In this series I attempt to explore Camp aesthetics through children’s television. Camp aesthetics, the highly stylised, exaggerated, “unnatural” or “so bad that it’s good”, is often considered bad taste or meaningless, but it is this that attracts us to it. As the Camp sensibility is also connected to elegance, androgyny and the history of queer style, I believe it is this certain queerness that can be a powerful tool for understanding complex philosophies. To understand where Camp comes from it is important to understand the performativity of gender roles and the stereotypes that enforce binary thinking. The Camp sensibility might not always be queer, but to use the aesthetics of Camp means that there is an understanding of the world in style, an understanding outside of the binary box.

Perhaps for a split second you might even forget the existence of any kind of box in the first place. It is not a matter of style, it is the matter of style. I aim to make the “vision of the world in style” understandable by looking at children’s television that introduces a non-binary thinking to children. I am aware of the limitations that come with writing from my own perspective, considering my education in graphic design rather than gender studies or film history. Nonetheless I believe it to be of interest to all cultural fields to welcome an attitude in favor of Camp.

[Lights on. Cue narrator.]

To be queer is a visual thing. In a world that deeply depends on visual culture, to be queer is a visual thing. The constructed world that is the contemporary western society can be a very comfortable place for many people, but such comfort comes with the discomfort of people that were not considered when this world was constructed.

It is through visual culture (painting, design, film) that the constructed binary idea of gender is visible. But it is also through visual culture that this binary idea of gender can be undermined.

Exaggerated style and elegance that can be seen as Camp aesthetics, are related to queer style because they are more visible, they stand out. But what is the meaning behind Camp aesthetics in film? What can we learn from Camp sensibility? By looking at children’s television and film I want to explore where queer gestures and Camp aesthetics come from. In other words, in this paper I attempt to answer the following question:

How is queer perspective integrated in contemporary Western society through the emergence and development of Camp (aesthetic) in children’s television and film?

[The audience oooohs, followed by loud cheering and applause.]

0.1This Photo, taken on the set of the Teletubbies shows Tinky Winky carrying his red magic bag. In the show Tinky Winky and the three other multi colored foam covered characters of Teletubbies, Dipsy, Laa-Laa and Po, are known for their TV belly and distinctive antenna on their head. 0.2 The Tubbytronic Superdome, their underground house full of modern technology, is completed with a robotic vacuum cleaner, under the name Noo-Noo, automatic pudding machine, magical smiley toaster and an upwards gravity slide. A true precursor of the smart home. An ideal vision of modern living with technology in the magical green hilled landscape full of rabbits, under the cute baby faced sun.

All Teletubbies have one item that represents their character. Dipsy, the green teletubby with a darker skin tone, has a hat with a black and white cow pattern, Laa-Laa, the yellow teletubby with a curly antenna, has a big orange ball, Po, the smallest red teletubby with a round antenna, has a red and blue scooter and Tinky Winky, the last teletubby, is carrying his magical bag.

However in 1999 Jerry Falwell, American Southern Baptist pastor, televangelist and conservative activist, claimed that Tinky Winky was gay. His purple color and triangle-shaped antenna were a ‘symbol of homosexuality’, 0.3 as the color purple and the triangle are signs claimed by gay pride. Tinky Winky is played and voiced by a man and according to Falwell Tinky Winky carries a ‘purse like bag’. This seeming ‘gayness’ was being presented as “normal” in the TV show aimed at pre-verbal children. (“The characters are famous for their use of baby language, including the catchphrases “eh-oh” meaning “hello”, and “uh-oh” for “oh dear”.”) An absolute drag for the televangelist.

[The audience laughs and zestfully applauds.]

When I read the New York Times article 0.4many questions came to mind. Why is carrying a red purse actually gay? Why are people afraid or offended when it comes to men who act feminine? And did any parent actually forbid their kids to watch such an adorable loving program as the teletubbies, because of this accusation?

