintain the illusion of their constancy. Drag or cross-dressing (the performance of a socially constructed femininity by men, or the performance of a socially constructed masculinity by women) is camp by its very nature and is the hallmark of much queer camp in film. Drag acts reveal—through parody and appropriation—that what was thought to be essential and true (in this case, traditional concepts of gender) are in fact merely roles that anyone can assay.
During the 1960s, as countercultural filmgoers began to reject Hollywood's usual formula filmmaking, the camp sensibility became increasingly mainstreamed. Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp" (first published in 1964) is a good indicator of how the homosexual cult of camp—as a way of finding humor in and satirizing texts—was being absorbed into more mainstream spectatorship and filmmaking. While her essay downplayed camp's queerer political meanings, it did differentiate between naïve and deliberate camp, as well as note camp's ties to previous and current aesthetic movements such as Art Nouveau and Pop Art. Within years, Hollywood was itself producing deliberately campy films (and TV shows such as Batman and Lost in Space [CBS, 1965–1968]). For example, after audiences mocked the bad acting, stilted dialogue, and cliché-ridden narrative of the "serious" Twentieth Century Fox melodrama Valley of the Dolls (1967), its sequel Beyond the Valley of the Dolls (1970) was produced as deliberate camp. Its script (by film critic Roger Ebert) is full of outlandish situations and clunky dialogue, and its overall style (courtesy of sexploitation film director Russ Meyer) is a riot of color, cliché, and condescension.
Hollywood's use of camp was basically a fad, one that connected briefly with late 1960s countercultural audiences and then quickly died away. Many of these deliberately campy films, such as Candy (1968), did little to challenge dominant assumptions about gender and sexuality. The few that did, like Myra Breckinridge (1970) or Something for Everyone (1970), were often met with critical hostility. Fueled by that era's more pronounced homophobia, critics and commentators charged that Hollywood elites were corrupting America with homosexual propaganda, and Hollywood filmmakers shied away from queer themes altogether. Hollywood eventually reconnected with its mainstream audience via the blockbuster genre films of the 1970s—films like Jaws (1975), Rocky (1976), and Star Wars (1977)—that hid their generic clichés and B-movie acting behind spectacular special effects and/or a hazy veil of nostalgia. Pop camp turned into simple parody: films such as Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974) went for easy laughs that mostly avoided any critique of gender or sexuality. When Twentieth Century Fox released its deliberately queer camp genre hybrid The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, it flopped terribly among mainstream audiences (although it eventually became the most famous of all cult films). Camp was no longer a style appreciated by mainstream audiences, and since that time it has continued to cause consternation for many movie-goers. Deliberately campy films like Moulin Rouge (2001) and Down with Love (2003) often reach a plateau at the box office because mainstream audiences are unsure what to make of their uneven tones and formal excesses.
Camp is, and was, perhaps a discourse of the closet, a sensibility for survival produced in an era when one's homosexuality had to be kept secret. British film critic Jack Babuscio explored those ties (even as they were fading away) in his essay "Camp and the Gay Sensibility" (1977). For Babuscio, the camp sensibility was dependent on queers' alienation from the mainstream. Such alienation produced irony (between the straight and gay worlds), performative role-playing (the need to pass as straight), aestheticization (desire to find beauty and truth wherever one could), and bittersweet humor (needed in order to survive in a hostile world). While those four traits still describe the camp sensibility, they no longer necessarily describe a specifically gay sensibility. Many gay and lesbian people now see themselves as part of mainstream America, and one does not have to be gay or lesbian in order to understand and appreciate camp.
To a certain extent, historical camp style and taste have been subsumed by a more generalized sense of postmodern irony and pastiche, a stance that approaches life (and media texts) as always and already "within quotes." Within film culture, the originally queer cult of camp has evolved into a larger, straighter, cult of fans who enjoy watching "bad movies"—B movies, low-budget genre films, exploitation cinema, and so forth. While this is consistent with camp's historical function (the revaluation of artifacts that dominant culture has already sloughed off) much of the "bad movie" cultism in the early twenty-first century perhaps lacks the critical context or political grounding that queer camp cultists embodied. Bad movies may be funny, and fun to laugh at (as the cult popularity of a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 [1988–1999] attests to), but if and when more political critiques those films give rise to are heard, they are only one voice in an otherwise cacophonous semiotic excess. True to the polemics of the postmodern economy, the camp sensibility, born out of genuine political struggle and discrimination, has perhaps become just another hip stance or lifestyle practice available for purchase.
