I have not stopped watching RuPaul’s Drag Race just yet. I probably should. The early seasons of the show still conjure up fond memories, when it was a tacky bit of fun, and excelled at aping the tropes of reality television talent shows. After twelve years, it’s turned into a chore. Knowing the show’s contestants labour under horrendous conditions sits uneasily with me, as does RuPaul’s apparent proclivity for fracking – to say nothing of his tiresome neoliberal assertions that a queer self can always magically transcend its material conditions. But in addition to all that, the show seems to take itself a bit too seriously now. It has lost its ‘camp’ edge.
Yet this might have less to do with the show, and more to do with campiness itself losing its edge. Despite the popularity of modern television shows like RuPaul’s, the camp sensibility does seem a thing of the past. You can find the best camp in the Technicolor epics of classic Hollywood, 60s television, or personalities of bygone eras like Paul Lynde, Bette Davis or Quentin Crisp. But where is it today?
It’s been a year since celebrities utterly misunderstood camp at the Met Gala. The event had a kind of car-crash spectacle but was illustrative, because the failure of many of these celebrities attempting to embody camp ended up showing us how difficult it is to pin down in contemporary culture.
As Susan Sontag observed, camp is ‘the love of the exaggerated, the ‘off,’ of things-being-what-they-are-not,’ and is located most clearly in performance and the visual. Clothes and style are common ways of apprehending the sensibility, yet it is not as straightforward as what one wears. To wear heavy jewels on one’s wrists and fingers, and brightly coloured over-sized coats or hats dripping with feathers and sparkling shoes; this is not camp in itself. This is overdressing. A camp sensibility would be to overdress in this way, to know you are overdressed and to revel in that knowledge.
It’s commonly believed that the word camp derives from the French se camper, which means ‘to pose or gesture in an exaggerated manner’. Etymologies, while momentarily interesting, are often unenlightening because language tends to move on. But the definitional origins of camp do show how ostentatious posturing, gesture, and performance are all crucial to the sensibility. We can find early pioneers of camp among the Aesthetes of the nineteenth century, the most famous of them being Oscar Wilde. His luxurious dandyism and the foppish witticisms of his stories, essays, and plays all worked to turn staid Victorian morality on its head. Yet, as a more palpable sensibility, it emerged in the mid-twentieth century and could be at least partially seen as a reaction to the aesthetic seriousness of high Modernism.
The dominant artistic expressions of ‘the modern’ in this time were all clean lines, precise representations of social reality, and austere, clinical interventions in the visual arts to head off the unseriousness of mass culture. Camp appreciates the gaudy and the showy, but camp appreciation is also well aware that gaudiness and showiness is often in bad taste. It makes the unstylish stylish, the ugly beautiful, the trashy magnificent. Camp challenges the very notion of taste and of normality. This is why it has historically been a gay sensibility.
You don’t need to be queer to appreciate camp, but gay men have been its main aficionados. The reasons for this aren’t too difficult to understand: if society’s norms consider you aberrant, you might as well react by upending some of those norms. Camp accomplishes this upending mostly in the realm of taste: kitsch objects and maudlin nostalgia become vaunted, overvalued, loudly championed. We communicate with each other constantly through the clothes we wear, our hairstyles, the books we have in our shelves, the food and drink we serve to guests, the utensils guests use to eat our food, the pictures on our walls.
French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu maintained that what a particular individual likes or dislikes with regard to aesthetics is less to do with that individual and more to do with that individual’s background. Our taste is never a fully formed a priori springing forth from our consciousness, but something that develops in concert with the social world. Bourdieu shows how individual taste tends to align with educational level and social class. But the styles we choose are not just evidence of our position in society: they are also ways of communicating to others within our social groups. For a long time, gays had to signal their membership of their group to each other in a way that was coded. To signal openly wasn’t always safe (and remains so in some parts of the world). Camp was one way of the many ways doing this.
