The term camp—normally used as an adjective, even though earliest recorded uses employed it mainly as a verb—refers to the deliberate and sophisticated use of kitsch, mawkish or corny themes and styles in art, clothing or conversation. A part of the anti-academic defense of popular culture in the sixties, camp came to academic prominence in the eighties with the widespread adoption of the Postmodern views on art and culture.
Today, camp falls into two distinct categories: intentional camp and unintentional camp. Intentional camp, as the name suggests, constitutes the deliberate use of camp for humour. Unintentional camp arises from naïveté or poor quality or tastes. Unintentional camp can thus be considered "true camp." A hipster may appreciate something for its camp value, while a person with unrefined tastes may perceive the same thing to be inherently sophisticated.
Much like the closely related notion of kitsch, camp has traditionally been viewed as hard to define. The terms "camp" and "kitsch" are often used interchangeably, but the term "kitsch" refers spefically to art, music or literature, while "camp" is a much broader term. All things kitsch are also camp, but not all things camp are kitsch. It is easier to grasp the concept of camp through the use of examples than through a definition. Thus, one who is unfamilar with the concept of camp may wish to skip to the numerous examples of camp cited later in this article, before reading about the history of camp and the academic theories concerning camp found towards the beginning of this article.
Camp appears to be most prevalent in societies where disposable income has grown at a much faster pace than the general level of cultural sophistication, awareness and education. The popular culture of the USA during the late 1950s and early '60s (Author Thomas Hine identified it as the period 1954-64) is considered by many to be probably the most camp time period in human history. During this era, the overall average standard of living and the amount of disposable income of the American people rose rapidly and significantly as the post-World War II economy (which was rapidly taking up a great deal of slack from the Depression and World War II) boomed. Yet, at the same time, many people in that era were somewhat naïve and provincial, with relatively few people having attended college. Aside from WWII veterans, few people had been exposed to other cultures or traveled overseas. In sum, many people suddenly had much more money to spend, but often exercised poor taste due to their lack of sophistication, education or experience.
As the Japanese economy began to boom in the 1970s and 1980s, Japan became a major producer of camp (see Tokusatsu for examples). As in the United States of the 1950s, Japanese disposable income had outpaced the general level of sophistication within Japanese society.
India is in many respects, still a Third World country, but its economy is growing rapidly and many Indians can now afford to buy a television and go to the cinema. And following the pattern set by the post-WWII United States and Japan, India is now a major producer of camp, best exeplified by Bollywood musicals.
One of the first people to give the concept of camp an academic treatment was the American intellectual Susan Sontag. In her famous 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'", Sontag emphasised artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness and shocking excess as key elements of camp. Most of the popular culture references in Sontag's essay are fairly obscure and would be lost on most of today's readers. Less obscure examples cited by Sontag included singer/actress Carmen Miranda's tutti frutti hats and low-budget science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s.
The first use of the word in print, marginally mentioned in the Sontag essay, may be Christopher Isherwood's 1954 novel The World in the Evening, where he comments: "You can't camp about something you don't take seriously. You're not making fun of it; you're making fun out of it. You're expressing what's basically serious to you in terms of fun and artifice and elegance."
Origins and development
The OED gives 1909 as the first citation of "camp" in print, with the sense of "ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to or characteristic of homosexuals. So as n., ‘camp’ behaviour, mannerisms, etc. (see quot. 1909); a man exhibiting such behaviour." According to the OED, this sense of the word is "etymologically obscure."
Though the rise of Postmodernism has made camp a common take on aesthetics, not identified with any specific group , the attitude was originally a distinctive factor in pre-Stonewall gay male communities, where it was the dominant cultural pattern (Altman 1982, 154-155). Altman (ibid) argues that it originated from the acceptance of gayness as effeminacy. Two key components of camp were originally feminine performances: swish and drag (Newton 1972, 34-37; West 1977; Cory 1951). With swish featuring extensive use of superlatives, and drag being (often outrageous) female impersonation, camp became extended to all things "over the top", including female female impersonators, as in the exaggerated Hollywood version of Carmen Miranda (Levine, 1998). It was this version of the concept that was adopted by literary and art critics and became a part of the conceptual array of 'sixties culture. Moe Meyer (1994, p. 1) still defines camp as "queer parody."