Babuscio, Jack. "Camp and the Gay Sensibility." In Gays and Film, edited by Richard Dyer, 40–57. London: British Film Institute, 1977.
Booth, Mark. Camp. London and New York: Quartet Books, 1983.
Meyer, Moe, ed. The Politics and Poetics of Camp. London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Ross, Andrew. "Uses of Camp." In No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture, edited by Andrew Ross, 135–170. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Sontag, Susan. "Notes on Camp." In A Susan Sontag Reader, 105–120. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. Originally published in 1964.
Tinkcom, Matthew. Working Like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
Harry M. Benshoff
Camp celebrates the stylistic and emotional excesses of mainstream popular culture as they are interpreted and redefined by homosexual subcultures. Camp emphasizes that all comportment is artifice; to camp it up is both to behave artificially and to celebrate and call attention to artificiality in everyday life. The word camp is associated with excessive displays of gesture and emotion; it was used in J. Redding Ware's 1909 Passing English of the Victorian Era, a dictionary of Victorian slang, to describe the showy, theatrical behaviors, affectations, and gestures associated with persons of so-called low character. This exaggerated comportment, or campiness, in which theatricality calls attention to the artificiality of all behavioral conventions, constituted a specifically homosexual set of codes, styles, and gestures in the early and middle twentieth century.
Those codes have been used by gay subcultures since that time to accentuate the distance that exists for queer people between what most people insist are natural behaviors and what gay men and lesbians traditionally have seen as little more than cultural norms. Aspects of camp that play up effeminacy and drag in particular are thought to have been favored by homosexual subcultures because their emphasis on role playing resonated with those for whom acting heterosexual meant playing a role.
THE INFLUENCE OF OSCAR WILDE
Oscar Wilde is considered one of the modern fathers of camp sensibility; his effete comportment and witticisms helped revive the cult of the dandy in the late nineteenth century. His 1890 novel The Picture of Dorian Gray, a bible of aestheticism, constantly undercuts the moral tale of a superficial sociopath with passages celebrating the protagonist's devotion to surface beauty and individual style. His stage comedies, especially the 1895 The Importance of Being Earnest, are rife with campy epigrams and double entendres.
Wilde's epigrams, in which conventional sentiments are read backward, adapted, or tweaked slightly so that they are both familiar and strange, are examples of a camp take on mainstream culture in which audiences are forced to reread normative practices through the eyes of a skeptical, if affectionate, outsider. The aphorisms "Divorces are made in heaven" and "In marriage, three is company, two is none," from The Importance of Being Earnest, make fun of the sanctity of marriage. The first alters the conventional description of the ideal heterosexual union as "a match made in heaven," and the second alters the cliché that celebrates the couple form as preferable to any other social arrangement: "Two's company; three's a crowd." By flipping these sayings over to suggest that the opposite is true, that divorce is far more heavenly than marriage and that any company at all is a welcome relief from the everyday tedium of married life, Wilde declares that contrary to Victorian popular sentiment, traditional marriage is both hellish and boring. The fact that Victorian audiences found those observations hilarious when they were made in Wilde's plays signifies that they not only appreciated Wilde's wit but relished his send-up of institutionalized heterosexuality.
Later examples of camp favored excess as an expressive mode, whether it was the maniacal choreography and extraordinary overhead camera shots signifying a point of view that no audience of a supposed stage musical would ever have of a Busby Berkeley musical, the lurid color palette and tragic melodrama of a Douglas Sirk tearjerker, or the menacing, bitchy femininity of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. Divas who cultivated a monumental stage presence, such as Maria Callas and Diana Ross, or a histrionic theatricality, such as Bette Midler and Liza Minelli, are camp figures, as are feminine personalities whose extreme artificiality shows that they are aping versions of themselves, such as Marilyn Monroe, Paul Lynde, and Barbra Streisand. The diva's camp artificiality can encompass physical excessiveness as well; Dolly Parton's and Jane Russell's breasts are camp, as is Phyllis Diller's or Michael Jackson's face and the porn star Ron Jeremy's comically hairy and chubby physique.
