This week, i-D Magazine’s Amelia Abraham published a think piece asking, “Whatever Happened To Camp–Does It Still Exist?” Believe me, Mary, just that question made me recoil in horror. How DARE they wonder if camp still exists?! Why, as we’ve frequently shouted into the abyss here on Filthy Dreams, it’s more important than ever!
In the article, Abraham seeks to find the relevancy of camp as a coded language for queers during a time of comparatively mainstream queer visibility. She introduces a litany of camp objects from her own childhood including the Spice Girls (who I’d argue aren’t camp), Cher (most definitely camp) and of course, John Waters who, I’ll admit, seems responsible for Abraham’s skepticism of camp. Apparently, upon mentioning camp to our preeminent filth elder, Waters exclaimed, “Camp! I don’t know anyone that would ever say the word out loud, it’s like an 80-year old gay man in a 1950s antique shop under a Tiffany lamp shade.” As much as it pains me to say this, even filth elders can be wrong.
And I get it–Waters’ forte is trash not camp and he comes from a generation bred to see camp as the pilled sweaters and Hollywood admiring cheese of the closeted 1950s. Pulled in the wrong direction by Waters, Abrahams talks to two other camp-interested curators and academics. While Zorian Clayton, who curated a program dedicated to camp at BFI Flare–London LGBT Festival, which is entirely made up of old movies, seems to get the continued relevancy of camp today, Katrin Horn, a German academic (a demographic known for campiness) currently working on a book Women, Camp and Popular Culture: Serious Excess provided a misunderstanding of camp.
Horn points to Lady Gaga and her ham-fisted queer references as camp. No, Gaga is just a try-hard. When asked by Abrahams if the Kardashians or Real Housewives are camp, Horn says, “I wouldn’t necessarily call those shows camp because they miss the serious aspect, maybe they’re kitsch but not camp…they’re not political enough.”
You take that back! Seriousness is the ultimate camp antithesis! That is, unless you’re taking something seriously that’s not supposed to be. And while camp is political, the objects, viewed through the lens of camp, don’t have to be.
While the think piece, like most think pieces, doesn’t come to any real conclusion, I finished the article realizing that poor Amelia was searching in the wrong places for camp. Yes, Amelia, there is a camp. But, it’s just that we can no longer just restrict camp to pop culture–it’s all camp!
But, perhaps more importantly, camp has become a tool of the right. That’s right–conservative camp is the place that we possibly see camp working on a real mainstream level. And I emphasize mainstream since you well know, dearest faithful Filthy Dreams readers, that there are undeniably those artists, performers and personas that carry the subversive, radical queer torch of camp. But, it just so happens that now, they have competition.
The Whole World Is A Camp
The first problem “Whatever Happened To Camp–Does It Still Exist?” faces is attempting to define camp only in regards to pop cultural objects when, in fact, camp has become a part into our entire society. It’s beside the point to search films or TV shows for camp. Instead, you need to look out into society as a whole from social media to politics.
Now, this isn’t necessary Abraham’s fault. It goes back to Susan Sontag’s harebrained notion that you could list camp objects in Notes On Camp like Tiffany lamps (which I still don’t understand. Someone please explain). While Sontag gets many things right about camp in her essay, this mistake continues to be repeated over and over again in any writing on camp.
While this was problematic when Sontag first dived into camp, it’s way more problematic now. Mainly because well, we’ve all become camp! In his Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp, transgressive filmmaker Bruce LaBruce importantly points this out, writing, “ ‘camp’ has replaced ‘irony’ as the go-to sensibility in popular culture, and it has, at the risk of generalization, long since lost its essential qualities of esoteric sophistication and secret signification, partly owing to the contemporary tendency of the gay sensibility to allow itself to be thoroughly co-opted, its mystery and therefore its power, hopelessly diffused.”
He emphasizes, “In other words, and not to put too fine a point on it, I will argue that now, in this moment, the whole goddamn world is camp.” Delivered at the Camp/Anti-Camp Conference in Berlin in 2012, this notion has become even more relevant now on the carousel of crazy we’re all riding on in both national and international politics.