One thing was clear, I started to look at the teletubbies from a serious point of view and this made me look at the show from a ‘Camp’ point of view. How exaggerated the gestures and the emotions are, how much it does not matter how fake the flowers look and how much joy there is in observing this completely absurd play of colorful creatures. I started to appreciate its significance in modern culture. When you think about it, this is a show that my generation (I was born in 1998) grew up on, a generation living in the future with screens almost permanently in their belly, uhh, hand.

[The audience is assuredly impressed and is moved to excited cackling]

And it matters what is on those screens. I wish I was taught that Tinky Winky was gay. I wish there could be a trans and non-binary teletubby as well and maybe Dipsy, should not be the only one with a dark skin tone. I wish that I would have been less afraid of ‘queer style’ when I was younger and I also wish that this televangelist was not representing a big part of the world that is scared by queer style, by men carrying a purse, but he is.

[The magic windmill stops spinning, the baby sun giggles and the voice trumpet announces the Tubby Bye-bye.]

I remember one time buying socks with my mother at a department store, and I wanted the socks with my favourite colors: yellow, orange and red. Those ones had Minnie Mouse on them, while the blue grey socks had Mickey mouse on them, they were for boys. My mom of course got me the Minnie ones that I wanted, and she said it didn’t matter that they might be ‘for girls’. I remember just being confused and annoyed by this incident. Of course I didn’t mind wearing Minnie socks, but I just did not understand why everything that was marketed towards boys was grey or blue and the colors that I liked were used to advertise products ‘for girls’. 1.1

In the first chapter of JJ Bola’s Mask Off and mirroring Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, it is argued how masculinity and femininity are characteristics that we present to the worlds on the basis of our sex, and how the expectations accompanying these characteristics lie at the very base of the gender roles in our society. Butler’s notion of the performativity of gender, according to Bola, can as such be extended to our understanding of masculinity and femininity also: “[…] we perform specific ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ roles and acts which continuously validate our sense of gender”.

One of the seemingly unexplainable examples of obsessive yet futile gendering nowadays is the distinction between the colours pink and blue in their association with girls and boys respectively, “Considering how popular gender reveal videos are online” (Bola, 20). Somehow, it may even seem strange, then, to consider that some ‘feminine’ things, among which high heels, make-up and, for some reason, the colour pink, were originally meant for men. High heels, for example, were brought to Europe from Persia in the early seventeenth century and marketed towards upper-class men, who used them to emphasise their material wealth and financial status. 1.2Heels also helped men of that time to appear taller and more athletic.

[A light breaks. It is then fixed.]

Similarly, pink has not always been a color for girls, and blue not for boys. In an article for Smithsonian Magazine, Jeanne Maglaty asks Dr. Jo Paoletti, who has explored the meaning of children’s clothing for 30 years: “How did we end up with two “teams”—boys in blue and girls in pink?” According to Paoletti a social convention of 1884 dictated that boys wore dresses until age of 6 or 7, this is also the time of their first hair cut. The clothing of young children was considered gender neutral. It was just practical for them to wear easy-to-clean cotton dresses over their diapers. Mid-19th century pink, blue and other pastels were in fashion for babies. 1.3 A 1918 article from Earnshaw’s Infants’ Department said that the generally accepted rule is pink for the boys and blue for the girls, but other sources also said that blue is for blonds and pink for brunettes. Then market research in the 1940s stated that the pink and blue colors should be switched around. So the baby boomers were the first generation to be raised with this blue and pink binary clothing norm. Up until the mid 1960’s, with the anti-feminine, anti-fashion message of the women’s liberation movement the unisex look became popular again. But it was only until about 1985, when prenatal testing became available and parents could shop gender specific items for their unborn baby. “The more you individualize clothing, the more you can sell,” Paoletti says. This is resulting nowadays in the over exaggeration of individualisation, creating pointlessly gendered everyday products. 1.4

According to child development experts, children themselves only come to be aware of their gender around the age of three or four, and only realise its permanence around six or seven. Yet children still are the subjects of pervasive advertising reinforcing the binary social conventions, among which the futile pink-or-blue divide (Maglaty).

