Rosa Moline as an armed vision of female dissent.


Camp and its discontents

Having attempted to demonstrate why I believe Beyond the Forest is an important work, I want to return, in summation, to the question of Camp as a mode of response that is specifically interpreted as a historical and enduringly homosexual-gay-queer response.

Sontag has taken her lumps over the years for having diminished the gay specificities of Camp. In her classic study of female impersonators, Mother Camp, Esther Newton reported that one of her interviewees railed against Sontag for having “almost edited homosexuals out of camp,” a reaction that Newton also felt was justified.[34][open endnotes in new window]

“He said Susan Sontag was wrong about camp’s being a cult, and the moment it becomes a public cult, you watch the queens stop it. Because if it becomes the squares, it doesn’t belong to them any more. And what will be ‘camp art,’ no queen will own. It’s like taking off the work clothes and putting on the home clothes.”[35]

The “work clothes” are the straight culture that the queer person, specified here as the queen, must accommodate each day at work, the “home clothes” that queen’s authentic queer life. On some level, then, Camp must remain authentically homosexually oriented lest a fatal blur of work and home occur—if straight culture appropriates queerness, there is no queerness left to provide compensatory succor, a refuge, for the queer subject.

As Richard Dyer writes, Camp

“is profoundly denaturalizing. Far from expressing a sense of what is natural, it constantly draws attention to the artifices attendant on the construction of images of what is natural. Camp, drag, and macho self-consciously play the signs of gender, and it is in the play and exaggeration that an alternative sexuality is implied—a sexuality, that is, that recognizes itself as in a problematic relationship to the conventional conflation of sexuality and gender.”[36]

Dyer makes one of the best cases I know of for the power and usefulness of Camp and other modes of ironic queer style. Newton’s interviewee poignantly establishes that Camp is a refuge from the culture of heterosexist conformity. These and other accounts of Camp signify its chief and most resonant value, its function as a mode of resistance. The problem with Camp, as I see it, is that it has lost this significance as it has become assimilated into the culture and then transformed into a general cultural attitude—one of uncritical derision, patronization, and also assumptions about the political and ideological character of the past (along the lines of, “That was such a sexist/homophobic/racist time, wasn’t it?”—the implication that our own cultural era has liberated itself from these evils). For Camp to do its most significant kind of work, it must be a critical intervention.

When Sikov, in his wonderful biography of Davis, talks about the “essential truth of camp,” of course, I know what he means. But Beyond the Forest isn't, in my view, about the essential truths of Camp, but, instead, an unflinching examination of the effects of gender, sexual, race, and class conformity on an intransigent, passionate, willful, intelligent, and deeply frustrated female character. To classify Vidor’s film as Camp classic is to ignore its much more vexed and vexing preoccupations, in short, its power as a work of resistant art.

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