Can Camp Be Taken Seriously?

A midnight visit to the garden of good and evil.

The Lady Chablis in an evening dress.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo: Warner Bros.

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.

The novelist and gay luminary Christopher Isherwood is often credited with first introducing camp into print. While this claim may not be entirely accurate, Isherwood’s brief treatment of camp in The World in the Evening (1954) certainly captures some important and widely underappreciated aspects of its ethos. Most influential was his separation of camp into the domains “low” and “high,” but such distinctions are, in my view, superficial (and somewhat hostile, given Isherwood’s description of low as “a swishy little boy with peroxided hair, dressed in a picture hat and a feather boa pretending to be Marlene Dietrich”). More helpful may be the distinction we’ve drawn throughout this series between campy and camp.

In any case, Isherwood’s characterization of high camp presents an important factor in determining whether camp will remain relevant at all: Is camp merely hyperaesthetic fun or should it be taken seriously? Isherwood writes:

“ … true High Camp has an underlying seriousness. 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. Baroque art is camp about religion. The Ballet is camp about love … ”

In other words, camp is a “fun” way of dealing with something that’s serious. We’ll consider further what fun might mean in a moment, but for now it’s important to understand that true camp, at its core, is a serious impulse. In her introduction to a collection of Isherwood’s journals, Katherine Bucknell helpfully expands on this notion of an “underlying seriousness”*:

“Isherwood used camp to write about dangerous subjects, subjects which his audience would find morally, philosophically repugnant, subjects about which he could not risk talking straight. He used camp … to suggest that what he was saying was unimportant, not serious, and that there was no risk in being exposed to it. He used it to write about what was nearest to his heart.”

What could be the benefit of presenting what is closest to your heart as “not serious?” Bucknell argues that Isherwood used camp as a kind of subterfuge, tricking his readers into contending with issues they might otherwise have avoided. That may be true, but it’s really only a secondary benefit. What matters more is how camp allows individuals to engage with the issues that affect them most directly. Behemoths of seriousness like religion or love or politics tend to demand of us sincerity, sobriety, and earnest attention—in a word, reverence. But reverence has long since gone out of fashion, having been replaced in our culture by a pervasive ironic distance. We know we’re not meant to revere anything too much (lest we risk seeming silly or naïve), and so we’ve collectively decided not to care much about anything at all. The much-maligned hipster who reveres nothing but irreverence is our moment’s poster child for a reason; we seem to have lost the ability to be truly serious.

Or have we? I believe that camp offers a third way, a route of escape to a more useful kind of seriousness.

For a delightful example of this maneuver, check out Clint Eastwood’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. In the movie, John Cusack plays John Kelso, a New York magazine journalist covering a grand Christmas party down in Savannah, Ga., when he finds himself wrapped up in a sordid murder investigation involving gay hustlers, a local aristocrat, and the peculiar social politics of the South. The most compelling figure (not character, as she’s playing herself) in the movie, however, is the Lady Chablis, a transgender drag performer who acts as John’s Virgil, guiding him through the humid Georgia landscape by his tie.

But Chablis is not only here for her devastating sass. In a pair of scenes in the second half of the film, Chablis applies a camp touch to two big, reverence-demanding systems—social conventions and the law—that are crucial to her survival as a queer woman in the South. In so doing, she proves that “making fun” out of certain authorities by devoting  camp attention to the nuances that make them up may be the best (and only bearable) way of taking them seriously.

In perhaps the funniest sequence of the movie, Chablis crashes the “black people’s ball,” a cotillion-style event complete with white gloves and a string quartet. After drawing stares for her electric blue sequined gown, Chablis proceeds to gingerly test the limits of social tolerance, mixing a nuanced performance of decorum with just enough transgression to thoroughly tweak the other guests without getting herself kicked out. This teasing is fun, of course, but it also reveals a precision-tuned understanding of social boundaries.

The same goes for the following scene in which Chablis is questioned in court regarding her involvement with the murder victim. Chablis plays the part of star witness to a T, right down to the noirish ensemble she purchases especially for the occasion, and she deliciously toys with courtroom procedure. But we see how serious the law is to Chablis when the attorneys begin to inquire into her lifestyle. Yes, she uses drugs; yes, she houses criminals; and yes, she does indeed possess a “man’s toolbox.” The disapproving looks from jury and judge on this last point reveal the true precariousness of Chablis’ position in the eyes of the law, and yet her camp intelligence helps to temper the threat. When the judge orders Mr. Devoe (Chablis’ given name) to sit down, the Lady responds perfectly: “Ms. Devoe; I’m a single girl, your honor.” Again, sassy fun, but also a serious commentary on the law’s ability to define.

What the Lady understands is that no one can actually escape coercive monoliths like the law or social conventions, especially those figures like Chablis, who are already marginalized within them. Instead, the best we can do is to try to “make fun out of” them—or, put more precisely, to carve out a little space in which to outplay them. But to make that space, we have to treat those same systems as serious objects of study; only through grasping the tiny details—like the performative phrase “your honor”—that hold them together can we hope to suspend their power, even if just for a sweltering Southern moment. Camp, then, is very serious—serious about maintaining the freedom to play, which is a way of saying the freedom to live.

Read the next entry in Postcards from Camp.

Correction, April 22, 2013: This entry originally misattributed a quote from Katherine Bucknell’s introduction to a volume of Christopher Isherwood’s journals to Edmund White. White wrote the preface to this volume of Isherwood’s journals. (Return to the corrected sentence.)