50 Years of Queer Anger: Camp and the Met Gala

Pallas Gutierrez, Assistant Opinion Editor

This is the twelfth column in “50 Years of Queer Anger,” a series examining LGBTQ+ issues in the United States since 1969.

Susan Sontag described camp as “love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration,” in her essay “Notes on Camp,” which attempts to define the elusive concept. Andrew Bolton, the head curator of the Met’s Costume Institute, knew that the theme would be difficult to nail down: “Camp is a site of debate rather than consensus.” That debate has been sparked by the Met Gala’s red carpet in two parts. What is camp, and who on the red carpet embodied camp successfully?

Camp is incredibly hard to define. Kareem Khubchandani, a queer studies and performance studies professor at Tufts University, says camp “makes profane the things that are sacred,” and is “a queer way of knowing.” Camp is over-the-top. Camp is glitzy to the point of being ugly, and usually has something to say about society. Camp was, as Lena Waithe’s tuxedo proclaimed, invented by black drag queens, a systematically ignored population even within the queer community, despite their constant contributions to queer liberation.

So who or what was camp? Waithe, with her pinstripes made of lyrics from classic drag queen anthems, was definitely camp, albeit in a more political and less flamboyant way. Billy Porter’s Egyptian-inspired outfit and entrance was camp. Jordan Roth dressing as a theater was camp. The Gucci Met Gala afterparty being held in the Hunter College gymnasium was definitely camp.

Articles and tweets have cropped up criticizing Frank Ocean, Harry Styles, and Shawn Mendes for not being on-theme enough. As camp is so intrinsically tied to male queerness, I can understand some peoples’ reticence to go all out this year. All three of these stars have had pressure put on them for not following traditional standards of masculinity and male sexuality. Especially in music, where image can dramatically alter success, I understand Ocean, Styles, and Mendes leaning into their respective comfort zones to avoid being mislabelled.

Fashion is very personal. Something that one person thinks is hideous might be the center of another person’s wardrobe. Fashion is also one of the key ways humans can express their identity, whether that be gender, ethnicity, interests, or anything else. The Met’s Camp: Notes on Fashion exhibit gives credit and attention to a fashion style that often goes ignored or uncredited, due to the progenitors being black drag queens and queer men. The representation of camp as an art form by the Met, one of the most well-known art museums in the country, is an undeniable step forward for queer culture.

A. Pallas Gutierrez is a Communication freshman. They can be contacted at [email protected]. If you would like to respond publicly to this op-ed, send a Letter to the Editor to [email protected]. The views expressed in this piece do not necessarily reflect the views of all staff members of The Daily Northwestern.