Friday, February 18, 2005

Teaching Camp

I gave myself two days to get through Butler's "Imitation and Gender Insubordination" this week, but because I had a kick-ass lecture on it from another class, I got through it more quickly and clearly) than I ever could have imagined. I promised the students that during the second class period I'd show them how Butler's piece lends itself to that elusive sub-category of queer theory, Camp. JB goes on and on about "repetition with a difference." Okay, I thought, let's take this to a fun place and show them how subversive repetition works in a more playful (but poignant kids, don't forget the poignant part) context.

So day two comes and I rush through the end of Butler and start my powerpoint presentation on camp and it goes well. But halfway through I realize that they just don't get it, that they can't get it, because there's a huge generational difference and while I don't want to say they don't get irony, because how condescending would that be, I realize that they don't get this particular kind of irony. These students barely know who Paul Lynde is, let alone Bette Davis. Most of them will never see Auntie Mame. So now I'm worried. I just happen to have been raised by a gay man (albeit in the body of a Mormon housewife) who really GOT camp, and so I can't remember a time when I didn't know the movie Laura or that Julie Andrews was robbed and should have played Eliza Doolittle in the movie version of My Fair Lady.

I was really lucky to spend my dissertating years drinking in one of Chicago's oldest gay bars, where, for the first time in my very sheltered life I found other people who could quote along with The Women. These guys helped me write my dissertation. They helped me learn how to be gay (I had no community at all when I came out, as I was out of college and married and stuck in the suburbs, and I had missed out on the queer campus scene that my students seem to enjoy, not that I went to an undergrad where it was okay to be sexual, let alone homosexual) and to be joyful and flamboyant and have dignity. The two men who meant the most to me are dead now, and I often get teary when I try to explain to my students what being gay in the 60s and 70s meant, what an entirely non-queer world looked like, how camp was a discourse of the marginalized, a particular kind of snobbish in-joke-ness that sustained and fortified. They listen thoughtfully, but there's no context. Someone raised their hand and suggested that maybe SNL's Ambiguously Gay Duo were campy. That's good. Yeah, that works.

But now I'm obsessing over the idea of teaching a class on Queer Cultural History. Queer History courses are about major political movements, but what happens when the rest of my beloved boys are gone and there's no one left to celebrate Judy Garland, or Barbra Streisand, or Dusty Springfield. And I know these might seem like huge camp cliches to our generation, but they don't mean anything to theirs.

So that's my dream right now. Introducing 20 somethings to All About Eve and Our Miss Brooks. And I worry that this sounds condescending (and it's a celebration of queerness that totally excludes women and certainly teeters on the borders of misogyny, I know, I know) and as I write I see my ex-girlfriend sneering and saying to herself, "So, she's as obvious and pedantic and shallow as ever." But this is my heart. I wanna teach this.


Blogger chaos said...

I found my way here from Dr. Crazy's Women's Studies post(s) and wanted to say that your courses sound amazing! I am a 20-something graduate student of Philosophy but once upon a time was an undergrad majoring in Women's Studies. I remember being exposed to camp for the first time in the classroom. Most of the other students in the class were as well. I don't know if we got it. But, looking back, I'm glad that old school gay prof banged his head into the wall so many times. The history of queers is missing from my generation, and it's hurting us. We have to remember all the people who died of AIDS, but we can't remember unless survivors tell us their stories. We need to know abou tthe humor and theatrics of earlier queer movements, especially as we struggle to fight an ever intensifing political right. But we can't know unless someone tells us. My advice: keep teaching. We will get it. Eventually.

10:37 AM  
Blogger Margo, darling said...

I love the idea of your "old school gay prof" slipping camp into the curriculum. Thanks for the encouragement. It's not like I really even know this stuff either. I'm mid-30s, which is still way too young to really "get" what I sense needs to be remembered. I also like the conciseness of your phrasing--it really is the "humor and theatrics" that stands out. If I can just keep remembering that.

12:34 PM  
Anonymous dc said...

Ack! Oh my Margo, darling! Get yourself to a good gay history course.

When I teach it, there's very little about major political movements, and when we do talk about the Gay Liberation Front, Daughters of Bilitis or the Mattachine Society it's in terms of how they shaped what we understand to be gay identity and more importantly how they reinforce the binary between gay and straight. We talk how these movements actually helped to construct and proliferate the hegemonic closet, rather than bust out the idea of socially and culturally constructed sexuality. And most importantly how these movements, particularly the earlier ones, wanted nothing to do with bar culture and what a tragedy that was.

in terms of camp, it is always shocking that this generation of queers don't seem to understand it, but in a history class i try not only to explain it, perform it, etc. but show how important camp was as both a form of everyday resistance as well as a way to build community in a time when queers were supposedly "invisible." and there is good stuff on the cult of judy, etc. on the history side, if you're interested.

i think one of the important things that Warner says in his polemic is that the tragedy of AIDS is that we lost a generation of men who were so much more queer than those that survived, which is why there is not enough resistance to the "heteronormativity" going on within the fight for gay marriage, the HRC, etc. we miss their voices in the classroom and the streets as much as in the barroom.

4:30 PM  
Blogger Margo, darling said...

dc, you're class sounds heavenly, and rigorous. I wish I could sit in on one. So far there's nothing quite like it where I teach, and my undergrad (Brigham Young U) wasn't, shall we say, real up on the gay history. Or women's history. Or women. Like most of us in interdisciplinary programs/depts., I think we find ourselves a little over our heads. I have a specialty (modernist lit.) and a strong sense of myself as a writer and researcher, but within the "interdisciplinary" classroom I'm always second-guessing myself. The fact is, I'm not a historian and part of my "job" now is to work backwards and retrain myself and fill in all my blanks. (as if!)I have been talking with the woman who teaches the GLBT history classes about working together to develop a course in queer culture, or something like that.

Your description of how you teach camp is beautiful and moving. Again, I would love, love, love to be a part of that experience. How lucky your students must be.

6:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I swiped this par. from my friend Ben's most recent livejournal entry (his username is factoflife). He's a Senior at Sarah Lawrence. He has nightmares about arriving late to screenings of the Diana Ross movie "Mahogany" and worries that his neighbors will hear him blasting Dusty through the wall. His Friendster profile features a picture of Maria Montez. (spelling?) I thought maybe you could use a hopeful sign that there are those in our generation who fully understand camp...

"To calm my nerves I grabbed "Dusty in Memphis" and drove to the video store where I rented THE ENTITY, GARBO TALKS and a horror movie that I've never bothered to look at before called THE NESTING. I figured that Barbara Hershey getting raped by an invisible force would be something that I could relate to right now. I can always relate to Anne Bancroft. As for THE NESTING, it's from 1980 and stars John Carradine and Gloria Grahame and is about a haunted whorehouse. Do you ever just get a feeling?"


9:32 PM  

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