Is Camp Dead?
"Am I addressing the white queen?" "Well, yes, if you call that a-dressing," the Queen said. "It isn't my notion of the thing at all."So begins Alice's introduction to the White Queen in Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Camp, like the world beyond Alice's looking glass, is a reflection of society at large -- only magnified and reversed. An explanation that goes further goes too far; many have tried to define camp in one way or another: Hemingway referred to it as "grace under pressure"; Jean Cocteau said it was "the lie that tells the truth." Those who get it know it when they see it. However, camp is harder and harder to find these days. Innocence and naivete are lost commodities in a "seen it-done it" world. Understated celebrity-seeking is a lost art, while Hollywood is bereft of glamour. Repressed expression has been replaced with show-all tell-all no-holds-barred purgings by the entire world. The question then is: Is Camp Dead?Camp expression in part grows out of a repression of feeling or sentiment by society at large. The need to express oneself, combined with the muting force of a culture which does not approve of this expression, results in a certain overstated understatement as it were. This explains the mental link between camp and homosexuals -- forced to repress their true feelings, the emotions of queers often found release in certain manifestations of this emotional closet -- extravagant dress, eccentric mannerisms, coded communication and body language, an ability to invert banality and outrageousness, as well as an appreciation of this inversion. This same sentiment, on the other foot, produces a camp expression among heterosexuals based on the repression of homosexual desires, perhaps even more reviled than active homosexuality in modern society. As the barriers to this repression come down, as queers come out of the closet en masse, and as the media and advertising industries recycle the camp expression of the past and exploit current societal taboos in an effort to capture market share with shock tactics, camp will evolve or fade quietly away as the reasons for its existence cease to be.A major part of camp expression is a certain naivet, acknowledged or not by the perpetrator, which winks subtly at the observer and says "this isn't serious (darling)." The style of camp just is, and focusing on the source is much like trying to capture a ball of mercury. As marketers turn to any current trend to sell any number of products, they inadvertently destroy the essence of what they are trying to capture by painting with a roller what should be expressed with a fine sable brush. John Cleese appearing in drag in a 1991 American Express ad is campy; equivalent commercials today (Levi's, Budweiser) seem comparatively overwrought. Camp is a finely-tuned reflection of the culture from which it is born -- heavy-handed appropriations only end up failing to get the original message across.Modern media and marketing forces actively seek out the forbidden and the shocking to sell products. By the time camp expression reaches the big screen, the television, or the airwaves, it has too often been rendered sterilized and devoid of its original "rebellious" nature. Former expressions of camp are also appropriated by a modern media market starved for ideas. The result rarely reflects the camp quality of the components. For example, equal doses of kung fu movies, Japanese science fiction, teenage beefcake, and soap opera gives us The Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers -- shamefully devoid of camp in its quest for market share. This recycling of past forms has become a function of modern (and post-modern) design and media methods. Such recycling and reuse leaves none of the original expression intact, and inadvertently tolls the death knell for camp as we know it today.Camp is not an exclusively gay expression. The problem in rooting out camp which doesn't have a homosexual base is that it is easy to confuse it with kitsch, as Esquire magazine did in an article on "The New Straight Camp" that featured Marky Mark on the cover as an ersatz Saint Sebastian. The premise: Since the straight white male is under attack from various groups, this "repression" results in a certain camp expression from this group. What Esquire failed to acknowledge is that Marky Mark expresses his sexuality overtly; taken-for-granted privilege is likewise expressed overtly; the term "straight [white male] camp" in that context then becomes a contradiction in terms. What is camp is a magazine that professes a primarily heterosexual demographic while promoting a certain "homosexual" male aesthetic. What is camp is a magazine that reaches for some paragon of straight white male virtue which was shaped largely by queers in the first place. Esquire is campy. The article was a catalog of kitsch.Non-queer camp is probably best expressed by the British, whose history of Victorianism (itself a camp era) and class stratification provides much to rebel against in terms of expression. Vestigial British camp can still be found in the language of parliamentary procedures, where members of government can insult each other and the prime minister while referring to each other as "the honorable gentleman", coming as close as English does to the formal structures found in other languages. The pomp and high tone of British parliament is in direct contrast to its footstomping and loud voicings of "hear, hear" -- a perfect embodiment of camp.British humor relies on this extremely subtle and ironic juxtaposition. The most recent incarnation of camp humor from Britain is Absolutely Fabulous, which completely and campily subverts the banal and the outrageous, the consequential with the immaterial. Unfortunately, this sensibility may not travel well, as the rights to the television series have been bought up by Roseanne for production of the show's American version. The general decline of British camp is reflected best in the goings on of the British royal family -- which has, through rampant tabloidization, been proved no different than the average citizen -- removing any last vestige of the concept of noblesse. The bottom of this downhill slide is documented by The Face magazine, which facetiously compares Prince Charles and Princess Diana to Courtney Love and Kurt Cobain -- once again, British camp finds itself overrun by American culture.So much of gay camp expression was due to a male-male desire disavowed and reviled in the larger culture. This repression in straight male society finds outlets in certain rules of contact, such as sports. It might be argued that American football -- with padding and uniform emphasizing and embellishing the players' masculine traits while simultaneously providing a barrier to those traits -- is a highly-perfected form of straight camp. This disavowal of same-sex desire is currently undergoing a transformation, however. Current men's "health" magazines, which are full of articles about virility and better [hetero] sex, borrow quite heavily from gay pornography and thus ironically from gay porn's precursor from the late 1940s, the Athletic Guild photos of male nudes in "artistic" poses. The camp expression of the latter has been lost in the translation.The gay market for male celebrities, along with the notion that men might want to look at images of other men, has never been acknowledged as much as it is today. Straight actors think nothing of playing roles which only a short decade ago might have spelled the end, or at least a deep freeze, of their acting careers. Keanu Reeves, Antonio Banderas, River Phoenix, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Daniel Day Lewis (among others) are all at the forefront of this trend of unabashedly playing gay characters. This lifting of the formerly taboo has an effect as well on the gay population, which has often protested what it sees as unequal representation in the cinema and on television, and which affords them a step up in the desire to be part of mainstream society. Strangely enough, it is straight actors who are able to play openly gay characters -- Hollywood still frowns upon the reverse situation.On the musical side, the idolized Marky Mark broke this ground, albeit reluctantly, and more with his underwear than with his music. More recently, the ever-angry Henry Rollins admitted his appeal to gay listeners. With his military clothes and hairstyle, penchant for weightlifting, and tattoos, his crossover is ironically a natural. The most blatant incorporation of gay aesthetics by a group meant primarily for consumption by teenage girls is found in the British pop band Take That. Their pumped-up (not too) physiques, naive horseplay, and costumes based on gay-via-punk fetish clothing create an image that more often than not borders on soft-core gay pornography.As the repression of male-male desire lifts, will the camp expression resulting therefrom simply fade away? What about musicians that mine camp quarries quite successfully such as Morrissey (an admitted affectee of Oscar Wilde), and Erasure? The highly-calculated antics of groups like Take That no longer ring true [post appropriation] in terms of camp when the expression is purely marketing-driven.Much of modern gay style in the United States reflects to a large degree the classic "rebel" styles of post-war England: B-boys, motorcycle toughs, mods, and skinheads; Britain being the premier spawning ground for rebellious feeling expressed through style. The appropriation of this style in the United States, along with the ubiquitous cloning of macho stylings, has an element of camp to it, since it adopts the style while leaving the politics behind -- politics which are usually anti-queer.Yet even within the queer community, this camp is being subverted by marketing forces that see a new demographic to capture and which now actively use queer symbolism in advertising, as well as by a desire of sections of the gay population to be assimilated into the greater body of society. The wearing of combat boots or appropriating of military haircuts now has less to do with campily sending up an anti-gay military/skinhead mentality, and more to do with trying to regain some sense of "normal" masculinity, to blend in as it were.As queer culture becomes more banal, and as the gay population becomes more intolerant of flamboyant expression -- witnessed by the growing number of "just like us" magazines, TV shows, and movies -- then the "alternative" to queer culture comes more to the fore. This explains the explosion in recent years of the acceptance of the drag queen.Drag queens have always represented the underbelly of queer society; even in modern gay history they are often pushed to the extreme fringe of the gay population, which itself currently embraces a Tom-of-Finland-macho-moving-toward-mainstream aesthetic. That is why, as the gay male population became