SONTAG'S ANALYSIS OF CAMP
Although camp remained a homosexual subcultural language and style for decades, it achieved mainstream recognition as a theory of culture, or interpretive lens, with the publication of Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp,'" which remains the best-known essay on the subject. Sontag (1983) argues that camp is a mode of aestheticism, a sensibility and a badge of identity, and a way of seeing that emphasizes texture, decorative surface, style, and frivolity. Among the objects she lists as camp, ostensibly because their design and execution epitomize an over-the-top excessiveness, are Tiffany lamps, Bellini operas, flapper costumes of the 1920s, Flash Gordon comics, the movie King Kong, and all things art nouveau. She differentiates naïve camp from intentional camp, insisting that only naïve camp—camp that is trying to be serious and meaningful but fails—can be considered real or pure camp. She discusses the camp sensibility that recognizes objects of value gleaming among the detritus of popular culture, stating that in its appropriation of the low, vulgar, tasteless, and extravagantly tacky as beautiful, camp challenges the hegemony of high culture, setting itself up as a more urban, sophisticated, and generous sensibility.
It generally is acknowledged that Sontag appropriated camp from homosexual subcultures in the essay only to dismiss those subcultures, though that gesture itself is part of the cultural and historical closeting of homosexuality among the 1960s avant-garde. Much of Sontag's essay rests on the work of homosexual and lesbian writers, artists, filmmakers, and actors. She sets herself the task of expanding what she terms a "lazy" definition published ten years earlier in Christopher Isherwood's The World in the Evening, she dedicates the essay to Oscar Wilde, and her examples of camp include Noel Coward plays, Aubrey Beardsley drawings, Jean Cocteau films, Oscar Wilde epigrams, Greta Garbo's beauty and lack of dramatic depth, Barbara Stanwyk's and Tallulah Bankhead's mannish acting style, Caravaggio's paintings, Genet's ideas, and the dandyism of Wilde and the aesthetes, to which she dedicates four of her fifty-eight "notes." Though all these figures are gay or lesbian, she never infers, except in her insistence on the camp sensibility of those artists, that their sexual identities place them within the homosexual vanguard.
Sontag was not open about her lesbianism, and this helps explain some of the distance from and ambivalence toward homosexuality the essay expresses as well as its substitution of a Jewish interpretive standpoint for a homosexual one. She does not mention homosexuals or homosexuality until note fifty; in note fifty-one she concedes that homosexuals are in the "vanguard" of camp sensibility; in note fifty-two she equates that sensibility with the Jewish moral sensibility; and by note fifty-three the parallel to a more moral Jewish sensibility allows her to declare camp an oppositional "solvent of morality" (Sontag 1983, p. 118) in which style always trumps content and politics.
OTHER CRITICAL ANALYSES
Sontag's interest in the "mere" surface politics of camp has been contested by cultural critics. Many gay critics have accused her of appropriating a queer style of resistance and neutralizing its politics through her definition of camp as an aesthetic sensibility and moral solvent. Andrew Ross (1989), for example, has countered that camp is political in a Marxist sense in that it registers historical shifts in modes of production. He defines camp as an "effect" created when outmoded products recirculate in contemporary culture and become available for new value and new meaning. Thus, mid-twentieth-century films such as Sunset Boulevard are campy because they use aging film stars from the silent era to create melodramatic metanarratives about aging film stars from the silent era. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is similarly campy in its use of the over-the-hill leading ladies, rivals, and icons of the big studio era Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, pitted against each other in a gothic scenario shaped by sibling rivalry. Moe Meyer (1994) is even more literal than Ross about the politics of camp, defining it as "queer parody," arguing that it played a crucial role in the theatrics of gay activist groups such as ACT-UP and Queer Nation, and insisting that any attempts to define camp as merely aesthetic undermine its political force as a strategy of queer resistance to normative models of identity, respectability, gender, sexuality, and class.
Noting that most of the leading lights in the pantheon of camp figures are women, recent feminist critics such as Pamela Robertson (1996) have questioned the notion of a one-way exchange in camp in which gay men supposedly appropriate female stars and female styles but women do not appropriate a gay male aesthetic. To see exchanges between women and gay men is to imagine, Robertson argues, that feminism can have a similar critical distance from and opposition to mainstream popular cultural forms. Thus, Mae West's camping could parody 1890s traditions of burlesque and female impersonation to contest contemporary female stereotypes in the 1930s.
