Queer Issues through Camp: “Drag Queens on Trial” and “Paris is Burning”

[Camp] is not a natural mode of sensibility, if there be any such. Indeed, the essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration. And Camp is esoteric — something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques. (Sontag)¹

Camp is a difficult subject to speak about in a way that remains true to its spirit without overly simplifying it to the point that it becomes a cliché. Though many theoretical frameworks have been offered since the term came into use in the 19th century, its first appearance in the 1909 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary encompasses the most common concept: “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical; effeminate or homosexual; pertaining to, characteristic of, homosexuals” (Bekhrad)². Camp in its most basic form is an aesthetic and style that deals in exaggeration and ridiculousness and often seen as something embarrassing and to be avoided, but camp is more than style and behaviour and is not exclusively the province of the gay community. Camp is a way of redefining roles, of breaking away from a stringent structure and expressing oneself in a way that is more organic and truthful — as well as more fun. Through the expressive nature of camp, one can be more vulnerable and open their inner selves to others, as well as partake in a form of social protest against the conventions that seek to oppress that self. Though primarily a form of style, camp can help us deal with things such as self-image and trauma.

For this essay we will look at the use of camp in Drag Queens on Trial by Sky Gilbert and Paris is Burning by director Jennie Livingston, specifically through the art of drag. These two texts reflect the core of camp — more than just being a way of carrying yourself and behaving as it is often held to be, camp is a form of rebellion against societal conventions and seeks to break down gender roles.

Theatre and film have often depicted homosexual men as people with camp personality traits for decades. Though filmmakers could never outright depict a character as homosexual, they could be coded through the use of the “sissy” archetype. The sissy was generally utilised for comic relief in mainstream dramas or as supporting characters in comedies but was never the central character. Though there was a distasteful attitude towards men who acted with effeminacy, the archetype was popular in comedies and musicals in Pre-Code Hollywood films; take for example the costume designer in 1929’s The Broadway Melody, who fretfully tells chorus girls to take care of his hats and is met with a subtle dig at his sexuality which is suggested by his behaviour and vocal inflections:

Turpe: Girls, girls, girls! Be careful of my hats!

Chorus Girl: Well we gotta get on the stage.

Turpe: I don’t care I won’t allow you to ruin them.

Wardrobe Lady: See, I told you they were too high and too wide.

Turpe: Well, big woman, I design the costumes for the show, not the doors for the theatre.

Wardrobe Lady: I know that. If you had they would have been done in lavender. (The Broadway Melody, 30:35–30:57)³

Their comedic value encouraged heterosexual audience members to laugh at the sissy, who was seen as less than a man as he was too feminine but still not a woman because he was biologically male. The joke was that they acted more like women than men, they were emotional, overwrought, prone to exaggerated reactions or agitation; actors such as Edward Everett Horton built careers on characters with these traits. They were non-threatening in their sexuality and were allowed onscreen because in their sexless nature there was no indication of homosexual intercourse which was explicitly banned by the Hayes Code and illegal by law; this use of camp to avoid sexual topics would be turned on its head by Sky Gilbert.

Even amongst the minority, men with camp sensibilities were still seen as different: “Nobody likes a sissy […] Even in a time of sexual revolution, when traditional roles are being examined and challenged every day, there is something about a man who acts like a woman that people find fundamentally distasteful” (Russo)⁴. It is telling that the MPAA allowed the use of the word “faggot” but not of “homosexual” in films during the 1960s. As long as the gay man was being depicted as something either the other or as a sexless person, their appearance in films was tolerated. This all served to perpetuate a view, that persists in some corners of the LGBT community to this day, that camp men were to be looked down on.

Though we can see the use of camp as a way of signifying an outsider, on a broader scale it is far from being a sign of the other but is used by queer creatives as a tool of expression through which they can present queer issues in a subtle way.

