In 2015, girl camp finally had the coming-out party it had been waiting for. While touring her low-budget cult film fave, All About Evil (2010), Peaches Christ—drag queen, filmmaker and tour de force—turned her PR tour into an all-singing, all-dancing screening of But I’m a Cheerleader (Jamie Babbit, 1999) along with Natasha Lyonne, the star of both films. With a cabaret of drag queen cheerleaders in support, school was out for the summer.
Long before Elizabeth Banks’ Pitch Perfect 2 (2015) sent the Barden Bellas to boot camp—complete with motivational s’mores, Natalie Imbruglia singalongs, and a lesbian wedding announcement—Babbit’s film was putting the camp into summer camp. That is, the summer camp genre we’ve come to know and love for its heightened emotions and its teen dreams of middle-class bobby sock bliss long beloved by teenage female readers of Judy Blume and Paul Danziger. But Babbit breaks the golden rule of that summer camp story: BFFs are never, ever first loves too.
In Babbit’s first feature Lyonne plays Megan, the titular cheerleader whose uptight suburban parents get suspicious of her cheerleading activities and, via a family intervention, pack her off to True Directions, a reparative therapy camp for LGBTQ teens. In this pastel hell of conventional gender roles, Megan, who has always assumed she was straight (despite being a vegetarian and Melissa Etheridge fan), meets Graham (Clea DuVall), an out and proud lesbian who has no intention of falling in line with the camp’s rules. It is here, at reparative therapy camp, that Babbit launched the genre of girl camp: where the feminine genre of summer camp narratives meets the tonal and aesthetic properties of “camp” previously associated with white gay male culture.
In “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag instructs (in one of the campiest sentences ever written): “One must distinguish between naïve and deliberate Camp. Pure Camp is always naïve. Camp which knows itself to be Camp (‘camping’) is usually less satisfying.” Blume’s and Danziger’s naive novels, in other words, are the Pure Camp on which Babbit’s knowing camp riffs. And while Sontag favoured the “pure camp” that places camp in the eye of the taste-making beholder, queer artists took up “camping”—that “usually less satisfying” variety—with a vengeance. From Andy Warhol, through John Waters (Babbit cast Waters’ collaborator Mink Stole as Megan’s mom), to the New Queer Cinema of Todd Haynes, gay camp found all kinds of satisfaction.
Knowing camp is so coextensive with (gay) male authorship that British film critic Alexander Walker started his review of But I’m a Cheerleader with a need to clarify that Babbit is “a she, not a he.” Although first theorised by Sontag, there’s always been a drag-bracketed lacuna in camp where femininity (and, even more so, lesbianism) is concerned. Pure camp is heavily feminine (“Tiffany lamps… Swan Lake… the Cuban pop singer La Lupe,” sighs Sontag in a list of canonical camp) and thus it can be appropriated for (particularly white, upper class) gay male culture.
But where does that leave female artists and characters? Can we only ever be naive Pure Camp, or can we too wield the mallet and tent pegs of “Camping”? Before But I’m a Cheerleader, lesbian cinema seemed to suggest the former: deeply serious films such as Mädchen in Uniform (Leontine Sagan and Carl Froelich, 1931) or The Killing of Sister George (Robert Aldrich, 1968) gained camp value for their bosom-heaving emotions—but also because they could neither show lesbian sexuality, nor depict anything but a tragic ending.
Babbit’s film knows its mädchen history, and plays with the legacy of female homosociality in cinema (think Black Narcissus [Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger, 1947] and Picnic at Hanging Rock [Peter Weir, 1975], too). But unlike the lesbian driller-killer features of its time (Heavenly Creatures [Peter Jackson, 1994], Butterfly Kiss [Michael Winterbottom, 1995]), But I’m a Cheerleader offers both a happy ending and enough explicit lesbian sexuality to see the film rated NC-17, and Babbit forced by the MPAA to cut it. Nearly a decade of New Queer Cinema (first identified in 1992 by B. Ruby Rich) had produced several cute-but-earnest lesbian teen dramas, such as All Over Me (sisters Alex and Sylvia Sichel, 1997) and The Incredibly True Adventures of Two Girls in Love (Maria Maggenti, 1995), but with nothing like the playful irony, gender-flexing, and moral-majority mockery that are the hallmarks of Babbit’s knowing application of camp.
If But I’m a Cheerleader is the mother of girl camp, then it was co-parenting parthenogenetically with Cheryl Dunye’s The Watermelon Woman (1996). Dunye’s first feature is the living embodiment of “Homo Pomo,” Rich’s original term for a wave of Anglophone cinema that put all the deconstructive adventures of postmodernism in the service of telling queer stories. Self-reflexively intertextual in excelsis, The Watermelon Woman follows the adventures of Cheryl (Cheryl Dunye), a wannabe filmmaker, as she investigates the life and loves of (fictional) Hollywood actress Fae Richards. Fae is a sometime lover of white lesbian filmmaker Martha Page—a nod to Dorothy Arzner, the first female filmmaker in sound-era Hollywood, and an out butch lesbian. Meanwhile, Cheryl finds history repeating itself in her own life, as she falls in and out of love with a wealthy white artist Diana, played by Guinevere Turner (star and co-writer of Go Fish [Rose Troche, 1994], which was conceived by Troche and Turner after they read Rich’s article on the New Queer Cinema).