Everyone knows that there are societal stereotypes of how women and men ‘should’ behave and what they ‘should’ look like. These myths about (gendered) behaviour have been passed down to us as absolute truths for decades (JJ bola, 10). Supposedly men are always to appear very masculine and be strong. Any sign of something regarded feminine, for instance showing emotions, crying, would make you less manly. “Man up”, “grow some balls’’ or literally “boys don’t cry” are sentences that state that being a man or having balls, means that you should be strong and not show your emotions. The same goes for sayings like “don’t be a pussy” or “you are pretty strong for a woman” associating women with weakness. Such non-inclusive stereotypes, however many people might feel comfortable with them, can hurt anyone that just does not abide by them.

These societal norms are deeply rooted in our behaviour, our systems. It is not only in the things we say when someone should act more ‘masculine’ (or simply ‘less feminine’), but it is our systematic learning of “how to behave because of the genitals we are born with”. The way we are taught to behave in society omits a significant portion of the people that constitute it, among which transgender, intersex and otherwise queer people.

In “From Interiority to Gender Performatives”, Judith Butler explains the practice of ‘inscription’ as the manner in which the body is compelled to accept certain traits as intrinsic, rather than traits being actively forced onto the body. “For instance,” states “Women are often expected to be accommodating and emotional, while men are usually expected to be self-confident and aggressive”. Here, ‘inscription’ is the acceptance of these traits as built-in, as opposed to values that are being forced upon people. In her applied discussion of Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish” and, indirectly, Nietzsche’s On the Genealogy of Morals, she writes about internalization and the subjectivation of the mind and relates this to the principle of gender politics. She does so by questioning exactly what it is that generates the physical stylization of gender at all.

Ruling norms of gender identity, such as the taboo against homosexuality, describe what traits are to be overwritten in the culturally clear framework of an ‘idealized and compulsory’ heterosexual society. Butler emphasises how the disciplinary construction of gender results in a false organisation of it in favour of the heterosexual regulation, and that this construction conceals plentiful gender discontinuities in which gender does not follow directly from sexuality and/or sexuality does not follow directly from gender. And when the disorganisation of people directly counter the governing fiction of heterosexual coherence, it appears that the model that this fiction is based on loses its descriptive potency. The governing ideal of heterosexuality, in this instance, is then reduced to nothing but a norm that disguises itself as a developmental law regulating the sexual field.

Butler writes that certain acts and gestures are performative and at the surface of the body, as the (gender) identity that they intend to express are nothing but fabrications. Which means that if the reality of gender is presented and internalised, falsely, as something that is elemental to the body, that internalisation is an effect of social discourse. As such, public regulation through the ‘surface performance’ of the body (how we act or speak) institutes the “integrity” of gender identity. The widely adopted acts, gestures and articulated desires associated with certain genders thus create the illusion of an internal ‘gender core’, and this illusion is discursively maintained for the purpose of regulating sexuality following the heterosexual framework.

Butler supposes gender an act, both intentional and performative, which suggests that the politically regulated absorptivity of the body explains our difficulty with understanding gender as interior signification. Gender is a performance upon which aversion is punished, Butler writes. “Because there is neither an ‘essence’ that gender expresses or externalises, nor an objective ideal to which gender aspires, and because gender is not a fact, the various acts of gender create the idea of gender, and without those acts, there would be no gender at all.” As such, gender, according to Butler, is a construction that itself conceals its origin, since, based on our mutual agreement to perform, create and uphold discrete and polar genders as cultural fictions, this fact is entirely obscured by the credibility of them. The punishments that come with disagreement with them contribute also to how the set structure compels our faith in its necessity and naturalness.

