First off, for an essay entitled ‘Judy Garland and Camp’, I guess I’m supposed to define camp. And with this I have given myself a huge and difficult task right there. When definition is brought up in discussions on camp, almost the first sentence out of anyone’s mouth, pen or keyboard will contain ‘Susan Sontag’. Her ‘Notes on Camp’ are quite extensive and certainly brought a lot to the discussion. But she says that ‘to talk about Camp is to betray it’, and I know what she means. But I guess I can’t really avoid doing so when my project is a discussion of a ‘queer, camp, tragic legend’. I like that Sontag calls it a ‘sensibility’ – that suggests its slippiness in being defined. I also love that she describes camp as a ‘cult name’. Because even though I wouldn’t want to restrict those who can be camp or appreciate camp, it is one of those things that feels very much a queer thing; it is ‘ours’.
Saying that, what I find really interesting about Sontag’s ‘Notes on Camp’ is that although at the beginning of the piece she obliquely refers to camp as being ‘something of a private code, a badge of identity even, among small urban cliques’, it is not until point 50 in her list that she mentions the word ‘homosexual’ and only then at point 51 does she state that ‘the peculiar relation between Camp taste and homosexuality has to be explained’, going on to argue that ‘while it’s not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap. Not all liberals are Jews, but Jews have shown a peculiar affinity for liberal and reformist causes. So, not all homosexuals have Camp taste. But homosexuals, by and large, constitute the vanguard – and the most articulate audience – of Camp.’
But Sontag doesn’t gender the ‘homosexuals’. Are we to presume she is talking about men? Men are most often referred to as ‘homosexual’, women less so. It’s hard to say for definite here and normally I’d say it would be safe to assume that she is writing about men. But what I find really interesting is that ‘Notes on Camp’ is not only a woman discussing, describing and defining camp, it is Sontag, a queer woman writing what would become the Go To text on camp. And she doesn’t explain why she’s writing it or – thank god – apologise for doing so. She just does it. Wonderful. Because, as with most things queer, camp is considered to emanate from, and belong to, Gay Men. If you’re following FTLOJ you know that the assumption of JG’s iconology (and its associated facets such as camp) as belonging to gay men is a particular bugbear of mine. While I understand where it comes from, these assumptions totally ignore that queer people other than gay men love Judy (sometimes for the same or similar reasons) and also overlook that women can love camp (as well as be camp). Queer women who love Judy prove that Gay Men don’t have the monopoly on being a Friend of Dorothy.
Sontag may have been one of the first to dissect camp, but she’s not the last word on it. Honourable mention should go to more recent contributors such as Bruce LaBruce’s ‘Camp/Anticamp’ and ‘Queer Formalisms’, the beautiful conversation between Jennifer Doyle and David Getsy. But no examination of Judy Garland and Camp can ignore the Daddy of this subject (and FTLOJ’s personal GOD and hero): Richard Dyer. In his essay ‘Judy Garland and Gay Men’, Dyer argues that camp is ‘a defining feature of the gay male subculture.’ Now, I’ve already made it abundantly clear that I LOVE Richard Dyer. His work on film, queerness, popular culture and beyond is incredible. Profound, witty, insightful, reflexive and accessible. How much academic work can you say that about? But as much as he has acknowledged and explored misogyny and patriarchal power in gay men, he is guilty of the blanket ‘gay male culture’ statements as all those hundreds of others who write about Judy. I get that he was writing from within, and as part of, that culture. But as he is someone who has always been very much aware of gender, power and marginalisation, it’s frustrating that he too sidelines – or rather doesn’t even consider – queer people who aren’t gay men who love Judy and campness. That said, his essay ‘Judy Garland and Gay Men’ is a thing of beauty. One of the first scholars to write about popular culture – and fandom – as worthy and important, his works from the 70s still resonate and his subsequent scholarship is consistently vital and wonderful.
So what does the lovely Richard have to say about Judy? Well, one of the statements in his essay is ‘Judy Garland is camp’. Not ‘has been portrayed as’, ‘is read as’ or ‘falls into the category of’, but she IS. He gives many reasons for this statement, the most entertaining being the introduction to her rendition of the song ‘San Francisco’.
Dyer states that her tongue in cheek declaration of ‘I never will forget….nnn… Jeanette MacDonald!’ and the rest of that piss-taking verse not only reeks of camp but is very knowing camp. He argues that this is Garland being deliberately camp. For Dyer, Garland differs from other Camp Hollywood Icons in that she had a ‘reputation for being camp, rather than being seen as camp’. He gives lots of other examples of her exuding campness. Richard may ignore queer lady fans of Judy’s camp but at least he acknowledges that women can be very deliberately camp. Women are rarely given the power of camp; they are seen as the subjects of, rather than the owners of, their campness. If they are the subject then the power of camp belongs to those who are labelling them as such. If they are the owners then the Joy of Camp is all their very own. The owner can create it, wield it, play with it. Power.
I love Dyer’s exploration of Judy as camp because it really speaks to my visceral understanding of campness. So, what is camp for me? Camp is often suggested to be surface, throwaway, disposable, taking the piss. Of course there are times when camp is all of this, but for me it goes deeper and is very much an emotional thing. ‘Camp is a tender feeling’ says Sontag and I’m right there with ya, sister.
Simply put, for me camp is joy, heightened tragedy, irony, celebration, fabulousness, exuberance, big emotions, big gestures, big everything. It can be any or all of those things in different combinations. And when you think of all that, how can you not think of Judy Garland?
This is not my last word on Judy and camp by a long shot. But for now, in the spirit of the Camp Lists of Sontag and LaBruce, here’s an off the top of my queer camp head list of Things That Are Camp About Judy:
1. The Wizard of Oz. Including but not exclusive to: Dorothy, Being a Friend of Dorothy, Ruby Slippers, Ruby Slippers worn with socks, the gingham gown and basket, hanging out with a bunch of sissies, ‘Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore’, Technicolor transformations, Bobbie Koshay, an Emerald City, Munchkinland, Glinda, Billie Burke as Glinda, good and bad witches (or bitches?), Judy Garland as Dorothy, Judy Garland referring to an idea of herself as ‘Dorothy Adorable’ for the rest of her life
2. Tragedy (oh yes oh yes I promise I WILL write about this soon because it’s a particular powder keg when I talk and write about Judy)
3. Joy and laughter. And joy and laughter in the face of tragedy
4. Theatricality, Gesture and On Stage Judy (Roger Edens, Kay Thompson and The Making Of Garland)
5. A Great Lady Gives An Interview
6. Judy The Story Teller – see in particular, Judy Garland takes the piss out of Marlene Dietrich
7. The Baby who sang like a mature torch singer
8. The girl who is invisible to the love object
9. Acting sophisticated and glamorous
10 The addictions
11. The Life
12. The husbands, boyfriends and fiancés. The queer husbands, boyfriends and fiancés
13. Musicals, honourable mention: The Pirate
14. The kids
15. The outfits – those she designed herself, the mod outfits, sequins, androgyny, glamour
16. The songs
17. The movies
18. The TV show
19. The end
20. The death
Corinna Tomrley 2014