What do college spring break trips and drag shows have in common? (I promise, this is not the setup for a terrible punch-line) If you look at the general structuring of both types of event, they’re actually pretty similar; both require appropriate costumes (either tiny bikinis/muscle tees or lavish gowns and wigs), both include a certain level of rowdiness and/or drunken debauchery, and both celebrate excessiveness, especially with regards to overt gender performance. However similar the two may be, spring break is accepted in our culture, representing almost a right of passage for American youth, while drag shows, typically much less well received, get slapped with a label; camp. “Camp”, a term made popular by Susan Sontag’s essay Notes on “Camp”, is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical behavior (especially effeminate or homosexual).” If you eliminate the parenthetical element of that definition, it applies just as equally to a raucous college spring break as it does to a flamboyant drag show. What is so different about the motivation behind the gender performances involved in drag shows that earn them the designation “campy” while spring break gets a free pass?
Right off the bat, it becomes clear that, though seemingly just tacked on to the definition of “camp”, the main requirement for something to earn the designation “campy” is the element of exhibiting homosexual attributes. Otherwise, spring break rituals could be considered just as campy as drag shows. Labeling anything as “camp”, then, is a perfect demonstration of Eve Sedgewick’s concept of nonce taxonomies, detailed in her essay Epistemology of the Closet. Nonce taxonomy is the practice “of making and unmaking and remaking and redissolution of hundreds of old and new categorical imaginings concerning all the kinds it may take to make up the world” (Sedgewick, 23). Basically, it is an innate human desire to want to categorize and invent terms for people we encounter who are different than us in order to make sense of things we don’t fully understand. Our society, a predominantly heterosexual white male order, thus has constructed a concept of “normality” based off the desires and behaviors of heterosexual white men. Anything else, “the other”, needs to be categorized or labeled (homosexual, lesbian, gay, transsexual, pansexual, asexual, bisexual, etc.)
The problem with trying to create categories based off sexual orientation and gender expression is that the wide range of ways human beings can choose to express their gender and sexuality would lead to a never-ending list of complicated labels. For instance, the term ‘lesbian’, a woman who sexually desires other women, is a fairly simple and widely recognized label. But what, then, would we call a woman who used to be a man who sexually desires women? Or a man who identifies as a man, but dresses like a woman and has a girlfriend and an ex boyfriend? What would we then categorize his girlfriend as? To allow for more fluidity concerning sexual identity, we can employ the overarching term ‘queer’, which all of the aforementioned parties could be classified as. In her book Queer Theory, Annamarie Jagose defines queerness as “gestures or analytical models, which dramatize incoherencies in the allegedly stable relationships between chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire” (Jagose, 3). Anyone who doesn’t conform to norms assigned to them based on their chromosomal sex is considered queer. Drag shows are a perfect example of this because chromosomal males wearing ball gowns certainly do not conform to clothing norms dictated by their sex.
Though it still creates a distinction between “normal” and “abnormal” (which is fundamentally wrong because it requires one party to be identified as lesser than the other), the term queer at least allows for more fluidity when it comes to sexual identity than the traditional gender structure Judith Butler discusses in her book Gender Trouble. To illustrate the rigidity of the traditional masculine/feminine dichotomy, Butler describes two socially constructed “gender bubbles” which society dictates we must act within, lest we be categorized as abnormal, or queer. People who act outside these bubbles, such as drag queens, cause “gender trouble” by pointing out that what we believe to be gender ‘norms’ are just fictions which are reinforced as the truth by the media. After all, how can something as random as one’s chromosomal, or birth, sex be used to justify or prohibit any activity of behavior?
Spring break, the straight person’s gender performing equivalent of drag shows, utilizes similar exaggerated gender performances to reassert traditional gender rolls instead of to defy them as in the case of drag shows. Choose a handful of typical colleg-ey spring break themed movies (Spring Breakers or anything ever shown on MTV is a good place to start). What themes and images remain constant throughout all of them? Girls in string bikinis acting like drunken sluts, and guys trying to get with as many of them as possible. As opposed to a drag show’s satirical critiquing of chromosomal sex dictating nearly every aspect of how one is to behave, spring break reinforces the linearity of Jagose’s imagined “stable relationships” between chromosomal sex, gender, and sexual desire; straight men are shows asserting their masculinity by acting aggressive sleeping with a lot of girls, and straight women are shows expressing their femininity by showing their figures and basking attention from ogling boys. Therefore, one could argue that though spring breakers exhibit many of the same types of gender performances that earn drag shows the designation “campy”, spring break is actually the antithesis of “camp”, as it is basically a celebration of those who not only follow, but exemplify gender “rules”.
Even though the primary definition of ‘camp’ identifies it as “ostentatious, exaggerated, affected, theatrical behavior (especially effeminate or homosexual),” it becomes clear when comparing gender performances exhibited in spring break to those in drag shows that it is the queer aspect of drag culture that earns it the distinction of being “campy”. I think the current definition of the word ‘camp’ could use some tweaking to clarify the concept (after all, how can the definition of a word remain static when those it attempts to describe are always evolving and changing?); first off, the word ‘homosexual’ should be replaced with ‘queer’, a la Jagose’s definition of the word, as ‘camp’ has grown to encompass way more than just homosexual culture. Second, less emphasis should be placed on the ‘theatrical and exaggerated’ performance elements of ‘camp’, and more on the non-conforming behavioral aspects that place one outside of his or her assigned “gender bubble”. Possibly the main flaw of the term “camp” is that there is no straight equivalent, which subliminally suggests that there is only something atypical about exaggerated gender performances when the one acting them out is gay.
Butler, Judith. “Prohibition, Psychoanalysis, and the Production of the Heterosexual Matrix.” Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. New York: Routledge, 1990. 135-40. Print.
Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. “Introduction; Axiomatic.” Epistemology of the Closet. Berkeley: University of California, 1990. 1-63. Print.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on “Camp”” Against Interpretation: And Other Essays. New York: Dell Pub., 1966. N. pag. Print.