Crawford, Dietrich, Garbo, Garland

Why is camp so obsessed with women?

Joan Crawford, Mae West, and Jessica Lange

Joan Crawford by AFP PHOTO/FRANCE PRESSE VOIR/Getty Images; Mae West on poster by Online USA; Jessica Lange by Getty Images

This article is part of Postcards from Camp, a multi-part series on the nature and contemporary relevance of camp sensibility. Read all of the entries here.

Among my extensive collection of books on camp, the most prized is not by an academic or critic; it’s by a librarian from Duluth, Minn. Paul Roen’s High Camp: A Gay Guide to Camp and Cult Films is my favorite because his encyclopedia of “reviews” is utterly idiosyncratic, oftentimes catty, and more demonstrative of the true spirit of camp than any of its shelf-mates could ever hope to be. Roen gets the importance of the nuance, of approving of a film—or, really, an actress’s entire oeuvre—for the transcendence of a single line, fleeting glance, or flip of hair. Working through High Camp’s delightful articles and healthy complement of portraits of “the Stars,” one quickly picks up on a key theme: the overwhelming presence of women in the camp imagination.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise. When asked about the nature of camp, most laypeople will probably respond with some reference to a drag queen—if they’re slightly more informed, perhaps a mention of Joan Crawford or Bette Davis. The point is, in terms of popular culture, the camp force has always been strong with the ladies, regardless of their biological sex.

Of course, this is not to say that most of the classic icons—Crawford, Davis, Dietrich, Garbo, Garland, Russell, etc.—actively sought such an association, at least not at first. (Though, as feminist scholar Pamela Robertson points out, a select few like Mae West were absolutely aware of and attentive to their status.) Rather, gay men collectively ordained these women camp stars through proclamations delivered in whispers, giggles, and cross-auditorium winks. Some critics have interpreted the “use” of female stars (or their images, in the case of impersonation drag) for gay male camp pleasure as problematic—doesn’t our inability to take these women “seriously” reveal a lack of respect at best, if not a trace of outright misogyny? In some cases it may; but in general, camp’s relationship to women is far more complicated than that. In fact, it may be true that camp isn’t interested in real women at all.

Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in an argument.

Is it sexist to find camp in female figures like Bette Davis and Joan Crawford? 

Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? still courtesy of IMDB.

Recall Sontag’s oft-quoted line about camp’s dependence on quotation marks: “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” Yet again, Sontag has flirted with a crucial realization, but sadly does not succeed in taking it home. The quotation marks she introduces around woman do more ontological work than she realizes. “Woman,” the concept within the quotation marks, is not the same thing, at all, as a real woman; the former is a mythology, a style, a set of conventions, taboos, and references, while the latter is a shifting, changeable, and ultimately indefinable living being. Of course, there may be some overlap—real women often apply a dab of this or that element of “woman” (and some even cake it on) as they go about performing their gender—but it’s crucial to recognize the fundamental distinction.

“Woman,” then, is something like a room full of props that you can use in playing “a role”—which means, if I can extrapolate, that “man” is the same thing. Now let’s make a big, unprovable, subjective truth claim: “Woman” has a more interesting range of inventory, aesthetically speaking, in its room than “man” does. An abridged list: lipstick, wedges, emotions, two (!) kinds of underwear, domestic arts, coquettish arts, multiple orgasms, babies, gossip, and fruit juice-based cocktails. It’s no accident that the art of dressing women is called “draping” while the art of dressing men is “tailoring”—the former lets you slip, flow, and crease; the latter stitches you in. Is it clear yet? “Woman” is naturally a more writerly text, an aesthetic landscape that has, generally speaking, been more accommodating of nuance than “man.” No wonder, then, that camp (and especially its gay male practitioners) has always been attracted to it.

So back to Roen’s stable of Stars. Not only do Crawford and the rest promiscuously borrow outfits from the wardrobe of “woman” in their work; they are also mass media images, inviting even more of a writerly approach—it is much easier to camp a “figure” than a close friend. Time-distance helps as well, of course, which explains why camp scholars are always talking about Mildred Pierce (1945) and similar oldies. But the “woman”/camp connection is still going strong. Consider, for example, Ryan Murphy’s dependence on Jessica Lange for the success of his camp masterpiece American Horror Story. Were it not for Lange’s breathtaking facility with the contents of “woman”—ranging (so far) from the Southern Gothic black window in season 1 to the wanton bar-singer turned nun in season 2—Murphy’s dervish of a show would quickly exhaust itself in a dissipating cloud of dismembered limbs and unexplained aliens. But Lange’s gravitational pull as a camp icon manages to hold it all together, her every grimace grounds for a spin-off series—and for that, she is a heroine.

Along with accusations of misogyny, camp has been accused of exploiting its human idols (male and female alike), ruining careers, and leaving once-famed artists as little more than punch lines. But I am here to testify that camp-love is not an embarrassment; on the contrary, it’s an embrace. More on that tomorrow.

Read the next entry in Postcards from Camp