Sunday, April 29, 2007

Camp It Up

While doing research for another project, I ran across a 1965 New York Times article entitled “Not Good Taste, Not Bad Taste.” The author, Thomas Meeman, explained to an uninitiated audience the meaning of “Camp” as an emerging “New York scene.” Four years before the Stonewall Riots, Meeman reported that homosexuals had (shockingly!) created an aesthetic that some non-homos found appealing. “Camp,” Meeman reported, was “a previously unnamed sensibility, a third stream of taste, entirely apart from good taste or bad taste, that encompasses the curious attraction that everyone – to some degree... has for the bizarre, the unnatural, the artificial and the blatantly outrageous.” Since 1925, Meeman stated, Camp had “been synonymous...with homosexual.”

Meeman offered a list of examples. Camp consisted of things like Tiffany Lamps, Monopoly sets in Italian, Batman comics (which the author labeled “low camp”), feather boas, and Marlene Dietrich. He also authoritatively rejected things as decidedly not Camp, like Humphrey Bogart movies or Kelvinator refrigerators. Astoundingly, he claimed that “no television is Camp.” (!) Clearly he hadn’t watched the big shows of 1965: Bewitched, Johnny Quest, or Shindig! It seems to me that the networks were Camp-powered for 1965.

The article dripped with anxiety about the rise of Camp, particularly its link to the gays. “In many areas of American cultural life,” the author noted, “Camp taste is becoming dominant over what is today generally accepted as good taste.” This left Meeman uneasy as he also stated, “Camps taste and homosexual taste are frequently the same thing.” Maybe that one-to-one link explains why Meeman felt the need to state that he personally had “no fondness for Camp” and that he also had a wife. **cough**

Of course, the author didn’t bother to actually interview any real-life homosexuals about their views on Camp. They might have been the acknowledged creators of Camp, but clearly they wouldn’t have anything relevant to say about it.

Instead, he turned to cultural critic Susan Sontag for all of his information. Indeed, Sontag is still often credited with “introducing” Camp to the nation. Sontag’s own take on (or appropriation of) Camp reassured that “though homosexuals have been its vanguard, Camp taste is much more than homosexual taste.” Good hetero folk, Sontag suggested, could totally get in on the fun and in no way be homosexual.

Meeman seemed unconvinced. Like any article dealing with homosexuals in 1965, it suggested that some sort of pathology had to be at the bottom of Camp. Meeman solicited a New York psychiatrist’s opinions about the cultural ramifications of Camp. The doctor didn’t mince words, “It’s not only extremely childish but also potentially dangerous to society – it’s sick and decadent.” Even Sontag concluded something similar, though without the predictions of Armageddon. Camp, Sontag argued, resulted from “the homosexual's desire to remain youthful.” Like much of mainstream society in the sixties, Sontag and the psychiatrist imagined homosexuals as psychologically less developed than their hetero peers. Their desires and sensibilities ranged from “childish” to vain efforts at “youth.”

Since this (let’s face it: Campy) article in the sixties, Camp has made its way into the mainstream lexicon. We all have a vague sense of what something “Campy” means. My secret desire, for instance, to redecorate my apartment after the bottle-interior on I Dream of Jeannie would qualify as Campy. In much the same way, Camp has also retained a subtle link to gays. We can’t help but think of an animated John Waters trying to explain Camp to Homer Simpson. Waters’ character calls Camp the "tragically ludicrous" or the "ludicrously tragic."

Camp, therefore, deserves more than passing consideration. Too often, Camp has been dismissed as irrelevant or “childish” play. It’s that play, though, that I think is so important.

Like any good postmodern term, it defies easy definitions. Most seem to agree, though, that Camp involves appreciating that which appears absurd even as it claims normalcy.

So, why do many (but not all) gays like Camp? I think Sontag stumbled on part of the answer, even in 1964. She referred to Camp as “something of a private code, a badge of identity even.” Queers learn a set of pop-cultural references that get deployed over and over. Go to an all gay-male dinner party and count the minutes until somebody mentions one of the following: All About Eve, Andy Warhol, or any nighttime soap that ever aired (or, if GayProf has been invited, Wonder Woman). Something Campy will appear in the night’s conversation – unless you are at the most boring gay party ever.

