Why Are So Many Female-Led Projects Called ‘Camp’?

Photo-Illustration: Maya Robinson/Vulture

With his latest FX anthology series, Feud, showrunner and television powerhouse Ryan Murphy sets an ambitious goal: to wrest Hollywood icons Bette Davis and Joan Crawford from the camp spectacles their legends have morphed into. It may be an impossible aim, particularly for Crawford. During her lifetime, she was a legend with a knack for changing her looks to fit the times; the image people hold of her now, however, is not really her at all, but rather Faye Dunaway’s snarling, madcap performance as her in Mommie Dearest, the over-the-top film adaptation of Crawford’s adopted daughter’s memoir, which went on to become a camp classic. It’s a hit piece so thorough, it has come to define the totality of Crawford’s image for contemporary audiences.

While some of both Davis and Crawford’s work could arguably be described as camp (for the former, King Vidor’s Beyond the Forest; for the latter, later-era films such as Strait-Jacket and aspects of the wondrous Nicholas Ray film Johnny Guitar), that their entire careers and places within film history are defined as such does a disservice to their artistry. But they aren’t alone in representing what has become a troubling trend when it comes to women’s work. As camp entered the mainstream lexicon, especially after Susan Sontag’s landmark 1964 essay, “Notes on ‘Camp,’” the term has been increasingly tied to work featuring women who disregard societal norms. Camp is often improperly and broadly applied to pop culture that features highly emotional, bold, complex, cold, and so-called “unlikable” female characters. I’ve seen films and TV shows such as the witty masterwork All About Eve; the beguiling Mulholland Drive; the stylized yet heartwarming Jane the Virgin; Todd Haynes’s Patricia Highsmith adaptation Carol; the blistering biopic Jackie; the deliciously malevolent horror film Black Swan; Joss Whedon’s exploration of girlhood and horror, Buffy the Vampire Slayer; the landmark documentary Grey Gardens (which inspired the 2009 HBO film starring Jessica Lange and Drew Barrymore); and even icons such as Beyoncé and Rihanna be described as camp. Look at any list of the best camp films and you’ll see an overwhelming number of works that feature women and don’t actually fit the label. Usually, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the film whose behind-the-scenes story provides Murphy’s launching pad for Feud, will be at the top of the list.

While camp need not be a pejorative, that hasn’t stopped it from being widely used as such. In effect, being labeled as camp can turn the boldest works about the interior lives of complex women into a curiosity, a joke, a punch line. The ease with which camp is applied to female-led films and shows of this ilk demonstrates that for all the (still-paltry) gains Hollywood has made for women in the decades since Davis and Crawford worked, our culture is still uncomfortable respecting women’s stories.

Before going any further, it’s important to understand what camp is in the first place. As Sontag wrote in her essay, “Camp is a certain mode of aestheticism. It is one way of seeing the world as an aesthetic phenomenon. That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization.” It’s not so much a genre as it is a sensibility that is either consciously chosen or naïvely stepped into, making earnest intentions seem comedic. As J. Bryan Lowder writes for Slate, “Campiness, as a style and sensibility, comprises a set of widely appreciated characteristics: frivolity, a celebration of the ‘so bad it’s good,’ the overwrought, the histrionic, what Sontag calls ‘failed seriousness.’” Camp often walks the line between embracing its subjects and ridiculing them, or at the very least treating them with emotional distance. It’s something you can love and even admire, but never take seriously — it’s just a bit too much. In essence, camp is an aesthetic that privileges stylization over content, artifice over naturalism, and the visceral over emotional truth.

There are plenty of modern examples of camp: Lee Daniels’s work, particularly The Paperboy; RuPaul’s Drag Race; John Waters films; nearly everything Ryan Murphy puts his hands on, but especially American Horror Story and Nip/Tuck; the second Sex and the City film; Ugly Betty; and Hannibal, by showrunner Bryan Fuller’s own admission. These works are united in being highly stylized; obsessed with the idea of treating every aspect of life, including gender, as performance; and turning the beautiful into the grotesque and outlandish (and vice versa). Part of why it feels accurate to describe these works as camp is because their creators are knowingly working within that aesthetic. Camp need not be self-aware to qualify, but that definitely helps.

That major Hollywood icons such as Marlene Dietrich, Bette Davis, Joan Crawford (and, more recently, Natalie Portman, thanks to Jackie) have been roped into this lineage isn’t surprising. Society doesn’t know what to do with women of this ilk without discrediting their very womanhood. Take artist and filmmaker Bruce LaBruce’s offensive description of Mae West in an essay on camp: “[She] played with androgyny to the degree that her final performance — her autopsy — was necessary to prove her biological femaleness.” In his 2013 essay “Why Is Camp So Obsessed with Women?”, J. Bryan Lowder expands on Sontag’s most well-known line: “It’s not a lamp, but a ‘lamp’; not a woman, but a ‘woman.’ To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role.” Lowder writes, “‘Woman,’ the concept within the quotation marks, is not the same thing, at all, as a real woman; the former is a mythology, a style, a set of conventions, taboos, and references, while the latter is a shifting, changeable, and ultimately indefinable living being. Of course, there may be some overlap.” But if all gender is a performance, where does the “real” woman begin? And why does the presence of camp hold more importance than the actual work and voices of actresses such as Crawford, who have come to be defined by it?

