Notes on dyke camp

There is a burgeoning aesthetic movement influenced by traditional camp but directed by gay women. It features a lot of hands.

Notes on dyke camp

There is a burgeoning aesthetic movement influenced by traditional camp but directed by gay women. It features a lot of hands.

In a video promoting her song “Curious,” the singer and dancer Hayley Kiyoko mouths the words to the girls who, she explains, are “uncomfortable with liking girls even though they do.” It’s equal parts love song and ballad of exasperation. The 27-year-old Kiyoko rolls her eyes; she vamps and goofs. She hits all of the same beats as the dancers surrounding her but with an amplified, hilarious affect, as if she’s sniggering and pointing to all the trouble they’re going to and saying: isn’t all this fuss silly? But look how good I am at it.

Kiyoko’s video fits into my working theory of what I call “dyke camp.” Dyke camp is not camp as we know it, the aesthetic sensibility derived from the gay community that glorifies kitsch and irony; the camp of Priscilla Queen of the Desert and Rita Hayworth, Bette Davis, and RuPaul. Rather, it’s a movement directed, for the first time, not by the tastes of gay men but gay women: a specific brand of humor, manners, and sensibilities guided by lesbian identity.

Susan Sontag was the first person to attempt to properly define camp, in her seminal 1964 essay “Notes on Camp.” Her approach has been debated in the 50 years that have followed, particularly in her emphasis on camp as something that is all style over content. But her initial definition of camp as a sensibility marked by artifice, stylization, exaggeration, theatricality, playfulness and irony still holds up fairly well, particularly in her announcement that the “essence of Camp is its love of the unnatural.”

When I try to explain dyke camp, people often think I mean the opposite of camp as defined by Sontag, rather than something related to it. Academic accounts lean towards the idea that lesbian camp is exactly or at least nearly the same as traditional or gay male camp, just inverted: a man in a dress becomes a woman in a suit, and so on.

Dyke camp is a movement directed not by the tastes of gay men but gay women: a specific brand of humor, manners, and sensibilities guided by lesbian identity.

Writing in the Journal of Lesbian Studies in 2016, Elly-Jean Nielsen, a Ph.D student at the University of Saskatchewan, declared that lesbian camp more commonly followed three themes: erotic, classic, and radical. Eight years before, Annamari Vänskä, a professor of fashion research at Aalto University in Finland, nodded to Serbian Eurovision singer Marija Šerifović, who in 2007 performed in a tuxedo surrounded by five “femininely coded” women. But both seemed less interested in the qualities of dyke camp for dyke camp’s sake and more interested in pairing it with camp as we know it.

Dyke camp overlaps with camp in some areas, certainly. But in others it is completely different; it has its own electric vision. If camp is the love of the unnatural, dyke camp is the love of the ultra-natural, of nature built up and reclaimed, of clothes that could be extensions of the body, of desire made obsessive, of lesbian gestures or mannerisms maximized by a thousand.

Rather than drag, which parodies what is real, dyke camp takes the real and magnifies it, so that it becomes absurd or funny or simply attractive in its own right. Dyke camp is a Walkman, a pair of Adidas sweatpants, the paintings of Kelly Beeman with their glazed sleepy stares, and Janelle Monáe’s PYNK video with its vagina pants. Big silver thumb rings are dyke camp, as are certain brands of gardening gloves; for obvious reasons, dyke camp tends to favor hands.

Whereas Sontag’s camp can be a series of ironic layers, dyke camp is the equivalent of merging all of those layers on Photoshop; it creates an artificial physicality via exaggeration. Dyke camp clothing is linked intrinsically to the body that’s underneath, either defending it or revealing it: Fiona Apple in a suit of armour on the subway is dyke camp, as is Joan of Arc with her pageboy haircut.

Dyke camp could also be an oversized basketball vest that hangs low over the armpit and reveals sideboob, or a stacked heel that adds to your height. A dyke camp vision is greedy: it asks for more not in the sense of adding endless details like camp might, but in making things bigger, blowing things up. Dyke camp is simultaneously self-conscious of and delighted by its own visibility.

Dyke camp doesn’t care what others think. It is not particularly interested in being palatable for or even attended to by straight people. As with camp, it’s more like blaring the Batsignal. Dyke camp is showy gestures, a certain hunch of the shoulder, a crooked grin, a beckoning hand, exaggeration, over-amplification, studied disinterest in clothes and very keen interest in everything else. A walk that looks like a dance.

In order to understand dyke camp, movement is a good place to start. While straight women have often flirted with lesbian eroticism for the male gaze (think Madonna, Britney Spears, and Christina Aguilera at the 2003 VMAs) dyke camp is explicitly dominated by women who know just how to touch and want other women.

If straight women put on public displays of lesbianism for male attention, dyke camp takes private lesbian contact and makes it public �� for other women. Dyke camp is less about having a hot body, and more about knowing how to use it. It’s why dyke camp is so often rooted in swagger, in cockiness.

Sontag wrote that “Camp sees everything in quotation marks… not a lamp, but a ‘lamp.’” But the punctuation of dyke camp is one of the body: the upward head jerk of a dyke acknowledging another across a crowded bar. The strut when you know someone’s watching. Dyke camp is performative, of course, but unlike camp it is more targeted, focused on an individual in the audience.

