Well, it’s been quite a fucking week hasn’t it, dearest Filthy Dreams readers! I feel hungover, terrified and slightly amused. And we’ve only got one week down of our Dear Leader Donald J. Trump. Man, it’s going to be a long four years.
And the art world isn’t helping. I find most of the art world’s responses to our orange-toned national nightmare lousy at best. I mean, is digging up old pieces of paper by Jenny Holzer to address our “unpresidented” times really all we got? This isn’t the 1970s anymore; that’s just not going to cut it. In fact, I’m embarrassed and bored. Over.It.
Ricocheting between panic, disbelief and laughter over reports of Kellyanne Conway’s fists of fury at the Inaugural Balls this week, I’ve realized what just might be missing in the resistance: humor. Why do I think humor might be useful against the Trump administration? Well, take a look at the above tweet.
That tweet was sent this morning by White House Press Secretary and Dippin’ Dots warrior Sean Spicer who apparently was unable to tell the difference between The Onion’s mockery of him and flattery. I know, alternative facts must get confusing sometimes. And I get it, as the Trump machine spins us straight into surrealism, it is difficult to tell what is a joke anymore. However, Spicer’s tweet made me realize that if they can’t tell the difference between humor and reality, maybe there’s a sliver of possibility to be found in that comedic weakness.
I’m not the first to notice the potential in using humor to combat Trump and his minions. I mean, you only have to look at Trump’s weekly SNL-induced Twitter rage to see humor’s dismantling power. Comedy also had a significant impact on the campaign trail that may have actually led to Trump’s election. Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker television critic, pointed out the role Trump’s trolling jokes had on the outcome of the election in her article “How Jokes Won The Election.” It can’t be denied–Trump is funny like a Frankenstein’s monster of our country’s misogynistic, capitalist media-soaked society. Plus, the Hee Haw-level humor of his base played right into his tiny palms.
Similarly, Ian Crouch at the New Yorker followed Nussbaum’s article with an analysis of post-inauguration humor aimed at Trump from Aziz Ansari’s opening monologue on SNL to #alternativefacts. In “The Kind of Comedy That Can Hurt Trump,” he concluded, “People are mocking not only Conway and Spicer but Trump as well, the man who sent his underlings out with the impossible task of selling the unsellable. The result is a different kind of comedy consensus: the ridicule of the majority. A good joke may have the power to diminish the new Trump Administration, especially if it’s one it unwittingly tells about itself.”
These articles and just my own twitter trolling all week have led me to consider what we can possibly learn by delving into camp, specifically, as a means of resistance. Of course, historically queers know a thing or two about camping when down. Laughing in the face of physical and emotional violence, social alienation and threat has been a tenant of queer culture since Oscar Wilde.
In her book Mother Camp: Female Impersonators In America, published in 1972, Esther Newton observed, “Camp humor is a system of laughing at one’s incongruous position instead of crying.” (109). But, even Newton clutched her pearls at the queens’ ability to laugh at the most dire situations. She continued, “one of the most confounding aspects of my interaction with the impersonators was their tendency to laugh at situations that to me were horrifying or tragic” (109).
Even though Newton couldn’t lighten up, she just had to look at her own observation that “Humor does not cover up, it transforms” to see the possibility in using camp as a weapon–a personal protest against a phobic society. As Charles Ludlam writes in Ridiculous Theatre: The Scourge of Human Folly, “camp is motivated by rage” (254).
Citing examples from What Ever Happened To Baby Jane to numerous forms of protest and artistic activism during the height of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, David M. Halperin in his book How To Be Gay observes, “Gay male culture, it turns out, actually has a long history of laughing at situations that to others are horrifying or tragic” (140). Our current political situation is both horrifying and tragic, and there is an impulse to not laugh ever again. But as queer individuals have known forever, that would be a mistake.
This all begs the question–why camp specifically? For me, camp hits on a number of subversive measures that all perfectly align with what we need to deal with Trump–destabilizing and critiquing power, a more populist angle than the moral superiority and indigence of some futile progressive responses and the potential of building community.
