The Rhetorics of Camp and the Appropriation of Drag Culture

This essay was originally written in early 2018 to compliment a presentation on the rhetorics of camp and the appropriation of drag culture. The first half of this essay details a short history of camp and the drag ball scene, while the second half dives in to the appropriation of drag and other queer and camp signifiers. This is not meant to be a critique of anyone at the 2019 Met Gala. There was some truly wonderful camp, some decent attempts, and some utter failures. My only comment will be to include images of my four favorite costumes. Lena Waithe, Ezra Miller, Hamish Bowles and Billy Porter.

Camp has been defined as, “A style of interaction and display that used irony, incongruity, theatricality, and humor to highlight the artifice of social convention, sometimes exaggerating it to the point of burlesquing it, sometimes inverting it to achieve the same end,” (Chauncey 290). With highly campy drag queens being seen as the height of that camp, with a style of camp that can be hostile, sarcastic, and “bitchy,” (Newton 111), this style of drag and camp is probably most recognizable as what we consider “campy” today. It is this version of camp that is very accessible to the public, though shows like RuPaul’s drag race, but that hasn’t, historically, been all that camp is. What the straight cis public sees as camp, is only one facet of a very complex queer way of interacting with the world. 

Starting in the late 1800s and early 1900s camp came about and played a significant role in the way that gay men would lead double lives. “[The double life] did not necessarily lead them to denigrate their necessarily compartmentalized gay persona. Most men regarded the double life as a reasonable tactical response to the dangers posed by the revelation of their homosexuality to straight people,” (Chauncey 273). A large part of navigating that double life was the double entendre which goes hand in hand with camp. The double entendre does the same thing that camp does with using irony, incongruity, and humor (though with less theatricality) to undercut the social convention and dominant culture. Much of the gay slang thats stuck around such as “coming out” has origins as part of this double entendre culture of the early twentieth century. “Like much of campy gay terminology, ‘coming out’ was an arch play on the language of women’s culture—in this case the expression used to refer to the ritual of a debutante’s being formally introduced to, or ‘coming out’ into, the society of her cultural peers,” (7). Coming out of the closet as a metaphor would not appear until the 1960s, though that’s not to say there weren’t other metaphors for not being out (Waxman), but in this case “A gay man’s coming out…referred to his being formally presented to the largest collective manifestation of pre[World War 2] gay society, the enormous drag balls that were patterned on the debutante and masquerade balls of the dominant culture,” (Chauncey 7). 

This double entendre was not only something that allowed queer people of the time to undercut and subvert phrases and activities of the dominant culture, it helped foster a sense of collective identity as well. “It made them insiders in a world that normally casts them as outsiders,” Chauncey explains and it allowed them to “see themselves as participants in the dominant culture,” (287). Since the dominant culture at the time was not explicitly going to make reference to homosexuality and making oneself publicly visible as queer could have serious repercussions, this hidden subversive language emerged. The camp subversion that emerges from this double entendre culture allows for queer people to “turn ‘straight’ spaces into gay spaces,” (288) which allowed and allows queer people to “communicate secretly in straight settings,” (289). We don’t see this so much today, because there is less of a need for it with today’s society being infinitely more accepting than it was in early twentieth century, however, camp evolves. “Camp is not a thing. Most broadly it signifies a relationship between things, peopIe, and activities or qualities, and homosexuality,” (Newton 105). Today’s camp can be seen in the very specific loud queer hairstyles that pop up, the undercut died a loud, bright color, like pink, purple, blue, or green, could be considered a more modern style of camp. Appearance has always been a big place for camp even outside of the over the top drag costumes. One of my friends had an all denim birthday party in an attempt to, and I quote, “Attract all the lesbians in the Tri State Area.” Knowing denim or flannel are lesbian signifiers is knowing the subcultural camp code of hiding in plain sight that queer people have been cultivating for decades.

The subcultural code of camp does get undermined however, when the dominant culture decides they want in on it. While I don’t think it, as one queen interviewed by Esther Newton claims makes “queens stop it” the “moment it becomes a public cult,” it does do damage to the original act of subverting the dominant power structures. There is no reason that cis women who want to be hyper feminine should be appropriating drag culture and calling themselves drag queens (Pagan). It stops being social critique and it stops being camp. “I was told by impersonators that a homosexual clothes designer made himself a beautiful Halloween [drag] ball gown. After the ball he sold it to a wealthy society lady. It was said that when he wore it, it was very campy, but when she wore it, it was just an expensive gown,” (Newton 107). For it to truly be camp the intent to subvert must be there. Lady Gaga was not a drag queen for her outrageous outfits, it was camp because there was absolutely critique on what was traditionally seen as acceptable to wear to awards shows (ie. Raw meat), and also because Lady Gaga is bisexual, but it wasn’t drag. 

Another example of how this queer camp subtext gets undermined is less obvious, but equally disheartening. “In cities, trendy young people — queer and straight, male, female and non-binary — are blending together, look-wise. That’s because mainstream style is now hipster style. But here’s the thing: Hipster style is just queer style, particularly queer women’s style. Put another way: Lesbians invented hipsters,” (Burton). It doesn’t necessarily mean that these styles stop being queer, it just means they need more context, this is why what camp is changes as queer things become mainstream. Which is why cishet women calling their hyper-feminine over the top costumes drag is such a problem. Drag is too important a thing risk being overrun by the mainstream. That’s not to say that there isn’t drag for cis women. There is very much a tradition of male drag in the lesbian community with drag butches (Newton 100), which has become in today’s terminology, the drag king to compliment the drag queen. To top everything off, trans people have always blurred the lines of drag, with trans people historically having used drag as an entry point to realizing their identity. Even beyond AMAB (assigned male at birth) and AFAB (assigned female at birth) people being drag queens and kings respectively, we now see instances of trans male drag queens, such as Adrian Dalton (aka Lola Lypsinka) (Dalton 93).

To conclude, camp was and still is a “cultural strategy” that helps queer people “make sense of, respond to, and undermine the social categories of gender and sexuality that served  to marginalize them,” (Chauncey 290). And while dominant culture does appropriate and undermine the subcultural codes that camp creates that doesn’t mean that camp culture goes away, it simply evolves, but it doesn’t lose what it ultimately stands for. Codes might be dropped from our language and/or lost to the passage of time, but there will surely be new evolved language that comes into fill those holes. 

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Works Cited (below the cut)

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