Dyke camp body language doesn’t have to be polished, it just has to be sure. That’s why Kate McKinnon epitomizes dyke camp in every louche movement she ever makes, from her jerking, hilarious, somehow enticing dance with its insistent eye contact in Ghostbusters, to a moment in an early interview with pornstar Nina Hartley, in which McKinnon is called on to demonstrate good hair pulling technique. “Take out your right earring,” Hartley tells her, and McKinnon responds with breathless delight, “Yes, I will, yes!” McKinnon lounges against Hartley’s chair, chin on her hand, face adoring and attentive. The performed queer desire is no less real for being made a joke; the performance is part of the desire. Demonstration over, McKinnon cheerfully stands up and flips over a sign.

Many of the mannerisms and aesthetics which dyke camp affectionately claims nod towards a kind of performative queer masculinity. But it would be a mistake to think of dyke camp as inherently masculine in the same way it has been a mistake to think of camp as inherently feminine.

Dyke camp is not so interested in the playfully rigid binaries of butch/femme, though it may exploit them. Dyke camp is not reflective of or parodied from any version of maleness; it draws from a strong and developed sense of the multiplicity of lesbian identities, which is why it crosses over the butch/femme divide. Dyke camp is not simply the drag king. It’s the turned-up collar the drag king pops on his way home to his girl.

And dyke camp is certainly often femme. There’s room in dyke camp for a lipstick maneuver or a high heel. Kendall Jenner and Gigi Hadid having a sleepover party with Vogue is dyke camp: pay special attention to them waltzing to Grimes, and when Hadid covers Jenner in enthusiastic kisses, and when Jenner slumps, sullen for half a second, in a corner. There’s as much dyke camp in Zendaya's femme-take on Joan of Arc for this year's Met Gala as there is in women in 1940s trousers, or Kristen Stewart seducing herself in a suit.

It’s safe to say that Kiyoko has become a dyke-camp icon. She is a delightful and much-awaited lesbian pop star, perhaps the first of her kind: more fun than Melissa Etheridge, more commercial than Tracy Chapman, her pop breakthrough less-resented than Tegan and Sara’s (fans of whom, both gay and straight, frequently pine for their early acoustic days).

It’s taken Kiyoko some time to get here. She used an actor stand-in for the music video of her ‘coming out’ hit “Girls Like Girls,” in which two girls fall in love and beat up a controlling boyfriend, because, she's said, she was unsure what the reaction would be to her playing a lesbian romantic lead.

But "Girls Like Girls" was a hit, and since then she's appeared in a range of lesbian love-story videos for her songs, including “Curious,” “Sleepover,” and my personal favorite “Feelings,” in which she revamps Michael Jackson’s “The Way You Make Me Feel.” She follows a girl around the streets, dipping in and out of a partnered dance with her but mostly showing off. “Don’t you want a piece of this?” she seems to be asking.

The video for “Feelings” is five minutes of unfeigned pleasure that, as Sontag wrote, exemplify “the hallmark of Camp… the spirit of extravagance.” But at the same time, “Feelings” seems shockingly new, not quite the camp we know: it’s too prowling, too smirking; it’s rooted in the body and less in what the body is wearing. It’s uninterested in the constructed and decorated layers of camp (Sontag points to Tiffany lamps, feather boas, and fringed beaded dresses as classic examples of this) and very interested in the physical mannerisms and signals with which we can communicate lesbian desire.

Of course, not all dyke camp is performed or displayed by lesbians, in the same way that not all camp is performed by gay men. Dyke camp is Harry Styles playing tattoo roulette, knowing he is opening the losing box, sighing, “I meeeeean,” and throwing it shut again. Dyke camp is Rooney Mara smoking by a crucified Christ on the set of her upcoming biopic about Mary Magdalene, and a photo of a young Hugh Dancy studying in overalls on an Oxford lawn. Mulan is the original dyke camp Disney princess, and Ray Kowalski, from the ‘90s Canadian crime show Due South, is definitely dyke camp, with his leather jacket, gun, hipster glasses, and sultry pout.

Dyke camp pairs well with music, like in the music video for “Girls @” by Chicago rapper Joey Purp, with its sun-stripped colouring and dirty car windscreen combined with a lazy rollcall of hot girls, or more obviously in Canadian duo Partners’ “Play The Field”: normcore sportswear, ugly sunglasses, good puns. Joanna Newsom's lyrics have a hint of dyke camp to them, in their obsessively rich detail and complicated stanzas; “Drive” by Melissa Ferrick, with its sexiness so unabashed that Ferrick frequently laughs her way through live performances, is another easy example.

The Instagram account BUTCHCAMP, run by Lisbon-based artist Isabella Toledo and Arnhem-based graphic designer Rosie Eveleigh, documents a similar phenomenon, tracking women from Matilda’s Mrs Trunchbull to Missy Elliot and pairing photos of celebrities and historical or fictional figures who embody butch camp with funny, informative captions.

A half-imagined Hilary Clinton super-dyke fantasy rubs shoulders with Mel B from the Spice Girls; Sontag, unsurprisingly, pops up more than once, and men feature, too. But Toledo explained to me that “butch” camp is a bit of a misnomer. “While we are fascinated by the historical, cultural and political implications of the butch/femme divide,” Toledo said, “we have to confess that the word ‘butch’ in ‘butchcamp’ was chosen as the word itself is more performative, more CAMP, than any other option we thought of… It's a semiotic snag.”

Which means that butch camp might, Toledo agrees, be "what you are calling dyke camp. The name doesn't really matter, because if we can both point to the same thing and wink then the camp moment is complete."

I agree. The more you look for dyke camp, the more it seems to show up. Prowling, smirking, swaggering — and usually already looking back at you.

To listen to an audio version of this story, with additional examples of "dyke camp" and an interview with the author, listen above. To have future features like this sent to your device of choice, hit the appropriate subscribe link below.

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Mikaella Clements is a writer in Berlin.