The use of camp in Sky Gilbert’s comedic drama Drag Queens on Trial takes advantage of the idea that campness makes queer characters more palatable to audiences by showing them through an over-the-top lens as they touch on serious topics. In an interview with Jim Giles, Gilbert talks about how gay theatre can be used as a tool of education:

Jim. How do you think gay theatre educates a straight audience?

Sky. On a conscious, literal and obvious level, it gives details of gay life and gay culture which audiences find surprising and interesting. If queer characters are honest about their lives, then straight audiences are bound to be shocked and, through that shock, educated.” (Gilbert & Giles)⁵

Though queer theatre need not seek to inform a heterosexual onlooker, there will always be a degree of education in the act of writing and performing a piece of queer theatre, given how it is still a relatively understocked canon — that is not to say there is not a great deal of queer theatre, but rather that it remains something unusual and often a selling point as the community has seen such little representation throughout the years.

Judy Goose, Lana Lust and Marlene Delorme are three queens who their drag names after the first names of well-known Hollywood stars: Garland, Turner and Dietrich (respectively). These actresses have long been icons within the queer community due to a certain degree of camp within their films, and in the case of Judy, her personal struggles were part of what made her so popular with gay audiences: “In an era when there was no gay voice, Judy’s songs of love, pain and sacrifice no doubt struck a nerve with the romantic aspirations of an invisible generation” (Murray)⁶. Though correlation does not equal causation — and the connection has been disputed — the timing of the Stonewall Riots in the early hours of June 28, 1969 and Garland’s funeral on June 27 is interesting to note.

Drag operates at the liminal space between the binary of gender as split into male and female. The gender-sex distinction has long been accepted by the scientific community though people of a discriminatory mindset refuse to acknowledge this, What varies greatly are the theories as to how “gender is produced and reproduced” (Macey)⁷.

Aside from breaking down the gender binary through the use of drag, the play itself breaks down conventional theatrical structure by staging the main scenes of the queens on trial with wrap-around segments where we see the queens preparing for the play. In these moments we see them conversing to each other, talking about their sex lives and throwing shade:

Marlene: Well, first of all, I was wearing the white sweater, with the tight black shirt — I mean I looked positively business-like and I had spent two hours on my makeup and hair — well I looked fantastic –

Lana: We’ll take your word for it –

Marlene: […] What do you mean by that?

Lana: I mean, we’ll take you word for it you looked like Jessica Lange, darling, so get on with your story.” (Gilbert)⁸

This serves to provide a glimpse into the culture of drag and the creation of the personas behind the scenes. These scenes add to the main plot-thread as they allow us to see these three queens as people with individual lives and problems.

Throughout the play, each of the three queens takes a turn to play the defendant, prosecuting attorney and surprise witness. Whilst in the role of defendant each queen recalls a colourful, dramatic past full of romance befitting old Hollywood — before they crumble under questioning and reveal the truth of loneliness, meaningless hook-ups and the terrifying prospect of a future spent alone, overhanging with the spectre of AIDS.

The placing the queens in a position where they must be truthful — on the witness stand — allows them to give vent to their feelings and frustrations. Though their language and behaviour are exaggerated, their dialogues come from very real places, examining as they do how heteronormative society has affected their lives. Gilbert utilises the person of the drag queen as a potent symbol of otherness, embodying as it does the refusal to conform to societal norms of gender, masculinity, and sexuality.

They create a fiction, a false past and character in order to escape for a time from the truth, to find beauty in all the madness, much like actresses of old Hollywood created beauty from the depravity of the studio system. This is not to be taken as a generalisation across the entire LGBTQ community, for as Gilbert remarked in an interview with Jim Giles: “It’s a diverse community and to make generalizations about individuals from an idea of community is wrong” (Gilbert & Giles). It is a summation of what drag signifies in this piece and what it can signify for queens even in our present day.

