Six Damn Fine Degrees #27: Fear of a Camp Planet

Welcome to Six Damn Fine Degrees. These instalments will be inspired by the idea of six degrees of separation in the loosest sense. The only rule: it connects – in some way – to the previous instalment. So come join us on our weekly foray into interconnectedness!

Camp, adj. - Ostentatiously and extravagantly effeminate (typically used of a man or his manner); ... deliberately exaggerated and theatrical in style. (Definitions from Oxford Languages)

For the longest time, I would shy away from a lot of media that I associated with camp. From what little I could see, I thought it was tacky, in poor taste and attention-grabbing: “Look at me! I’m in your face! I’m different – and I’m unafraid to be different!”

I’m still not automatically a fan of things that I consider ostentatious and in-your-face, and I guess there is a lot of camp that leaves me non-plussed. But that’s true for a lot of art – and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. If I’m entirely honest: looking back, I wonder how much of my negative reaction to it was that, as little as I like to acknowledge it, young Matt was a teensy bit of a homophobe.

Perhaps that’s true for a lot of people, especially of my age (yes, I’m closer to the end of my 40s than to their beginning). Doubly so if you consider how astonishingly square and straight my environment was until I was past my teens. Perhaps it’s partly faulty memory, but I do not remember a single person at school, whether primary, secondary or grammar school, that was even rumoured to be anything other than straight, unless it was meant as slander. I do remember my mother having certain, well, perhaps not outright antagonistic but definitely odd opinions about homosexuals, and my parents every now and then wondering out loud if this or that person in their social circles was gay or lesbian, but this too was rare. Back then, even on TV and in the movies I don’t remember much in the way of homosexual characters, other than the kind of clichés Sam wrote about last week, and while this slowly changed in the 1980s and especially the 1990s (I guess it was difficult to push the issue back into the closet once Tom Hanks had played a gay man) it was largely in connection with AIDS and tragic homosexual characters – or otherwise it was that gay best friend in a romantic comedy. I would say I only became more comfortable with LGBT issues once I got to university and my social circles became a bit less heteronormative.

Though while the camp style may be frequently associated with homosexuality, it goes beyond this, and I guess that’s what I found… disconcerting, perhaps? Whenever I encountered camp, I couldn’t quite place it, I didn’t know what to do with its tone and flavour. There was a fluidity to it that left me puzzled. Was I supposed to take it seriously or laugh at it – or both? The blend of earnestness and irony that I perceived in it left me confused. Similarly, camp often seemed to include what I might now call gender fluidity, where I was more used to relatively stable gender norms – even if I didn’t particularly appreciate these norms as a boy who didn’t much like the things boys were supposed to like, such as sports and roughhousing, rugged outdoor activities and literal and metaphorical pissing contests.

My unease with respect to camp also meant that I avoided certain media that I thought to be camp, because they triggered a certain amount of discomfort. Not that I was against camp, I just assumed at a glance that it wasn’t for me. I think it’s why I would say for decades that I didn’t like musicals, even if there were a lot of individual musicals that I did indeed like a lot, from Oliver! via Jesus Christ Superstar and Hair to Moulin Rouge! Looking at that list, I would say that I was the reverse of the guy who would say, “I can’t be a musicalphobe! Some of my best friends are camp musical!” Sure, I may have greatly enjoyed this Baz Luhrman camp vaudeville musical, but obviously it’s an exception, because, camp? Not my thing!

Sadly, my campophobia (?) informed by ignorance and a degree of insecurity kept me away from some pretty damn good art for a long time. Take the work of Bob Fosse: the leotards and stockings and make-up, the garish expressionism, the extravagant, ostentatious, unstable sexuality in full display. The sheer Liza Minelliness of it all. I barely knew anything about these films, but from the briefest of glimpses I got I decided: probably not for me.

And that’s why it was only well into my 30s that I saw a Bob Fosse film. Why? Because insecure teenage Matt decided that he doesn’t understand this stuff, he doesn’t like this stuff, he doesn’t watch this stuff. And thus, older Matt let himself be bullied by his teenage self well past his teenage years into missing out on some pretty damn good stuff. I mean, All that Jazz? God, the filmmaking is so painfully good! The editing? To die for. Cabaret? Utterly fascinating – and, these days, the unsettling aspect isn’t the sheer camp of it all but the way the film only becomes more and more timely.

So, to wrap this up: I learnt, though rather late, that camp was nothing to be unsettled by. Judge a film, a show, a work of art by itself. If you’ve always thought that this style or that genre wasn’t your thing? You may be right – or you may be letting your prejudice bully you into missing out some great stuff. I’m still not into camp in all its shapes or sizes… but I’m also not into every kind of gangster epic, superhero adventure, space opera or spaghetti western. Your childhood and teenage hangups may have more of an effect on what you consider to be your tastes than you’re aware of. Dip your toes into waters that you once considered too treacherous, too unstable and fluid by half, because you may enjoy the experience a lot more than you would have thought possible.

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