As part of camp, drag meant (Newton, 1972, 34-36; Read 1980) "womanly apparel, ranging from slight makeup and a few feminine garments, typically hats, gloves, or high heels, to a total getup, complete with wigs, gowns, jewelry, and full makeup" (Levine, 1998, p. 22). Also camp were feminine interests such as fashion (Henry, 1955; West, 1977), decoration (Fischer, 1972, 69; White, 1980; Henry, 1955, 304) "with fancy frills, froufrou, bric-a-brac and au courant kitsch," opera and theater (Karlen 1971; Hooker 1956; Altman 1982, 154), bitchy humor (Read 1980, 105-8), old movies (Dyer 1977), and celebrity worship (Tipmore 1975). (Levine 1998, p. 23-4)
Another part of camp was dishing, a conversational style including, "bitchy retorts, vicious putdowns, and malicious gossip," (Levine 1998, p.72) associated with the entertainment industry (Leznoff and Westley 1956; Hooker 1956; Hoffman 1968; Read 1980) and also called "fag talk" or "chit chat" (Read 1980, p.106-8). Clones adapted dish, often keeping the feminine pronouns, expanding it to dirt, gossip and rumors, bitchiness and viciousness. (Levine 1998, p.72)
Camp has been from the start an ironic attitude, embraced by anti-Academic theorists for its explicit defense of clearly subordinate forms. As such, its claims to legitimacy are dependent on its opposition to current views of normality; camp has no aspiration to timelessness, but rather lives parasitically on the strength of dominant culture. It does not want to present basic values, but precisely to confront culture with its waste, to show how any norm is historical. This rebellious utilisation of critical concepts originally formulated by modernist art theorists such as sociologist Theodor Adorno, who were radically opposed to the kind of popular culture that camp endorses, can be understood as a deeply reflexive problematisation of the problematisation of taste itself that modernism represented.
As a cultural challenge, camp can also receive a political meaning, when minorities appropriate and ridicule the images of the dominant group, the kind of activism associated with multiculturalism and the New Left. The best known instance of this is of course the gay liberation movement, which used camp to confront society with its own preconceptions and their historicity. Female camp actresses such as Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck, and Joan Crawford also had an important influence on the development of feminist consciousness: by exaggerating certain stereotyped features of femininity, such as fragility, open emotionality or moodiness, they undermined the credibility of those preconceptions. The multiculturalist stance in cultural studies therefore presents camp as political and critical.
Academic appropriation or proliferation of camp
While the success of postmodernism granted camp a place in mainstream art and literature analysis, as well as a certain weight in contemporary social theory, it also meant that its extended sphere of cultural influence was likely to affect the use of the concept. As a part of its adoption by the mainstream, camp has undergone a softening of its original subversive tone, and is often little more than the condescending recognition that popular culture can also be enjoyed by a sophisticated sensibility. Comic books and Westerns, for example, have become standard subjects for serious academic analysis. This is not, however, the kind of seriousness that Sontag advocated for camp, to which deliberate exaggeration and outlandishness was essential. This uncomfortable situation—the normalisation of the outrageous, common to many Vanguardist movements—has led some to believe that the notion has lost its usefulness for critical art discourse.
In the UK, camp is an adjective to describe naughty seaside-postcard sense of humour combined with sharp wit, and is often associated with a stereotypical view of feminine gay men. "Camp" forms a strong element in UK culture, and many so-called gay-icons and objects are chosen as such because they are camp. In the UK, the television series Absolutely Fabulous, as well as personages like Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen, Lulu, Graham Norton, Lesley Joseph, Cliff Richard, Cilla Black, and the music hall theatre tradition of the pantomime are considered to be camp elements in popular culture (by the general populace).