According to Butler, this ruling sedimentation of gender norms generates social fictions (such as what it means to be a ‘real woman’ or a ‘real man’), and this sedimentation over time has fashioned a set of corporeal ‘styles’ which therefore appear to be the natural binary arrangement of bodies into sexes. As such, gender is a vaguely definable identity formed over time, having been introduced through an artificially implemented repetition of acts. The fact that gender and our view of it, then, are ultimately created through sustained social performance means at the very least that the idea of the ‘essential sex’ and true masculinity or femininity are also created as part of the strategy that obscures the performative character of gender as well as the performative possibilities for increasing gender formations outside the constrictive frameworks of masculinist domination and obligatory heterosexuality.

[The audience applauds politely and wonders when that the first break gets here]

Butler refers to Esther Newton’s 1972 essay stating that drag, the art of performing extravagant gender expression as entertainment, exemplifies this gender performativity. (See next chapter)

Masculinity, Bola echoes Butler, is nothing but a performance in the end. Time and time again it reinforces the already extensively held view on what should remain the norm for those of us born as boys, although this norm as an ideal is not a stable force to begin with. The ideal of masculinity has namely proven much more fluid and transformative over the ages and across various cultures than the generally held view of it suggests. Bola refers here to R.W. Connell’s Masculinities, which addresses the issue of hegemonic masculinity as a danger to marginalised ways of being a man, and he emphasises therefore the use of masculinities (pl.) over the singular masculinity in his defence of accessible masculinity in its many forms (Bola). I wonder if this also means that there are multiple femininities, and in this line of femininities and masculinities, what is in between? Or is gender just not that linear?

In 2018 the first Dutch passport was received with the gender designation X, instead of M for man or V for woman, as this person identifies as intersex (First Dutch gender-neutral passport). Despite the ‘convenience’ of thinking of intersex or non-binary as a third gender, as the letter X is the third gender identity possible on passports, it should be considered a rejection of the imposed gender binary.

The very department store where my mother and I bought the Minnie Mouse socks actually became the first department store in the Netherlands to start a children’s clothing section rather than the typical boys’ and girls’ clothing sections, to many controversial reactions, according to Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant (Witteman). 1.5 “Israeli neuroscientist Daphna Joel, who has debunked the idea of a ‘male’ and ‘female’ brain structure, added to the paper that this was ‘a big step towards a world in which our genitals no longer dictate how we must behave.’” ( Witteman, Jonathan) Reactions under the Facebook post of Dutch news page RTL Nieuws state something very different: “I already thought it couldn’t get any worse. Well, I was wrong, it can always get worse” and “Why is this stuffed down our throats all of a sudden.” Little do these people know about the history of children’s clothing…

[The audience boos. A man with a particularly pungent voice declares his perpetual love for the department store.]

Although significant constitutional changes have been made even since the slow 20th century emergence of feminist and queer social movements, with such emancipatory theories largely having been adopted into established western politics, the fight has not been fought entirely. This separation of genders, that comes from a binary often white authority, might be easier to understand for some people, but it can’t possibly be true. There is much more to gender and sexuality. Any person that does not fit within these boundaries, anyone that identifies as being part of the LGBTQIA+ community, would naturally not abide by them.

[The audience cheers and applauds. The first break has arrived and there is carrot cake and lemonade without bubbles in the break room.]

[Lights on.]
[The audience, refreshed and thriving on glucose, heralds the second episode in eager cheers.]

“Today, right here on the Joan Rivers Show, you are going to meet people who go out of their way to dress to get attention. People’s whose very existence says ‘Look at me! Look at me! Look at me!”

In 1993 Joan Rivers interviewed so-called club kids, an extravagantly dressed group of people from the New York nightlife scene, on her daytime talk show. These “Five simple people with a dream, and a wardrobe from hell” heavily shaped the New York club scene in the late 80’s and early 90’s. Their take on fashion and expression through style was a response to the uptight binary standards of society. Joan, being an elegant woman herself, is certainly a fan of her fabulous guests. (I recommend you to watch this interview somewhere online.)