One common sobriquet gay men in parts of the English-speaking world used to identify each other in the first half of the twentieth century was ‘friend of Dorothy’. This referred, of course, to Dorothy Gale in the The Wizard of Oz, played by a young Judy Garland. Gay men loved (and still love) Garland because her earnest, overly emotional performances often invite a camp reading. Whether acting or singing or both, she gave it her all, going beyond realistic modes of performance often into over-the-top theatrics. So to be a ‘friend of Dorothy’ was to be a fan of Judy and someone who understands camp. And the connoisseurs of camp were, by and large, gay men.
Due in part to the rise of digital culture, camp is a sensibility that is now broadly popular. Because camp has been historically associated with gay men, and gay men have always had a reputation for aesthetic sophistication, camp became increasingly hip from the 60s onwards. Ironic enjoyment of overly produced pop music, trashy soap operas, schlocky movies, and other cultural detritus became a sort of cool form of signaling. One shows they know good taste by reveling knowingly in bad taste. John Waters, a filmmaker famous for making trashy films, understands this camp subversion of taste well:
To me, bad taste is what entertainment is all about. If someone vomits watching one of my films, it’s like getting a standing ovation. But one must remember that there is such a thing as good bad taste and bad bad taste. it’s easy to disgust someone; I could make a ninety-minute film of people getting their limbs hacked off, but this would only be bad bad taste and not very stylish or original. To understand bad taste one must have very good taste. Good bad taste can be creatively nauseating but must, at the same time, appeal to the especially twisted sense of humor, which is anything but universal.
This mainstreaming of ‘good bad taste,’ for which Waters could be said to be partially responsible, has meant that a sort of camp awareness is now widespread throughout ‘Western culture.’ It is not merely relegated to gay subculture, although it was most refined there.
Consider the Kardashians. Some people no doubt take them seriously, but I suspect a large number of people follow their antics ironically, appreciating how much they overperform their vapidity, pettiness and grandiosity. Though their reality television show and celebrity images are no doubt carefully constructed media phenomena, there is a sort of camp appreciation of them here.
Likewise, events like the Eurovision Song Contest are viewed in this way, as is a whole host of reality television shows, soaps and so forth. This same kind of appreciation extends to digital culture with the proliferation of memes in which awful or awfully bland stock photos are repurposed to make funny commentaries on everyday life and culture, or with popular Tik Tok users who make low-fi videos full of bad jokes.
Enjoying things because they’re terrible is totally in line with the camp sensibility and everyone seems to be doing it these days. But this is often the fate for many subcultural styles and sensibilities once they reach a certain critical mass. Eventually, the mainstream comes along and co-opts it, widely distributing what was once subversive, outrageous, maybe even a little dangerous, neutering it in the process. Something similar happened to punk. Both a form of music and a way of life, punk had anarchist roots where bands would play aggressive, loud, fast music, recording it in a slapped-together, DIY manner. This eventually gave way to pop-punk figures owned and marketed by record labels – bands like Good Charlotte or singers like Avril Lavigne.
Camp, though never tangible as a subculture with a philosophy, nevertheless has diffused itself throughout the wider culture, becoming a popular mode of interpreting entertainment.
Perhaps this is why the Met Gala in 2019 was widely considered such a failure: the camp sensibility is everywhere now, so it is harder to identify. People who may have never heard of camp engage in it daily. Like the fish has no concept of water, camp has become harder to make out because we’re swimming in a sea of it.
No longer the sole domain of gay men, the camp sensibility is both a victim and a perpetrator of its own success. Its adoption by more people outside gay contexts means an idiosyncratic form of community building isn’t as unique as it once was. But this no tragedy, and if it is, it will be a tragedy whose players are festooned with garish sequin dresses and a thousand feather boas. Camp’s triumph is that the people who developed it did so to make fun of a society that shunned them and now that society seems more camp than ever. The world seems to take itself a little less seriously than before. This is not always a good thing, but the neither is camp. It is too apolitical for some, not deep enough, not critical enough, or at least not critical in the right way. How much more ridiculous could a camp sensibility imagine someone like Trump, for instance? Camp will never energise a movement. But then again, a lot of nevers are showing up in the 21st century. Imagine it: a brigade of drag queens, dandies and sissies, all leading us to a utopia of good bad taste. Onward, darlings!