Week Three: Camp and Johnny Guitar

Here are three points from Susan Sontag’s multifarious account of Camp that I find especially relevant to our discussion of queer cinema, and in particular to Johnny Guitar.

  1. Sontag calls Camp “a mode of enjoyment, of appreciation – not judgement” (13). Camp can be a liberating sensibility because it’s based on a sort of frivolity and playfulness. Seen in this way, the Camp quality of characters in Johnny Guitar is really an embrace of a playfulness with gender, that is gender-bending, rather than an exaggeration of the gender binaries already in place. For Robertson the Camp in Johnny Guitar doesn’t just signify or encourage a “reversal of sex roles” but “a blurring of gender and sex boundaries altogether” (Robertson 44). Thus, Robertson’s argument that “by acknowledging the text’s camp qualities, we can potentially read the excess and the contradictions of the female roles at the expense of the containment and the presumed resolution of the contradictions” (Robertson 42) makes sense. It is what allows a feminist reading of the film.  
  1. Sontag claims that Camp is a style and a form of aesthetics and is thus, as a sensibility, “disengaged, depoliticized or at least apolitical” (Sontag 2). However, by virtue of being excessive, of carrying out symbolism to the point of mockery, camp can have political implications. Camp object and persons can be politicized, like Joan Crawford as a Camp icon. By taking on a Camp image, that is either excessive masculinity or hyper-femininity, Crawford goes against the socially and politically, or at least economically, endorsed image of a mild domesticated woman. Crawford’s excessive appearance contests the acceptable norm and thus becomes an object of socio-political debate.
  1. “To perceive Camp in object and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role” (Sontag 4). The notion of playing out one’s identity goes back to our discussions of performativity, in particular how it relates to the queer experience. Sontag calls Camp the “farthest extension […] of the metaphor of life as theater” (4). With regards to what we have said about gender performativity and passing in the early years of Hollywood, we could rephrase Sontag by saying that the Camp sensibility of excessively feminine or excessively masculine characters functions as the metaphor of queer life as show-business.

Works Cited:

Robertson, Pamela. “Camping Under Western Stars: Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar.” Journal of Film and Video. 47. 1995. Print.
Sontag, Susan. “Notes On “Camp”.” Partisan Review. 1964: 1-14. Print.

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