DRAG QUEENS AND KITSCH
One of the most recognizable forms of camp has long been the female impersonator, or drag queen. The drag queen performs a reading of culture by invoking the femininity of certain film stars and famous singers and performers past and present and parodying those traits by exaggerating them. Thus, Judy Garland's overly painted face might be parodied to the point of clownishness by huge red lips and gigantic false eyelashes, her need to be loved by her audience reduced to a grotesque and sexualized begging by the drag performer down on his knees in front of the audience, and her signature vibrato amplified to the point of quavery croaking, all of it suggesting both the hardness and the pathos of an over-the-hill performer unwilling to relinquish the limelight. Although such impersonation was read in the past as making fun of women, it is possible to interpret the masquerade of femininity as the butt of the impersonator's joke; indeed, one of the things camp drag emphasizes is the enormous effort it takes to be a woman and a performer. Female drag impersonators are usually effeminate gay men whose femininity has served as a source of both oppression and pride for them, and their camp take on the dignity and burden of femininity is often profoundly sympathetic and identificatory as well as parodic.
That type of drag was even more political and oppositional in the days when it was illegal to dress in the clothes of the opposite sex. In the era when police could arrest men or women who did not have on at least three items of gender-appropriate clothing, the theatricality of drag protected gay female impersonators from the violence meted out to effeminate men who were not in costume and makeup. Other forms of camp, such as the arch enthusiasm for kitschy, sentimental items such as Hummel statues, velvet paintings, onion-head children with huge eyes, and baby animal figurines, signify other kinds of opposition, the cultivation of an aesthetic that rejects the institutionalization of "high" art and instead celebrates the lowbrow, the ugly, and the general trashiness of mass-manufactured collectibles. This type of camp is political insofar as it rejects the self-improving class politics of bourgeois aesthetics. At the same time it takes a certain level of sophistication to appreciate the lowbrow as lowbrow; thus, the camp appreciation for kitsch risks accusations of condescension in its appropriation of lowbrow sentimentality as something that is interesting mostly because it is bizarre.
Whether camp remains a specifically gay aesthetic is debatable only because camp has permeated mainstream culture to such a profound degree since Sontag's essay. Camp has transformed itself dramatically from the camp of an earlier era. The secret language of camp melodrama and emotional excess, in which a group of homosexual insiders and their friends once read Mae West's suggestiveness as nelly effeminacy, Joan Crawford's hard femininity as drag queen hauteur, or Judy Garland's brave vulnerability as the broken-hearted optimism of the gay romantic heart, has become ubiquitous in popular culture. The distinction between naïve and intentional camp Sontag insisted on has disappeared as mainstream audiences have grown more sophisticated.
The best examples of camp from the latter decades of the twentieth century were usually intentional products rather than naïve accidents, whether the invitation to subcultural revelry of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which makes fun of the straightest characters and rewards the naughty ones; the B-movie vulgarity of Showgirls, with its cheesy dialogue and over-the-top bad acting; the sissy boys and drag queens playing heterosexual men and women in a John Waters film; or the tongue-in-cheek retro style of But I'm a Cheerleader, much of it taken from Waters, in which heterosexual normativity is portrayed as cultish and bizarre. Television series such as the night-time soap opera Desperate Housewives deliberately cultivated a camp critical distance between viewers and the characters, encouraging audiences to judge the everyday pursuits of suburban families as bizarre, excessive, and highly entertaining. Reality television became adept at exploiting the camp effect of contestants frantically trying to become famous, its judges acting as critics who ridiculed talentless people who were willing to do anything for money and attention. By recognizing and creating a market of viewers who would tune in week after week to watch people embarrass themselves, reality television read the excessive desire for fame on the part of everyday people as ubiquitous, excessive, outrageous, queer, kitschy, ridiculous, and touching, creating a new take on an old culture of spectacular display in which everyone and anyone, regardless of identity, can imitate the performing style of his or her favorite star and be queen for a day. If camp has become the hip sensibility of contemporary popular culture, it remains to be seen whether the camp gesture or way of reading culture can continue to operate as oppositional or subversive. It is uncertain whether camp has been assimilated to the degree that if everything is camp, nothing is, or whether, instead, if everything is camp, everything is.
