The Dark Side of Camp

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September, 1995

The Dark Side of Camp

Why irony and detachment sometimes add up to nastiness and snobbery.

By Gareth G. Cook



"Mommy, show them what they might win!" screams Babette from the front of the bar. Babette is the young game--show hostess, dressed in a frilly maroon dress and long silver gloves. A recent track from, Pizzicato Five (a Japanese mambo band) thumps loudly and out dances Bianca, a red head in a black evening gown. Bianca shimmies to the front with the next prize, a small (scented) gold crown. Bianca is a man.

Welcome to the grand prize round of "Drag Freak Bingo" at the Andalusian Dog, a Salvador Dali-inspired bar on Washington D.C.'s U Street. The rules tonight are simple: A set of bingo cards will cost you seven dollars. The broken crayons to mark your card are free. Bianca and his partner-in-drag, Biatta--he's the one with the pearls and the trumpet--call the numbers from a table draped with gold lame. And crowd participation is a must: If they ask a question, you will scream.

"How many people," Biatta asks with an ironic smile and a hand on his hip, "have country-western rumpus rooms in their homes?" Everybody hoots. Then laughter.

There's no question that "Drag Freak Bingo" is strange. But it's also strangely common. "Camp, an ironic taste for the outrageously tasteless, has gone from being an obscure sensibility with murky roots in the gay subculture to a cultural mainstay. Sure, bingo led by drag queens is mostly a playful and harmless diversion--I laughed until it hurt and I'll go back. But I have come to recognize that camp also has a nasty side.

It can be difficult to get a handle on camp. "It's terribly hard to define," says a character in Christopher Isherwood's 1956 novel The World in Evening, probably the first explicit discussion of camp. "You have to meditate on it and feel it intuitively, like Lao Tse's Tao." Anyone who has ever sent a tacky postcard to a friend, knowing that they would "get it," understands camp, but a more precise definition is difficult to come by.

The American Heritage Dictionary comes close: "An affectation or appreciation of manners and tastes commonly thought to be outlandish, vulgar, or banal." The word is derived from the French verb camper, to perform--to strike a pose, as Madonna would say. Camp usually has a "life-as-theater," quality to it. You show off tastes that everyone knows are not your own. Camp is often rich with exaggeration. It is always heavy on irony: I just love those bell bottoms.

Examples are everywhere. Most video stores now have a "cult classics" section for movies that celebrate the vulgar, like John Waters' gross-out Pink Flamingos or Russ Meyer's Faster Pussycat! Kill! Kill!. Comedy Central's "Mystery Science Theatre 3,000" makes fun of old (and bad) sci-fi movies; and "Nick at Nite," with reruns of sit-coms like "Welcome Back, Kotter" and "Mr. Ed," is Camp TV. Meanwhile, The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste is a national bestseller. And Pulp Fiction, the super-hip movie hit, relies on the audience to get camp--you're supposed to smirk when John Travolta and Uma Thurman go to the Jack Rabbit Slim's" diner. "The culture now," says Johns Hopkins critic Mark Crispin Miller, "is saturated with camp."

Funny as camp can be, its dark side is hard to deny. When Dave Letterman shines the kleig lights on seemingly clueless working class foils, teasing them for the benefit of an uber-hip New York audience, he shows that mass camp can be smug, snobbish, and even mean. Even Drag Freak Bingo got laughs with "white trash" prizes like the crown air freshener. Camp has come to play on--and feed--some of the nation's most damaging social divisions.

Gone Camping

Thirty years ago, when Susan Sontag described the then-obscure phenomenon in her brilliant essay, "Notes on Camp," she praised it. "Camp taste is, above all, a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation--not judgement," she argued. "Camp is generous." At that time, of course, the nation's economy was on a seemingly endless upward trajectory, and the middle classes were the prime beneficiaries. The spread of the old status markers--home ownership, steady, well-paying jobs, and access to universities, expanded through the GI Bill--seemed to point to a new social equality. There was hope that social class was receding as a dividing wall, that inheritance and the family name were being eclipsed in importance by achievement. ("I'm an American," says Pulp Fiction's Butch, "our names don't mean shit.")