increasingly more butch, seekers of a more extremist queer sensibility turn to drag queens. No fewer than four movies this past summer featured cross dressing (The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Ed Wood, I Like It Like That, Just Like a Woman), and a major soon-to-be-released film starring Wesley Snipes and Patrick Swayze (To Wong Foo) features drag queens both famous and not so. Rupaul remains the icebreaker media-wise in this area. Of course, Boy George, Grace Jones, Pete Burns, Divine, and even David Bowie "bent gender" previously; but none of them did it with the "tuck it or tape it" candor of Rupaul, who has brought the working girl to the MTV masses (which in turn has spawned drag contests on such programs as The Real World). Now the spokeswoman for MAC cosmetics, she is paving the way for other performers, such as the New York drag queens that have produced a CD featuring Varla Merman's "It's Hard (to Be a Diva)" and Mistress Formica's "You've Got to Fight For Your Right to Be Queer"; and Joey Arias, a nightclub performer who channels Billy Holiday with amazing fidelity.Drag queendom works on two levels: for drag queens themselves, it is an expression of the opposite gender as seen through an idealized lens. For larger society, drag queens like Rupaul are not perceived as dangerous because they represent (to straight society) the "idealized" image of a woman which in many ways no longer exists among the workaday female population. Furthermore, the very extreme characterization of "woman" embodied in a drag queen speaks of a theatrical/performance expression that is "safe" since it is not real. This ability of society to remove the drag queen from the context of real life is necessary for the acceptance of the drag queen; Boy George, Rupaul, and the more flamboyant drag queens work on this level. More dangerous to society is the man who passes as a woman -- trans-genderism is a remaining taboo which is fodder for any number of gaudy talk show exposes, not to mention the inspiration for some more wrathful pronouncements from the feminist political movement.The movement of drag queens from a camp to a more mainstream context will result in a banalization of their expression. This is exemplified by the MTV Music Awards, which featured a Rockettes line of female impersonators; music videos by Cyndi Lauper ("Girls Just Want to Have Fun"), Gloria Estefan ("Everlasting Love"), and Annie Lennox ("Little Bird") all of which feature drag queens; the use of drag in fashion runway modeling (ironically proving the unstated notion that the perfectly proportioned woman is in fact a man); and perhaps in the greatest irony of all, the anniversary party for Playboy magazine, which was held at the Heffner mansion and which featured a fashion show of bunny costumes modeled entirely by drag queens posing as the objects of men's desire. And so we come full circle.The survival of camp will most likely be up to the next generation of culture consumers, already overburdened with -- and anachronistically without reference to -- retro-kitsch like The Brady Bunch Movie, another example of the marketing wringer at work. Former taboos of sexuality and gender are broken down by a media/marketing machine eager for new ideas to plunder, new ground to cover, and new markets to conquer. Younger members of these new markets, particularly in the gay population, will deal with a less harsh atmosphere in which to grow up, and without the political baggage of the preceding generation, itself striving to become an accepted part of society. What will the effect be on a form of expression uniquely tied to the repression of that expression? The former affectations are scorned, the closet is less and less of a necessity, the peers are more accepting. As this repression recedes, camp expression will likewise be pushed to the furthest fringes of culture, if not off of the cultural map completely.SIDEBAR 1: The Media Bulldozer Marky Mark appears on the cover of Esquire tied to the stake, borrowing from camp hagiographic imagery -- in this case, however, it is a bit overcooked.This advertisement is for ice cream. Hagen-Dazs uses the male nude and the "invisible other" to appeal to both gay and straight audiences. This marketing device has also been used successfully by Johnnie Walker, Evian, and Parker pens in their ads.An ad for Levi's, stamped "GIRLS" in the corner, and featuring two men in drag. This "obviously boy" drag is used to comic effect in beer commercials where "the guys" dress up to get free beer on ladies' night. Classier precursors include Divine and Rupaul in ads for LA Eyeworks glasses, and this John Cleese ad, photographed by Annie Leibovitz, for American Express which appeared in 1991.American culture is often recycled by foreign countries oblivious to the camp ramifications of such usage. Indian films, which require that certain amounts of indigenous culture be represented in the films produced there, have taken cues from Western music such as disco, which is then translated into a local idiom. Here, a Chinese television program features dancers lip-synching to "Vogue" by Madonna, worlds away from the Harlem drag balls which inspired the original song.The Del Rubio Triplets, who first appeared on national television on the equally campy Peewee Herman's Playhouse, manage to go from Nancy Sinatra to Devo in a single set. The retro camp of both these shows is being exploited by current movies such as The Brady