Campy icons are mentioned with both reverence and also a humor that centers on a sly knowing of their absurdness. It’s our common ability to love and laugh at these things, often discovered before coming out, that articulates a sense of shared identity.

Growing up with queer desires in this nation means having a social identity with only minimal mainstream representations. Queer boys learn quickly about gender and sexual performance as part of their identity. They become keenly sensitive to “seeming” gay/feminine. Many make conscious decisions about adopting certain masculine performances, particularly if it means avoiding being beaten or tormented in classrooms. Queer boys might know at some level that they are not heterosexuals, but they also know the right time to impersonate one.

Perhaps it is the artificiality of these personal performances that makes many of us so inclined to see the artificiality in all gender performances. When constantly being informed that either your desires are unnatural or (more often) don’t exist at all, almost everything takes on an aura of the absurd.

Camp suggests that gender is a masquerade. Many of the enduring Camp images smudge the boundaries between a gender binary and expose them as arbitrary and culturally defined. I Dream of Jeannie, for instance, centered on a hyper feminine giggling blonde. Nobody could mistake anything about Jeannie as masculine as she emerged from her big puff of pink smoke. Yet, Jeannie also had real power that had only been reserved for men. Though Tony Nelson got the title “Master,” (and who wouldn’t willingly call Tony “Master” – at least for a night?) it was clear that Jeannie’s magic really controlled the house. All of the gender roles and reversals in I Dream of Jeannie are so exaggerated that they become nonsensical.

In much the same way, Camp historicizes gender roles. For many who enjoy Campy things, it is the absurdity of looking back on previous generations’ presumptions about men and women or about the ways that relationships were imagined. Noting and mocking the ways that actors like Joan Crawford played out gender roles in decades past suggests that gender roles today are as contingent, changing, and political.

Perhaps Camp’s potential for undermining a sexual binary is what Meeman and his psychiatrist found so disturbing. Not only did purveyors of Camp reject the presumption that they had to be heterosexual, they also seemed to laugh at the cultural markers of that lifestyle as well. What Meeman didn’t appreciate, though, was that he could also have been in on the joke. Camp’s humor does not seek to exclude. Rather, it uses humor to expose existing divisions in contemporary society.


dykewife said...

sadly, i'm very plebian and unrefined. camp to me involves a tent, campfire and marshmallows toasting to a dark nut brown (and hopefully not igniting). there are some things from the past that i like and some that i don't. i don't care of it's camp, in, or totally passe.

i think the equating of camp to gay is an extreme stereotype, much like the character "buddy" that scott thompson played on kids in the hall.

tornwordo said...

Thanks. Now I understand more why I like camp. I feel edified.

Doug said...

Were you to ever redecorate your apartment after Jeanie's bottle interior, I don't think "campy" would be the first term to leap to mind. ;)

vuboq said...

I want a Monopoly set in Italian. Or maybe Russian. That would be cool.

Anonymous said...

To me it's not about just subverting or exposing the sexual binaries - it's about doing that to everything. So much of what we've agreed to call "society" is based on labeling behaviors and and the resulting institutions as inevitably "right" or "wrong." As the humorous cutting wedge of postmodern critique, camp shows that all of these dichotomies are arbitrary and absurd. (That's why Stephen Colbert is so great - he's political/journalistic camp, and I hope he keeps it up after that blessed day when Bush is gone, Daddy, gone.) Anyone who has a power stake in maintaining the status quo finds camp threatening - if the emperor's not wearing any clothes, is he still the emperor?

Ooh, I feel like I'm in college again! Thanks, GayProf!

Red said...

I had dinner with four other gay men on Saturday. Neither All about Eve, Warhol, a soap opera, nor Wonder Woman came up. But sex did.

Bill S. said...