In her trial Marlene rejects the testimony of surprise witness Anita Hrupki (played by Judy) because the truth threatens to derail the persona she had developed: “No, it’s not true, I was never Bobby Fitch… it’s not true, it’s all vicious pernicious lies” (Gilbert). The purpose of drag at its core is the creation of fantasy. Like camp, drag thrives on exaggeration; by taking the various elements of feminine beauty and exaggerating them, queens find a way of expressing themselves. Her voiceover highlights this effect of drag:

“They said I had lied, and I began to think about the lies, the years of lies, of living like a non person in Winnipeg, of gazing up at the vast blue sky and feeling small, ever so small. Yes, my life had been lies, nothing but lies, but wasn’t that the essence of being a drag queen? And wasn’t the life of a drag queen somehow the lie that tells the truth?” (Gilbert)

Her protestations that when a drag queen lies they tell the truth speaks to the core of drag and indeed camp. The exaggeration, the flamboyancy, the larger-than-life persona, all work in pursuit of truth; though it is all fiction, it seeks to find the real person within, without the performativity of heteronormative behaviour. For a large portion of their lives, queer people feel the need to hide the part of their personality that marks them as different until they come out (if they come out); this is down to a multitude of reasons that vary from person to person and country to country, but the result is the same — it makes you feel like less of a person, as though no one is ever seeing you in full, but seeing through the real you to the fabricated image of who you are.

Premiering in 1985, Drag Queens on Trial is intangibly linked with the AIDS epidemic (though it first appeared in the Americas as early as 1960, it was first detected in Canada in 1982) and this is reflected in the content of the piece, with the promiscuous Lana Lust revealed to have the condition. Near the end of the play, she condemns those who judge her and her decree for taking life for all it is worth is powerful even three decades after the play premiered:

“And who are you, who is anyone to judge? Yes I am a drag queen and yes I am dying of AIDS. Perhaps I have made choices that many would not agree with but I followed my heart and did the best I could with my life […] a passion to live dangerously is the most enthralling disease in the world. And it’s catching. […] the real disease is not being true to what’s inside.” (Gilbert)

If Drag Queens on Trial uses camp to shine a light on issues of loneliness and self-image, then Paris is Burning builds upon this; alternating between the colourful world of ballroom and candid interviews with several key figures (we see performer Dorian Corey preparing and applying makeup across several scenes), the film addresses complex subjects such as class, wealth, race, gender, sexuality, beauty standards and the like. Of particular focus is the performativity of gender. There are various approaches and categories within the ballroom culture at the heart of the film, but they all in some way question the reality of gender. Paris is Burning depicts a world where racism, homophobia, disease and poverty are defied via glamour and fantasy; drag, as in Gilbert’s work, is a way of expressing and constructing identity within the safety of the self-created family.

Let us look for a moment to the film’s story arc that focuses on Venus Xtravaganza. Venus was a transgender woman who found herself welcomed into the House of Xtravaganza after leaving home when her family found out about her “lifestyle.” The freedom that the camp atmosphere of the ballroom scene allowed her to embrace who she felt she was inside and allowed her the freedom to express it. Venus was one of the film’s cast members who would meet an early demise; she was found strangled under a bed at the Duchess Hotel on Christmas Day in 1988, while the film was in production. The grief that Angie Xtravaganza shows when she hears of Venus’ death speaks to the incredibly close community that the ballroom brought into being — it also features in criticisms of the film as being voyeuristic.

Controversies over the heterosexual gaze and/or voyeurism aside, Jennie Livingston does well to intercut the extravagant ball footage with the quieter interviews with personalities such as Pepper LaBeija; the audience enjoys the ball footage for its exuberance and comes to know the personas of the participants — by then cutting to Pepper discussing whiteness in America the audience listens to her more and takes in what she is saying. It also serves to highlight the remarkable fact that these people built this community themselves, one that celebrated them instead of demonising them, where they would find acceptance and freedom of expression. Via creativity and support, they find who they are: “creativity is a retaliation, an act not only of agency but of glorious ownership of self” (Schweitzer)⁹.

“Drag is a pertinent example of how perception can be manipulated through performance” (Mallan & McGillis)¹⁰ in that it takes real-life and magnifies it, calling attention to its artificiality. Even in the realness categories, where the aim is to embody the imitated, there is a sense of camp. By just coming into the ballroom scene and being performed, the social norms and personas such as the executive and the Ivy League student become camp, as they are themselves exaggerations.

