[The applause sign goes up. The audience is contracted to respond. They are upset after a break with a buffet of meager refreshments. Sure, they applaud, though it isn’t from the heart. One man coughs loudly.]
Welcome back to the third and last installment of this thesis! To continue our moderately high speed train of thought, It is important to mention films and shows aimed at children that already have embraced the use of camp, in order to understand what value such sources of entertainment have for the future of integrating queer perspective.
As a first example, one of my personal favourite Dutch children’s shows is Villa Achterwerk (VPRO). A fast paced show where three witty yet obnoxious presenters (Roos en haar mannen) 3.1 introduce different short programs, including cartoons full of sexual innuendos, Purno de Purno (1991), 3.2 and theatrical sketches, among which Gebakken Mannetjes (2002), 3.3 in which four actors play all the different roles in a story. I soon came to associate the visual style of these programs as well as their often rather audacious (if I may say so) content closely with Camp sensibility. But why is it important to introduce children to Camp in the first place?
In The Performance of Nonconformity on The Muppet Show—or, How Kermit Made Me Queer, Jordan Schildcrout examplifies the nonconformity on the Muppet show with a small excerpt of an episode that starred Elton John, who had come out as bisexual two years prior his guest appearance. “[in the episode] Sam sees John’s presence as a threat to patriarchal normativity, but he is fighting a losing battle; by the end of the show, all the Muppets, including Sam, are wearing outrageous costumes in a glam rainbow of glitter and plumes. 3.4 With John as their guide, Kermit and his theatrical troupe position themselves within the long tradition of imagining the artist, particularly the performing artist, outside the realm of “normal” society. To be a performer is to be a freak, and both those “queer” roles are regularly celebrated on The Muppet Show.” (Schildcrout)
[The crowd breaks down in hysteria after hearing that marvellous and highly inventive piece of comedic performance. One woman cries. She’s hired. We haven’t told the others. We hope they follow suit.]
In Sending Camp to Kids, Nancy McVittie, professor at the Northeastern Illinois University, writes about the introduction of queer perspective to a society dominated by social heteronormativity and essentialist thinking. She proposes that queer perspective be presented, at least as an alternative to the aforementioned, to those upon which any such perspective is still to be applied: children and young adolescents. Including this overlooked group as an enrichment to the view and future of societal queer identity could, according to McVittie, give a chance to the spread and acceptance of its ideals. As a working definition, she uses Moe Meyer’s “A concept of the Self as performative, improvisational, discontinuous and processually constituted by repetitive an stylised acts” to explain the queer view of identity. She uses this explanation as the heart of the “queer utopia”, in which all (set) models and structures of identity (whether based on sexual desire, gender, race, class or other essentialist means of classification) no longer hold any meaning.
For a long time, so McVittie writes, the political value of queerness (and particularly campiness) has been considered in relation to two main audiences being heteronormative adults and nonnormative adults. For the former, camp’s societal value would lie in its address and critique of heteronormative culture (as well as its address of the existence of nonnormativity as an alternative), while for the latter, similarly, camp would find its value in its undermining of and mockery of heteronormative conventions, particularly as represented in Hollywood cinema. Yet in truly allowing the queer perspective a chance at integration, McVittie finds a barrier. Internalising the critique of identity entirely, in both audiences, seems impossible in a society where essentialism dominates our every thought. In order to overcome this essentialist perspective that is so tightly interwoven with our collective (Western) world view (however broad that view may be) it may be too late for us. The acceptance of difference as mere variety; considering the concepts of “good” and “bad” taste at their very base level; thinking about the importance of being oneself and the rejection of labels, these are all things that we have already been conditioned to see from a certain heavily influenced context. Children have not. Introducing the contested (but positive) values of queer perspective through camp, a ‘medium’ (if I may say so) particularly suited to children, may well be the key to finally allow an appreciation for the values, messages, social critique and ironies of queer perspective to truly wedge itself into the world of tomorrow.