I'm not particularly fond of Susan Sontag's "Notes on Camp". I seem to recall her entire essay seeming both condescending and yet clueless, like she was trying to give the rules for Camp without recognizing its essence. But I read it 15 years ago, so maybe I was just being pretentious.

The thing that separates camp from just being Technicolor irony is the affection that is inherent in camp. When I start quoting Douglas Sirk movies, it's both a celebration of their absurdity, and a testament to how much I enjoy them. I just wish that more people knew what I was referring to when I say "Geef me that cobra jool!"

As far as I'm concerned, Camp is a part of my gay heritage. Just like palare. And gay sex. Something to be embraced and celebrated.

I want a Monopoly set in Esperanto. Talk about Camp!

This Boy Elroy said...

Andy Warhol is in my bedroom.

Roy Lichtenstein is in my living room.

"There are two kinds of people in this world: my kind of people and assholes." -Connie Marble

Don't dream it, be it!

Viva La Camp!

Charles Céleste Hutchins said...

Monopoly Esperanto:

However, while Incubus is camp, Esperanto is not, itself, inherently camp.

And I have no idea how to translate "camp" into Esperanto.

(Mi parolas!)

Anonymous said...

paraphrasing kramer - gay people are the coolest.


Antonio said...

I definitely think 'camp' is mainstream now, although there are plenty of people who don't 'get it'. A lot of older celebrities get by on their camp value, like Adam West. Enthusiasm for 80's cartoons despite their now-obvious commercialism endures. That might be more nostalgia though.

Frank said...

Camp is absurdity you cannot help but love.

Marius said...

As always, great post. Thanks for educating the masses. Also, if you are a fan of Lynda Carter, now's the time to check out my blog.

Population One said...

"We all come into this world with our little egos equipped with individual horns. If we don't blow them, who else will?"

GayProf said...

DykeWife: It is a stereotype to presume all gay men are into Camp. On the other hand, a good number of gay men appreciate Camp. It's a boundary smudging area.

Torn: It's a theory...

Doug: Redoing my apartment as Jeannie's bottle is "campy" or "insane." Whatever.

VUBOQ: Russian Monopoly would be great -- though a little sad, too.

Huntington: Or if the Emperor is wearing a feather boa...

Tom: Sex is totally Camp.

Bill S.: I did not like Sontag's assessment, either. It was, to my mind, appropriation and contained many presumptions about gay men.

This Boy Elroy: Andy Warhol is in your bedroom? I thought that he was dead... (I know, Boo -- hiss).

Les: Any made up language has to be Camp. It just has to be.

Sammuel: Too bad he doesn't have as nice things to say about racial minorities...

Antonio: Yeah, the hipster trend is making it hard to be totally Camp. Still...

Frank: Kinda like GayProf...

Marius: Hail, Amazon Sister.

B: "I don't want to make trouble. All I want is a drink."

Anonymous said...

I looked up camp in the sense we're talking about here in an online English-Esperanto dictionary (what?), and there is no word for it! I propose we write whoever's in charge and propose a coinage. My candidate: la margo.

r said...

I have a Monopoly game in Japanese.

Does that count as Camp?

Seriously -- loved, loved, loved this. Like reading an article in Mental Floss.

(I hope you like that magazine.)

Anonymous said...

I had only really understood the other kind of "camp" (the kind that involves tents and the woods), before I read this post.

Roger Owen Green said...

Thanks again, GP. I had been wondering about this at least since 1975 when I was in the cast of a production of Boys in the Band in Binghamton, NY. At least 5 of the 9 cast members were gay. We went to a gay bar - (I didn't know Binghamton HAD a gay bar) and hung out together after rehearsals. At the time, camp seemed to be, in part, at least - Judy (Garland), Joan (Crawford), Joni (Mitchell), and Barbra (Streisand). As you probably know, I am loath to make "stereotypical" observations, yet there was the code.

I had had gay, though not out (to me), friends in high school who were always evoking the movie Mildred Pierce and the actress ZaSu Pitts, e.g.. It was code then, and I had missed it.