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The Political Ramifications of Camp

Because camp is so intimately involved with the intersection of social hierarchy and gender roles, its political and ethical proprieties have often been questioned both inside and outside the gay and lesbian community.

Low Camp has been especially vulnerable to attack, particularly Low Camp as exemplified by the drag queen. Gay men have viewed the drag queen as reinforcing the stereotype of the gay man as effeminate. Feminists, both lesbian and heterosexual, have viewed the drag queen as ridiculing women and as reinforcing misogynistic stereotypes.

Andrew Ross believes that camp reconciles people to their powerlessness, that it is compensation for failure and a sort of nostalgia for the good old days. Consequently, for Ross, camp is part of the problem of mass culture that tries to keep the populace from becoming aware of its oppression; it is part of the controlling mechanism of late capitalism.

Ross points to the way Victorian melodrama becomes camp only because it is now powerless to hold us in its grips. Similarly, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? is not only about two faded film stars, but was performed by two faded film stars, Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. For Ross, camp is the opiate of the homosexual masses, a way of keeping queer people happy with what they have.

For Judith Butler, however, camp is at the heart of a radical program for transforming consciousness. Because of its capacity to stand received ideas on their head, by inverting notions, and by emphasizing the "unnaturalness" of what the dominant society believes to be "natural," camp has a central part to play in sexual politics.

Of greatest interest to Butler is that camp, as epitomized by the drag queen, shows that gender is "performative"; in other words, people are not born masculine or feminine but perform "masculinity" and "femininity." By upsetting notions of the naturalness of gender, camp frees us to perform in whatever way we like.

Evidence can be found on both sides of the argument. One might point to the fact that the Stonewall Riots, that defining moment of gay history, was started not by middle-class gay men but by street hustlers and drag queens--the segment of the gay population that was most conscious of the performativity of gender.

However, one can also point to the fact that homophobic men are now wearing earrings and sporting ponytails. Such seemingly gender-bending practices have apparently had no effect on their consciousness.

The truth lies somewhere, it seems, between these two versions of camp's power. Although it has helped gay men and women to survive in a homophobic society and to reinforce their feelings of a gay community, it has also reconciled them to their oppression and made them feel that such oppression is "natural" or at least "unavoidable."

David Bergman

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literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Gay Male, 1900-1969

Although largely invisible to the general public, a large body of twentieth-century gay male literature by American authors was published prior to Stonewall, some of it positive but most of it tinged with misery or bleakness as the price of being published and disseminated.

literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Gay Male, Post-Stonewall

After Stonewall, gay male literature became focused as a movement, aided by the development of gay newspapers, magazines, and quarterlies and the founding of serious gay and lesbian bookstores.

literature >> Overview:  American Literature: Nineteenth Century

Although sometimes coded as romantic friendship, both gay male and lesbian attractions are reflected in nineteenth-century American poetry and fiction, including works by such major figures as Walt Whitman, Herman Melville, and Emily Dickinson.

arts >> Overview:  Drag Shows: Drag Queens and Female Impersonators

Female impersonation need say nothing about sexual identity, but it has for a long time been almost an institutionalized aspect of gay male culture.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Nineteenth Century

From its beginning, the nineteenth century in England had a purposeful homosexual literature of considerable bulk, both male and female, though it was fettered by oppression.

literature >> Overview:  English Literature: Twentieth-Century

Homosexuality, both male and female, has a rich, divergent, and increasingly open expression in the literature of the twentieth century.

literature >> Overview:  Humor

Like other minority groups, gay men and lesbians have had to develop both a particular sense of humor among themselves in order to make their marginal social status endurable and also a defensive awareness toward the rest of the world in order to disarm their adversaries with laughter.

literature >> Overview:  Identity

Although the question of homosexual identity is a complex one, it has polarized activists, theorists, and literary critics into two primary camps, essentialists and constructionists, both of which can contribute usefully to an understanding of the gay and lesbian literary heritage.

literature >> Auden, W. H.

One of the most accomplished poets of the twentieth century, W. H. Auden found that his gayness led him to new insights into the universal impulse to love and enlarged his understanding of all kinds of relationships.

literature >> Benson, E. F.

Born of an elite Victorian family, E. F. Benson was a prolific, often campy, writer of biographies, autobiographies, and novels, many of which were informed by homoeroticism.

literature >> Bowles, Jane Auer

American novelist, playwright, and short story writer Jane Bowles spent her life examining lesbian identity with an honest and sardonic wit.

arts >> Busch, Charles

Actor-writer-director Charles Busch has distinguished himself through his virtuouso performances of "grand dame" characters and through his writing of dramatic vehicles for these roles.

arts >> Camp Records

In the early 1960s, the Camp Record label issued records of gay parody songs; although the music is without much artistic merit, the records are significant for what they reveal about pre-Stonewall gay culture.

literature >> Compton-Burnett, I.