Another change was taken as a Positive sign: Taste was replacing the older, more permanent signs of social status. People are not "upper-class," the new thinking went, they just have great taste. And, unlike class, taste was something you didn't have to be born with--conceivably, everybody could have it. My Fair Lady, the most successful Broadway musical of the fifties, centered on the notion that taste could be taught: You too, it said, could be Eliza Doolittle. Just know the right wines, learn the right artists, and make a trip to (or at least read about) Europe. The foreign travel poster was a dorm room staple of the time.

Finally, in the sixties, as the counterculture mushroomed, many hailed the end of cultural elitism. As pop-nihilist Andy Warhol quirkily put it in his 1970 book, Popism, "It was fun to see the Museum of Modem Art people next to the teenyboppers next to the amphetamine queens next to the fashion editors."

It might seem that the camp which now surrounds us is evidence that class did indeed disappear. Knowingly embracing bad taste, it could be said, is a way of rejecting class distinctions: I'm going to wear ugly clothes and I don't care what you think.

In fact, the proliferation of camp shows that Americans are still obsessed by class. With college diplomas and Florida vacations more widely available, the upper-crust needs a new way of distinguishing itself. Look closely at camp and you'll see that, for the young and the hip, "anything goes" is clearly not the rule. The idea is to show that you have enough taste to choose the right bad taste.

Across town from the Andalusian Dog, in glitzier (and safer) Georgetown, is a store that has practically perfected the art of feeding this obsession: Urban Outfitters. Here, for the newest generation striving to distinguish themselves, there is camp for sale.

Located on some of the city's toniest commercial real estate, the store has done everything it can to cultivate the appearance of a run-down warehouse. Two large windows on either side of the entrance have been carefully cracked. Inside, the brick walls have been left exposed. Electrical wires, thin pipes, and air conditioning ducts run naked across the ceiling. Newly-installed floorboards of old wood squeak underfoot as you browse.

On its racks for young women is one of today's trendiest looks, the "kinderslut." It combines mock-midwestern schoolgirl sweet with trashy makeup and an ironic, knowing attitude. All the accessories are here: bright-plastic barrettes, red "Hello Kitty" pencil cases, plastic charms, tiny backpacks--and plenty of pink. Central to the look is the baby T-shirt. A blue "Juicy" brand tee, for example, has a crown imprinted on it with the words "Prom Queen." One teenage girl even had her mother there to help pick out just the right baby tee: The wrong one would be a disaster at school.

On college campuses, meanwhile, camp is now the key to displaying a finely developed sense of taste. To know just the right trash, and to embrace it with the proper irony, is an art form. Camp tyros might have a poster from the original Batman series or some memorabilia--a vintage plaid shirt, perhaps?--from The Brady Bunch Movie. Higher up the camp ladder, though, are the Japanese import "Power Rangers": posters, lunch boxes, or, even better, a "Mighty Morphin Power Rangers Megazord Computer-game Wristwatch" like my 20-year-old brother Alex got for only $ 8.75 (and a proof-of-purchase from Kix corn puffs). These decorations are announcements--"I get it; I've got sauce"--just as clearly as a street sign, hung over a bed, says "I stole this." Most campers readily admit that camp taste has its high standards just like any other: God help you if you show up at an early-eighties party decked out like Greg Brady.

But another kind of snobbery is less conscious--and more corrosive. Consider a recent snippet from the WXYC radio station at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. With an audible snicker, the DJ introduced samples from "Six Days on the Road," a compilation of songs from real-live truck drivers. The snickering--Can you believe those truckers?--is all the evidence you need that this sort of imitation is not exactly flattery. Integral to the camp sensibility is a mocking and superior attitude toward the lower classes, especially poor whites.

"My friends were always talking about how we're going to go to one of those monster truck shows'," one college kid told me. "We were all going to wear NASCAR T-shirts, preferably one with one of the drivers, like that guy Rusty Wallace, and we'd get baseball caps with mesh backs and something like NAPA Auto Parts' written on it. Or 'Black & Decker.' Or Caterpillar.'"

Poor whites are the one group that even the most touchy-feely liberals seem to feel fully licensed to mock without remorse. The stereotyped images--a dirt front yard-with rusted out car carcasses, dogs, pink flamingoes, and plenty of inbred kids running about--are camp standard bearers, and acceptable parts of the public dialogue. The New York Times, in stories about Tonya Harding, glibly referred to "trailer trash."