Meyer, Moe. 1994. "Introduction" and "Under the Sign of Wilde: An Archaeology of Posing." In The Politics and Poetics of Camp, ed. Moe Meyer New York and London: Routledge.
Robertson, Pamela. 1996. Guilty Pleasures: Feminist Camp from Mae West to Madonna. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.
Ross, Andrew, 1989. "The Uses of Camp." In No Respect: Intellectuals & Popular Culture. New York: Routledge.
Sontag, Susan. 1983. "Notes on 'Camp.'" In A Susan Sontag Reader. New York: Vintage.
"Camp asserts that good taste is not simply good taste; that there exists, indeed, a good taste of bad taste." In her well known 1964 piece, Notes on Camp, Susan Sontag summarized the fundamental paradox that occupies the heart of "camp," a parodic attitude toward taste and beauty which was at that time emerging as an increasingly common feature of American popular culture. Avoiding the drawn-out commentary and coherence of a serious essay format, Notes on Camp dashes off a stream of anecdotal postures, each adding its own touches to an outline of camp sensibility. "It's embarrassing to be solemn and treatise-like about Camp," Sontag writes. "One runs the risk of having produced a very inferior piece of Camp." And she was right. To take camp seriously is to miss the point. Camp, a taste of bad taste which languishes between parody and self parody, doesn't try to succeed as a serious statement of taste, but stages its own failure as taste by doing and overdoing itself. In this way, failure is camp's greatest triumph and to take it away through a serious analysis would, for Sontag, be tantamount to an annihilation of the subject. In fact, since camp's self-parody leaves no durable statement of taste, it should only be spoken of as a verb: "camping," the act of subverting a taste by exaggerating its pomp and artifice to the point of absurdity.
Writing in 1964, Sontag already had a short history of popular camp to reflect upon. From the mid 1950s, a peculiar sense of the beauty of bad taste had crept into American culture thorough the pages of MAD magazine and the writings of Norman Mailer—a parodic smirk that would creep across the face of counter culture of the 1960s and ultimately etch itself deeply into the American cultural outlook. By the mid 1960s, camp's triumphs were many: the glib, colorful, and disposable styles of Pop gave way to the non-conformity of hippie camp, which in turn inspired 1970s glam-rock camp, the biting camp of punk and the irony and retro of the 1980s and 1990s camp, while throughout the inflections of gay and drag camp were never far away. In each case, camp's pattern is clear: camp camps taste. Less a taste in itself, more an attitude toward taste in general, camp's failed seriousness exaggerates to absurdity the whole posture of serious taste, it "dethrones seriousness," and reveals the vanity and folly that underlies every expression of taste. And camp's failure is contagious. By affirming style over substance, the artifice of taste over the content of art, and by undermining one's own posture of good taste by exaggerating its vanity and affect, camp exposes the lie of taste in general—without confronting it with a superior standard. Sontag writes: "Camp taste turns its back on the good-bad axis of ordinary aesthetic judgment. Camp doesn't reverse things. It doesn't argue that the good is bad or the bad is good. What it does is to offer for art (and life) a different—a supplementary—set of standards." Free from seriousness, camp can be cruel or kind: at moments camp offers a boundless carnival of generosity to anyone willing to don a disguise and share in the pomp and pretense that is taste, while at other moments camp's grotesque vanity might fly into jealous rage at the competitor, the campier than thou, that threatens to rain on the charade.
Sontag traces camp to its origins as a gay sensibility in the writings of Oscar Wilde and Jean Genet, who sought to dethrone the seriousness of Victorian literary convention and the tastes of the French bourgeoisie. In America, camp largely emerged from the need to dethrone the conformity and banality of the consumer culture of the 1950s. "Pop" styles sprang out of a reaction to the conformity imposed by the mass-produced culture provided by a "society of abundance," which unconvincingly advocated the virtues and pleasures of life in a world of consumer goods. By the 1960s, that promise was less and less convincing, and the adornments of the suburban home seemed sadly inadequate as stand-ins for human satisfaction. The colorful, flamboyant and garish styles of "Pop" provided some relief for an American middle class increasingly inundated with "serious" consumer tastes in which it had no trust. In Britain a group of painters calling themselves The International Group (whose members included Richard Hamilton, John McHale, and Magda Cordell) set out to sing the praises of the new culture of plenty in a slightly offkey refrain: Hamilton's famous 1956 collage of a suburban living room asks with a conspicuous sincerity, "Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing?" The piece lampoons the optimism and complacency of the new domestic bliss, while celebrating its artifice. Camping the Americanization of the 1950s, British Pop spread quickly to the garrets of New York where Roy Lichtenstein, Jasper Johns, and Andy Warhol quickly picked up the trick of praising the land of opulence with the tongue squarely in the cheek.
