It’s so bad, it’s good.

This is the heart of “camp”. In her excellent “Notes on Camp”, Susan Sontag works through the deeper meanings of this modern phenomenon. Below is a distillation of her better points, followed by some notes of my own. Sontag might have beat me to the punch with these thoughts (some of you will remember my similar, if comparatively laughable, quest to pin down the specific connotations of the word “fabulous”) but she is far more concerned in her larger work with “modern dandyism” than the feminist agenda. She doesn’t take it far enough, but I will.

As you read, please consider this point of inquiry: how is camp a feminist concern? Why is “the feminine” (as expressed through gay male culture, as well as women’s/girls’ culture), the most effective vessel for camp?

Sontag’s observations on camp are useful ways of thinking about women’s relationship to “high culture”. I am thinking primarily about the false value of authenticity in art (the inauthentic feminized pop vs. the authentic masculine rock is one example). The trivialization of the feminine in pop culture–often to the ends of a homophobic, sexist agenda– is reclaimed as an act of humor and empowerment in camp.

Camp is a resistance against the elite so-called authenticity of high culture (as defined by–but not limited to–rich, white, straight men).

As we shall see, my staunch advocacy of pop (feminized “low culture”), is both vindicated and complicated by Sontag’s thoughts.

“The essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.”

Camp is “… a sensibility that, among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous…”

“Camp art is often decorative art, emphasizing texture, sensuous surface, and style at the expense of content.”

“Camp is a vision of the world in terms of style — but a particular kind of style. It is the love of the exaggerated, the “off,” of things-being-what-they-are-not.”

“Camp sees everything in quotation marks. It’s not a lamp, but a “lamp”; not a woman, but a “woman.” To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role. It is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.”

“Camp is either completely naive or else wholly conscious (when one plays at being campy). “

“In naïve, or pure, Camp, the essential element is seriousness, a seriousness that fails. Of course, not all seriousness that fails can be redeemed as Camp. Only that which has the proper mixture of the exaggerated, the fantastic, the passionate, and the naïve.”

“When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish. (“It’s too much,” “It’s too fantastic,” “It’s not to be believed,” are standard phrases of Camp enthusiasm.)”

“The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance. Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers.”

“in [campy movies’] relative unpretentiousness and vulgarity, they are more extreme and irresponsible in their fantasy – and therefore touching and quite enjoyable.”

“Time may enhance what seems simply dogged or lacking in fantasy now because we are too close to it, because it resembles too closely our own everyday fantasies, the fantastic nature of which we don’t perceive. We are better able to enjoy a fantasy as fantasy when it is not our own.”

“Camp is the glorification of “character”…Character is understood as a state of continual incandescence – a person being one, very intense thing…. Wherever there is development of character, Camp is reduced. “

“Ordinarily we value a work of art because of the seriousness and dignity of what it achieves. …In short, the pantheon of high culture: truth, beauty, and seriousness.”

“Camp is the consistently aesthetic experience of the world. It incarnates a victory of “style” over “content,” “aesthetics” over “morality,” of irony over tragedy.”

“The whole point of Camp is to dethrone the serious. Camp is playful, anti-serious. More precisely, Camp involves a new, more complex relation to “the serious.” One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious.”

“One is drawn to Camp when one realizes that “sincerity” is not enough. Sincerity can be simple philistinism, intellectual narrowness.”

I’ll end with this last quote because it is her best. Sontag uses the term “sincerity” instead of “authenticity”, but the meaning is the same in this context. First of all, any well-read feminist will immediately recognize how Butlerian camp is. Judy Butler’s basic argument is that all gender is performance, and femininity especially is a falsity– a constant and compulsive performance of an imitation for which there is no original. My very first post ever at Pop Feminist was dedicated to this phenomenon as it is expressed by Madonna.

When culture designates that which is “important” vis-a-vis sincerity or authenticity, women are almost uniformly marginalized. This is because femininity is not authentic. It is style over substance, it is artifice, frivolousness and extravagance.

Radical feminism and the third wave has offered this chilling revelation–a revelation thought to be the product of academia’s sluggish circular conversation, but really, a revelation Mae West had a long damn time ago.

“Performativity” is the subject of feminist guru Simone de Beauvoir’s most famed quote: “one is not born a woman, but becomes one.” More importantly the overarching epiphany of de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex can be reduced, more or less to the following: Bitches, the joke is on you.

Femininity, for many (not all) women and many (not all) gay men is compulsory. The question is: as a feminist, do we seek to escape femininity in order to be sanctioned by a patriarchal set of criteria “authentic” OR, do we find avenues of resistance within the joke of femininity? If camp is a form of comedy, and femininity is the vessel of camp, then we discover that the subversive power of comedy is a weapon in the feminist arsenal.

Mikhail Bakhtin writes, “folk humor existed and developed outside the official sphere of high ideology and literature, but precisely because of its unofficial existence, it was marked by exceptional radicalism, freedom, and ruthlessness…This is why laughter could never become an instrument to oppress and blind the people, it always remained a free weapon in their hands.”

In camp women have the power to fashion feminine aesthetics (undergirded by humor) into a radical vision of resistance.

It is in high heels and lipstick that the feminist agenda finds its greatest power. To appropriate a metaphor by Lewis Freeman she becomes the court jester , “assuming the guise of the idiot while actually accruing power and authority behind the smoke screen of self-degradation.” This is the feminism of a cunning Jayne Mansfield, tra-la-la-ing about with a shrewd calculation behind presumably vacant eyes. This is the feminism that rejoices in the Joan Crawford Club Mix and recognizes in it an anthem of an at once absurdest and righteous aesthetic agenda:

The deliberate, belligerent, unrelenting celebration of pop– the ultimate forum for camp–is an act of feminism.

Further, the regrettable lack of sympathy and celebration from the larger feminist community for Madonna, or Cher, or Grace Jones (or the legions of extravagant feminine pop icons) is a betrayal of their own agenda. Instead of ignoring or condemning pop, we should rush to corroborate the feminist mission unfolding in the plain-sight pop underground. I beg that feminists no longer reinforce the cult of masculine authenticity that will never permit their fraudulent admission.

A joyful embrace of the feminine aesthetic, the humor and camp of the feminine compulsory will lead to a triumph (already underway) over the high-art elitism that has always existed at others’ expense.

We return to the central camp ideology: “it’s so bad, it’s good.” Camp has the power to undermine the relevance of “good taste”, which is always defined by othering the sensibilities of women, the poor, racial minorities and homosexuals. Once the hierarchy of taste is dispelled, the subaltern (of all identities) will be free to express alternatives, not just in art and culture, but by extension, politics.

All of Sontag’s “Notes on Camp” can be found here.