In Praise of Camp

The radical power of playing with identity

We’re used to hearing about the radical power of speaking your truth, being seen, being heard, having your identity understood and represented.

The #MeToo movement, for example, was all about individuals sharing some of the most personal things that had happened to them, in order to strip off the glossy veneer of specific industries and of society more generally.

And when stars want to get serious about an issue, they tend to take off the make-up, let out their natural hair, possibly even post a crying selfie or Instagram live. Often the setting is their bed or bedroom, the most personal, private and vulnerable space in the home, if they are not out at a protest or event. Whether it’s BLM, StopAsianHate, solidarity with Palestine or any other progressive movement, the format tends to be the same. 

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Bella Hadid's instagram story post in response to Israeli attacks on Gaza June 2021

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Leigh-Anne Pinnock from Little Mix in her BBC Documentary Race, Pop & Power

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Zara McDermott in her BCC documentary Zara McDermott: Revenge Porn

What they’re telling us, is that it’s behind the scenes in those intimate moments where identity politics takes place. It’s when we’re crying, when we’re angry, when we forget how we look, that we are making the realest impact.

 

It’s something that moralistic literature has reinforced for centuries and Disney has continued to this day; when you have a moral point to make you have to be self-deprecating, lowly, shy, understated, someone else has to shine a light on you, you can’t step into the spotlight willingly.

Wordsworth’s Lucy Poems sum it up well where he introduces his main character by saying,

She dwelt among the untrodden ways

Beside the springs of Dove,

A Maid whom there were none to praise

And very few to love.

To set her out as a beacon of virtue at the very beginning, Lucy has to be someone who thinks she is unobserved and whose behaviour is therefore guaranteed not to be for show.

Dickens does it too. His characters like Florence Dombey and Amy Dorrit who carry the moral weight of his stories are the foils to society beauties, are shy when rare praise does fall on them, work hard, behind the scenes, to do the right thing, even though their actions are seemingly completely irrelevant in a world that constantly looks past them.

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The original illustrations from both novels show a beacon of light shining into the darkness and allowing us to see the overlooked central female characters.

Hardy builds up Tess in Tess of the D’Urbervilles in the same way, a woman whose virtue is proved when she shaves off her eyebrows to avoid being noticed as beautiful or receiving any more attention from men.

He has stoic, long-suffering, strong and silent male characters too. Gabriel Oak in Far From the Madding Crowd and Giles Winterbourne in The Woodlanders. In that latter novel, Giles is set in contrast to Grace Melbury who has been lured by the city, education and middle-class life, worrying what people will think of her, wanting to be ‘proper’ rather than ‘real’. The moral characters tend to have a close proximity to nature, while the immoral or less moral ones are made by society.

Margaret Attwood’s Handmaid’s Tale is in part a recognition of where this obsession with the morality of authenticity, privacy, the lack of show and self-presentation might lead us: a world in which nobody can choose how to present themselves, no make-up, no jewellery, no clothes, no freedom of gender identity or sexuality. Attwood’s narrative shows that being who we are is not about being stripped back to some kind of natural function like reproduction in a plain world where adornment, embellishment and fun itself are sinful. Authentic identity, instead, is about being allowed to be the masters of our own narratives, including the masks we want to wear and the roles we want to play.

For a long time it’s been ‘the gay scene’ and specifically the concept of ‘camp’ that has been at the forefront of embodying the radical power of inauthenticity, performance, and ostentation.

Susan Sontag famously defined the attraction to and power of camp in her ‘Notes on Camp’. She sums up the attitude when she says, ‘It is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed, the essence of camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.’

She argues that it’s about embracing stylization, and in that sense is about a particular aesthetic. It’s somehow neutral to content, which doesn’t so much make it superficial, because it is consciously undermining the seriousness of an obsession with content by focusing on a kind of frivolity: ‘It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off”, the things-being-what-they-are-not.’ ‘Camp sees everything in quotation marks…it is not a woman, but a “woman”’.

In a way it is completely obvious how this attitude is radical. It is the attitude of a rebel, embodied by not knowing your place, not doing what is expected of you, playing with those expectations, being spectacularly visible, and mysterious at the same time.