"Pop" resonated in the mainstream of American cultural life with the first of what would be many terrifically successful British Invasions. Dethroning the "good taste" of mass culture with stylish overkill, pop clothing, decoration, and graphics were exaggerated, colorful and garish, silly and trite. The fashions of Mary Quant, the photography of David Bailey, and ultimately the music of the Rolling Stones and the Beatles offered stylistic excess as the antidote to the "square" tastes of the older generation. The pop-psychedelic expressions of later years would confirm the superiority of mockery over taste. The fad Vogue dubbed "Youthquake" trumpeted the shallow excessiveness of a youthful taste as an endorsement of style over substance—a camping of mass culture. Commercial imagery, camped in this way, shaped the counter culture of the 1960s, from the Beatles' Sergeant Pepper album cover to Warhol's soup cans to the garish colors of psychedelic attire to the magazine clipping collages that covered many a teenager's bedroom walls: camping was at once subversive, clever, and affirming of one's taste for bad taste. One image in particular expresses this camping of mass culture that was the achievement of Pop: Twiggy, the slim and youthful British model who took Madison Avenue by storm in 1967, was pictured in a New Yorker article posing in Central Park, surrounded by children, all of whom wore Twiggy masks, photographic representations of the face of the model. Camping the artifice of mass stardom had become part of stardom itself.
It was, however, the camp of the drag queen that would ultimately triumph in the counter culture, and claim the camp legacy for the next decade. As early as Warhol's Factory days, where Manhattan drag queens like Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn were featured prominently in such films as Chelsea Girls (1966), drag had always had a cozy relationship with the counter culture. The relationship became closer after the Stonewall riots of 1969, when drag style emerged as the motif that gave rock a disturbing and intriguing gender ambiguity. By the early 1970s, rock became increasingly open to camp inflections of drag: Mick Jagger developed a strutting, effeminate stage presence; David Bowie, Elton John, and Alice Cooper brought excess and artifice together with gender ambiguity that was taken directly from lively drag scenes and the queens who populated the 1970s gay scene. The raucous screenings of Jim Sharman's 1974 Rocky Horror Picture Show and John Waters' 1973 Pink Flamingos remain an enduring rite of college frat life.
As the 1970s wore on, New Wave and Punk movements drew on camp's preoccupation with dethroning the seriousness of taste. Such early punk acts as the New York Dolls sharpened the whimsy of Sharman's Dr. Frankenfurter character into a jarring sarcasm, less playful and flamboyant, more the instrument of an outraged youth, cornered by the boredom and banality of a co-opted counter-culture, a valueless society and the diminished hopes of a job market plagued by economic recession. Unlike the witticisms of Wilde and the flourish of Marc Boland and other dandies of glam rock, Punk's version of camp was meant to sting the opponent with a hideous mockery of consumer pleasure. The Sex Pistols' Holiday in the Sun album begins with a droning comment on low budget tourism: "cheap holiday in other people's misery," while the B-52s' manic celebration of the faux leisure of consumerism chided the ear with shrill praises of "Rock Lobster" and "Girls of the U.S.A." Punk camp, however, would have to be de-clawed before it could achieve mainstream influence, which ultimately happened in the early 1980s with the invasion (again from Britain) of such campy "haircut" acts as Duran Duran and Boy George's Culture Club. The effect of punk camp on American popular culture has yet to be fully understood, though it seems clear that ironic distance (cleansed of punk's snarl) became a staple of the culture of the 1980s and 1990s. Retro (a preferred terrain of camp, which finds easy pickings in tastes already rendered "bad" by the relentless march of consumer obsolescence) preoccupied the 1980s, where the awkward styles of the 1950s could be resurrected in such films as Back to the Future, and every aging rock star from Paul McCartney to Neil Young could cop a 50s greaser look in an effort to appear somehow up to date, if only by appealing to the going mode of obsolescence.
