Harmony H. Wu: Harmony H. Wu is pursuing her doctorate in the Division of Critical Studies in University of Southern California's School of Cinema-Television. Her dissertation is on international horror hybridity and the intersections of genre, gender, sexuality and national identity.
Pamela Robertson has set out a difficult task for herself in GUILTY PLEASURES: FEMINIST CAMP FROM MAE WEST TO MADONNA. Never mind that “traditional” notions of camp are contentious and hard to pin down, Robertson wants to define a “feminist camp” sensibility, one that has relationships to but is distinct from more familiar conceptions of gay camp. She argues that while women have historically been active participants in camp, discourse AROUND camp has increasingly posited an exclusively gay male agent of camp, distancing women from the site of camp production. Robertson seeks to re-center women in camp, drawing on popular culture texts and gay constructions of camp to argue for a specifically feminist camp sensibility and practice.
In a brief genealogy of the term, Robertson finds that “camp” can be located as far back as 1909. By 1945, the term was understood to connote gay or lesbian. Susan Sontag's influential “Notes on Camp” (1964), has had two main effects of interest to Robertson: Sontag dropped the lesbian affiliation with camp and claimed that camp was apolitical. While Robertson points out that other (gay) cultural critics have argued against Sontag's evacuation of politics from camp, it has been in relation to the gay MALE'S use of camp as a form of resistance. Robertson wants to correct the assumption that:
“the exchange between gay men's and women's cultures has been wholly one-sided; in other words, that gay men appropriate a feminine aesthetic and certain female stars but that women, lesbian or heterosexual, do not similarly appropriate aspects of gay male culture. This suggests that women are camp [Garland, Streisand, Callas, Dietrich, Garbo, Crawford] but do not knowingly produce themselves as camp, and furthermore, do not even have access to a camp sensibility. Women, by this logic, are objects of camp and subject to it but are not camp subjects” (5).
Working through the influential theories of Mary Ann Doane on masquerade and Judith Butler on gender performance, Robertson asserts that camp's appeal to feminists resides primarily in its potential for gender parody. Camp differs from more familiar notions of female masquerade in that “camp not only allows for the double nature of masquerade (the spectator in disguise will always see through two pairs of eyes) but also accounts for the pleasure of the masquerade (typically unacknowledged), its status as amusement and play for both the masquerading viewer and the performer” (14). This is a critical and innovative intervention into theories of spectatorship and reception in film studies, as this notion of camp as both critique and pleasure negotiates the fence between spectatorship theories that suggest too rigidly either the manipulation of passive viewers by texts or the active resistance by viewers against the text. Camp as a strategy allows for pleasure AND criticism.
To explore these ideas in practice, Robertson looks at a range of audiovisual texts that foreground campy women and encourage campy reading strategies. A central goal is to showcase women who “knowingly produce themselves as camp,” countering the idea that women are part of camp is through gay male adulation of female stars and drag (19).
The chapter on Mae West most successfully illustrates that feminist camp both resides within and extends beyond the sphere of gay males. Noting that Mae West was/is frequently referred to as doing “female drag,” Robertson notes that West actually modeled her performance on contemporary female impersonators, which would have been recognized by her audience. Furthermore, the gay male played a significant role in West's act and functioned as a crucial element of her proto-feminist camp sensibility. From stage plays to Hollywood movies, “West did not simply copy gay style but linked certain aspects of gay culture to aspects of a female sensibility” (33). While, as Robertson points out, West's acts were in collusion with the inversion theory of gay men, on the other hand, West clearly believed that women and gay men were aligned because of their shared oppression by straight men. In her hyperbolic performances of femininity, Robertson suggests that West rewrites the gay male drag performance, extracting the masculine characteristics and “articulate[s] a specifically feminine form of aggressivity…She paradoxically reappropriates—and hyperbolizes—the image of the woman from male female impersonators so that the object of her joke is not the woman but the idea that an essential feminine identity exists prior to the image” (34). it is within this reinscription of a gay male camp activity (female drag) that Robertson locates West's feminist camp. Furthermore, she suggests that female VIEWERS have access to the critical stance of West's feminist camp—not only through watching the narratives but also in the female spectators' practice of West imitation, a practice alluded to by contemporary fan magazines and reviews, giving women “imaginary access to [West's] autonomy, transgression, and humor” (51).
After tracing feminist camp through the figure of the working class girl/gold-digger and examining how texts of film genre and star discourse produce a structure that allow for camp readings, Robertson concludes her book with a discussion of whether camp is dead through a consideration on the phenomenon of Madonna. The pop singer/actress with an amazing gift for self-reinvention and tapping into mass desires is a lens through which to consider “the political effectiveness of gender parody and the manipulation of negative stereotypes…in short, controversies about the value and appeal of camp” (118). In her various guises as Boy Toy, Material Girl, Marilyn Monroe and Marlene Dietrich and her constant play with gender parody and female masquerade, Madonna not only adopts the personae of camp icons but performs camp as well. Furthermore, she appropriates camp acts from gay subculture-vogueing and drag especially. Thus Madonna's adoption in the late 80s/early 90s of campiness in all of its forms raises the question of whether or not camp can have a critical function in relation to the dominant culture—can camp still have an edge or has Madonna ruined camp as a subversive practice? Ultimately, Robertson suggests both: on the one hand, Madonna continues the Mae West deconstruction of gender as masquerade, revealing the oppressiveness of the gender constructions which she parodies; on the other hand, Robertson finds Madonna to be maddeningly unaware of her own position of power and privilege, and even more dangerously, Madonna's appropriation of marginalized practices (e.g. lesbian SM in her notorious picture book SEX) actually “MASKS the actual powerlessness of subcultural groups through her PERFORMANCE of agency and power” (134). Madonna thus illustrates both the limitations as much as its potential.
GUILTY PLEASURES is a new approach to familiar material. By looking at Mae West, THE GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933, Joan Crawford and JOHNNY GUITAR, and Madonna under the rubric of “feminist camp,” Robertson is able to elicit surprisingly fresh insights on how female figures and spectators have been able to subvert patriarchal authority through camp performances and reading practices. The project is difficult—how do you find camp, when so much of it depends on heavy codes and knowing winks? Robertson's attempts to circumvent this problematic through her use of a range of primary source materials, from theater programs to fan magazine letters to the editor. The book still suffers somewhat from a sense of haphazardness—the attempt to impose a kind of historical arc on feminist camp does not quite work: Robertson is convincing that camp is operative in THE GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1933 and in the text of Joan Crawford's star persona, but it isn't as clear how the two interrelate. This is perhaps a shortcoming produced by the presentation of the material as a unified book, rather than a series of loosely related essays; individually, the chapters stand up as solid interventions in current discussions of subversive spectator practices. GUILTY PLEASURES is a useful text for anyone interested in how spectators can negotiate popular texts for their own, unruly and campy ends.
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