The outrageous style of club kids as well as ‘classic’ drag queens (typically known as a man dressing like a woman) from this time have nowadays accessed mainstream media like never before thanks to the reality competition show Rupaul’s Drag Race. 2.1 While some say Rupaul has truly commercialised the art of drag, I believe in the importance of all gender queer representation on television.

“We all came into this world naked. The rest is all drag.”

― RuPaul

If gender is a fiction instituted and inscribed on the surface of our bodies, as Butler theorised, then it appears that there is no such thing as true gender identity. She exemplifies this by mentioning Esther Newton’s 1972 essay stating that drag entirely subverts the expectation of gender identity by mocking the expressive model of gender. According to Newton, drag is a double inversion declaring outer appearance to be an illusion by adopting an attitude where either gender expression (masculine or feminine) could take up the foreground. After all, is the outward appearance of a drag queen masculine or feminine, and which of the two portrays the “essence”, if any? The claims for either contradict one another, and so drag rejects the entire enactment of gender significations as a practice holding any truth.

Drag, Butler argues, allows us to redefine the relationship between anatomical sex and gender identity by introducing gender performance as a third component to the conversation: “If the anatomy of the performer is already distinct from the gender of the performer, and both of those are distinct from the gender of the performance, then the performance suggests a dissonance not only between sex and performance, but sex and gender, and gender and performance” (Butler, 364). Drag therewith reveals all too clearly the distinctness of the aspects of gendered experience that are falsely naturalised through the aforementioned regulatory fiction of heterosexual coherence. And when a society adheres to this ‘law of heterosexual coherence’, claims Butler, sex and gender are denaturalised through this performance that declares their distinctness as well as dramatizes the cultural process of their fictitious unity. Referring to Fredric Jameson’s ‘Postmodernism and Consumer Society’, Butler then briefly discusses the nature of parody that drag instils, and argues that a drag performance manages to lose a sense of what is normal (‘the original’) by emphasising how it is an ideal that cannot possibly be embodied. As such, drag succeeds by giving a gender performance in revealing the performativity of gender while destabilising the naturalised, set categories of identity and sexual desire.(Butler)

Butler uses language that is sometimes very hard to understand for myself, but still in a way that I can understand she completely undermines the gender system that governs western-society in the present day. I highly appreciate this detailed examination that is essentially a discussion on ―by many considered mundane or excessive― style and clothing. The act of dressing queer, classicallly meaning strange or peculiar, is by definition the opposite of dressing to conservative gender expressions. In a queer dreamworld femininity and masculinity become supplemental to all the variations of queer gender expressions.

I think at this point I have established the visual connection between gender and visual style. Many things regarded male/female or masculine/feminine are visual, we can describe them as having a certain ‘style’. Everything in the modern world, with the exception of nature, has a style. It is made by people. This vision of the world in style, is a queer perspective. Because certain people are forced to see the standards loosely, as the standards are only heteronormmative, they discover their own (queer) “standards”. But what does this particular style entail?

In the introduction to Queer Style Adam Geczy and Vicki Karaminas write about what the term queer means in present day. The term queer defines a different stance in understanding the world from the more dominant Christian-Platonic archetype, where people tend to search for falsehoods to find one unified truth. Queer perspective dictates to embarce falsehoods for being what they are and to give distinctions between a thing and its appearance, thus appreciating exaggeration and artifice over conforming to one unified truth that itself is imaginary. They exemplify this principle by introducing a quote by Oscar Wilde, who is known for using the virtues of excess and deceit:

“Truth is entirely and absolutely a matter of style.”

