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By: Robin Jennings

What is Camp?

I first realized the double entendre of “camp” when it was introduced as the official Met Gala theme in 2019, and the star-studded carpet stepped out in anything but athletic wear. Following this famous event, camp trickled its way into the vocabulary of social media users.

 

The 2019 Met Gala theme, “Camp: Notes on Fashion”, brought conversations of camp to social media, and arguably brought the term into the chronically online mainstream. 

 

Those on Twitter have used camp to describe a stripper in a Grinch costume, a Lady Gaga song blasting after the President signs the Respect for Marriage Law, the series “She-Hulk: Attorney at Law” and the teaser trailer for the 2023 movie “Barbie.” 

 

I have even seen camp used to describe a “Live, Laugh, Love” tapestry featuring Mr. Worldwide. 

 

While some may recognize camp as a slang term to describe an unusual occurrence or wacky outfit, it’s important to acknowledge where the term originated. 

 

My first formal introduction to the concept of camp was for a presentation in the Queer Film and Television class at Cal State Fullerton, taught by Cinema and Television Arts professor Hunter Hargraves. Camp is extremely complex, containing many layers of history. While these layers of nuance create a beautiful subculture, it does have some complications.

 

For example, it’s not an easy word to define. 

 

“It is a noun, it is a verb, it is an adjective,” Hargraves said. “It’s a sensibility, it’s a vibe, it is a feeling just as much as it is a description for something.” 

 

It’s not possible to discuss camp without acknowledging Susan Sontag’s contribution. In 1964, Sontag, a queer American intellectual writer, published “Notes on Camp,” an essay where she attempted to outline the meaning of camp. While it’s not a formally structured paper, the unconventionality and sporadicness of her essay embodies camp itself. 

 

She outlines over 50 points, each describing in its own way what makes camp, camp. 

 

Camp is a performance, whether that’s literal or figurative. It’s an anti-serious appreciation of style, never involving judgment. It involves passion and love above all else. 

 

To be camp is to perform with a deep appreciation and love for your performance. An outfit can be campy, as long as your name isn’t Karlie Kloss (kidding).

 

While Sontag lists material items in her essay, camp has also become a descriptor of media, such as movies, TV shows or plays. Sontag explains that “pure” camp is naive and unintentional, exhibiting a seriousness that fails. Those who try to be camp are most likely to miss the mark.

 

Her ninth point works toward solidifying camp as an inherently queer term.

 

“The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility,” Sontag wrote. “The most refined form of sexual attractiveness consists in going against the grain of one’s sex.”

 

Where did camp come from? / What are the origins of camp?

Camp can be seen as early as the 1800s with Oscar Wilde’s pieces in which he satirizes the rich. While they can be similar, there’s an overwhelming theatricality in camp that isn’t necessary for satire. 

 

“Satire can be serious, but camp is all about an inability to really be serious,” Hargraves said.

 

Whenever asked to describe camp, my go-to example is the simple existence of drag. “Drag” is considered by some to be an acronym of “dressed resembling a girl”, or “dressed as a girl”. To go way back, in the 17th century, women were banned from performing, so female parts in plays were notoriously played by men in “drag”. 

 

Drag transformed into more of a self-fulfilling performance through underground safe spaces for queer people of color.

 

The first self-identified drag queen was William Dorsey Swann, a Black man who hosted drag gatherings in Washington, D.C. in the late 19th century. This style of queer expression became popular up the coast in New York around the 1920s. Many in attendance were formerly enslaved men like Swann. This created ballroom culture, which continued this idea of “drag,” and morphed it into a competition.

 

These ballrooms consisted mainly of young Black members of the LGBTQIA+ community who sought a place to feel extravagant. The 1991 documentary “Paris is Burning” followed a handful of people involved in Harlem, New York’s ball scene in the mid-to-late 1980s. Consisting mostly of gay men and transgender women, those who participated in ball competitions were systemically unable to escape the lower class, so ballrooms were an opportunity for anyone to bask in the spotlight. 

 

Black people in the 1980s had a hard time defeating the odds, let alone queer Black people. “Paris is Burning” is controversial in the sense that it was directed by a white cis woman, Jennie Livingston, and the people featured in the documentary were paid pennies compared to the film’s overall success. Highlighting the diversity of the ball scene in Harlem, the documentary ultimately brought awareness to the origins of drag as an expressive art form.

 

Historically, a Black person speaking African American Vernacular English is deemed uneducated, while a white person hijacking historically Black phrases is a trendsetter. Similarly, while “Paris is Burning” wasn’t directed by a person of color, it may not have reached critical acclaim if not directed by a white person.

 

This same logic applies to the misuse of camp as a slang term. When describing something as “camp”, it’s important to acknowledge the inherent cultural intersectionality of the term. Camp is a way for queer people of color to express themselves without fear of judgment or “fitting in.” 

 

Performing camp is a way to bring attention to yourself, to outwardly stand out from the crowd in an absurd or over-the-top way. When queerness has already been deemed “abnormal,” what else is there to do but embrace the abnormality?

 

What is camp today? 

While Sontag’s essay is fairly timeless, her list of things that are “part of the canon of camp” could use some updating. Everything on her list continues to embody camp, like “King Kong” or 1920s fashion, but I would love to declare some modern additions. Remember that while it’s a sensibility, (a vibe, if you will), camp is entirely subjective. 

 

Films:

  • The Room (2003)

  • Bottoms (2023)

  • Mean Girls (2024)

  • Love Lies Bleeding (2024)

Artists:

  • Katy Perry (especially circa 2010)

  • Chappell Roan

  • Remi Wolf

  • David Bowie

Musicals:

  • Cats (1981) 

  • The Wiz (1974)

  • Hairspray (2002)

  • The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975)

 

While camp is not necessarily mainstream, it’s hard to define “mainstream” in the age of internet culture.  

 

“It is now the mainstream’s job to make the underground more accessible, more legible, more safe, for people to confront,” Hargraves said.

 

Camp hasn’t lost any meaning since the 2019 Met Gala, but it did help camp become more legible for those previously unaware. Some internet users may use camp synonymously with “ironic” or “silly,” but those who truly understand camp keep it afloat. 

 

Thankfully, camp hasn’t yet become a common slang term amongst younger generations, and we can only hope it doesn’t. Perhaps the reason why it’s not common is because it is hard to define.

 

Camp may not have the potential to become a widely understood and accepted phenomenon, but that’s what makes it camp. If everyone on the planet understood camp or attempted to embody camp, it would quickly lose its rich meaning. 

 

With drag establishing itself as an art form and campy media gaining popularity among the masses, it’s more important than ever to pay homage to Black queens in Harlem who ultimately gave camp its stunning reputation.  

 

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