[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…