Bunch Movie.Certain cultural icons have lost their status as camp goldmines as they strive to attain some politically or socially redeeming value. The Miss America Pageant is an ad-ridden campless exercise in politically correct posturing; likewise soap operas are positioning themselves as arbiters of morals and values, as witnessed by a meeting of producers sponsored by Ted Turner calling on them to exert some role other than their original one -- selling soap.The British comedy Absolutely Fabulous manages to send up the camp incestuousness of the fashion and public relations industries; it remains to be seen whether the show can weather a translation via Roseanne who has bought the production rights for the United States.SIDEBAR 2: Boy Oh BoyIt is only very recently that the media and advertising industries have acknowledged the existence of a male market for male imagery on screen and in print. A precursor to the modern and ubiquitous man-in-briefs beefcake ad was this metro poster, campily captioned "Tres Male. Tres Bien.", for the French company DIM in 1987.The glut of male exercise magazines on the newsstands points to an awareness of the male form that is the envy of a male fashion industry forever battling to get attention from a straight male demographic. This model, putatively showing off his killer abs, is from Men's Exercise magazine. The poses here, and in magazines like Men's Health, borrow heavily from soft-core porn and in turn, the camp of mid-century "artistic" athletic photographs.The male figure oddly juxtaposed with the Parker pen is captioned: "Never settles for second best". Gutsier ads have moved beyond the fill-in-the-missing other genre: a recent Versace ad features two male models arms intertwined; and a classical music CD, Sensual Classics Too from Atlantic, shows a male couple in a quite cozy pose.Marky Mark's queer canonization came after he became Calvin Klein's beefcake poster boy. Although acknowledging his gay audience, he was reviled by some due to statements he had made in the past. His image continues to be used and recycled, as in this look-alike on the cover of Gay Times magazine.Wrestling, the vaudeville of professional sports, formerly had a camp element to it, up until it became Big Business. The new world of mass-marketed wrestling is contrived and forced, leaving its camp past behind. The imagery is fertile ground for recycling, as in this image from the Jesus Jones' CD (titled ironically enough) Perverse.The boys of Take That play to both straight and gay audiences, and borrow heavily from a palette of gay camp expression. The former days of camp icons such as Bette Midler have been replaced with the instant marketing foothold of overt gay expression.Rock and roll is an arena where drag has always been acceptable. From The New York Dolls to modern heavy metal, the drag expression was always of the theatrical (and therefore "safe") category. In stark contrast is this CD cover for the band James. The group is pictured quite blase in their feminine attire, eating bananas.SIDEBAR 3: What A Drag! The ubiquitousness of drag queens of late is rather amazing. Movies such as Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is one of many studio releases which features drag (and not in a sinister way).New York's public access cable channels provide a virtual Drag Network which is bound to cross over into mainstream cable and broadcast television at some point soon. Shows like Come 'N Get It, Drag Queen Music Television, and The Pot are just a few of the access shows with a drag theme. Brandy Wine and Brenda A Go-Go host the access show On Patrol, which manages to get interviews out of just about every celebrity and celebrity has-been that comes through town.Glennda Orgasm hosts a public access show which takes well-aimed jabs at the gay community's internal intolerance. One of the more amazing and surreal shows had Glennda and Camille Paglia confronting two activists condemning pornography as being degrading to women. The activists simply ran away when presented with Ms. Paglia's Gatling-gun verbal abuse.There are any number of bars in town where one can see female impersonators working it; this one was televised and seemed to cater to a mostly straight Hispanic audience.Lovie TV is a brilliant epitome of camp -- entirely without content, completely about style. Lovie spends the entire show with her friends, playing cheesy music, mouthing Australian turns of phrase such as "What's she all about?" sans cesse and using the word "girlfriend" the way everyone else uses the word "the".Lady Bunny is the diva of the yearly dragfest known as Wigstock; this year it took place in the West Village, having outgrown its birthplace, Tompkins Square Park in the East Village. Released earlier this year? Wigstock: The Movie.Joey Arias brings drag performance to another level when he channels Billie Holliday in his one-woman show.The MTV Music Awards featured a Rockettes lineup of female impersonators, who reveal themselves to Roseanne at the end of their number. MTV also featured Rupaul at the spring break shows filmed in Florida, messing with the heads of all-American boys not quite sure whether they should be looking at her that way. Also on MTV was a drag contest suffered by the San Francisco team of The Real World.What better way to portray the coming banalization of camp than this greeting card, in pink and glitter, in the shape of a crown, and manufactured by -- Hallmark?