Beyond Judy Garland

Can Camp Survive?


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When Susan Sontag published her famous essay 'Notes on Camp' in 1966, she turned a gay attitude that was part survival skill, part simple source of fun into a serious cultural category. This wasn't merely a matter of introducing straights to a gay idea; as Phillip Core showed in his 1984 book Camp: The Lie that Tells the Truth, camp has always been a way for the gay world to meet the straight one. Drag queens, serious gay culture-makers like Cole Porter and Noel Coward, and kitschmeisters like Liberace have all used the armory of camp -- irony, theatricality, the good-humored embrace of tacky fabulousness -- to protect homosexual identity in the very process of flaunting it; to essentially say, I will let you see an ironic version of the truth of my sexuality, a version so coded that if you get it, you have no business despising me; or so outrageous that you are tempted to think I'm kidding.

But camp is more than a strategy; it grows out of basic gay ways of seeing the world, as Jack Babuscio pointed out in a 1977 essay collected in David Bergman's 1993 book, Camp Grounds. 'The heightened awareness and appreciation for disguise, impersonation, the projection of personality' that characterize camp came naturally to men who were often forced to 'play' straights in their daily lives.

With the growth of unapologetic gayness after Stonewall -- and the migration of much of the ironic fabulousness of camp taste into mainstream culture -- camp has had to find new grounds to survive and thrive; in Bergman's book, for example, Scott Long makes a compelling case for seeing the camp sensibility of 'cultivated absurdity' as a way of vivifying the monotony of information overload in post-industrial society. But in 'Is Camp Dead?' in the zine Inquisitor, Daniel Drennan claims that the essential rebelliousness of camp is being co-opted (along with other forms of rebellion) by a voracious media culture that knows how to turn drag queens into sanitized spokesmodels.

Another aspect of the mainstreaming -- and simplifying -- of camp is revealed in Gareth Cook's attack on it in the current Washington Monthly. Blaming camp for what he sees as cruelty and class snobbery in contemporary mass culture -- in everything from Tarantino's Pulp Fiction to Beavis and Butt-Head -- Cook turns a complex cultural attitude into a simple-minded social problem. Whether you think he is missing the point of camp entirely depends on whether you agree with Scott Long that camp still embodies 'a kind of hope; it is a system of signs by which those who understand certain ironies will recognize each other and endure.