Both Dunye and Babbit struggled to make second features. Post-9/11 Hollywood cinema was the exact opposite of girl camp, giving rare and grudging honours to female filmmakers only when they butched up, as Kathryn Bigelow did with The Hurt Locker (2008). (Although, writing against this grain, Sam Whitsitt’s essay “‘Come Back to The Humvee Ag’in Will honey,’ or a Few Comments About the Sexual Politics of Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, ” brilliantly reads Bigelow’s film as Pure Camp.) But when they did return to feature filmmaking, it was with a lesbian community front and centre. The L Word (Michele Abbott, Ilene Chaiken, Kathy Greenberg, 2004-2009) had mainstreamed girl camp: although its adult characters aren’t at summer camp (or boarding school), they live like they are—in and out of each other’s apartments (and beds) all the time, living one endless lesbian summer.
Babbit’s second feature Itty Bitty Titty Committee (2007), co-written with Tina Mabry, Abigail Shafran and Andrea Sperling, is girl camp gone both wild and grown up. Anna (Melonie Diaz) has finished high school with no plans but working as a receptionist in a breast augmentation clinic, where she meets Clits in Action (C[i]A), a feminist art-punk group that includes characters played by Jenny Shimizu and Daniela Sea of The L-Word (on which Babbit would have a directing stint). Melanie Lynskey and Clea DuVall swing by in cheeky cameos, and Guinevere Turner plays Marcy Maloney, a pitch-perfect newscaster who prefigures Rachel Maddow by dumping her husband for C(i)A funder Courtney after the group invades and hacks her show.
Bringing it all together, Dunye’s meta-murder mystery The OWLs (2010) stars both Turner, and also Itty Bitty’s Deak Evgenikos and British lesbian filmmaker Lisa Gornick. Sarah Schulman (who wrote the screenplay) and Alex Juhasz, who appeared in The Watermelon Woman, return as talking heads, accompanied by queer theorist Jack Halberstam and British stud filmmaker Campbell X, who also mixed the sound. OWLs stands for Older, Wiser Lesbians: the principals teach younger queers their history, with a side of stylised murder. This is high, knowing camp, where the all-girls-together joie de vivre has a darker edge, and the internecine connections and relationship dramas that characterise lesbian communities are satirised through camped-up crime.
The OWLs is mirrored in its play with genre by the accompanying making-of documentary HOOTERS (Anna Margarita Albelo). The documentary reimagines the behind-the-scenes exploration as a noir-ish ‘whodunnit,’ asking not so much who committed the murder, as who made this film. In 2015, when we are still short of images of women behind the camera (or at the mixing desk, or carrying the boom), HOOTERS is a valuable document of lesbian feminist filmmakers – but also an invocation of girl camp. Even the serious issue of gender inequity and lesbian erasure can be given a deliciously parodic spin.
Albelo, star of The Real L Word, went on to make a rom-com that, like The Watermelon Woman, puts a lesbian filmmaker of colour – and her struggles to get started – into the foreground. For Anna (Albelo) in Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf? (2013), lesbian filmmaking is girl camp. On turning forty, ever-hopeful filmmaker Anna decides to shoot her first feature in order to win the love of Katia Amour (Janina Gavankar), a hipster artist. And so Who’s Afraid of Vagina Wolf?, a lesbian remake of Edward Albee’s classic play, is born in her friend Charlie’s (Celeste Pechous) garage. Who to cast as Martha but Penelope (Turner)? A successful out lesbian actress with a Hollywood dream home and the dollars to fund the production as long as there’s a role for her younger girlfriend, Chloe (Carrie Preston).
Penelope is Anna’s BFF, her relationship therapist, and her reality check. Offscreen, Turner—surely earning the designation of lesbian cinema’s camp counsellor—played Charlie’s role, offering Albelo a place to live when she moved to LA, and helping her fund—and then crowdfund—her film. With the corralling of funders via Kickstarter, the girl camp community joined hands and sang “Kumbaya.” Onscreen community + onset community + viewing community = the lesbian cinema we want to see, one that treasures intimacy (with all the drama it brings) because it connects us to each other—not just the couple, but the community.
For her film’s French release, Albelo shot “Vagina is the Warmest Color,” a spoof trailer for a film that, it proclaims, won the Moule d’Or (Golden Mussel) at the Festival du Connes (Cunt/Bitch Film Festival). Rather than aim invective at Abdellatif Kechiche’s Blue is the Warmest Color (2013), Albelo reveals the film as unintentionally hilarious Pure Camp, a ridiculously earnest relationship drama that lacks the community that girl camp celebrates. But then, there are few mainstream depictions of lesbian relationships that wouldn’t be improved by re-enactments by a forty-something Cuban-American filmmaker wearing full-body plush vagina costume. Long may girl camp reign.