whatever happened to camp – does it still exist?

Camp was the secret language of gay communities. Is it still relevant today?

by Amelia Abraham
16 March 2017, 5:40pm

I've been consuming camp for as long as I can remember. Before, even, I knew there was a word for it. The Spice Girls and Steps were definitely camp — particularly Geri Halliwell, who continues to affirm her status as a camp icon today — as were the Eurovision Song Contest, the aunts in Sabrina the Teenage Witch and my favorite childhood film, Hocus Pocus (mostly because it had Bette Midler in it... and anything Bette Midler does is camp.) The first cassette single I bought was Cher's "Believe" (guilty), which was iconically camp, whether or not it flew under my seven-year-old radar. Lots of us have camp tastes when we're children. Some of us grow out of them, others grow up to be homosexual. Remember that Simpsons episode "Homer's Phobia," where John Waters plays Marge's new gay friend? One of my earliest memories of camp.

Camp can be broad, but that doesn't mean it's not elusive. After all, not everything can be camp. In 1964, Susan Sontag wrote the famous essay, "Notes on Camp," attempting to pin it down. "Indeed the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration," she wrote. "Camp sees everything in quotation marks." Describing it as a "mode of aestheticism," "a private code," and "a badge of identity, even," according to Sontag, you had to know it to spot it — which is to say, "camp is not all in the eye of the beholder," but mostly it is. She attempts to explain why camp and homosexuality seem to be so synonymous, arguing that it's because camp, in its playfulness, "neutralizes moral indignation," Others argue that camp articulates the gay experience because it's to do with the performance of identity — something closeted gay people know a lot about.

As a style and aesthetic, camp has always pervaded queer culture; it was implicit in Oscar Wilde's writing and talked about explicitly in the gay writer Christopher Isherwood's 1954 novel The World and the Evening. It could be read into the affected performances of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis, who were both gay icons in their own right, and over-the-top 1930s Hollywood musicals. It was always innocent and almost always accidental, until around the late 1960s when it shifted a gear as the aforementioned gay filmmaker John Waters deliberately used it to critique ideas of good and bad taste. His flair for vulgarity and excess earned him the title of camp connoisseur. Then, later, camp surfaced in the gauche outfits worn by a closeted Liberace, the general fabulousness of Cher, and the tongue-in-cheek appeal of The Village People.

Camp was always innocent and almost always accidental, until around the late 1960s, when it shifted a gear as the gay filmmaker John Waters deliberately used it to critique ideas of good taste and bad taste.

In a time when gay culture isn't quite so hidden, and there isn't quite so much moral indignation around homosexuality, you have to ask what camp looks like today. In an interview I did with Waters a while ago, I mentioned the word "camp" offhand and he sounded shocked. "Camp!" he exclaimed — "I don't know anyone that would ever say the word camp out loud, it's like an 80-year-old gay man in a 1950s antique shop under a Tiffany lamp shade." If even the connoisseur of camp sees it as outdated, has its elusive nature final got the better of us? It is, more often than not, discussed as a thing of the past. At this year's BFI Flare — London's LGBT film festival — there is, for example, an entire strand of programming dedicated to camp cinema, but nothing made after 1981. They are showing Mommie Dearest (where Faye Dunaway plays an evil Joan Crawford — so many levels of camp), Barbarella (set and costumes very high camp) and a sing-a-long Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (sing-alongs are super camp). The program's curator, Zorian Clayton, is giving a talk called "A Romp Through Classic Camp," but if there's such a thing as "classic camp," is there such a thing as "neo-camp"?

"I think camp still has a popularism and a big draw," explained Clayton over the phone, when I put this question to him. "Certain cultural figures or films carry on generation after generation — younger gay men are really desperate to find out about all these references that are part of our queer history. A lot of young ones want to know: 'Who is Divine?' 'What is this Bette Davis movie?'" Clayton admits that camp "pops in and out of fashion," but notes that it's always had a continuity to it. "Some things are unchanging," he says. "The first known use was in 1671, in a Molière play, where a valet is trying to convince his master to camp about on one leg with hand on hip — there's a taste of excess, a wittiness, a larger-than-life personality there. When it first enters into the Oxford Dictionary, it's ostentatious, affected, theatrical, effeminate, with homosexual characteristics or behavior... the same as it is today."

