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Posted by Gina Freitag
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An Affinity for Camp

by Stephanie A. Graves

 

“It is through Art, and only Art, that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” —Oscar Wilde

Like most highly-contested matters where the notion of “taste” is concerned, camp is a polarizing concept. The term was most widely popularized by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp,” although she avoids positing a precise definition, instead talking around what she suggests is camp’s ineffable essence and offering qualities and examples of the way it manifests. For Sontag, camp is a sensibility that informs style; “the essence of Camp,” she writes, “is its love of the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration.”

On this affinity for extravagance, most critics agree, but Sontag’s characterization of camp is as “a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation—not judgement.” She also views camp as inherently apolitical, because, she argues, to emphasize style is to sacrifice, or at least deprioritize, content—essentially, for Sontag, form displaces function. Toward the end of the essay, she finally addresses camp’s association with homosexuality: “while it’s not true that camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap.”

These are the three tenets with which queer scholars generally take umbrage. Most crucially, it’s her dismissal of the inextricable link between queer and camp that rankles. After all, it’s a mode that originated within 18th and 19th century homosexual communities and was perhaps most publicly embodied by Oscar Wilde; Sontag’s elision of the queer origins of camp excises the intensely political power of it, and led to the dilution and dismissal of camp as a means of social critique. Camp, in its truest origins, has always been a critique—a mode that parodies dominant culture from a marginalized, queer position.

The aspects of camp that bind it with queerness—exaggeration, preoccupation with performance, and a focus on marginalized subjectivity—are the same qualities that make camp and horror such fruitful bedfellows. The horror genre is similarly structured by transgression and subversion, and like camp, it often centres Otherness. When horror and camp combine, queer possibilities erupt within the text. As we look at horror shows like American Horror Story, Hannibal, True Blood, The Order, What We Do in the Shadows, Scream Queens, and Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, we can see a wide spectrum of queerness that functions as both cultural critique and a site of pleasure—and is far from apolitical.


REGISTER FREE:

Join Stephanie A. Graves on Thursday, June 24th for her Black Museum lecture “Artifice and Exaggeration: Camp Sensibilities and Queer Horror TV”, followed by a Q&A. Then stick around as we watch a special selection of TV episodes, curated by our guest lecturer and available on a streaming service near you!

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