‘It’s not a question of ignorance, Laurence, it’s a question of taste’: Abigail’s Party and the Kitschification of Camp
Abigail’s Party, Mike Leigh’s excruciating comedy of suburban manners is one of the writer/director’s most iconic and best known works. First performed at the Hampstead Theatre in London in April 1977, its posterity was assured by a BBC television adaptation. This paper will consider how the play’s reception and interpretation have altered over time and across diverse media, from stage to television, and then later to video, DVD and online, and reflect on whether time and context have changed a camp drama into a kitsch one. Although often bleak, much of Leigh’s oeuvre could legitimately be described as camp, with Abigail’s Party perhaps the most obviously deserving of the label. Arguably it is its embodiment of, and appeal to a camp sensibility that distinguishes it from the conventional television drama and sitcoms that it superficially resembles. In its camp characteristics we can perhaps detect an explanation both for the play’s enduring cult status, and the accusations of cultural snobbery it has provoked (Dennis Potter described it as a ‘prolonged jeer’.) However, over 40 years on, the cultural vehicles employed to articulate class and aspiration – three-piece suites and holidays in Majorca – now seem quaint and dated, the play’s critical bite and timeless tragedy are somewhat neutralised by its retro charm, and there is a danger of Abigail’s Party becoming merely kitsch. The play’s aesthetic is now presented in some contexts as simply a postmodern lifestyle choice, as a theme for pop-up dining experiences and vintage clothing ranges. If Abigail’s Party is perceived as kitsch, it becomes both superficial and ‘safe’ and the humanity is overwhelmed by an unhealthy fixation on the décor; in this sense the play itself falls victim to a similar fate to its protagonists.
Camp Queens on Rupaul’s Drag Race: The Systemic Disrupters we Need
Since the late 20th century, the politics of LGBTQ+ lives have become a defining feature of western society and culture with queer activists focusing on changing popular understandings of the community, and its broader socio-cultural and political treatment. Reality TV is a useful barometer of change because it offers a platform to articulate a televised representation of queer lived experience. Queer television series such as RuPaul’s Drag Race (Logo/VH1, 2009-present) acquiescently speak to the systemic issues that are associated with being queer in the United States, through the depiction of contestants experiencing the need to resist heteronormativity, calling to disrupt and deconstruct the notions of gender for political purposes or expressing the brutal realities surviving life as a trans person entail in a socio-political climate that threatens non-normative lives. With the formation of the Transgender Military Ban and the unremitting deaths of trans black women, who originated the Stonewall movement precisely 50 years ago, considering and examining how participants in this reality tv series use the art of camp in order to challenge and disrupt a problematic system seems timely and paramount.
This conversation explores the mediated experiences and discourses of a specific set of camp drag queens as exemplars of what makes camp a political instrument of resistance and disruption. It offers an intriguing study in the interest of proposing a taxonomy and cultural mythology of camp drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race. Through this research, I aim at developing and reshaping popular understandings of camp queens experiences and purposes, highlighting their importance on the show and within the LGBTQ+ community.
Stephane Azarian is a Doctoral Researcher within the department of Media, Culture and Language and the Centre for Research in Film and Audiovisual Cultures at the University of Roehampton, in London. He is working under the direction of Professor Anita Biressi and co-supervision of Professor Caroline Bainbridge on interrogating the experiences of family and kinship within the LGBTQ+ community in 21st century reality television. His experience as a language teacher and his cultural studies training merged with a wider focus on queer studies. This was realized in subsequent projects, including launching a queer online media platform named Queering Channels, creating and writing a series of LGBTQ+ focused articles for the university journal, and advocating for LGBTQ+ equality together with Stonewall UK. His current work on the politics of drag or on the disruptiveness of gendered passage sit alongside his current doctoral project.
Marie Josephine Bennett, University of Winchester
In the Eurovision Camp: the Eurovision Song Contest as Camp Space
The annual Eurovision Song Contest (ESC), first staged in 1956, currently features over 40 countries competing to be crowned champion. Indeed, there are now so many countries wishing to participate, that two semi-finals are held in the week leading up to the contest to determine which entries will take part in the final. The popularity of the ESC is indicated by the fact that, according to figures released by the European Broadcasting Union, the combined viewing figures for the 2019 semi-finals and final were 182 million.
As noted by Robert Deam Tobin (2007), the ESC is generally considered as camp by both reviewers and those watching. This is because many entries arguably challenge mainstream popular cultural norms in their performance, demonstrating the excessive spectacle and irony that are often viewed as synonymous with camp readings. If camp offers ‘a form of expressive rebuttal to the values of dominant culture for those on the margins,’ as argued by Barbara Klinger (1994: 136), then the ESC can be seen as offering a safe space for those identifying as Other, and a place where people can openly express their difference.
