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

By Schuyler, Michael T. | Journal of Film and Video, Winter 2004 | Go to article overview

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


Schuyler, Michael T., Journal of Film and Video


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Notes
Cite this article

Cited article

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited article

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

Settings

Typeface
Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Style
Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

"Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25, http://www.questia.com/read/27419298.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.