Examples of camp
Camp may best be explained to those unfamiliar with the concept of camp through the use of examples. However, these examples do not distinguish between intentional and unintentional camp, which may violate the notion of camp being self-referential. Television shows such as Will and Grace, The Brady Bunch, Leave It to Beaver, Dragnet, The Lawrence Welk Show, Hee Haw, Sing Along with Mitch, Get Smart, Laugh-In, Gilligan's Island, Batman, The Love Boat, Saved by the Bell, The Monkees, Rowan & Martin's Laugh-In and The Dukes of Hazzard are often cited as examples of camp.
TV soap operas, especially those that air in primetime, are also considered camp. The excess of Dynasty and Dallas in the 1980's to Desperate Housewives in the 2000's, soaps became "chic". In the 1990's, dramas reached a new height with shows that included Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, Charmed, Felicity and Dawson's Creek.
Some critics denote John Huston's Beat the Devil (1953, starring Humphrey Bogart) as the first intentionally camp film (an over-the-top send-up of the film noir genre). The film was indeed ahead of its time, the audiences of its day not able to recognize the director's intent, and achieved recognition only via cult status enjoyed many years thereafter.
Filmmaker John Waters has made a lucrative career directing intentionally camp films, such as Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, Female Trouble, Polyester, Desperate Living, A Dirty Shame and Cecil B. Demented. Film maker Todd Solondz uses camp music to illustrate the absurdity and banality of bourgeois, suburban existence. In Solondz's cult-film Welcome to the Doll House, the 11-year-old female protagonist kisses a boy while Debbie Gibson's Lost in Your Eyes is played on a Fisher Price tape recorder.
The film Glitter by singer Mariah Carey was considered "true camp" by some film critics. Its lightheartedness and poor quality helped Americans, according to some and even hinted at by Carey herself, to deal with the serious tragedy of the 9/11 terrorist attack that happened within a week before the film's release.
Other examples of camp films include low-budget 1950s Japanese science fiction movies, such as the Godzilla franchise, Bollywood musicals, mondo films, Russ Meyer sexploitation films, German sexploitation films of the 1960s and 1970s such as Bavarian porn exemplified by the Schulmädchen-Report (Schoolgirl Report) series, 1960s teen-oriented films such as Beach Blanket Bingo, and low-budget Hong Kong-produced martial arts films of the same era. Two science fiction films of the 1970s, The Omega Man and Soylent Green, both starring American actor Charlton Heston, have been considered by many critics as unintentionally campy.
Camp hairstyles include the beehive, afro and the mullet. In recent years, tacky (also called cheesy) clothing styles popular in the 1970s (such as the leisure suit) have made a camp fashion comeback of sorts as have 1950s style bowling shirts.
Tacky yard decorations, popular in some parts of suburban and rural America, are examples of kitsch, and are by extension, camp. The classic camp yard ornament is the pink plastic flamingo or plastic spinning pinwheel shaped like a yellow sunflower. The yard globe, garden gnome, wooden cut-out of a fat lady bending over, the statue of a small black man holding a lantern (called a lawn jockey) and ceramic statues of whitetail deer are also prevalent camp lawn decorations.
The ESPN Classic show Cheap Seats features two Generation-X, hipster, real-life brothers making humorous observations while watching televised campy sporting events, ones often featured on ABC's Wide World of Sports during the 1970s. Examples include a 1970s "sport," which attempted to combine ballet with skiing, the Harlem Globetrotters putting on a show in the gym of a maximum security prison, small-time professional wrestling and roller derby. In the 1990s, a similar television show titled Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K) originally broadcast from Minneapolis, featured a young man trapped aboard a 1950s-style spacecraft accompanied by two robots made from common household artifacts, all of whom sat in front of a giant movie screen and made running sarcastic comments about low-budget educational, science fiction and horror films they watched.
American educational, training and industrial films form a whole sub-genre of camp films. The "duck and cover films" of 1950s vintage, in which an anthropomorphic turtle tells school children that they can survive a Soviet nuclear attack by hiding under their desks is considered a classic of high camp. ABC After School Specials of the 1970s and 1980s addressing teen drug abuse, sex, and issues like divorce and homosexuality are often considered camp. The Comedy Central television show Strangers with Candy, starring comedienne Amy Sedaris, was an intentionally camp spoof of such after school specials.