Although the viciousness is all too clear, this assault on poor whites actually springs from America's romance with the idea of egalitarianism--the myth that social class is entirely fluid. Everyone concedes the presence of a substantial black underclass, but that can at least be rationalized as a legacy of slavery and segregation. The presence of large blocks of poor whites, on the other hand, seems to contradict explicitly the idea of upward mobility. Unless, of course, the poor whites in question are lazy or stupid or both. "White trash" is a convenient notion that allows us to maintain the idea that social advancement is based on talent: Their plight, we reason, is entirely their fault.

This mind game is not a new one. In 1860, Daniel Hundly wrote in Social Relations in Our Southern States that poor whites are "about the laziest two-legged animals that walk erect on the face of the Earth. Even their motions are slow, and their speech is a sickening drawl ... while their thoughts and ideas seem likewise to crawl along at a snail's pace."

Vietnam, as James Fallows has written in these pages, sharpened this worldview--and gave it modem currency. Many college kids felt comfortable avoiding the draft while others died because those "others" were just that. You know, they probably wouldn't have amounted to much anyway. Since then, this meanness has spread. Camp has even made it cool.

Pulp Fiction has a scene that underscores this perception of Vietnam--and shows how camp brilliantly blends condescension and entertainment. Christopher Walken, playing Captain Koons, visits the son of a man that he had spent years with in a Vietnam prison camp. Koons has brought the boy, named Butch, his "great-grand-daddy's war watch." Butch's father had it on his wrist when he was captured. "So he hid it in the one place he knew he could hide something'. His ass. Five long years, he wore this watch up his ass. Then when he died of dysentery ... I hid this uncomfortable hunk of metal up my ass for two years And now, little man, I give the watch to you." As Butch takes the watch, the audience groans and laughs. You know the crass type that fought the war.

So when today's elite take up what they imagine to be the accouterments of poor whites, it is a way of saying "I am royalty; I would never seriously wear this stuff." As Benjamin Demott points out in The Imperial Middle, we are "talking class while denying explicitly or implicitly that class is meant." The camp sensibility, in other words, allows you to square the circle: You are seemingly in touch with the common man--a real democrat--even as you show you are above him. The purest distillation of this is the working-class top--the shirt of a gas station attendant or team bowler, with a monosyllabic labic name like "Mike" or "Joe" stitched on the pocket--that is so popular among prep school and college kids.

Typical of this attitude is The Encyclopedia of Bad Taste by Jane and Michael Stem. This bestseller, an exhaustive codification of modem camp, claims to be appreciative of bad taste. But its smug attitude toward the lower classes is barely veiled. And with the book as your guide, you can show your superiority by joining them, if only with a smirk, in the mud.

Take the authors' description of the mobile home. It is, they say, "a veritable Taj Mahal in crimped aluminum.... You want landscaping? Where but around a mobile home will you find conservatories of perpetual plastic topiary; pastel pompons and pink flamingoes on sticks; statues of elves, gnomes, jockeys (white and black), lazy barefoot Mexicans with their donkeys...."

One of the favorite topics is working-class food. There are entries for Cool Whip, Fish Sticks, Spam, Twinkies, TV Dinners, Wonder Bread, Cheeze Whiz, Hamburger Helper, and more. Eating any of these would be hopelessly demclasse, unless it were done ironically: Tuna casserole, they tell us, "anchor s the low end of the culinary hierarchy, with no hope of upward mobility." But Spam on a T-shirt--now that's cool.

The Stems really let loose with their description of heavy metal music. "Nobody of any refinement," they declare, "has stepped forward to champion heavy metal. Because of this fact, metal remains in its own way the purest sort of rock and roll." That their appreciation is expressed with a wink and a nod, however, is made clear by what comes next: "It is all about Sturm und Drang and braggadocio, drinking lots of Jack Daniel's, having a gigantic penis, and taking so many drugs your head explodes." You know that loser kid in the trailer park who likes Spam on Wonderbread? He likes heavy metal, too.

