Beyond Judy Garland

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
, 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
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

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

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