Back to IndieWire

Time Warps and Little Monsters: How Queer Cultures Stopped Appropriating Camp Elements and Started Being Appropriated Themselves

Time Warps and Little Monsters: How Queer Cultures Stopped Appropriating Camp Elements and Started Being Appropriated Themselves

This generation of queer youth is
entrenched in a culture of laziness. We live in a queer culture that doesn’t
actively look for camp pleasure, but relies on it being rehashed, whitewashed,
and force-fed back to us. Camp culture has not necessarily died, but it has
transformed into a postmodern culture of double-entendres and pastiche.

Fringe cultures – especially
queer ones – have always lied outside of heteronormative expectations. In order
to infiltrate and derive pleasure from mainstream media, queer cultures could appropriate
the limited (if not problematic) representations of themselves on the screen,
or they could fetishize the artificial elements (such as “The Lady in the Tutti
Frutti Hat” from “The Gang’s All Here” or
Babs saying “Hello gorgeous” in “Funny Girl”),
thus enriching camp culture. As a result of camp sensibilities, we soon began
breeding fringe filmmakers like Andy Warhol, John Waters, and Kenneth Anger,
who built careers around using camp to transform hustlers, obese drag queens,
and leather-clad bikers into queer icons. There was an inherent danger to these
modes of media consumption/creation since they challenged mainstream society,
but the rise of the AIDS crisis soon erased this element of sexual danger.

As our cultures shifted from a
free-sex mentality to a safer sex mentality, our camp sensibilities became apolitical
and desexualized. Songs like Madonna’s “Vogue,” films like Jennie Livingston’s “Paris Is Burning,” and shows like “RuPaul’s
Drag Race” – though all important/great works – had a hand in this
apoliticization/desexualization, allowing mainstream cultures to appropriate
from whitewashed fringe cultures. “Voguing” transformed from an elaborate dance
to one that simply required you to make a frame around your face. Drag is no
longer a (completely) defiant act, but a career choice. And queer terms like
“reading” and “shade” have turned from art forms to excuses for bitchiness.
This gradual shift from modern queer cultures to postmodern queer cultures lost
the element of subtext and we no longer actively seek Babs, Liza, Cher, and
Madonna as our “gay icons,” but figures like Lady Gaga and Katy Perry are
actively seeking (and appropriating) us as their “gays.”

No one is more to blame for this
cultural laziness than Ryan Murphy, whose films and TV shows (especially “Glee”
and “American Horror Story”) forcefully (rather than subtly/subtextually) weave
camp into their narratives. On their own terms, “Yentl” and “The Rocky Horror
Picture Show” are fun films whose danger lies in their ability to challenge
gendered norms and heteronormative narratives, but in the hands of Ryan Murphy,
these films merely become whitewashed fodder for song interludes during
episodes “Glee”: “Papa Can You Hear Me” turned into an awkward emotional segue
in the episode “Grilled Cheesus,” while Dr. Frank-n-Furter (the most subversive
element of Rocky Horror) was played
by a female character in “The Rocky Horror Glee Show.” It is the “Glee Effect”
that endorses this cultural laziness and forces viewers to no longer seek out
camp/queer elements from mainstream media (who needs to when Murphy will chop
them up and feed them back to you?).

The problem then becomes that we
no longer appropriate subtextual elements from these cultural texts, but we are
confusing these postmodern pastiches for texts themselves. This new queer
generation doesn’t realize that Lady Gaga and “Glee” are descendants of a queer
cultural cache, but instead acknowledges these singers and shows as the
“original” sources of the queer cultural cache. Don’t believe me? Look at the
relationship between “Paris Is Burning” and
“RuPaul’s Drag Race.” How many times have the words “shade,” “reading,” and
“realness” been used in the first three seasons of “Drag Race” compared to how
many times they have been used/misappropriated in seasons 4-6 (resulting in
contestants like Laganja Estranja who actively deny that their affectations and
appropriations are anything but “realness”)? This younger queer generation is
no longer quoting camp elements, but they are quoting a show that is quoting a
movie.

Camp culture is no longer a Rolodex
of cultural knowledge and pleasure, but it has become a iPod with preset
playlists of edited pieces. As we delve further into our postmodernism, we run
the risk of cultural implosion. What happens when future queer cultures begin
quoting postmodern cultures who are referencing other postmodern cultures?
Eventually the batteries of that iPod will have to wear out and you’ll have to
find pleasure elsewhere.

 

This Article is related to: Features and tagged