Examples of camp music include Madonna, Kylie Minogue, The Village People, ABBA, The Bee Gees, Nancy Sinatra, The New Kids on the Block, Menudo, The Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, Geri Halliwell, Peggy March, Michael Bolton, Bette Midler, Wayne Newton, Pat Boone, The Carpenters, Richard Clayderman, David Hasselhoff, N'Sync (and solo efforts by members JC Chasez and Justin Timberlake), Olivia Newton-John, Alice Cooper, Debbie Gibson, Tiffany, Twisted Sister, Barbra Streisand, Air Supply, Barry Manilow, Placebo, Poison, KISS, New Edition, Stryper, Zamfir, Yanni, Prince, Vanilla Ice, Boxcar Willie and Cher. Entire genres of music, such as disco, polka, show tunes and German Schlager music are considered camp. Intentionally camp musical acts include The B-52's, Queen, Arling and Cameron and Pinkard & Bowden. It should be noted that camp music is not necessarily "bad." Enjoying music which one also considers camp is especially prevalent in the gay community.
South of the Border is a road side attraction on the North Carolina-South Carolina border with a camp theme and is also known for its campy billboards stretching along Interstate 95 from Washington DC to Florida. Branson, Missouri is a tourist attraction, which features campy entertainment. The gamblings meccas of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, are famous for the camp architecture of the casinos and hotels.
Many celebrities have camp personas and a good test as to whether a particular celebrity has a camp persona is whether the mere mention of the person's name causes people to laugh or smile. Another good test is whether the celebrity has become a gay male icon. Some celebrities even capitalise on their camp appeal through commercials and in TV and movie cameo appearances.
Celebrities with intentionally camp personas include John Waters, Pee Wee Herman, Elton John, Dame Edna, Divine (Glen Milstead), RuPaul, Man Parrish, Boy George, Liberace, Dennis Rodman, Bette Midler, Klaus Nomi, Graham Norton and Brian Molko.
Celebrities with unintentionally camp personas include Elvis Presley (particularly his Las Vegas phase at the end of his career), Danny Bonaduce, Chuck Norris,Richard Simmons, Wink Martindale, Paul Lynde, Dolly Parton, Paris Hilton, Don Knotts, Diana Ross, Phyllis Diller, Ricardo Montalbán, Mr. T, Gary Coleman, Tina Yothers, Fabio, Larry Flynt, Michael Jackson, David Hasselhoff, Flavor Flav, William Shatner (now arguably intentionally camp, as he capitalises financially on his camp appeal), Jayne Mansfield, Charlton Heston, David Lee Roth, Ed Wood, Prince, Charo, Judy Garland, Whitney Houston and Bobby Brown, Betty Grable, Lil' Kim, Carmen Miranda, Brooke Shields, Zsa Zsa Gabor, Jerry Lewis, Dr. Ruth Westheimer, Britney Spears, Brian "Kato" Kaelin, Anna Nicole Smith, Slim Whitman, Tonya Harding, Gene Kelly, and Verne Troyer.
Celebrities with camp personas who are also gay male icons include: Madonna, Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Tammy Faye Bakker, Liza Minnelli, Cher, Elizabeth Taylor, Joan Collins, Joan Rivers and Sophia Loren.
- drag queen
- Mystery Science Theater 3000
- popular culture studies
- John Waters
- Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot
- Batman TV Series (1966-1968) and Adam West
- Ed Wood, Jr.
- Lucia Pamela
- Power Rangers
- Levine, Martin P. (1998). Gay Macho. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0814746942.
- Fabio Cleto, editor. Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999.
- Core, Philip (1984). CAMP, The Lie That Tells the Truth, foreword by George Melly. London: Plexus Publishing Limited
- Moe Meyer, editor. The Politics and Poetics of Camp. Routledge, 1999.