Hollywood's use of camp was basically a fad, one that connected briefly with late 1960s countercultural audiences and then quickly died away. Many of these deliberately campy films, such as Candy (1968), did little to challenge dominant assumptions about gender and sexuality. The few that did, like Myra Breckinridge (1970) or Something for Everyone (1970), were often met with critical hostility. Fueled by that era's more pronounced homophobia, critics and commentators charged that Hollywood elites were corrupting America with homosexual propaganda, and Hollywood filmmakers shied away from queer themes altogether. Hollywood eventually reconnected with its mainstream audience via the blockbuster genre films of the 1970s—films like Jaws (1975), Rocky (1976), and Star Wars (1977)—that hid their generic clichés and B-movie acting behind spectacular special effects and/or a hazy veil of nostalgia. Pop camp turned into simple parody: films such as Blazing Saddles (1974) and Young Frankenstein (1974) went for easy laughs that mostly avoided any critique of gender or sexuality. When Twentieth Century Fox released its deliberately queer camp genre hybrid The Rocky Horror Picture Show in 1975, it flopped terribly among mainstream audiences (although it eventually became the most famous of all cult films). Camp was no longer a style appreciated by mainstream audiences, and since that time it has continued to cause consternation for many movie-goers. Deliberately campy films like Moulin Rouge (2001) and Down with Love (2003) often reach a plateau at the box office because mainstream audiences are unsure what to make of their uneven tones and formal excesses.
Camp is, and was, perhaps a discourse of the closet, a sensibility for survival produced in an era when one's homosexuality had to be kept secret. British film critic Jack Babuscio explored those ties (even as they were fading away) in his essay "Camp and the Gay Sensibility" (1977). For Babuscio, the camp sensibility was dependent on queers' alienation from the mainstream. Such alienation produced irony (between the straight and gay worlds), performative role-playing (the need to pass as straight), aestheticization (desire to find beauty and truth wherever one could), and bittersweet humor (needed in order to survive in a hostile world). While those four traits still describe the camp sensibility, they no longer necessarily describe a specifically gay sensibility. Many gay and lesbian people now see themselves as part of mainstream America, and one does not have to be gay or lesbian in order to understand and appreciate camp.
To a certain extent, historical camp style and taste have been subsumed by a more generalized sense of postmodern irony and pastiche, a stance that approaches life (and media texts) as always and already "within quotes." Within film culture, the originally queer cult of camp has evolved into a larger, straighter, cult of fans who enjoy watching "bad movies"—B movies, low-budget genre films, exploitation cinema, and so forth. While this is consistent with camp's historical function (the revaluation of artifacts that dominant culture has already sloughed off) much of the "bad movie" cultism in the early twenty-first century perhaps lacks the critical context or political grounding that queer camp cultists embodied. Bad movies may be funny, and fun to laugh at (as the cult popularity of a show like Mystery Science Theater 3000 [1988–1999] attests to), but if and when more political critiques those films give rise to are heard, they are only one voice in an otherwise cacophonous semiotic excess. True to the polemics of the postmodern economy, the camp sensibility, born out of genuine political struggle and discrimination, has perhaps become just another hip stance or lifestyle practice available for purchase.
Babuscio, Jack. "Camp and the Gay Sensibility." In Gays and Film , edited by Richard Dyer, 40–57. London: British Film Institute, 1977.
Booth, Mark. Camp . London and New York: Quartet Books, 1983.
Meyer, Moe, ed. The Politics and Poetics of Camp . London and New York: Routledge, 1994.
Ross, Andrew. "Uses of Camp." In No Respect: Intellectuals and Popular Culture , edited by Andrew Ross, 135–170. New York: Routledge, 1989.
Sontag, Susan. "Notes on Camp." In A Susan Sontag Reader , 105–120. New York: Vintage Books, 1983. Originally published in 1964.
Tinkcom, Matthew. Working Like a Homosexual: Camp, Capital, Cinema . Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002.
Harry M. Benshoff