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Camp is an aesthetic in which something has appeal because of its bad taste or ironic value. When the term first appeared in 1909, it was used to refer to ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical, effeminate or homosexual behaviour. By the mid-1970s, the term was defined as "banality, artifice, mediocrity, or ostentation so extreme as to have perversely sophisticated appeal."[1] American writer Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'" emphasised artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness and shocking excess as key elements.

Camp films were popularized by filmmaker John Waters, including Hairspray and Polyester, Celebrities that are associated with camp personas include drag queens and performers such as Dame Edna, Divine (Glen Milstead), RuPaul, Boy George, and Liberace. As part of the anti-academic defense of popular culture in the 1960s, camp came to popularity in the 1980s with the widespread adoption of postmodern views on art and culture.

Origins and development

Camp derives from the French slang term se camper, meaning “to pose in an exaggerated fashion”. The OED gives 1909 as the first print citation of camp as "ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, homosexuals. So as a noun, ‘camp’ behaviour, mannerisms, et cetera. (cf. quot. 1909); a man exhibiting such behaviour". Per the OED, this sense is "etymologically obscure."

According to writer and theorist Samuel R. Delany, the term a camp originally developed from the practice of female impersonators and other prostitutes following military encampments to sexually service the soldiers. Later, it evolved into a general description of the aesthetic choices and behavior of working-class homosexual men. Finally, it was made mainstream, and adjectivised, by Susan Sontag in her landmark essay (see below).

The rise of postmodernism made camp a common perspective on aesthetics, which was not identified with any specific group. The attitude originally was a distinctive factor in pre-Stonewall gay male communities, where it was the dominant cultural pattern. Altman argues that it originated from the acceptance of gayness as effeminacy.[citation needed] Two key components of camp were originally feminine performances: swish and drag. With swish featuring extensive use of superlatives, and drag being exaggerated female impersonation, camp became extended to all things "over the top", including female female impersonators, as in the exaggerated Hollywood version of Carmen Miranda. It was this version of the concept that was adopted by literary and art critics and became a part of the conceptual array of 'sixties culture. Moe Meyer still defines camp as "queer parody."[citation needed]


You can't do camp on purpose. - Susan Sontag


Camp has been from the start an ironic attitude, embraced by anti-Academic theorists for its explicit defense of clearly marginalized forms. As such, its claims to legitimacy are dependent on its opposition to the status quo; camp has no aspiration to timelessness, but rather lives on the hypocrisy of the dominant culture. It doesn't present basic values, but precisely confronts culture with what it perceives as its inconsistencies, to show how any norm is socially constructed. This rebellious utilisation of critical concepts was originally formulated by modernist art theorists such as sociologist Theodor Adorno[citation needed], who were radically opposed to the kind of popular culture that consumerism endorsed.

Humor and allusion

Camp is a critical analysis and at the same time a big joke. Camp takes “something” (normally a social norm, object, phrase, or style), does a very acute analysis of what the “something” is, then takes the “something” and presents it humorously. As a performance, camp is meant to be an allusion. A person being campy has a generalization they are intentionally making fun of or manipulating. Though camp is a joke it's also a very serious analysis done by people who are willing to make a joke out of themselves to prove a point. It's about being pretentious and contentious; It is a heterodox bouleversement all wrapped up in a tongue-in-cheek pose, which elicits shock and is meant to be offensive.

Another part of camp is dishing, a conversational style including retorts, vicious putdowns, and/or malicious gossip, and showing disrespect, associated with the entertainment industry and also called "chit chat" .


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Fudgie Frottage, San Francisco underground performer and producer of the world's longest running drag king contest where exaggerated displays of masculinity are encouraged and rewarded.

As part of camp, drag occasionally consists of feminine apparel, ranging from slight make-up and a few feminine garments, typically hats, gloves, or high heels, to a total getup, complete with wigs, gowns, jewellery, and full make-up. In the case of drag kings or female male-impersonators, the opposite is true and often involves exaggerated displays of traditional male sexuality.

