<Book Review>
Making Camp: Rhetorics and Transgression in U.S. Popular Culture. Helene A. Shugart and Catherine Egeley Waggoner. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2008;189 pages; Hardcover, $39.75.

In Making Camp: Rhetorics and Transgression in U.S. Popular Culture, Helene A Shugart and Catherine Egeley Waggoner provide a helpful introduction to the concept of camp and further the ongoing discussion of camp’s resistive power. While many previous theorizations and discussions of camp focus on drag and gay male sub-cultures, Shugart and Waggoner focus on female camp performance in popular culture, relying heavily on the work of Pamela Robertson. Through the examples of Xena, Karen Walker (Will and Grace), Macy Gray, and Gwen Stefani, Shugart and Waggoner argue that mass mediation does not necessarily drain camp of its resistive power. Expanding upon characteristics identified by Jack Babuscio, Shugart and Waggoner identify five main qualities of camp performance: parody, irony, performance, aesthetics, and resistance. Shugart and Waggoner then analyze four examples of female camp using what they call “a logic of resistive camp” to identify shared characteristics among these specific performances: the use of familiar tropes presented in unfamiliar ways, spectacle, and other characters/individuals that serve as anchors and foils.

The first chapter “Camp Grounds: Histories and Characters of Camp” the authors present a history of camp and provide a framework for understanding camp performances in academic and cultural history. The characteristics of camp are explained in detail and serve as the foundation on which the performances of Xena, Karen Walker, Macy Gray, and Gwen Stefani are analyzed.

The second chapter “Breaking Camp: Co-optation and Critical Logics” addresses the inclination for critics to dismiss the four characters in question as “camp lite” or “pop camp,” terms used to describe the prevalent recycling of past cultural genres, fashions, or icons in popular media. “Camp lite,” as described by various theorists, is everywhere in the popular media yet carries little to no resistive power and often reifies hegemonic structures. Shugart and Waggoner do not attempt to articulate what marks camp as “pop” or “authentic” but do suggest that media fare should not be dismissed as a context void of resistive camp performances.

Chapters three through six apply Shugart and Waggoner’s resistive camp logic to four specific performances of female camp. The fictional characters of Xena and Karen Walker and the musical artists Macy Gray and Gwen Stefani all present ironic, parodic, and “over the top” performances with carefully crafted and larger-than-life aesthetics. What makes these performances camp is established with the characteristics discussed in chapter 1. The most difficult of these to articulate in these examples is “resistance.” Shugart and Waggoner dedicate the bulk of each chapter to establishing how these specific performances resist dominant ideas of femininity and female sexuality.

In chapter three Shugart and Waggoner assert that Xena’s masculine fighting practices and stoic demeanor juxtaposed with her provocative leather outfit and maternal instincts provide a complication of the well-known Wonder Woman and jungle queen tropes. Additionally Xena does not rely on a male figure, but is instead contrasted by goofy, weak male foils and is supported by her young, attractive sidekick Gabrielle. The relationship between Xena and Gabrielle is often tender and suggestively sexual, further complicating Xena’s sexuality. Xena is able to present a simultaneously feminine/masculine- lesbian/straight gender performance that resists the tropes her character is based upon and larger ideologies of gender and sexuality.

Shugart and Waggoner then move on the character of Karen Walker, the crass, extremely wealthy character on the television sitcom Will and Grace that aired from 1998-2006. It is difficult to take Karen seriously, although her actions are recognizable in the “rich bitch,” “fag hag” and “gold digger” tropes. Karen takes these tropes to a new level of excess and absurdity, encouraging critical reflection of dominant messages of gender, sexuality and class. Shugart and Waggoner suggest that Karen embodies characteristics of gay male sexuality that she shares with her flamboyantly gay friend Jack-promiscuity, superficiality, and self-gratification. The opposition of a married, wealthy, heterosexual woman enacting a gay male sexuality provide a tension that Shugart and Waggoner believe challenges dominant ideas.

The analysis then turns away from characters and focuses on popular musical artists Macy Gray and Gwen Stefani. Macy Gray’s over-the-top 1970s fashion aesthetic her sexual stance is linked with the masculine tropes of blaxploitation films such as Shaft and Superfly and the “Super Freak” of the Rick James song. The resistive power of Gray’s performance lies in the seemingly competing tropes of the excessively performed “mack daddy” and a hyperbolized female “sexual freak.” Shugart and Waggoner assert that the juxtaposition of these tropes in Gray’s performance on and off the stage provide a manifestation of female gender sexuality that resists objectification and exploitation.

Gwen Stefani is the final subject of Shugart and Waggoner’s analysis. Like with each of the other performances, Stefani’s use of camp is over-the-top and combines tropes of masculinity and femininity to destabilize dominant messages of female gender and sexuality. Although she plays with the recognizable gestural vocabulary of the coy female and often wears ultra-feminine clothing, she is able to mark these actions as put-on by contrasting these choices with hyper masculine choreography and male attire. While Stefani’s contemporaries may dabble in a camp aesthetic, Stefani’s persona never returns to a stereotypical “normal” feminine aesthetic when she is seen in traditional non-performance spaces. Stefani’s on-stage and off-stage performance of gender and sexuality are marked by a devotion to inconsistencies suggesting the destabilizing idea of one’s ability to play with gender and sexuality.

Shugart and Waggoner’s “resistive camp logic” provides a model and a method by which others could identify and assess other resistive female camp performances in the throngs of mass media. Although the authors do not discuss intentionality or venture to articulate how one goes about making resistive female camp performances, one could easily apply the characteristics Shugart and Waggoner articulate in Xena, Karen Walker, Macy Gray, and Gwen Stefani (trope, spectacle, and anchors and foils) to the creation of theatrical, social, or cultural camp performances. Additionally, Shugart and Waggoner articulate the “doubling” nature of camp, where mainstream and subversive messages coexist simultaneously. A double audience is also assumed, one that takes the performance as serious and one that is “in on the joke.” The concept of a double message or a bifurcated audience is not new, however it is well articulated in Making Camp and several examples throughout the text serve as colorful examples for how one might go about creating a sense of doubling. Making Camp presents an analytic framework and an accessible logic that I believe could be very helpful for scholars and practitioners who wish to understand or utilize female camp as means of political resistance and destabilization of hegemonic practices.

     — Marjorie Hazeltine

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