Tuesday 23rd May 2017,
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Is ‘Camp’ Dying?

Aymar Jean Christian December 7, 2010 uncategorized No Comments on Is ‘Camp’ Dying?

Is something changing in the gay community? Are we afraid of campy feminine boys? Anthropologist Esther Newton thinks so.

“Where ten years ago the streets of Greenwich Village abounded with limp wrists and eye makeup,” she writes, “now you see an interchangeable parade of young men with cropped hair, leather jackets, and well-trimmed mustaches.”

“Leather jackets, and well-trimmed mustaches”? Okay, you got me. Newton wrote that 40 years ago in her classic book, Mother Camp, on female impersonators. It was the reign of the gay clone. Sissies were out. So 1969!

The “stigma of effeminacy” has always been with us, from clones to Abercrombie boys, and Kevin Troughton, writing for The Guardian last week, has had enough of it. He thinks our love affair with being “masc” is killing camp, our artistic and cultural heritage.

“Most of the gay men I know or see around me aren’t camp at all: you wouldn’t pick them out as gay at work, in the supermarket, or even at the hairdressers,” Troughton wrote.

Are “straight-acting” gays killing camp? Maybe, though if camp is dying, it’s been a long time coming. Our community’s issues with masculinity are a huge problem – and a personal pet peeve. But our “masc” brothers aren’t the only ones to blame. Straight-acting gays might be a threat to camp, but TV and film have also diluted our queeny style.

If you’re like me and under, say, 35, you might be wondering “what the heck is camp?” Sorry to insult your intelligence, but a lot of people my age don’t know the term. I know because I did a study of young people and the concept of camp a few years ago. Almost no one knew what I was talking about.

“Camp” is a style. It’s a way of acting. The term dates back to The World in the Evening, a novel by Christopher Isherwood (young gays: he wrote A Single Man, the source material for Tom Ford’s movie). But it was Susan Sontag who brought it to the mainstream in 1964 with “Notes on Camp.”

Sontag’s essay is fun to read but a bit oblique. I much prefer Newton’s short and simple definition: camp is “incongruity, theatricality and humor.”

Drag queens are the classic example. Drag queens mix male and female (incongruity). They are funny and dramatic – over-the-top, “too much,” a little grotesque. But the list of camp objects is long and random: pink flamingos, Andy Warhol, Ursula from The Little Mermaid, Absolutely Fabulous, etc.

For decades, our sissiest, queeniest gays have been the most camp. They act out. They put on airs, quip way too often and speak vulgarly about sex, art and politics. They critique what you’re wearing, lip sync to Liza Minelli and generally promote their queer wiles. We read all this as feminine – they talk too much, like scolding wives.

Full post at AfterElton!

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Aymar Jean Christian is assistant professor of communication at Northwestern University. He writes about media and society for a number of publications. For more information, click the "About" tab at the top of the page.

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