To see the radical power of camp in action you only have to look at the 1960s.

There was Allen Ginsberg, for example, who liked to dance in the street, to ironically wear a crown or an Uncle Sam hat, who derived inspirations from the spectacle of colour which he saw when he travelled to India, who performed his poems rather than leaving them for people to read in silence, in the privacy of their own homes, and who was at the forefront of the carnivalesque, performative and shape shifting energy of the 1960s countercultural movement.

Bob Dylan, his good friend, moved from sentimental, earnest protest songs like The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carrol, The Death of Emmett Till, and Masters of War, to abstract and transcendent lyrics like Subterranean Homesick Blues, Leopard Skin Pill Box Hat and 4th Time Around to be known as the ‘Voice of a Generation’ and the pinnacle of the era’s social protest ethos. His shape-shifting, un-pin-down-able quality modelled a mode of escaping social labelling that was even more profound than his earlier valorisation of the kind of dust-bowl American working class that Woodie Guthrie had sung for.

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Pride costumes in Barcelon, Brighton and West Hollywood.

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The caricature of sexualities, the flamboyance of costumes, the celebratory performance of deviance in many forms that is on display in any of the Pride events still going ahead in the pandemic, is just as important and empowering as the earnest protests, speeches and personal experiences put forward in an attempt to gain equal rights for the LGBTQ+ community. In one way it is a proud statement, ‘I am gay and I am here, I am trans and I am here, I am lesbian and I am here,’ or any other bold statement of identity. But in another, just as important way, it is a statement of fluidity rather than certainty and fixity, a statement not just against a particular status quo, but against looking at people and judging them, reminding everybody that what you see is not always what you get, and that's no bad thing!

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On his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, Dylan wore make up and costume on stage, and sometimes dressed 'as himself' whilst others in his crew, like Joan Baez, dressed as him in his costume.

But as the earlier examples from literature suggest, to be or not to be camp is a question that has dogged women and their moral standing in very particular ways. As women have tended to hold such visual weight in societies, as symbols either for sex or for purity, the attention on and policing of how they present themselves or are seen has been intense.

Books like Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca testify to a modern unease with women’s self-empowerment through manipulating their personal image. Books like these have tried to put women back into their Wordsworthian and Dickensian place, punishing the self-aware, limelight loving, performative and enigmatic Rebecca, and celebrating the young, innocent, unknowing, and plain second Mrs. De Winter.

But the stakes are high in reshaping ideals and self-presentation options for women, and although the contrast is often set up between a sexy, self-conscious perhaps slightly older woman, and a younger, naïve, angelically beautiful girl, camp is not to be found in sexual displays that reinscribe patriarchal expectations and norms. There has to be something genuinely dangerous, something that creates a feeling of unease, something ‘off’ as Sontag put it in the display. The radical power of camp is all about that knife edge of identity, between authenticity and performance, that is enacted in displays of self that stop others in their tracks, shock them, make them think, not just about who you are, but about identity categories more widely.

The femme fatale can be closely linked to camp: she’s a spectacle and at the same time someone whose victims yearn to know her, but never can. Her power lies in that tension between complete availability and the impossibility of actually getting close to her.

David Lynch explores the power of a camp femme fatale in his Lost Highway, where the male lead loses his mind as he realises he doesn’t ‘know’ his wife. The very thing about her that seems to make her just a visual surface, objectified and owned by men, is actually a misleading performance, with her true identity intact and hidden underneath, or, perhaps more frighteningly, her appearance is just one part of who she is, with many more roles existing alongside it, none on their own conclusively ‘her’.  

Exposing the gap between the visual symbolism of a person and their interior reality can be empowering because it frees that person, at least to some extent, from the judgement of those around them whose power lies in ‘owning’ what they see by labelling it. The symbolic order is ruptured when what was apparently a stable symbol, turns out to be a red herring, an act, a performance, with either something completely different hidden underneath, or otherwise nothing underneath at all but a whole other range of performances and meanings possible.

Heterosexual masculinity has so often feared camp because, in a world organised for the white, heterosexual, male gaze, this destabilising, label-defying, value-questioning mode of being undermines their power.