Think on the military category in the film; within the military there is a strict code of conduct, a certain way of dressing, talking, walking, even a way to look at others, all in the pursuit of an effect. The military walk takes movements and heightens them to such a degree that they become just as camp and the categories where male participants exaggerate the “female” look: “The competition in military garb shifts to yet another register of legitimacy, which enacts the performative and gestural conformity to a masculinity which parallels the performative or reiterative production of femininity in other categories” (Butler)¹¹.

To help cope with difficult circumstances the fantasy that comes with drag and camp is liberating, these “other realities full of flash bulbs and glamour, power and agency” (Schweitzer) provide moments of joviality and safety. Artistic imitation results in protection and help dealing with trauma. This nature of family and support is succinctly summed up by Pepper Labeija in Paris is Burning: “You can become anything and do anything, right here, right now. It won’t be questioned. I came. I saw. I conquered. That’s a ball.”

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Camp is universal, in some ways we all indulge in a certain camp sensibility in some aspect of our lives. Drag is a way of heightening this inherent campness in life and using it to build a protective layer around oneself while conducting extreme introspection can lead to an increased sense of confidence and belonging. This is just one reading of camp and drag, as it is a concept that varies from person to person, but at its core this is the most valuable aspect of what camp can do for us.

Works Cited

[1] Sontag, Susan. “NOTES ON ‘CAMP.’” Camp: Queer Aesthetics and the Performing Subject: A Reader, edited by Fabio Cleto, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1999, pp. 53–65. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctvxcrp56.8.

[2] Bekhrad, Joobin. “Culture — What Does It Mean to Be Camp?” BBC, BBC, 7 May 2019, http://www.bbc.com/culture/story/20190503-what-does-it-mean-to-be-camp.

[3] The Broadway Melody. Directed by Harry Beaumont, performances by Drew Demorest and Blanche Payson, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1929.

[4] Russo, Vito. The Celluloid Closet: Homosexuality in the Movies. Harper & Row, New York, 1987.

[5] Gilbert, Sky, and Jim Giles. “The Other Side of Alternative Theatre: An Interview with Sky Gilbert.” How Theatre Educates: Convergences and Counterpoints with Artists, Scholars, and Advocates, edited by Kathleen Gallagher and David Booth, University of Toronto Press, Toronto; Buffalo; London, 2003, pp. 182–188. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3138/j.ctt1287xsd.18.

[6] Murray, Raymond. Images in the Dark: An Encyclopedia of Gay and Lesbian Film and Video. TLA Publications, Philadelphia, Pa, 1995.

[7] Macey, David. The Penguin Dictionary of Critical Theory. Penguin Books, 2000.

[8] Gilbert, Sky. “Drag Queens on Trial.” Painted, Tainted, Sainted: Four Plays. Playwrights Canada Press, Toronto, 1996.

[9] Schweitzer, Dahlia. “Having a Moment and a Dream: Precious, Paris is Burning, and the Necessity of Fantasy in Everyday Life.” Quarterly Review of Film and Video, vol. 34, no. 3, 2017, pp. 243–258.

[10] Mallan, Kerry & McGillis, Roderick. (2005). “Between a Frock and a Hard Place: Camp Aesthetics and Children’s Culture.” Canadian Review of American Studies. 35. 10.1353/crv.2006.0005. https://www.researchgate.net/publication/27477842_Between_a_Frock_and_a_Hard_Place_Camp_Aesthetics_and_Children's_Culture/citation/download.

[11] Butler, Judith. “‘GENDER IS BURNING: QUESTIONS OF APPROPRIATION AND SUBVERSION.’” Feminist Film Theory: A Reader, edited by Sue Thornham, Edinburgh University Press, Edinburgh, 1999, pp. 336–352. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/10.3366/j.ctvxcrtm8.32.

Writer — Folklorist — Film buff — UCD Graduate

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