Contemporary culture


Television shows such as CHiPs, Batman, Gilligan's Island, and Fantasy Island, are enjoyed in the 2000s[citation needed] for their what is now interpreted as their "campy" aspects. Some of these shows were developed tongue-in-cheek by their producers. TV soap operas, especially those that air in primetime, are often considered camp. The over-the-top excess of Dynasty and Dallas were popular in the 1980s. Mentos television commercials during the 1990s developed a cult following due to their camp "Eurotrash" humour.

The ESPN Classic show Cheap Seats features two Generation-X, real-life brothers making humorous observations while watching televised camp sporting events, which had often been featured on ABC's Wide World of Sports during the 1970s. Examples include a 1970s "sport" that attempted to combine ballet with skiing, the Harlem Globetrotters putting on a show in the gym of a maximum security prison, small-time professional wrestling, and roller derby. ABC After School Specials, which tackled topics such as drug use and teen sex, are an example of camp educational films. In turn, the Comedy Central television show Strangers with Candy, starring comedienne Amy Sedaris, was a camp spoof of the specials.

In a Monty Python sketch (Episode 22, "Camp Square-Bashing"), the British Army's 2nd Armoured Division has a Military "Swanning About" Precision Drill unit in which soldiers "camp it up" in unison. In the English sit-com The Office one of Tim Canterbury's pranks on Gareth Keenan includes a pun on meaning of the word camp.


Movie versions of camp TV shows have made the camp nature of these shows a running joke throughout the movies. John Huston's Beat the Devil (1953, starring Humphrey Bogart) was an exaggerated film noir send-up)[citation needed]. Filmmaker John Waters directed camp films, such as Pink Flamingos, Hairspray, Female Trouble, Polyester, Desperate Living, A Dirty Shame, and Cecil B. Demented. Filmmaker Todd Solondz uses camp music to illustrate the absurdity and banality of bourgeois, suburban existence. In Solondz's cult film Welcome to the Dollhouse, the eleven-year-old girl protagonist kisses a boy while Debbie Gibson's "Lost in Your Eyes" plays on a Fisher-Price tape recorder.

Educational and industrial films form an entire sub-genre of camp films, with the most famous being the much-spoofed 1950s Duck and Cover film, in which an anthropomorphic, cartoon turtle explains how one can survive a nuclear attack by hiding under a school desk (its British counterpart Protect and Survive could be seen as kitsch, even though it is very chilling to watch). Many British Public Information Films gained a camp cult following, such as the famous Charley Says series.


Retro-camp fashion is an example of modern hipsters employing camp styles for the sake of humor. Yard decorations, popular in some parts of suburban and rural America, are examples of kitsch and are sometimes displayed as camp expressions.[citation needed] The classic camp yard ornament is the pink plastic flamingo. The yard globe, garden gnome, wooden cut-out of a fat lady bending over, the statue of a small black man holding a lantern (called a lawn jockey) and ceramic statues of white-tailed deer are also prevalent camp lawn decorations.

The Carvel chain of soft-serve ice cream stores is famous for its camp style, campy low-budget TV commercials and campy ice-cream cakes such as Cookie Puss and Fudgie The Whale. South of the Border is a roadside attraction on the North Carolina-South Carolina border with a camp faux-Mexican theme and is also known for its campy billboards stretching along Interstate 95 from Washington, D.C., to Florida. Branson, Missouri, is a popular tourist destination that features camp entertainment with pseudo-patriotic or otherwise jingoistic themes, overtones and messages. The gambling meccas of Las Vegas and Reno, Nevada, are famous for the camp architecture of the casinos and hotels. In recent years, Wisconsin Dells has developed a camp reputation for its waterparks, waterpark resorts and motel swimming pools featuring foam-and-fibreglass sculptures of dolphins and killer whales.

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RuPaul regularly capitalizes on her camp appeal through TV and movie cameo appearances.

