In her essay “Camping Under Western Stars,” Robertson traces the evolution of Joan Crawford’s career and then ties the nature of her rise and fall to her lasting camp appeal. A major cause of Crawford’s fall from favor, her shift away from a star into a figure of camp, was the massive shift in the cultural ideals of femininity that occurred over the course of her career. During her early phase, Crawford’s satisfaction (and dissatisfaction) was linked to her career, creating a then admirable image of a self-made star. When the presumed source of female satisfaction became so strictly enforced as maternity and domesticity in the 1950s, Crawford’s “persona became that of an excessive grotesque unsuited to the dominant ideology” (39). Her dissatisfaction, instead of being a positive signal of her ambition, began to “represent an excess of desire for inappropriate objects” (39). Joan Crawford was now the image of a “pathetic and lonely shrew whose career [was] her only fulfillment” — the perfect camp object (39). This case study is fascinating, in part, because it demonstrates the ever-shifting ideals and norms of gender– the recognition of which is central to queer studies. In addition, of course, there are the parallels between Crawford’s image and that of Margo in All About Eve— and between the image of Bette Davis in real life, for that matter. Moreover, it reveals how shifting cultural ideals have the power to recast a star’s persona. To borrow from Sontag’s idea that camp is, in part, created through a “seriousness that fails,” (283) shifts in ideals can cause a shift in what can be taken seriously. When something or someone is gradually or suddenly placed in exaggerated opposition to the current dominant ideology, it becomes subject to camp reading.
Robertson, Pamela. “Camping Under the Stars: Joan Crawford in ‘Johnny Guitar.’” Journal of Film and Video. Volume 47, Number 1-3 (Fall 1995).
Sontag, Susan. “Notes on ‘Camp.’” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. New York: Picador, 2001.