From Academic Kids


The term camp—normally used as an adjective, even though earliest recorded uses employed it mainly as a verb—refers to the deliberate and sophisticated use of kitsch, mawkish or corny themes and styles in art, clothing or conversation. A part of the anti-Academic defense of popular culture in the sixties, camp came to academic prominence in the eighties with the widespread adoption of the Postmodern views on art and culture.

Much like the closely related notion of kitsch, camp has traditionally been viewed as hard to define. Susan Sontag, in her famous 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp' ", emphasises artifice, frivolity, and shocking excess as the key notes. While the common use of the concept includes these, usually the element of naïve middle-class pretentiousness is highlighted. Typical examples of this latter use are Carmen Miranda's tutti frutti hats, low-budget science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s and the multi-genre pop culture of the 1970s and 1980s. It has been argued that this view oversimplifies the camp phenomenon in an undesirable way, as it tends to equate the camp with popular culture, viewed with condescending irony, while the original concept included works definitely outside the realm of popular culture (Sontag herself mentions Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier, which may be considered a minor work by musicologists but is hardly in the same range with soap operas or superhero comics).

The first use of the word in print, marginally mentioned in the Sontag essay, may be Christopher Isherwood's 1954 novel The World in the Evening, where he comments: "You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance."


Origins and development

The OED gives 1909 as the first citation of "camp" in print, with the sense of "ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to or characteristic of homosexuals. So as n., ‘camp’ behaviour, mannerisms, etc. (see quot. 1909); a man exhibiting such behaviour." According to the OED, this sense of the word is "etymologically obscure."

Though the rise of Postmodernism has made camp a common take on aesthetics, not identified with any specific group , the attitude was originally a distinctive factor in pre-Stonewall gay male communities, where it was the dominant cultural pattern (Altman 1982, 154-155). Altman (ibid) argues that it originated from the acceptance of gayness as effeminacy. Two key components of camp were originally feminine performances: swish and drag (Newton 1972, 34-37; West 1977; Cory 1951). With swish featuring extensive use of superlatives, and drag being (often outrageous) female impersonation, camp became extended to all things "over the top", including female female impersonators, as in the exaggerated Hollywood version of Carmen Miranda (Levine, 1998). It was this version of the concept that was adopted by literary and art critics and became a part of the conceptual array of sixties culture. Moe Meyer (1994, p.1) still defines camp as "queer parody."

As part of camp, drag meant (Newton, 1972, 34-36; Read 1980) "womanly apparel, ranging from slight makeup and a few feminine garments, typically hats, gloves, or high heels, to a total getup, complete with wigs, gowns, jewelry, and full makeup" (Levine, 1998, p.22). Also camp were feminine interests such as fashion (Henry, 1955; West, 1977), decoration (Fischer, 1972, 69; White, 1980; Henry, 1955, 304) "with fancy frills, froufrou, bric-a-brac and au courant kitsch," opera and theater (Karlen 1971; Hooker 1956; Altman 1982, 154), bitchy humor (Read 1980, 105-8), old movies (Dyer 1977), and celebrity worship (Tipmore 1975). (Levine 1998, p.23-4)

Another part of camp was dishing, a conversational style including, "bitchy retorts, vicious putdowns, and malicious gossip," (Levine 1998, p.72) associated with the entertainment industry (Leznoff and Westley 1956; Hooker 1956; Hoffman 1968; Read 1980) and also called "fag talk" or "chit chat" (Read 1980, p.106-8). Clones adapted dish, often keeping the feminine pronouns, expanding it to dirt, gossip and rumors, bitchiness and viciousness. (Levine 1998, p.72)

Camp has been from the start an ironic attitude, embraced by anti-Academic theorists for its explicit defense of clearly subordinate forms. As such, its claims to legitimacy are dependent on its opposition to current views of normality; camp has no aspiration to timelessness, but rather lives parasitically on the strength of dominant culture. It does not want to present basic values, but precisely to confront culture with its waste, to show how any norm is historical. This rebellious utilisation of critical concepts originally formulated by modernist art theorists such as Theodor Adorno, who were radically opposed to the kind of popular culture that camp endorses, can be understood as a deeply reflexive problematisation of the problematisation of taste itself that modernism represented.

As a cultural challenge, camp can also receive a political meaning, when minorities appropriate and ridicule the images of the dominant group, the kind of activism associated with multiculturalism and the New Left. The best known instance of this is of course the gay liberation movement, which used camp to confront society with its own preconceptions and their historicity. Female camp actresses such as Bette Davis also had an important influence on the development of feminist consciousness: by exaggerating certain stereotyped features of femininity, such as fragility or moodiness, they undermined the credibility of those preconceptions. The multiculturalist stance in cultural studies therefore presents camp as political and critical.

Academic appropriation or proliferation of camp

While the success of postmodernism granted camp a place in mainstream art and literature analysis, as well as a certain weight in contemporary social theory, it also meant that its extended sphere of influence was likely to affect the use of the concept. As a part of its adoption by the mainstream, camp has undergone a softening of its original subversive tone, and is often little more than the condescending recognition that popular culture can also be enjoyed by a sophisticated sensibility. Comic books and westerns, for example, have become standard subjects for academic analysis. This is not, however, the kind of seriousness that Sontag advocated for camp, to which exaggeration and outlandishness was essential. This uncomfortable situation—the normalisation of the outrageous, common to many Vanguardist movements—has led some to believe that the notion has lost its usefulness for critical art discourse.

In the UK, camp is an adjective to describe naughty seaside-postcard sense of humour combined with sharp wit, and is often associated with a stereotypical view of feminine gay men. "Camp" forms a strong element in UK culture, and many so-called gay-icons and objects are chosen as such because they are camp. In the UK, Absolutely Fabulous, Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen, Graham Norton, Lesley Joseph and the theatre tradition of the pantomime are considered to be camp elements in popular culture (by the general populace).

See also


  • Levine, Martin P. (1998). Gay Macho. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0814746942.
  • Ross, Andrew (1989). No Respect. Intellectuals and Popular Culture, New York/London: Routledge.

Further reading

  • Fabio Cleto, editor. Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
  • Jim Collins, 1989: Uncommon Cultures. Popular Culture and Post-Modernism, Mew York/London: Routledge.
  • Umberto Eco, 1986: Travels in Hyperreality, New York: Harcourt.
  • Umberto Eco, 1988 (1964, 1978): The Structure of Bad Taste, Amsterdam: Bert Bakker.
  • Tania Modleski, 1986: "The Terror of Pleasure. The Contemporary Horror Film and Postmodern Theory", in Tania Modleski (ed.), Studies in Entertainment. Critical Approaches to Mass Culture, Bloomington/Indianapolis: Indiana University Press, 155-167.
  • Thomas J. Roberts, 1990: An Aesthetics of Junk Fiction, Athens (Georgia)/London: University of Georgia Press.
  • Clem Robyns, 1991: "Beyond the first dimension: recent tendencies in popular culture studies", in Joris Vlasselaers (Ed.) The Prince and the Frog, Leuven: ALW, 14-32.
  • Washburne, Christopher J. and Derno, Maiken (eds.) (2004). Bad Music: The Music We Love to Hate. New York: Routledge. ISBN 0415943663.
    • Oakes, Jason Lee. "Pop Music, Racial Imagination, and the Sounds of Cheese: Notes on Loser's Lounge".

External links

de:Schwul nl:Camp


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