Friends of mine show the same kind of voyeuristic snobbery when they watch "Ricki Lake," one of the rising queens of daytime talk. The hostess herself starred in camp films (like John Waters's Hairspray) and now she's brought her act to television. Outrageous, and usually trashy, guests are brought on--"I'm Too Much Woman for Just One Man" was a topic the other day for overweight nymphomaniacs--and derided. On campuses, kids gather to watch every day. Kind of like going to the zoo.

Stay up later, and there's David Letterman, mean-spirited in a way that the old king of late night, Johnny Carson, never was. It used to be that Dave was mean to everybody--he would skewer Bo Derek, then turn around and skewer the guy on the street. These days, after his network jump and time shift, Dave is nice to his guests--at times almost unctuous. His saves his wit for his favorite foil: the earnest, often ignorant, working class guy. He'll have someone go into McDonalds to see how the poor slobs react to somebody ordering a "five pounder" instead of a "quarter pounder."

One of his most popular shticks has been Mujibur and Sirajul, two Bangladeshi salesmen who peddle cheesy memorabilia in a nearby souvenir store. They are bumbling, not that proficient with English, struggling to achieve the good life in America. Perfect. Dave sends them on a four week tour of the United States. Every so often, he checks in: "Boys, boys, boys, how are ya?"

Then: "Was that your first NBA game?," asks Dave of the two, who stand awkwardly holding a microphone.

Pause.

"It was good," responds one. You can feel the audience slyly smiling.

How was Niagara Falls?

"It was very nice."

And St. Louis?

"St. Louis was also very nice."

And Mt. Rushmore?

"Very good," they answer. Dave chuckles and the audience roars. Those two! (With the funny names.) Visiting all those typical middle-American tourist spots. I've got to get one of those Mujibur and Sirajul comemorative T-shirts.

MTV's "Beavis & Butt-Head," another leading cultural indicator, is based on camp. The show revolves around the two heroes watching (mostly) bad videos. The rest of the show tracks the stupid adventures of two suburban white trash boys. And yes, they wear heavy metal T-shirts: AC/DC and Metallica.

I've laughed at "Beavis & Butt-Head--I even do a fair Butt-Head impression. But I can't help thinking that something twisted is happening in the popular mind, especially within my media-infused generation. When Sontag wrote "Notes on Camp" in 1964, she lauded the mindset as a balance to the tragedies and traumas that loomed so large in the public mind. The country had just fought two horrible wars, was entering another, and it had just lost a young president to a hail of gunfire. Camp was light, detached, funny--and fun.

These days, though, camp's irony and detachment are everywhere, almost to the point where they threaten to squeeze somber, reflective thoughts out of the national conversation. For sure, irony can be a powerful critical tool--any comedian knows that. But "camp" can also be a way of avoiding choices and responsibility. If all the world's a stage, and absurd, then why engage it at all?

Camp acts as a balm to the conscience. It allows us to feel the rush of superiority to those we see as our social lessers, but without the guilt. It is a kind of faux compassion. We pretend we care, like Letterman does with his Everyman foils. Meanwhile, in very concrete ways, our worst prejudices prevail. People who can't dress or talk just right are cast aside. The "hillbilly" is turned away from a school for which he is qualified; he just didn't seem very bright. The "trashy-looking" woman with heavy make-up and sprayed hair is passed over for a job; she just didn't seem trustworthy. These class barriers aren't just a cultural flaw--they are a deep social pathology, keeping down people who could do great things.

The most disturbing example of this at work, Jonathan Alter recently argued in Newsweek, is what's happening to our public schools. Once the best way of bringing the next generation together--and of assuring that its best and brightest, regardless of background, would be given a chance to achieve--the schools are now being abandoned. Parents who can afford it flee to the suburbs or send their kids away to private schools. The rest are stuck behind.

The country is separating, and the next generation will be even more divided. But we're numbing up, and feeling good about it.

I can't help being reminded of Beavis and Butt-Head. "What's so funny about them is everyone knows kids like that," one girl explained to me. Too little ambition, too dumb, too talentless--the public schools are filled with those people. Better, probably, to let them sink.

Cool.

Gareth G. Cook is the New England Editor of The Boston Globe. His most recent articles include Devolution Chic and The Pension Time Bomb.

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