Camp for Camp's Sake: Absolutely Fabulous, Self-Consciousness, and the Mae West Debate

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First, you're another true blue tramp. / Then, someone's mother. / Then, you're camp.

-Stephen Sondheim, "I'm Still Here"

STEPHEN SONDHEIM'S LYRIC, from the 1972 Broadway musical Follies, does camp both a service and a disservice.1 On the one hand, it refers casually to camp, as if it were universally understood and consumed. On the other hand, it imposes a tight restriction on what camp is and on how it is manufactured, for according to the lyric, in the first place, it is expected that an older actress progresses into this stage; in the second place, in the next line, the aged performer calls it a "career."2 So, camp, as Sondheim's song has it, mainly takes the aged female performer as its object, and it is manufactured by the star/object in question.

When Shirley MacLaine, as the Debbie Reynolds-esque Doris Mann, belts out "I'm Still Here" nearly twenty years later in the Mike Nichols film Postcards from the Edge (1990), the term has yet one more necessary, accepted ingredient added to its mix: the queer consumer. Earlier in the film, a middle-aged gay couple accosts MacLaine's Mann; one admits that the other mimics her in his drag show, and an impromptu sampling occurs. Apologizing to her daughter for the interruption, she observes, "The queens love me." A few scenes later, at a house party on Doris's estate, a gay-coded, aging male guest requests that she sing. She tells her (similarly coded) pianist to play the Sondheim number and warbles it with gusto, to the delight of many flamboyant male guests, as ample shots show. Since the film chronicles Doris's relationship with her adult daughter, Suzanne Vale (Meryl Streep), and Doris constantly makes reference to her days as a silver-screen ingenue, we know that the overly made-up, grandiose, extravagant Doris has, indeed, progressed (from "tramp" to "mother") into camp. The run-in with and reference to the "queens" who "love" her, the request by the gay-populated audience for her rendition of "I'm Still Here," and its delight in it, mark Doris as a queer camp icon. So, Sondheim's song helps to limit/define camp as manufactured by an older female star, who makes herself its object and is consumed by a gay male public.

Over the last few years, scholars have done the same disservice to camp that both Sondheim's song and Nichols's film have. Admittedly, I have, too, which this essay seeks to resolve. Camp is a phenomenon that we seek to limit, to restrict, to claim as if it were a country where we could plant a flag and impose laws-about who is allowed in, and about when, how, and where camp operates. Camp is only manufactured for gay men. Camp only occurs retrospectively. If camp can occur outside of homosexuality, it must be easily and exclusively defined as belonging to a certain group. Camp is manufactured. Camp isn't manufactured. These are some of the restrictions that critics have placed on camp. One reason for this, I surmise, is reclamation, but the reclamation of camp, it seems, doesn't empower, as other forms of reclamation do; instead, it segregates. For example, in an as-yet unpublished essay, I've argued that in calling myself a "queer scholar," or by referring to some of my female friends as "fag hags," I turn hate speech into pride speech, thereby reclaiming the weaponry once used against me.3 However, when we restrict camp as a domain of the gay male consumer, we exclude other (possible) consumers and segregate ourselves. As Paula Graham assesses, "as the language of camp becomes increasingly incorporated into left academic discursive formations, a disciplinary, controlling effect can develop. Exclusion, estrangement and opposition take many forms" (166). And, since camp can be-and often is-an outlet of empowerment and a call for social change (albeit gently so), its scholar-imposed restrictions should be lifted to reveal that it also exists as a tool of and product for-at the very least-feminists and lesbians.

This essay began as a simple investigation into the first run of the BBC series Absolutely Fabulous (1994-95) and camp. …