Many celebrities have camp personas, although some tend to possess these traits unintentionally. Some celebrities even capitalize on their camp appeal through commercials and in TV and movie cameo appearances (for example, TV commercials for Old Navy clothing stores). Celebrities with camp personas include David Bowie, John Waters, Elvira, Pee-wee Herman, Elton John, Freddie Mercury, Richard Simmons, Dame Edna, Divine (Glen Milstead), RuPaul, Boy George, and Liberace.[citation needed] Celebrities who are gay icons include Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Bette Midler, Carmen Miranda, and Joan Rivers.[citation needed] Video games characters with camp personas, effeminacy and gay icons include Him from Powerpuff Girls, Doctor N. Gin from Crash Bandicoot series, Agent Pleakley from Lilo & Stitch movies, Reni Wassulmaier from Grand Theft Auto: Vice City Stories and Bridget from Guilty Gear series.

The terms "camp" and "kitsch" are often used interchangeably; both may relate to art, literature, music, or any object that carries an aesthetic value. However, "kitsch" refers specifically to the object proper, whereas "camp" is a mode of performance. Thus, a person may consume kitsch intentionally or unintentionally. Camp, however, as Susan Sontag observed, is always a way of consuming or performing culture "in quotation marks."[citation needed]

International aspects

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Pop singer Mika is renowned for his camp-styled performances

Thomas Hine identified 1954-64 as the most camp modern period in the US. During this period, many Americans had much more money to spend, but often exercised poor taste due to their lack of sophistication, education or experience. In the UK, camp is an adjective, often associated with a stereotypical view of feminine gay men. Although it applies to gay men, it is a specific adjective used to describe a man that openly promotes the fact that he is gay by being outwardly garish or eccentric. "Camp" forms a strong element in UK culture, and many so-called gay-icons and objects are chosen as such because they are camp. People like Kylie Minogue, John Inman, Lawrence Llewelyn Bowen, Lulu, Graham Norton, Lesley Joseph, Ruby Wax, Dale Winton, Cilla Black, Rick Astley ("Never Gonna Give You Up"), and the music hall theatre tradition of the pantomime are camp elements in popular culture.[citation needed]

The Australian theatre and opera director Barrie Kosky is renowned for his use of camp in interpreting the works of the Western canon including; Shakespeare, Wagner, Molière, Seneca, Kafka and most recently – 9 September 2006 - his 8 hour production for the Sydney Theatre Company “The Lost Echo” based on Ovid's Metamorphoses and Euripides' The Bacchae. In the first act (The Song of Phaeton) for instance, the goddess Juno takes the form of a highly stylised Marlene Dietrich and the musical arrangements feature Noel Coward and Cole Porter. Kosky’s use of camp is also effectively employed to satirise the pretensions, manners and cultural vacuity of Australia’s suburban middle class, which is suggestive of the style of Dame Edna Everage. For example in “The Lost Echo” Kosky employs a Chorus of high school girls and boys whereabouts one girl in the Chorus takes leave from the Goddess Diana and begins to rehearse a dance routine, muttering to herself in a broad Australian accent; “Mum says I have to practice if I want to be on “Australian Idol”.


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Carmen Miranda in the trailer for The Gang's All Here (1943)

The first post-World War II use of the word in print, marginally mentioned in the Sontag essay, may be Christopher Isherwood's 1954 novel The World in the Evening, where he comments: “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.” American writer Susan Sontag's 1964 essay "Notes on 'Camp'", Sontag emphasised artifice, frivolity, naïve middle-class pretentiousness and shocking excess as key elements of camp. Examples cited by Sontag included singer/actress Carmen Miranda's tutti frutti hats and low-budget Science fiction movies of the 1950s and 1960s.