Scott Long’s essay “The Loneliness of Camp” delves into the potential sociopolitical destabilization of camp humor. “Camp assaults a society that presumes it knows what is serious and what is not,” writes Long. “It strives not to imitate this authority in distorted form but to expose it as inadequate. Hence it does not merely invert the opposition between the trivial and the serious; it posits a stance, detached, calm and free, from which the opposition as a whole and its attendant terms can be perceived and judged” (79).
His use of the word “inadequate” here is key to relating to Trump. Trump’s Achilles heel is his fear of inadequacy–his miniscule hands, his sad sack inauguration turn out, his terrible approval ratings and his distrust of the media. And it’s not hard to point out his failures what with 3 Doors Down as the only band willing to play his inauguration like a high school graduation. Or his sourpuss face through the whole goddamn thing.
By stripping away his seriousness through camp humor, Trump’s inadequacy can be clearly observed. And it drives him nuts (or well, more nuts than he already is).
As you know, dearest readers, one of my favorite past times is tweeting at Trump in the style of Trump since it seems to awaken the Trumper beast, rattle their cages and cross their wires–they’re just not sure how to react to someone writing in his syntax and cadence. By reading Long’s essay, I realize I was evoking one of Long’s descriptions of camp. He explains, “Another variety of camp imitates the oppressive mechanism only to expose it by forcing it to its extremes: the tragedy grows so grotesquely great that only madness can persist in the attempt to domesticate it” (79).
David Caron defines camp as “social critique at work.” In David M. Halperin’s How To Be Gay, he points out that camp “does not aim to correct and improve, but to question, to undermine and to destabilize. In this it differs from satire…since satire functions as criticism, a putdown of inferior objects and practices. Whereas camp makes fun of things not from a position of moral or aesthetic superiority, but from a position internal to the deplorable condition of having no serious moral or aesthetic standards–a condition that lovingly elaborates and extends, generously or aggressively, so as to include everybody” (191).
“Camp doesn’t preach, it demeans,” continues Halperin, “But it doesn’t demean some people at other people’s expense. It takes everyone down with it together” (191). Like Quentin Crisp expressed in The Naked Civil Servant, “I realized how much cheaper it was to drag the Jones down to my level” (3).
This is important in any responses to Trump–when you come at Trump from an angle of a higher moral ground, you lose an audience that loves to rail about “coastal elites.” Instead, when you take everyone down with it, it confuses the audience. They know how to deal with angry liberals–they don’t know how to deal with someone with elusive political standing. Everyone has to be implicated in this national theatre of ridiculousness.
But, more than even being heard by the yokel masses–for we can’t convert all of those red-capped minions, camp has the possibility of bringing suffering people together–building a community of angry and laughing outsiders. For instance, just try tweeting something campy at Trump and you’ll get tons of retweets and likes. [Although it sounds silly to tout the importance of social media, Trump’s control the media by his tweets explains much of his success. Our campy resistance has to beat him at his own game.]
“Camp–even at its most pessimistically conceived–still asservates a kind of hope: it is a system of signs by which those who understand certain ironies will recognize each other and endure. It is a private language for some who insist that public language has gone wrong,” writes Scott Long” (90). This private language has the potential to bring together alienated and ostracized communities–like it did for gay men in the more repressive eras in our history.
Analyzing the subversive use of camp by the Fire Island Italian widows, a group of men who lost partners due to complications with AIDS that donned the traditional Italian mourning garments in an overblown performance of actual grief, Halperin writes, “They laugh in order not to cry, in order not to lapse into maudlin self-pity. But, that’s not the whole story. For the pain does not cease when they laugh at it–it may, if anything, become sharper and more precise. But now it has an acknowledged place, a specific social and emotional location, which means it is no longer quite so incapacitating or so isolating. The effect is not to evade the reality of pain, but to share it and thus, to cope with it” (186).
And right now, under an orange dictator with his coked-up, wasted Breitbart sidekick and closeted Christian warrior VP, we need a community of people who can laugh and share our pain. As Philip Core’s encyclopedia of camp describes, camp is “the heroism of people not called on to be heroes.”