In this paper, I will demonstrate how a number of the songs performed in a recent contest – 2014 – can be read as camp. I believe 2014 is a particularly interesting example because the competition was won by the drag queen persona of Tom Neuwirth, namely Conchita Wurst. In addition, writer Paul Jones, previewing the 2014 contest on the website of the Radio Times, described the contest as ‘a veritable smorgasbord… of camp.’ While in many ways Conchita’s performance was arguably one of the least camp of the night, nevertheless, her success showed an acceptance of a singer openly identifying as queer.
Marie Josephine Bennett is a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Winchester. Her research focuses on critical readings of queer performance in a number of mainstream post-Production Code Hollywood film musicals released between 1970 and 1985. Marie is on the committee of the LGBTQ+ Music Study Group, which was established in 2016 with the support of professional bodies throughout the UK and Ireland. She has assisted in the planning of symposia organised by the group. Marie is also an active music teacher and teaches recorder, clarinet and piano both privately and in schools.
Camp from club to catwalk: Charles Jeffrey’s LOVERBOY and queer fashion practice
This paper focuses on the collections of London based Scottish designer Charles Jeffrey who has won plaudits for his spectacular, subversive, theatrical, and highly camp catwalk shows. His label LOVERBOY – having grown out of an East London club-night of the same name – brings together eclectic historical references, with the stylistic bricolage of the queer scene from which it emerged.
Using a combination of image analysis and ethnographic interviews with the designer himself, this paper investigates how Jeffrey has blurred the boundaries between nightclub and runway, collective and named designer, menswear and womenswear, to formulate a distinctly queer mode of fashion practice. In this way, the utopic possibilities of the nightclub; the heightened emotion of the dance floor; and the embodied, affective, temporal qualities of queer sociality are transposed onto the catwalk.
Camp aesthetics and queer nightlife have played a crucial role in the history of fashion – perhaps most notably during the 1980s when designers like Bodymap, Jean Paul Gaultier, and Stephen Linard drew extensively on queer signifiers. However, the contemporary success of LOVERBOY marks a shift in contemporary cultures of gender as discourses of queerness and performativity reach a new point of amplification. After the seriousness, refinement and minimalism of millennial fashion, the liminality, polysemy, and exuberance of camp has again reasserted its transgressive potential.
Jay McCauley Bowstead lectures Cultural and Historical Studies at London College of Fashion and is co-convenor of the LCF Masculinities Research Hub. His recent publications include the monograph Menswear Revolution: The Transformation of Contemporary Men’s for Bloomsbury Academic, a co-authored chapter for the book Teaching Fashion Studies and a chapter on designer Hedi Slimane for the updated edition of The Meanings of Dress. He has appeared on BBC Radio 4’s sociology programme Thinking Allowed, on The World Service and on the Today Programme speaking on issues of masculinity, gender and fashion.
Fenella Hitchcock is a cultural historian, writer and lecturer whose research interests are located at the intersections of queer performance, club cultures and fashion. Her background spans fashion practice, history and theory and she received her MA from London College of Fashion in 2015. She has consulted on events for Somerset House and presented work at the exhibition Light After Dark (Sutton House, 2017) and at the Nightlife and Queer Utopias panel discussion(Victoria and Albert Museum, 2019). She has worked as at the Museum of London’s Fashion and Decorative Archive and as a gallery assistant at Viktor Wynd Fine Art. Hitchcock lectures at London College of Fashion, Kingston School of Art and Middlesex University.
Is Camp Queer?
The connection of camp to sexual notions of queer is vexed. Earlier debates focused on the issue of whether camp belonged to gay people (or specifically gay men) and whether it was contaminated by the despised status of queers. Queer Theory has largely embraced camp, but does the latter really have the subversive fluidity claimed by the former? These are the issue that will be explored in this presentation.
Camp, Animation and the Disney Villain
This paper explores the camp performances of villains in recent Disney animated features. This involves interrogating connections between camp and the Gothic, children’s media and the animation form. Many authors have identified aspects of excess, over-determination and pastiche in Gothic media, and many Disney villains’ performances, drawing on associations between the medieval, fairy stories and Gothic fiction, reflect this association. In contrast, the colourful, frivolous, seemingly-superficial qualities of children’s media, with which Disney animated features share some proximities, frequently mobilise camp aspects such as parody, irony and kitsch. Animation also has considerable camp potential through its tendency towards self-reflexivity, exaggeration and artifice. Cartoons’ carnivalesque location in traditions of caricature, satire and social critique also contribute to the more subversive qualities of camp culture. In the context of Disney animation, camp qualities contribute to the studio’s transgenerational appeal to knowing adults, adolescents and children. The queer qualities of many camp villains serve to distinguish these abject figures from the heterosexual couple at the text’s centre. Moreover, these characters’ vanity and obsession with appearance can be considered a reflection of the surface nature of animation, and a means of enhancing the authenticity of the Disney hero and heroine.