In Mark Booth's 1983 book Camp he defines camp as “to present oneself as being committed to the marginal with a commitment greater than the marginal merits.” He discerns carefully between genuine camp and camp fads and fancies, things that are not intrinsically camp, but display artificiality, stylisation, theatricality, naivety, sexual ambiguity, tackiness, poor taste, stylishness, or portray camp people and thus appeal to them. He considers Susan Sontag's definition problematical because it lacks this distinction.


As a cultural challenge, camp can also receive a political meaning, when minorities appropriate and ridicule the images of the dominant group, the kind of activism associated with multiculturalism and the New Left. The best known instance of this is the gay liberation movement, which used camp to confront society with its own preconceptions and their historicity. The first positive portrayal of a gay secret agent in fiction appears in a series, The Man from C.A.M.P. in which the protagonist is paradoxically effeminate, yet physically tough. Female camp actresses such as Mae West, Marlene Dietrich, and Joan Crawford also had an important influence on the development of feminist consciousness: by exaggerating certain stereotyped features of femininity, such as fragility, open emotionality or moodiness, they attempted to undermine the credibility of those preconceptions. The multiculturalist stance in cultural studies therefore presents camp as political and critical.

Political theorists like Theodor Adorno saw camp as a means of maintaining the status quo by misdirecting the workers away from the cause of their oppression: the capitalist system. Also, camp's ephemerality was deemed to engender unthinking consumerism, which relies on novelty and frivolity. Aside from the Frankfurt School argument, camp often faces criticism from other political and aesthetic perspectives. For example, the most obvious argument is that camp is just an excuse for poor quality work and allows the tacky and vulgar to be recognised as valid art. In doing so, camp celebrates the trivial and superficial and form over content. This could be called the "yuck factor".

Camp-style performances may allow certain prejudices to be perpetuated by thinly veiling them as irony. Some feminist critics argue that drag queens are misogynistic because they make women seem ridiculous and perpetuate harmful stereotypes. This criticism posits that drag queens are the gay equivalent of the black and white minstrel. Some critics claim that camp comedians like Larry Grayson, Kenny Everett, Duncan Norvelle and Julian Clary perpetuate gay stereotypes and pander to homophobia.

As a part of its adoption by the mainstream, camp has undergone a softening of its original subversive tone, and is often little more than the condescending recognition that popular culture can also be enjoyed by a sophisticated sensibility. Mainstream comic books and B Westerns, for example, have become standard subjects for academic analysis. The normalisation of the outrageous, common to many Vanguardist movements—has led some critics to argue the notion has lost its usefulness for critical art discourse.

See also

  • Drag queen
  • Hipster (contemporary subculture)
  • Mystery Science Theater 3000
  • Popular culture studies
  • John Waters
  • Johnny Sokko And His Flying Robot
  • Batman TV Series (1966-1968) and Adam West
  • Edward D. Wood, Jr.
  • Replicas of Michelangelo's David
  • Barbarella
  • Lucia Pamela
  • Mike Patton
  • Power Rangers
  • The Cramps
  • Ultraman
  • Old Timeyness
  • Lowrider
  • Donk (automobile)
  • Outsider music
  • Russ Meyer
  • Soulja Boy

Further reading

  • Core, Philip (1984/1994). CAMP, The Lie That Tells the Truth, foreword by George Melly. London: Plexus Publishing Limited. ISBN 0-85965-044-8
  • Cleto, Fabio, editor (1999). Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0-472-06722-2.
  • Meyer, Moe, editor (1993). The Politics and Poetics of Camp. Routledge. ISBN 0-415-08248-X.
  • Sontag, Susan (1964). Notes on Camp in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Farrer Straus & Giroux. ISBN 0-312-28086-6.


  1. Webster's New World Dictionary of the American Language, 1976 edition, definition for camp, sense 6, [Slang, orig., homosexual jargon, Americanism] banality, mediocrity, artifice, ostentation, etc. so extreme as to amuse or have a perversely sophisticated appeal


  • Levine, Martin P. (1998). Gay Macho. New York: New York University Press. ISBN 0-8147-4694-2.

External links

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