According to Clayton, camp can be found everywhere in contemporary culture if you look for it; he hears older gays use it as a verb, in the context of "camping about," he says the camp musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch is in the process of getting a sequel, and then of course, he points out, there's RuPaul's Drag Race, a camper-than-camp spectacle. "Maybe the terminology falters, and you might not hear the term used so much any more, since the way people identify is changing a lot of the time in LGBT culture," he suggests. "People don't like to be boxed in, and besides, a lot of masc-for-masc gay men are very down on camp because it's effeminate. But camp's there just as strongly as it ever was; it's a way that some people naturally are, so how could it ever go away?"

Personally, I encounter camp most commonly these days online, through the pop culture in-jokes of GIFS and the ironic distinction that makes a great meme so hilarious. 

Katrin Horn is a German academic interested in where we can find camp in the feminist pop-culture landscape and is currently writing a book called Women, Camp, and Popular Culture: Serious Excess. According to Horn, if we're short of a camp icon today, we should look no further than Lady Gaga, who deliberately uses camp for subversive political messaging and to reel in a queer audience. "Her work defies essentialism, identity, and originality," writes Horn in one of her papers, outlining Gaga's gender play (a strap-on beneath her trousers one minute, a cone bra the next), profuse gay referencing — to lesploitation films in the "Telephone" video, to voguing balls in The Monster Ball Tour and to Andy Warhol across Art Pop. Then there's the bad taste of the meat dress, the conscious performance of pop through auto-tune, and the constant reinvention and playing of roles.

If you don't get the Gaga references, says Horn, then you wouldn't read it as camp. And in that sense, "it still takes one to know one," or put it more simply: camp is very much still a code to be understood by those in the know. "Camp isn't necessarily a code between your boyfriend or your friends today," she concedes, because for a lot of people, that's no longer necessary, and because camp can overtly flaunt itself in the mass media. However, she says, "if you don't get the references in the 'Telephone' video, it means something entirely different, it's just flashy — but if you do get the references, then the meaning of the video changes; you can't read it straight... the references will inflect the video's irony, or parody about female representation in Hollywood, for example."

Katrin says she wanted to write about camp because she was annoyed "at all the people who told me it's over." When she went looking for it, Gaga was glaring at her, but there are many other examples; in her book she talks about camp lesbian films like But I'm a Cheerleader, and she even argues that the show 30 Rock is camp, because Tina Fey's character Liz Lemon comments on the commercialization of feminine identity with the kind of critical distance you just don't see from other shows like Sex and the City. In that way, camp can be feminist, because it's used as a tool to upend ideas of how women should be. "Is reality TV like Keeping Up with the Kardashians or Real Housewives camp then?" I ask her, remembering that my friend offered Kris Jenner as the ultimate camp icon of 2017. "I wouldn't necessarily call those shows camp because they miss the serious aspect, maybe they're kitsch but not camp," she says. "They're not political enough."

Talking to Clayton and Horn, it became clear that no two people will ever entirely agree on what is and isn't camp, and in that sense, it is definitely as difficult to encapsulate as it has always been. And yet, it is present today if you go looking for it — down Gaga's trousers, under Kris Jenner's wig, and from RuPaul's acid tongue. Personally, I encounter camp most commonly these days online, through the pop culture in-jokes of GIFs and the ironic distinction that makes a great meme so hilarious. "I think camp has proven to be very versatile over the decades," says Horn. "Wherever mainstream culture goes, camp can go somewhere to the left of it. Meme culture is definitely ripe for an analysis of camp." But is camp still subversive if it's everywhere? "I think every generation has this thing when they think they're over camp because it has been appropriated, as queer images usually are," says Horn, "but I don't think it dies as new people are taking it over." Clayton agrees: "Camp is a mainstay, I think. It would be very difficult to sidestep in terms of its historical importance — camp is radical and always will be."

Read: When photographer Louie heard queen of the night Scotty 'Sussi' Sussman was moving to London with partner-in-crime Harry Charlesworth, he could feel a project brewing.


Text Amelia Abraham

john waters
queer culture
bfi flare