And much of it has to do with the mainstreaming of gay i.e. camp sensibilities by Ryan Murphy and others who distilled camp’s subversive power into a romp for suburban cable TV viewers. Rather than a coded language for the marginalized, camp became something bought and sold. As LaBruce said, “Camp is now for the masses. It’s a sensibility that has been appropriated by the mainstream, fetishized, commoditized, turned into a commodity fetish and exploited by a hypercapitalist system, as Adorno warned.”
And with the masses comes conservative camp.
The Rise of Conservative Camp
While I return to Bruce LaBruce’s essay quite frequently, the most important part of his piece, at least I think, is his articulation of “conservative camp.” From Ann Coulter to Sarah Palin, conservatives, even in 2012, were beginning to excel at this whole camp thing. As LaBruce explains, “For what are Sarah Palin, Newt Gingrich, Bill O’Reilly, Donald Trump and Herman Cain other than conservative camp icons enacting a kind of reactionary burlesque on the American political stage? Wholly without substance, their views exaggerated and extremely stylized, and evincing a carefully contrived posture of “compassionate conservatism”, they function merely as a crude spectacle that mocks the unwashed masses by pretending to be one of them while simultaneously offering them policies that are directly antithetical to their authentic needs.”
By now, conservatives have tossed off that whole “compassionate conservative” shackle and just fully embraced the crude spectacle part of LaBruce’s description, published four years before the rise of Donald Trump and his minions of deplorables. But in those four years, camp got overtaken by the right and is “thoroughly entrenched and consumed by the American public.” What could be more exemplary of conservative camp than then entire Trump administration?
Just take our Kellyanne for example. From alternative facts to the Bowling Green Massacre to microwave spies to her revived standup comedy foray and sucking down a green onion in front of Olivia Nuzzi, Conway is basically a right-wing version of one of those Hollywood grand dames. Move over, Joan Crawford! Kellyanne is coming through! I mean, I’d totally pay to see Kellyanne threaten someone with wire hangers.
And Kellyanne isn’t the only one. What about Sean Spicer with his gum-chewing, Easter bunny costume-wearing and Dippin’ Dots-ranting? Hell…even Stephen Miller has a certain dead-eyed campiness to him like a vintage Batman villain.
And if we want to go back to i-D’s original question about the Kardashians, we find our answer with Caitlyn Jenner’s finger-wagging video to Trump after repealing protections for trans people. Wearing a pink “pussy bow” blouse, Caitlyn chides, “This is a disaster!” while insisting that Trump, “Call me!” as she makes a mock telephone with her hands.
Even anonymous leakers inside the White House have delved into camp. Just think about that New York Times article that describes staffers wandering around the White House in the dark while Trump shuffles around in his bathrobe. If that’s not camp, I don’t know what is.
In fact, it seems like the only person in the administration who isn’t camp is Mike Pence who is just too dour to be campy. This is what i-D Magazine missed. Now, it’s partially not on them since they’re a British publication, but Nigel Farage and Theresa May are just as absurd as their American brethren. It just so happens that the Americans are much more adept at campy ridiculousness.
And I know, some of you dear readers are probably clutching your pearls right now. How DARE I trivialize and refuse to take the dangerous administration seriously! Well, failed seriousness is an essential part of camp. As Sontag wrote, “In naïve or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate and the naïve.” All of this seems to describe the Trump administration or on the micro level, Trump’s tweets.
Just take a look at these ones:
Now I have no idea what he’s talking about, but I know it sounds a whole lot like camp!
Mother Camp: Milo Yiannopoulos
Which brings me to the apotheosis of conservative camp: Milo Yiannopoulos. Some of the conservative camp I described above was unintentional camp; for former Breitbart editor Milo, it’s very much intentional. And before he blurted out that pedo thing (“I’m grateful for Father Michael…I wouldn’t nearly give such good head if it wasn’t for him” …Someone get that kid a book deal!), he was succeeding at camp in a way that made strange bedfellows between him–a swishy agitator–and the alt-right, the Trumpers and other weirdo misfits with a conservative or, at least, antisocial bent.
In many ways, I see Milo as the Frankenstein’s monster of everything we’ve argued for on Filthy Dreams. Nihilism? Check. Offensive loud-mouthing? Check. Clownishness? Check. Camp performance art? Check. CONFETTI?! Check. I guess, at least someone was listening!