The English lesbian novelist Ivy Compton-Burnett explored passionate friendship between two women in her first novel and included lesbian and gay characters in two later novels.

literature >> Coward, Sir Noël

Although Coward's plays are about heterosexual couples, they are written in the language and spirit of camp and reject traditional domestic values.

literature >> DeCaro, Frank

Funnyman Frank DeCaro has found success both in serious journalism as a fashion writer and editor and in comedy as a writer, performer, and radio talk show host.

literature >> Duplechan, Larry

Lambda Award-winning author Larry Duplechan is best known for Blackbird (1987), a coming of age novel about a black teenager growing up in the bland outer suburbs of Los Angeles in the 1970s.

literature >> Field, Edward

Edward Field's poetry is an account of coming to terms with homosexuality in the literary world of New York in the second half of the twentieth century.

literature >> Firbank, Ronald

Ronald Firbank's witty, campy novels mock the dominant homophobic, materialistic culture of early twentieth-century England.

literature >> Gale, Patrick

English novelist Patrick Gale draws on his own varied background to explore gay men and lesbians in complex, often dysfunctional family units set within the worlds he finds most meaningful: London, Winchester, and Cornwall.

literature >> Isherwood, Christopher

A major Anglo-American novelist and a pioneer in the gay liberation movement, Christopher Isherwood created gay characters whose homosexuality is a simple given, an integral part of the wholeness of personality and an emblem of their common humanity.

literature >> James, Henry

Though closeted, Henry James had a number of intimate relations with young men, and his sexual orientation imbued his fiction.

literature >> Keenan, Joe

Best known for his work as a writer and producer for the hit television show Frasier, Joe Keenan is also the author of richly comic gay-themed novels.

literature >> Kushner, Tony

In addition to being a prize-winning playwright, Tony Kushner has become a celebrity spokesman for gay politics and AIDS activism.

arts >> Liberace

Liberace was for many the epitome of flamboyant camp, yet he was also a gay man who steadfastly refused to acknowledge publicly his sexual identity.

arts >> Ludlam, Charles

An innovator in the "Theater of the Ridiculous," actor and playwright Charles Ludlam drew on many elements of camp and farce, but never allowed them to obscure the seriousness of his themes.

literature >> Maney, Mabel

San Francisco artist and satirist Mabel Maney spins lesbian adventure tales out of perky feminine archetypes from the 1950s and 1960s.

literature >> Merrill, James

James Merrill's significance as a gay writer lies in his deliberate use of a personal relationship to fuel his poetry.

literature >> Savage, Dan

Best known for his syndicated sex-advice column, Dan Savage is also the author of books chronicling his and his partner's experiences in adopting a child and dealing with the issue of same-sex marriage

literature >> Sontag, Susan

Although she treated her own lesbianism as a strictly private matter, Susan Sontag wrote perceptively on gay male figures and issues.

literature >> Symonds, John Addington

John Addington Symonds was the most daring innovator in the history of nineteenth-century British homosexual writing and consciousness.

literature >> Whitman, Walt

Celebrating an ideal of manly love in both its spiritual and physical aspects, Walt Whitman has exerted a profound and enduring influence on gay literature.

literature >> Wilde, Oscar

Oscar Wilde is important both as an accomplished writer and as a symbolic figure who exemplified a way of being homosexual at a pivotal moment in the emergence of gay consciousness.


Bakhtin, Mikhail. Rabelais and His World. Cambridge, Mass.: MIT Press, 1968.

Bergman, David, ed. Camp Grounds: Style and Homosexuality. Amherst, Mass.: University of Massachusetts Press, 1993.

Booth, Mark. Camp. New York: Quartet, 1983.

Bronski, Michael. Culture Clash: The Making of Gay Sensibility. Boston: South End Press, 1984.

Butler, Judith. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990.

Cleto, Fabio, ed. Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Self--A Reader. Edinburgh; Edinburgh University Press, 1999.

Core, Philip. Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth. New York: Delilah Books, 1984.

Dyer, Richard, ed. Gays and Film. London: British Film Institute, 1977.

_____. Now You See It: Studies on Lesbian and Gay Film. London: Routledge, 1990.

James, Henry. Letters. Leon Edel, ed. Vol. 3. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Kiernan, Robert F. Frivolity Unbounded: Six Masters of the Camp Novel. New York: Continuum, 1990.

Ludlam, Charles. "Camp." Ridiculous Theatre--Scourge of Folly: The Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam. Steven Samuels, ed. New York: Theatre Communications Group, 1992.

Melly, George. Revolt into Style: The Pop Arts in Britain. London: Allen Lane, 1970.

Newton, Esther. Mother Camp: The Female Impersonator in America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

Rodgers, Bruce. Gay Talk: A Dictionary of Gay Slang. New York: Paragon Books, 1972.

Ross, Andrew. "Uses of Camp." The Yale Journal of Criticism 2.2 (1988): 1-24.

Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality and the Movies. New York: Harper and Row, 1981.

Sontag, Susan. "Notes on Camp." Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Dell, 1966.

Tyler, Parker. Screening the Sexes: Homosexuality in the Movies. New York: Holt, Rhinehart and Winston, 1972.

Van Leer, David. The Queening of America: Gay Culture in Straight Society. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Wilde, Oscar. The Artist as Critic: The Critical Writing of Oscar Wilde. Richard Ellmann, ed. New York: Random House, 1968.


    Citation Information
    Author: Bergman, David  
    Entry Title: Camp  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated November 17, 2007  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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