At times, camp can feel like a suffocating label. Its proponents often misconstrue the fact that recreating oneself as a character is not merely an aesthetic for women, but rather, for many, a matter of survival. Living in a culture that profoundly scorns ambition, autonomy, and independence in women, girls learn quickly the narrow parameters of femininity available to them. When they transcend these parameters, life can get even more difficult. Women often pick up and drop various forms of presentation in order to move through the world more easily. Performance as a woman — in terms of how one speaks, walks, talks, acts — can be a means of controlling one’s own narrative. Camp often limits this part of the discussion, focusing instead on the sheer thrill of watching larger-than-life female characters cut and snark their way across the screen. How these works speak to women, past and present, becomes a tertiary concern at best, and the work loses a bit of its importance in the process; it either comes to be regarded as niche or, if it still has mainstream prominence, as abject spectacle. In turn, the conversations around these works become less about the women at their centers and more about how those women are presented. Nothing captures this trend better than two recent projects: Pablo Larraín’s Jackie and Murphy’s Feud.

Jackie stars Natalie Portman as First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy in the days following the assassination of her husband, President John F. Kennedy. With Mica Levi’s haunting score and the horror-film techniques that Larraín uses to shape the story, Jackie presents itself as not so much a biopic, as a reflection on grief and identity through a distinctly female lens. It’s a towering film that explores the complexity inherent in how women perform in order to survive. And yet, while its critical standing is largely positive, Jackie has regularly been called campy. On one hand, calling it camp is a way to acknowledge the artifice inherent to how Jackie presented as a woman, with her lilting, highly specific mid-Atlantic speech and the pomp and circumstance that is now attached to the role of First Lady. But camp has often been used as an insult when describing the film — or at the very least as a framework for discussing its niche qualities.

Take a December 2016 edition of Vanity Fair’s podcast Little Gold Men, in which hosts Katey Rich, Mike Hogan, Joanna Robinson, and Richard Lawson discuss their top films of the year. About 11 minutes in, the conversation turns to Jackie. The words “campy disaster” are thrown around, Jackie’s affect is labeled as “bizarre,” and they joke that the film’s only target audience is gay men. Hogan notes that when he watched the film, he felt it was “totally disembodied from any actual things that matter in the world.” It’s this line of thinking that has let Hollywood get away with neglecting the perspectives of female characters in films.

As Vulture writer Mark Harris tweeted, many framed Jackie and the performance at its center as a form of drag, which is a misread of the film. After seeing Jackie for the first time with a female friend, we both commented on how the standout dress-up montage felt so true to our own lives. In the scene, an increasingly drunk Jackie goes through her impeccable wardrobe, trying on various gowns and dresses and jewelry as she saunters through the White House late at night. This is, of course, about the beauty and presentation of Jackie herself. But it also touches on the various sides of her personality and what was being lost in the wake of Kennedy’s assassination. Clothes and presentation were something drilled into me as important from a very young age; used properly, they can almost be an armor against the world. This scene in Jackie crystallizes how distinctly feminine this story is in how it approaches grief and identity.

The reaction to the film also inadvertently highlights how, if Jackie were about a man, it would have been taken more seriously. After all, Capote is a movie about a historical figure, anchored by Philip Seymour Hoffman’s highly stylized performance, but camp did not hover around it as a qualifier. Maybe the problem with the reception of films like Jackie is that there isn’t a mainstream critical lineage for studying films about emotional, prickly, transgressive women outside of camp — which is apparent in how Feud frames the work of Bette Davis and Joan Crawford.

Feud’s treatment of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? perpetuates one of the oldest clichés about the film: that it’s purely camp extravagance. In a great piece for Uproxx, critic Steven Hyden astutely observes, “Murphy is interested in Baby Jane only as a trashy signifier of how far these once-gilded leading ladies have fallen.” Yet in many ways, Baby Jane excels at what Feud falters at: exploring Hollywood’s sexism with nuance and humanity. Baby Jane essentially ratchets up the ugly reality of Hollywood’s treatment of women with more venom than Billy Wilder’s Sunset Boulevard.

But if you were to only watch the show’s recreations of scenes from Baby Jane, it would be hard to understand how the film ever found an audience. On Feud, Baby Jane is stilted, over-the-top, laughable, and does not capture the meta-textual qualities, horror, or genuine emotions that make the film so riveting. The show also seems to forget that the film wasn’t created or treated as a joke during its production or after its release.

Much of Baby Jane’s camp legacy comes down to how more recent audiences have interpreted Davis’s performance. She’s ferocious, frightening, and grotesque. But framing Davis’s performance as camp, as Murphy does, doesn’t take into account how dramatically acting has shifted over the course of film history. In some ways, camp has become a label used when modern audiences don’t quite understand older styles of acting. Modern actors privilege the remote, the cold, the detached. The more scenery-chewing performances that make the labor of acting visible — such as the transformative work that Jake Gyllenhaal did in Nightcrawler, or most of Christian Bale’s career — is typically the domain of men. (Or, at least, it’s only men who can get away with it without being called campy.) As Shonni Enelow writes in a marvelous piece for Film Comment, “[Jennifer] Lawrence’s characters in Winter’s Bone and The Hunger Games don’t arrive at emotional release or revelation; rather than fight to express themselves, her characters fight not to. We can see the same kind of emotional retrenchment and wariness in a number of performances by the most popular young actors of the last several years.” Davis’s work as an actor was the antithesis of that; she painted in bold colors. Even her quietest moments brim with an intensity that cannot be denied.

Films like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, Jackie, and the many others that have been wrongly branded as camp deserve to be reassessed. Until Hollywood and critics are able to see stories about complex, highly emotional women as more than camp spectacle, the industry will never be able to combat the sexism that hobbles its creativity.

Why Are So Many Female-Led Projects Called ‘Camp’?