Camp is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “Ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to or characteristic of homosexuals. So as n., ‘camp’ behaviour, mannerisms, etc.” (camp, a., (and n. 5)). In Making Camp, Helene Shugart and Catherine Egley Waggoner add to that series parody, irony, and nostalgia. Shugart and Waggoner note saturation of camp in contemporary popular culture, citing examples including but not limited to Desperate Housewives, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Prince, Christina Aguilera, and Will and Grace. Camp then, can be viewed as an aesthetic far broader in reach than Susan Sontag’s original conception of camp as artifice.
In her seminal essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” Susan Sontag addresses the impossibility of a strict definition of camp, for camp is not a strict idea, but a “sensibility” (Sontag 288). For Sontag, camp is, “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration” (Sontag 288). Camp is not a strict rule and cannot, with integrity, be mechanized. Sontag rationalizes this nebulosity by proposing camp-as-sensibility. Sensibilities, here, are opposed to ideas, which she conceives of as more definite and less subject to change over time. Implied in this model is that camp is fundamentally emotional; it does not argue, but feels. This is reflected in Sontag’s claim that camp is apolitical (discussed at greater length below). For this reason, most serious art is not camp, although Sontag admits the fallibility of this declaration, especially given the relativity with which societies treat arts as serious.
Regarding the history of camp, Sontag suggests that “travesty, impersonation, [and] theatricality” began to adhere into a camp aesthetic in the 18th century, at which point taste-setters ceased to venerate and mimic nature in art and began to honor style above content:
Still, the soundest starting point seems to be the late 17th and early 18th century, because of that period’s extraordinary feeling for artifice, for surface, for symmetry; its taste for the picturesque and the thrilling, its elegant conventions for representing instant feeling and the total presence of character – the epigram and the rhymed couplet (in words), the flourish (in gesture and in music). (Sontag 292)
In England, camp continued into 19th century aestheticism and achieved apotheosis in the style (but not content) of Art Nouveau. However, contemporaries of Art Nouveau never explicitly defined their craft as camp. Christopher Isherwood, in his 1954 novel The World in Evening, is now generally credited as the first author to attempt to codify camp (Booth 15). Of low camp Isherwood provides the example, “a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture had and a feather boa, pretending to be Marlene Dietrich” (Isherwood 110); and of high camp, “the whole emotional basis of the ballet, for example, and of course of baroque art….the ballet is camp about love” (Isherwood 110). Only in 1954 with Isherwood, then, was camp explicitly inaugurated into literature and, subsequently, academia.
As early as Isherwood’s distinction between high and low camp, therefore, discourse on camp has consistently been concerned with politics. Alternatively, Sontag claims, “It goes without saying that the Camp sensibility is disengaged, depoliticized – or at least apolitical” (Sontag 287). Sontag suggests that because camp prioritizes form over content, objects of camp aesthetic are necessarily crafted without any political motivation. This theory has been widely discredited (see Butler; Halberstam; Robertson).
Most notably, camp’s current political overtones are a function of its situation in feminist discourse and queer theory. Sontag conceives of gender/sexuality as especially prone to camp sensibilities because its style is strongly exaggerated. Androgyny, for example, goes “against the grain of one’s sex” (Sontag 291); it is an exaggeration of the feminine in men, the masculine in women. Furthermore, camp, which appropriates its objects as artifice, is staunchly opposed to any essentialist ontologies. For this reason, too, camp lends itself especially well to the performativity critiques popular among queer theorists and feminists. Judith Butler, for example, interprets drag’s camp aesthetic as a performative critique of gender.
Several theorists have attempted to explain the relationship between camp and gay culture. Sontag acknowledges that while camp is not necessarily gay, gay culture has been the most vociferous champion of camp. She theorizes that queer culture has attempted to legitimize itself by promoting form over content, or aesthetics over morals. Camp is about playfulness, innocence and enjoyment, not condemnation. According to Sontag, it dissolves the moral outrage of many detractors of gay culture. Judith Halberstam proposes that gay culture is a key axis for any discussion of camp because masculinity is perceived as natural; it is “unadorned and unperformed” (Halberstam 246). Males performing femininity subvert these “authentic” aesthetics through camp.
Feminist discourse finds political significance in camp for similar reasons. Pamela Robertson argues that camp icons – she cites Madonna and Mae West – can and should use pop culture as a political and critical instrument in the deconstruction of masculinity and femininity. Through identification with these icons, women can escape the bounds of reductive views of femininity:
Through cinematic and extracinematic identificatory fantasies and practices, West’s female fans “went West,” gaining access to a form of camp that enabled them to distance themselves from sex and gender stereotypes and to view women’s every day roles as female impersonation. (Robertson 53)
But: is camp inherently subversive?
Of course, camp’s subversiveness – whether it exists or not – by no means necessitates that objects of the camp aesthetic be relegated outside mainstream media. Xena, Warrior Princess, for example, whose eponymous heroine was a mythically sentimental action/fantasy figure, garnered extraordinarily high ratings during its six year run and was broadcast in syndication thereafter, suggesting strong mainstream support for the television program. Such programs’ popularity may demonstrate, vis – a – vis Adorno’s culture industry, the cooption of camp by the mainstream media. This is the basis of many theorists critiques of “Camp Lite” (Sontag 293) or “Pop” camp (Ross 310). Ross, for example, notes the frequency with which mainstream media reinforce, through form and content, the dominant power structures of a society. This cultural hegemony usually functions by excluding certain dissident images as distasteful, or by assuaging the threat of these images by representing them through stereotypes. As such, images initially termed transgressive might be packaged in ways that require their viewers to accept less progressive conventions (Ross 310-12). Others, like Pamela Robertson, argue that mainstream success does not preclude a medium or aesthetic’s subversive potential. Rather, camp figures should take advantage of the spotlight to identify the ever-changing elements of transgressive spectacle. Furthermore, she argues, feminists should not become complacent by conflating camp with politics: although incontrovertibly related, they are not identical (Robertson 53-4).
Controversially, John Fiske argues for a third option, distinct from camp performances as resistance or cooption. Fiske claims that the chaos of postmodern texts grants audiences some agency to construct their own interpretations:
Popularity is seductively easy to understand if we persist with the fallacious belief that we live in a homogeneous society and that people are fundamentally all the same. But it becomes much more complex when we take into account that late capitalist societies are composed of a huge variety of social groups and subcultures, all held together in a network of social relations in which the most significant factor is the differential distribution of power….”[T]he people” are not cultural dopes…. (Fiske 309)
Camp texts, therefore, are imbued with infinite possibilities for resistance, so long as the viewer chooses to construct it that way. From a poststructuralist perspective, then, camp maintains its subversive potential.
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