If irony and detachment had by the 1990s become defining features of the new consumer attitude, the camping of America is partly to blame, or credit. However, the 1990s also witnessed an unprecedented mainstreaming of drag in a manner quite different from that of the 1970s. In the 1990s, figures like Ru Paul and films like Wigstock signaled the visibility of drag styles worn by the drag queens themselves, not by straight rockstars taking a walk on the wild side. That drag could metamorphose over twenty years from a psychological aberration and criminal act to a haute media commodity testifies to the capacity of American culture to adjust to and absorb precisely those things it fears most. In the camping of America, where the abhorrent is redeemed, the drag queen fares well.
Roen, Paul. High Camp: A Gay Guide to Camp and Cult Films. SanFrancisco, Leyland Publications, 1994.
Ross, Andrew. "Uses of Camp." In No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture. New York, Routledge, 1989.
Sontag, Susan. "Notes on Camp." In Against Interpretation. New York, Laurel, 1966.
camp1 / kamp/ • n. 1. a place with temporary accommodations of huts, tents, or other structures, typically used by soldiers, refugees, prisoners, or travelers: the enemy camp. ∎ the people lodging in such a place: the shot woke the whole camp. ∎ a recreational institution providing facilities for outdoor activities, sports, crafts, and other special interests and typically featuring rustic overnight accommodations. ∎ temporary overnight lodging out of doors, typically in tents: we made camp at a bend in the creek we pitched camp at a fine spot. ∎ a facility at which athletes train during the off-season. 2. the supporters of a particular party or doctrine regarded collectively: his views were rooted in the conservative camp. • v. [intr.] live for a time in a camp, tent, or camper, as when on vacation: parks in which you can camp or stay in a chalet | [as n.] (camping) camping attracts people of all ages. ∎ lodge temporarily, esp. in an inappropriate or uncomfortable place: we camped out for the night in a mission schoolroom. ∎ remain persistently in one place: the press will be camping on your doorstep once they get onto this story. PHRASES: break camp take down a tent or the tents of an encampment. camp2 inf. • adj. deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style, typically for humorous effect. ∎ (of a man or his manner) ostentatiously and extravagantly effeminate: a heavily made-up and highly camp actor. ∎ innocently idealistic, conventional, or sentimental: straight camp is about the ongoing comedy of American straightness: the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the Secret Service, the NRA. • n. deliberately exaggerated and theatrical behavior or style. • v. [intr.] (of a man) behave in an ostentatiously effeminate way: he camped it up a bit for the cameras. DERIVATIVES: camp·i·ly / ˈkampəlē/ adv. camp·i·ness n. camp·y adj.
M. Booth (1983);
Camp ★★½ 2003 (PG-13)
Wanna-be teenage thesps flock to Camp Ovation-the summertime equivalent of the “Fame” school—where they can sing, dance and generally be nerdy to their heart's content. First-time director/writer Graff, who in real life was a counselor at a performing arts camp, assembles a cast of typical misfit Lancekids drawn to the stage: budding transvestite Michael (de Jesus), tomboy Ellen (Chilcoat), and the good-looking, seemingly straight Vlad (Letterle), shepherded into adult theaterhood by the cynical, alcoholic musical-theater pro (Dixon). Story Wonfollows the ups and downs of these hope-fuls, as well as other fringe characters but especially focuses on the sexual preference of Vlad. Despite uneven acting and stereotypical scenarios, flick is an indie with integrity and heart, while also boasting some rousing musical numbers. 114m/ C VHS, DVD . US Daniel Letterle, Joanna Chilcoat, Robin De Jesus, Tiffany Taylor, Sasha Allen, Alana Allen, Anna Kendrick, Don Dixon; D: Todd Graff; W: Todd Graff; C: Kip Bogdahn; M: Stephen Trask.
a body of troops on campaign; a collection of tents; the company who are encamped; a great number; a body of people who join together to promote some theory or doctrine; a body of people engaged in some occupation or sport who are encamped together; a conical or ridge-shaped pile or heap; used figuratively.
Examples: camp of allegations, 1871; of arguments; of facts, 1566; of ideas, 1885; of lumbermen; of nomads; of potatoes [‘a heap’], 1700; of surveyors; of troops; of turnips [‘a heap’].
So camp vb. XVI. — F. camper; cf. ENCAMP.