McVittie discusses two instances in which queer politics have been at the surface of film- and television productions for younger audiences: John Waters’ 1988 (first PG-rated) classic Hairspray 3.5 and Paul Reubens’ one-hour, Christmas-themed version of his Saturday morning children’s television program Pee Wee’s Playhouse from the same year. 3.6 Both of these productions clearly present queer diegetic worlds, queer heroes and subsequent queer social messages to mainstream audiences.
[There is an audible buzz in the audience. They remember that film and they can vaguely recall that series. Neat.]
Among John Waters’ fans of that time, this “move away” from his distinctive controversiality (think Pink Flamingos) 3.7 to the more familiar Hairspray was not particularly appreciated, with The Guardian’s Danny Leigh declaring it edging “cosy irrelevance”. But that controversiality, that shock value so valued for its political relevance, never was the core of Waters’ work. His affection for humanity in all its oddness and difference is, and that is represented no less in Hairspray, where the mainstream’s ‘subpar’ is constantly glorified, and where queer is just normal. A world where no one bats an eye at the successes of an overweight, lower-class Tracy Turnblad from the “dingy and bleak” (131) yet continuously celebrated Baltimore. Hairspray’s world is outrageous and absurd and odd when viewed from the outside, but through its own eyes it’s not only accepted but ordinary. This is best illustrated in Waters’ collaboration with the figure of Divine, a drag queen, in the film, who plays Tracy’s mother with a big beehive updo: Edna. 3.8 McVittie writes: “It is not important to the diegetic world that Edna is a trans figure, but is potentially quite important in the world of the viewer as a representation of a trans figure who is “normal”, likeable, and on the side of our hero” (136). Divine is not the focal figure of the film. She’s not downplayed, but neither is she played-up. The focus of the film is Tracy, a symbol of variety and opposition to identity, a truly queer hero in her fluidity and adaptability and in her all too firm stance against assigned categorisation and labelling. A character who won’t stand for in-name-only integration and repressive categorisation and even goes against the replacing set of categorisation of counter-culture, and whose character frankly explodes against that of her dowdy, working class housewife mother. Yet Waters doesn’t then choose to elevate Tracy above Edna, but rather gives them both equal amounts of authority in relation to each other, in their own way. Building upon this, Waters even allows Tracy to bring Edna into her own world of self-expression and optimism, thus showing queer thinking to be an infectious concept, echoing McVittie’s original stance.
Queer practice, Meyer writes in his “Reclaiming the Discourse of Camp”, is not limited to sexualities, but has valuable applications far beyond just that for marginal social identities in general. That’s what John Waters’ 1988 queer hero stands for. Hairspray offers queer messages of empowerment, self-acceptance and a world view where those messages truly can be used to bring about important societal and personal change. Similarly, McVittie discusses Paul Reubens’ Pee Wee’s Playhouse, a children’s television show which ran between 1986 to 1990, and which is said to have influenced later possibly pro-queer programs such as The Teletubbies (Anne Wood & Andrew Davenport) and SpongeBob SquarePants (Stephen Hillenburg). 3.9 Pee Wee’s Playhouse received criticism in the late 1980s regarding the sexual innuendo and subtext of the program, with multiple academics expressing their concern about, for instance, its possibly Freudian subtext about pre adolescent sexuality (Constance Penley). One scholar, Henry Jenkins, however, went beyond Pee Wee’s sexual subtext while discussing it. He addressed the fact that children are not mere observers of television as adults are, but play with what they receive, in order to work through their still developing comprehension of the world and, no less importantly, their own placement in it. Pee Wee’s Playhouse, Jenkins wrote, facilitated this interaction particularly well. Anything in titular character Pee Wee’s world can happen, and when it does, anything is considered normal. Through its presentation of a queer hero in a queer world, the program employs camp strategies readily accessible to its younger audience and encourages a queer perspective on identity. The aesthetics of camp are enjoyed by children!