And I know, just mentioning his name already gets people angry and he does say godawful things (which I refuse to repeat here). But his entire aesthetic of frivolity, flamboyance and biting insults is destabilizing for a denizen of camp like me. After hearing about the ruckus caused at Berkley over his speech, I first watched an interview with Milo with a very confused Tucker Carlson in which he complained that he had been planning on wearing a giant Native American headdress to the talk to discuss cultural appropriation. I mean, that would have been quite an entrance.
And it wasn’t a joke as he dressed like an ICE agent, a police officer or just wearing a shirt with tons of Trump faces on it on his Dangerous Faggot campus tour. When not costumed like a lost member of the Village People, he was just decked in pearls on Real Time With Bill Maher.
His aestheticism doesn’t just extend to his outfits. Milo seems to see all of politics as a form of campy aesthetics, which explains his Trump support. Or as he calls Trump, “Daddy.” As he said in an OUT interview, “Donald Trump is such an obvious gay icon…He’s brassy, he’s outrageous, his taste in interiors is gaudy and exhibitionist. He’s a heavy-handed caricature of a billionaire. Everything about him is at once fantastic and camp. He’s the drag queen you can vote for.”
But, is he serious or is just an elaborate form of performance art? That’s the true question I have with Milo as he works everyone into a lather from feminists to Black Lives Matter to now after his pedo comments, conservatives. Sontag explains that to be a camp involves duplicity: “To camp is a mode of seduction — one which employs flamboyant mannerisms susceptible of a double interpretation; gestures full of duplicity, with a witty meaning for cognoscenti and another, more impersonal, for outsiders. Equally and by extension, when the word becomes a noun, when a person or a thing is “a camp,” a duplicity is involved. Behind the “straight” public sense in which something can be taken, one has found a private zany experience of the thing.”
And even after his swift downfall, Milo continues to camp, posting Instagram photos with champagne bottles, trolling students at Glasgow University and updating his Facebook with statuses such as, “Like morning wood, I cannot be held down.” Ok baby…
At the end of the day, whether he reappears or not, Milo consciously manipulated how to work camp in a way to exploit the policing that has pervaded the left and the misjudged marginalization that the white men seem to bizarrely feel on the right. In an interview with Sam Roberts, Milo says, “one reason the left hates me so much because I make everybody laugh and don’t mind being ridiculous and clownish. And nobody can resist the truth wrapped in a good joke which is kind of my MO.” Roberts steps in and says, “It’s hard to discredit you when– “ and Milo responds, “When I’ve already done it to myself. It’s that drag queen thing, before you read other people, you have to read yourself. So you take yourself down to the gutter and you can pull other people down with you.”
Ugh…if only more people on the left remembered this tactic.
Taking Camp Back From Conservatives
So for those of us believers in camp…what are we supposed to do?! Do we come out as conservatives and embrace this conservative camp even if it means being alienated from our favorite Williamsburg bars like sad sack Chadwick Moore? …Maybe not…
First, thing’s first, I think we need to question how the left became professional pearl-clutchers. I thought the left was the side that would offend, leaving religious right Congress members threatening NEA grants and screaming about Robert Mapplethorpe and BDSM. What happened?! When did the policed become the enforcers?
How do we reclaim camp? Well, first, by avoiding attributing camp to specific objects like in i-D Magazine. Camp has always been and will always be a value system, an aesthetic and a worldview. It’s not necessarily something definitive, but a way of seeing the world. As Charles Ludlam writes, “I think the whole keynote of the Ridiculous and camp is a rigorous revaluing of everything. What people think is valuable ain’t valuable. Admiring what people hold in contempt, holding in contempt things other people think are valuable–it’s a fantastic standard,” writes Ludlam (226).
We also have to realize how bad the left’s responses have been to this rise of conservative camp. Let’s be honest–a lot of our public intellectuals and politicians are just downers and not exactly adept at camp themselves. You can’t, like Larry Wilmore did to Milo on Real Time, shout “Go fuck yourself.” You can’t beat alternative facts with facts, but you can yell back about “FAKE NEWS!” You just have to out Mary these conservative campers. Be more outrageous, upset their values, laugh it off and don’t hold back.