Rijk Kistemaker, University of Amsterdam
(Ab)uses of camp
This paper is concerned with the intersection of three discourses: camp, the logic of online trolls, and white nationalist ideology. The ‘logic of lulz’ is the logic of online trolling, a mercurial and highly ironic discourse that fosters camp-like social cohesion amongst its devotees while also often devolving into racism, misogyny, and homophobia. The alt-right is characterized by its white nationalist rhetoric, its manifestation as an online entity, and the disruption of the notion of transgression and subversion being inherent to left-wing culture. It presents itself as the countercultural alternative to mainstream conservatism and, in its online presence, has tended to cloak its most unpalatable ideas in irony, irreverence, and through the mimicry and appropriation of other social movements and digital discourses. Queer figures in alt-right circles, like Milo Yiannopoulos and Lucian Wintrich, perform conservative, often far-right, hyperbolic queerness in the understanding that this constitutes a countercultural and radically transgressive move in itself, partly in opposition to left-wing politics, identity politics, and social justice. I will deploy camp as a way to read a series artefacts of alt-right cultural production. I will demonstrate how the logic of lulz that informs these artefacts – memes, tweets, and instances of alt-right ideology bleeding into mainstream political discourse – eerily resonates with the understanding of camp as a way for queers to infuse and recycle objects – cultural waste – and concepts of heterosexual cultural production with a queer essence and so engage with and critique the cultural and political systems that have often excluded them.
Rijk Kistemaker is a recent graduate of the research MA program in Cultural Analysis at the University of Amsterdam. His research is concerned with the conjuncture of camp, digital culture, and far-right politics and social movements.
Camp, Performance and Excess in 1970s Telefantasy
The BBC space opera Blake’s 7 (1978-81) was set many centuries in the future, and concerned the political revolutionary Roj Blake and his attempts to bring down the repressive and corrupt Terran Federation. The show was hugely popular with UK audiences in its day but has been largely ignored by the academy. What scholarship there is has focused on its dystopian politics (Muir 2006, McCormack 2006, Braithwaite 2018), its gender politics (Cornea 2011) or on its fan cultures (Bacon-Smith 1991, Jenkins 1992, Harris and Alexander 1997).
Using Cantrell and Hogg’s (2016) assumption that television acting (by actors) and television performance (contributions to acting made by other production personnel) are products of a matrix of creative activities, the paper examines the construction of character and narrative within Blake’s 7 with special attention to acting and actors. It explores out the way in which certain flamboyant acting performances play against the serial’s dystopian atmosphere, supported by the creative contributions of other production staff. Despite the series’s ideological commitment to examination and critique of authoritarian regimes and surveillance society, the costumes and acting frequently tip the series into forms of camp excess. This is particularly noticeable in the performance and costuming of Supreme Commander Servalan (Jacqueline Pearce), on whom this paper focuses.
Dr. Douglas McNaughton is a Senior Lecturer in Film & Screen Studies at the University of Brighton. His research focus is on sites of screen production as both material and social spaces, and the politics of labour within those spaces. His publications include articles on the multi-camera television studio in Journal of British Cinema and Television and Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, and recent articles and book chapters on camerawork as performance.
Can Women Be Camp?
In attempting to answer the question: ‘can a woman be camp?’ I explore stereotypes of lesbians and gay men who have traditionally been aligned respectively with seriousness and frivolity. I make use of Irving Goffmann’s use of the concept of Stigma and Joan Riviere’s notion of ‘womanliness as masquerade’ and explore more recent concepts of ‘lesbian camp’. While wondering whether camp went ‘out of fashion’ in recent years, I also suggest it may have renewed relevance in a period of political disruption and intolerance and I relate it more widely to modernism and modernity.
Elizabeth Wilson has been a mental health social worker, a writer for underground magazines and an academic and researcher. She taught at London Metropolitan University, Stanford University, California, Goldsmiths College and the University of the Arts, London. Among her publications are Adorned in Dreams: Fashion and Modernity (1985), The Sphinx in the City, (1992) Bohemians: The Glamorous Outcasts (2000), Cultural Passions: Fans, Aesthetes and Tarot Readers(2011) and Love Game: A Cultural History of Tennis (20140. She has also written four period crime novels, The Twilight our HoHoHour (2006), War Damage (2009), The Girl in Berlin, (2012) and She Died Young (2016).