― Oscar Wilde, The decay of Lying

Because of Wilde’s notion of style, 2.2 as well as him being part of the aestheticism movement the decadentes, he is often associated with dandyism (Geczy, Karaminas), a precursor of queer style. A dandy typically was a man in (late 18th- and early 19th-century) Britain or France who dressed in expensive, fashionable clothes and with a great interest in his own appearance, according to the Cambridge dictionary. Although dandyism is not only defined by men. “Disrupting established gender polarities with her cropped hair, smoking,and mannish dress, the monocled lesbian dandy is the newest face of homosexual aestheticism; exuding an “aura” of “highbrow modernism,” she is both anextension and reinterpretation of nineteenth-century dandyism. (Glick, 63)

In Materializing Queer Desire Elisa Glick writes: “A wide range of historians and cultural critics have placed the dandy at the center of debates about the history of the homosexual in the West, the history of modern culture, and the role of the queer in constructions of modern identity. While they have agreed on the centrality of the ‘dandy’ in gay and lesbian history —presenting him as the premier model of modern gay subjectivity— scholars have disagreed on the meaning of dandyism itself.” (Glick, 15) She describes how Wilde puts meaning in style, by looking deeper into his writing, specifically The picture of Dorian Gray. Glick explains the contrariety between the dandy’s outward appearance and his inner essence, an analysis in which she particularly focuses on how this contradiction constitutes his very dandyism to begin with. She argues how his deliberate use of extravagance and style doesn’t undo that contradiction, and attempts to resolve it without favouring one over the other (Glick, 15).

Susan Sontag’s influential essay “Notes on Camp” examines the first model of dandyism, in which homosexual aestheticism is first associated with the “unmistakably modern” (Sontag, 53) way of seeing the world in altogether aesthetical terms. A way of seeing homosexual aesthetics in terms of stylisation and artfulness, and as a central motif of gay masculinity. Although Sontag’s essay was written in 1964, it is therefore still perceived as fundamental and revolutionary by contemporary cultural critics today. The second part of the episode will be an elaboration on camp.

[Another light breaks. It’s not the same one. It’s okay though, a handyman comes in and puts a new bulb in, he says that one should last longer.]

The queer perspective finds its visual signifiers in queer style. Like the art of drag, queer style, as well as dandyism (in its many forms) undermine the heteronormative imposed binary by taking the standards not too serious. This is not only a frivolous attitude towards the outwards appearance, but unquestionably an attitude towards the inner essence. I think it is the most crucial attitude that can teach young people how to enjoy observing the world in style. How to implement the fundamental belief of the world as a lie that tells the truth. How to contemplate a multi layered view on gender.


It is not possible to define camp. Andy Medhurst wrote: “Trying to define camp is like attempting to sit in the corner of a circular room”. I will not make such an attempt, but I would nonetheless like to have a look inside that room called Camp to find what’s inside, what it looks like and what doors lead there.

In the aforementioned essay “Notes on Camp” Susan Sontag analyses the meaning of camp, in a list of 58 notes, and she is the first person to write about it in this almost philosophical way. She describes the essence of Camp as love for the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. It can be seen as a private code or unintentional style that evokes, as Susan writes, a conflict in her own sensibility as she is strongly drawn to it, but almost as strongly offended by it. This is strongly visible in Camp films. If set design, visual effects or general style look cheap, unrealistic or general style and expression is full of exaggeration and artifice (like a classic ‘camp’ actress Mae West in Myra Breckinridge, or like the the comic-like special effects in the original Batman series) 2.3 2.4 people either love or hate this campiness… and boy do I love it!

[The audience laughs.]
[I genuinely think I won them over now.]