Pee Wee’s Playhouse is set in an environment that is entirely queer in its constitution, 3.10 considerably moreso even than Hairspray’s Baltimore. The world of Pee Wee is disorienting from start to finish, and in that world anything is possible. One exception to this rule is in the end credits, wherein the viewer is transported to the orderly and familiar rules of the “normal” world. This is necessary, writes McVittie, because everyting the Playhouse --in front of the camera as well as the camera itself (unclear separations between spaces; the plethora of patterns and colours present in every frame; rapid and confusion-inducing switches between different camera angles, etc. requires the viewer to take on a queer perspective, a perspective which induces that sense of playful interactivity between the Playhouse and the viewer that makes Pee Wee so well suited to children.
And in order to traverse the many confusing and overwhelming worlds that make up the Playhouse, the viewer is presented with an encouragingly proficient guide in its queer hero: Pee Wee himself.
[One man, somewhere in the back screams: Wooo! Pee Wee!]
Similar to Tracy Thurnbald, Pee Wee is namely fully capable of thriving in any environment, defined far more by his ambiguity than certainty. Many critics of the program have classified Pee Wee as fitting into the role of effeminate male “sissy”, but Pee Wee’s Playhouse particularly exists to present a world in which any such label holds little no meaning. Pee Wee is not treated as a “sissy” by any of the (even traditionally more masculine) characters, for he is the character who calls the shots. Even Santa Claus, the only character even remotely resembling a traditional figure of authority, is at the mercy of Pee Wee’s whims. He transcends the label (as “vindicator of the sissies”, as stated by Bryan Bruce in Pee Wee Herman: The Homosexual Subtext) and becomes a true, and yet still ambiguous, hero.
Waters’ Hairspray and Reubens’ Pee Wee’s Playhouse are both aimed towards the idea of freedom (from categorisation, marginalisation, judgement, essentialist types of identity and the hierarchies they enforce, etc.).The queer heroes in both works are presented as people who manage to defy the definitions which mainstream society wishes to put onto them, and they end up favourably changing their worlds through their devotion to queer values. As is the goal of such entertainment aimed at children, these works can inspire the supposition of such a perspective.
Paradoxically, however, as McVittie thankfully also addresses, the ideas of freedom that Waters’ and Reubens’ works advocate can only exist through the subversive work of camp strategy. Due to explicit mainstream disapproval towards queer perspective and the de-essentialised, de-categorised ways of living it supports, works like Hairspray and Pee Wee’s Playhouse can only reach younger audiences for the reason that they are offered under the “harmless”, “frivolous” and “silly” cover of camp (145). The camp aesthetic of these queer-based works allows representation such as Hairspray’s Edna or Pee Wee’s Jambi to pass by in precisely that guise of innocence and harmlessness that has been associated with camp by mainstream society. This problem is highlighted by the aforementioned strong opposition against works like the Teletubbies and SpongeBob SquarePants, which, nearing the turn of the millennium, were accused of presenting symbols of homosexuality as “normal” within their worlds, leading to boycotts and extensive media attention.
The increased public acceptance of camp over the last decades, however, partly due to the friendly campiness of Hairspray and Pee Wee’s Playhouse, has led to the rise of camp strategy employed into mainstream media.
What united the works, further, is their employment of camp strategy in their more inclusive vision of camp than is typically offered to audiences who are not already “in on it”. Hairspray and Pee Wee thus undermine the exclusionary claim that camp cannot be used by anyone who is not employing it from a distinctly gay sensibility (meaning that one can only use camp properly if one is “part the club” already). This is in line with the conviction of countering exclusivity that lies at the heart of camp itself. Camp was created and embraced by the community that was excluded by dominant society as a means to undermine dominant culture and to develop their own inclusive language, which in a way, brought about their own exclusive culture. Pee Wee, the Muppets and Hairspray also counter that exclusivity by bringing those who are not “part of the club” already into that space to learn and appreciate queer perspective.
[A wolf howls in the distance]