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  1. Culture
6 September 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 3:09pm

From Susan Sontag to Kim Kardashian, what does “camp” really mean?

By Louis Staples

The Met Gala, organised by US Vogue’s editor-in-chief Anna Wintour, is held each May in New York City to celebrate the opening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s latest exhibition. The theme of this year’s exhibition was Camp: Notes on Fashion, with Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay Notes on Camp the inspiration.

Sontag was the first person to write about camp as a serious aesthetic and cultural phenomenon. She defines it as the enjoyment of artifice and sensuality of the superficial, describing how it questions conventional notions of seriousness.

As the world’s most famous celebrities meandered across the Met’s pink carpet in outlandish looks, I found myself reflecting on my own relationship with camp as a gay man.

To be clear, camp does not necessarily mean effeminate or gay: it can be butch, masculine and, of course, heterosexual. It is entirely contextual and constantly evolving. But in patriarchal western societies, camp is commonly associated with people – mostly gay men and women – who radically embrace the femininity we’re taught to loathe.

While Sontag’s essay was dedicated to Oscar Wilde, one of history’s most famous gay men, she shies away from explicitly connecting camp to homosexuality. Yet many other queer historians have since explored camp’s historical and cultural significance to gay identities.

Fabio Cleto, who co-authored the Met exhibition’s accompanying book, told the BBC that “fully articulated camp emerged in the late nineteenth century, and in the queer-star image of Oscar Wilde.”

Following Wilde’s trial for gross indecency, the word “camp” was initially used to describe those suspected of homosexual deviance based on their appearance. Artist and writer Philip Core, in his 1984 book From Camp: The Lie That Tells the Truth, argued that being gay is “not a requisite for camp”, but that camp is “most obvious in a homosexual context”.

Even if heterosexual society struggles to tell the difference, not all effeminate men are camp – though I am very obviously both, which has often made me a visible target over the years. Despite the shame that I have been encouraged to feel over my effeminacy and campness from a young age, it’s clear to me that the latter emerged from the former.

Growing up gay, I subconsciously learned to harness the wit and irreverence of camp – from subtle eye rolls to perfectly self-depreciating one-liners – to navigate a hostile world. In some ways, my campness has been a powerful tool, a way of signifying my gayness to other gay men and ingratiating myself with women.

Although I was often ridiculed for my effeminacy at a child, my very legible brand of camp – with its accompanying awareness of fashion, popular-culture and wit – can carry valuable social currency as an adult in certain contexts. It is a way of telling straight people, particularly men, that, although I represent a gayness that they’ll likely recognise, I’m not threatening.

It was a surreal experience to watch so many celebrities attempt to master the camp aesthetic at the Met Gala. Queer attendees such as Ezra Miller, Michael Urie, Janelle Monet and Billy Porter nailed the theme. Camp is as difficult to define and embody as queerness, but it is certainly telling that LGBT+ people, who are accustomed to subverting heterosexual norms, were the big winners of the night. 

Then there was Lady Gaga, who served four different looks. Each look captured camp individually, but the act of staging a costume change was campest of all.

But while there were notable exceptions like Darren Criss, straight men such as Liam Hemsworth – who wore a plain black suit – generally struggled. Kanye West – who stood awkwardly beside his wife doing his best “no homo” expression – for once looked uneasy in a fashion arena.

Women failed to grasp the essence of camp too. Kim Kardashian, who has spent years trying to be taken seriously in fashion, floundered with camp’s playful irreverence. Yet her campest moment on record – losing an earring worth $75,000 in the ocean on Keeping up with the Kardashians and screaming hysterically – was entirely unintentional. The floral dress she wore to her first ever Met Gala, which was famously ridiculed, was far camper than her outfit this year. Perhaps she should have reprised it.

An accidental encounter between Katy Perry and a bedazzled Jennifer Lopez in the bathroom, as Perry attempted to put her hamburger costume back on, became one of the evening’s campest moments. This again exemplifies that often the campest things are accidents – and that camp is difficult to force if it doesn’t come naturally to you.

So what did it feel like watching so many celebrities, predominantly wealthy straight people, failing to capture something that’s often made me feel like an outsider? I’m not proud to say this, but it was satisfying. It almost felt like a miniature payback for all the times I’ve been made to feel uneasy in heterosexual spaces, or been mocked for my gayness. Even in this context, with little social risk, so many attendees couldn’t grasp something that’s so natural to me and many queer people.

But I also found myself feeling territorial, possessive even, over camp. Did they not care enough to get it right? Is camp, something to integral to my gay experience, just a joke to them? Nicki Minaj brazenly confessed that she “had no idea” what camp was until the afternoon of the event. This reaction felt insulting, as if my heritage was being swept aside. But am I justified in feeling that way?

Camp is clearly not the property of gay men, but its roots within queer culture are well documented. In his 1976 essay It’s Being so Camp as Keeps us Going, Richard Dyer describes how camp has provided “identity and togetherness” for gay people over the years. He argues that it is the only shared history that gay people have except persecution and oppression. He suggests that camp forms part of the heritage of the gay community and, like it or not, its value must be defended.

Choosing camp as a theme for the Met was a stroke of genius. Fashion and beauty are areas where gay men and women have historically had a strong presence, and are consequently are dismissed as frivolous by large swathes of society. What better, or trickier, theme to pick to demonstrate that such beliefs are flawed?

The Met Gala may be over, but I walk my own pink carpet every day. Campness allows me to make the most obvious joke about myself before anyone else can; it’s a performative defence mechanism that keeps an often-hostile world at a safe distance as I meander through it with a limp wrist.

To me camp is, as Sontag describes, a “badge of identity”. A badge that I’ve learned to love – while recognising that, although it is a part of who I am, camp is not all that I can be.

Louis Staples is a freelance journalist. 

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