Camp has a certain irony to it. It converts the serious to the frivolous. Sontag addresses and incorporates this irony by beginning her list of notes (mimicking trendy magazine articles of her time) with “These are notes for Oscar Wilde”, thus applying Wilde’s own notion of irony. Countering big structured texts about camp that might end up becoming a “very inferior piece of Camp” itself, she elaborates on what is camp and what is not camp, and how to recognise it in specific examples. These were the preeminent points made by Sontag:

The two-sidedness of Camp is not a question of literal or symbolic content, but of meaning either something or nothing at all (artifice). It is style at the expense of content. Sontag mentions early on that “to talk about camp is therefore to betray it”, which means that the use of camp sensibility becomes a discussion on intention and innocence. Naive camp, as Sontag puts it, is pure camp. A seriousness and an attempt of grandeur that fails. Deliberate camp, an attempt at campiness, is less satisfying and harmful towards its amusement. Later, however, she states that camp is not-so-much about the conscious intention or unintended effect, but about the delicate relation between parody and self-parody. She illustrates this with a short analysis on Hitchcock’s films, which might play with self-parody, but lack in the enthusiasm Camp would insist on, and which sporadically expose aversion towards the film’s own themes. Successful Camp, “even when it reveals self-parody it exposes self-love”, she exemplifies with the film performances of Mae West whose flamboyant mannerisms were susceptible to double interpretation.

Sontag also discusses Camp’s origin and sentimental value and mentions how visual artworks, such as paintings from Caravaggio 2.5 and, later, the Art Nouveau movement can be interpreted as camp as they generally rely on things-being- what-they-are-not (such as a gate looking like it is made out of stylised flowers), 2.6 which is (part of) Sontag’s reading of Camp.

According to Sontag, the origin of camp is in homosexual taste. From the old-style dandy who hates vulgarity, to the admiration of vulgarity of the new-style dandy. Sontag explains that while queer aesthetics and camp are not the same, there is a certain affinity and overlap at play between queer and camp taste. She also writes how queer people have been leading in the creation as well as make up most of the audience for Camp aethetics in entertainment. If we were to consider “life as theatre”, as Camp suggests, we can look at the world as a -quote-unquote- “world”. A man simply plays the role of “man” and a woman the role of “woman”. This simple abstraction is all it takes to understand the modern queer theory and the approach to gender performativity that “borrows extensively from Camp”(Medhurst, 282). The very concept of young people “coming out of the closet” as trans, lesbian, gay, bisexual, asexual, etc., is laughable when you take on a perspective in which gender roles are nothing but roles in a play anyway. Nothing is the default, nothing is worth disapproving.

[Soft awww sounds in the audience.]

When I personally think of the concept of Camp, my first associations are with musical artists from the 1970’s on that rely heavily on aesthetics, such as Madonna, Elton John and Prince. 2.7 All of which were popular when the concept of camp was becoming a more general term. People became more aware of what it meant for something to be “campy”. As it turned out, Sontag’s perspective slowly seemed more limited than it was for contemporary academics, as many more scholars had written about the subject of camp since Sontag’s acclaimed list of jottings.

In much of queer and Camp history there has been a neglect of the influence black culture has had. The aforementioned Elisa Glick does write a bit about the black dandies of Harlem in the 1920’s, and elaborates on this fascinating figure in her account of history, which does not only focus on one, white, narrative as many others have.

Pamela Robertson also addresses issues of race in her Mae West’s Maids: Race, ‘Authenticity’, and the Discourse of Camp. She writes about how an extensively influential documentary like Paris is Burning, 2.8 which gives insight into the queer Ball Culture of New York, can teach us a perspective that offers equal space for non-white queers in academic discourse.

Sontag mentions the androgynous and gender-bent capability of the camp, but also claims that camp is apolitical. I wonder if Camp style comes at the expense of content. After all, if in contemporary queer aesthetics Camp is apolitical, then to me it rather seems constitutional. Filmmaker, photographer, writer, and artist Bruce Labruce recognises the same in his essay Notes on camp/anti-camp. “

but her most crucial betrayal of camp comes in her statement that camp is ‘neutral to content’, and thereby ‘disengaged, depoliticized, or at least apolitical’. This is where I most strongly disagree with Sontag’s idea of camp. My perhaps idealized conception of camp is that it is, or was, by its very nature political, subversive, even revolutionary, at least in its most pure and sophisticated manifestations.”(Labruce)

In order to illustrate the meaning of camp in a less articulated, but more inclusive manner, many scholars have opted to then offer a list of what falls into the category Camp, so as to give an impression of what it is rather than to define it. Labruce, for example opens his essay by formulating a list of people, TV shows and films within the categories: Classic Gay Camp, Bad Gay Camp, Good Straight Camp, Bad Straight Camp, High Camp, Low Camp, Ultra Camp, Bad Ultra Camp, Quasi-Camp, Subversive Camp, Reactionary Camp, Liberal Camp, Conservative Camp, Intentional Camp, Unintentional Camp and Good Intentional Straight Camp. Now that’s a whole lotta Camp..

[Subtle, slightly unimpressed laughter]

Very well. I hope you have enjoyed the guided tour of this rather glitzy room called Camp, as well as its doorway to the queer aesthetics suite. I cannot tell you what to think of camp, whether your preference lies with Oscar Wilde, Mae West, Rupaul, or none of those, but I hope this tour has nonetheless given you some insight into the highly stylised, visual world that is camp. I hope you now understand that any program, person or song, that is considered campy, you will be able to accept its queerness. While both drag and camp were considered ‘underground’ before and have both developed to a white pop culture reference, I hope both phenonenon can contribute to a more accpting society. Of course, it is not exclusively my appreciation for the visual aspects that induces my interest in Camp. As I mentioned before, camp is a social and political statement also. One that, in my opinion, could bring some much needed and long overdue diversification to modern (Western) society. More on that after the break!

[Excitedly the audience applauds, again looking forward to that carrot cake and lemonade in the break-room. I know there won’t be any.]

[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]

Uncalled-for accusations of ‘gayness’ have always irked me, but I have now come to give it a place within the, in my opinion, deeply flawed societal heteronormative worldview. The senseless outrage at Tinky Winky’s red handbag, and other embraces of queerness once again emphasised for me how extremely scared and offended the world can be by something that deviates even slightly from a norm based on nothing but custom. It reignited that ever burning fire of curiosity about queer perspective and the possibility of allowing it space in a society I believe is ready for it.

That space will only become available once we stop making our children believe that the gender binary is inherent. That we are defined by our genitals, or our sexuality. When we stop making them believe that any societal label is fundamental to our being human, and that there is a right way to be. I believe one way to challenge that view, and to teach appreciation of deviation and uniqueness is through the introduction of Camp aesthetic to children.

Camp recognises the performativity of gender and celebrates it. It makes us aware of how silly it is to see the world in pigeonholes, and to sort everything into its own, exclusive, category. Camp adores the possibilities that queer perspective allows for, and children adore camp. It drags us out of our (sometimes comfortable I admit) binary construct of gender and sexuality and instead introduces us to the glorious queer spectrum those two are to be found on. How powerful would it be to teach our kids not that they should conform, but that they are nothing less than perfect as they are in all their distinct peculiarities? That they may choose whatever they want to wear or play with and whomever they wish to spend time with? How powerful would it be to allow them that freedom? I know many of us would have so appreciated it.

It matters what is on our screens. Anyone who enjoys Camp, who has taken part in Camp, or even anyone who has ever been on a camping trip knows what comes with it. Its fearless, tongue-in-cheek chutzpah, the whimsicality, the artifice and the exaggeration, the colours and the madness, the topsy-turviness and the hullabaloo. But Camp is more than that glorious stylisation. It enables not only a frivolous attitude towards the incredible variety and possibility of outwards appearance, but it has the power to undermine anything exclusionary. Anything confining, and it does so simply by showing the silliness of it all.

I believe the slow emergence of camp aesthetic also means the slow acceptance and appreciation of queer perspective in society. I believe in camp.

[Lights out.]
[The audience sighs with relief.]

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