Episode 35: Transcript
Transcription by Keffy
Charlie Jane: [00:00:00] Welcome to Our Opinions Are Correct, a podcast about the meaning of science fiction. I’m Charlie Jane Anders, a science fiction writer who thinks a lot about science.
Annalee: [00:00:08] And I’m Annalee Newitz, a science journalist who writes science fiction.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:13] Today, we’re going to be talking about camp. It seems like a good time to do this because The Met Museum is having a giant exhibition about camp and fashion, and they just had The Met Gala, and it sparked a whole conversation about camp which made us think we should talk about science fiction and camp, and how camp is wound into the very DNA of the genre that we love.
[00:00:33] Intro music plays: Drums with a bass drop and more science fictional bells and percussion.
Charlie Jane: [00:00:59] The Met Museum is doing a giant camp exhibition and we actually have a clip from a video that they put up of the curator, Andrew Bolton talking about what camp is.
Andrew Bolton: [00:01:08] The exhibition is called Camp: Notes on Fashion. And it was inspired by Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay, Notes on Camp, that in a way outlined the elements, or characteristics of camp. Irony, humor, parody, theatricalization, excess, extravagance, exaggeration.
Charlie Jane: [00:01:27] So, Annalee, what do you think about how Andrew Bolton describes camp?
Annalee: [00:01:31] Well, he’s referring to the famous essay by Susan Sontag, which I think most people use at this point when they’re trying to think about camp. I guess maybe some of the people going to The Met Gala maybe looked at it or had their people look at it and then ignore it, because—It’s funny because I think all of the things that Bolton identifies as being campy fit our definition of camp now and today when people say something is campy, usually we mean that it is unintentionally funny. Which, he didn’t include in his definition. I mean, he mentions humor and satire and parody, but I think that all of the stuff about theatricality is definitely part of campiness.
[00:02:15] To return to my gripe about The Met Gala, part of the reason we started talking about this at all is that the outfits that people wore to The Met Gala, which all of us were eagerly consuming online, weren’t very campy. Like, there were a few people who were campy.
Charlie Jane: [00:02:31] Janelle Monae, Billy Porter…
Annalee: [00:02:33] Janelle Monae, although people were debating that. Like, was Janelle Monae campy or was just being amazing. Which, she is amazing, and she is campy sometimes. Lady Gaga kind of owned it. Not surprising, the people who seemed like they were kind of best at doing camp were people of color and people who were connected to the queer community in some way. Those are two communities that helped create camp in the first place. We’re at a weird cultural moment where we kind of all think we know what camp means, and yet, all of us are failing to embody camp in some way. So, I guess what I would add to the definition of camp, and I think that we should think about maybe throughout this episode, is that there’s a kind of deliberate camp, which is what people were trying to do at The Met Gala, where they’re trying to dress outlandishly, they’re trying to be theatrical. They’re trying to be over the top. They’re trying to look like some stereotype of queer.
[00:03:36] Then there is the main definition of camp, which is actually a way of looking at culture. It’s a way that audiences engage with stories. And I want to quickly bring up the Kardashians in that context, because there were a lot of snarks about how the Kardashians dressed at The Met Gala. I actually think that they were campy, and I think they were not campy intentionally. I think, a little bit they were. Kim Kardashian, in particular, is a perfect example of someone who is a campy celebrity not because she’s deliberately trying to be campy but because of the way the audience consumers her. And the reality show genre is in fact a genre that a lot of people watch for humor value. Unintentional humor value, right? They’re not watching it because this is a brilliantly written comedy or parody or because the Kardashian clan is the cutting edge satire of consumer culture and beauty culture. No! They’re watching because they look at it as being funny because these are people who unintentionally are sort of stumbling around and embodying absurdity. Embodying that kind of theatrical absurdity.
[00:04:46] So, I thought Kim Kardashian totally won for that definition of camp. And I think when we talk about campiness now, that is often the kind of campiness most of us mean when we say that something is campy. The kind of Mystery Science Theater version where it’s really what the audience brings to the story that makes it campy, not the story itself.
Charlie Jane: [00:05:03] So, how do you think it’s different when camp is a mode of consumption versus a mode of production?
Annalee: [00:05:09] Whoa. That’s a really good question. I mean, things that are deliberately campy tend to be kind of high art at this point. They tend to be things that are in the Andy Warhol tradition of art. Pop art. Post-modern art, where there’s a very intellectual kind of consideration of culture. Like, a kind of satire or a metacommentary. And then, I think anything can become campy with the right audience and the right response. I mean, not anything. I think that’s probably an exaggeration, but a lot of stories can be consumed as camp. So, I think that the difference between it as a mode of production versus consumption is that consuming something as camp is much more—it’s a popular movement. It’s pop culture. And, I don’t think that that’s always been true.
[00:05:59] I think that camp in the 1960s was a kind of pop culture style. And now, oftentimes when something is deliberately campy it harkens back to that era. It harkens back to the ‘60s and ‘70s.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:09] Right, and so there’s that deliberate level of irony that people have to impose on something to intentionally make it campy and my favorite thing is often when you can’t quite tell. You’re looking something, and you’re like, were they in on the joke? Were they deliberately making it this campy on purpose or is this something that just happened. The kind of shading between—and that’s the kind of thing that you celebrate in things like Ed Wood, or whatever. A bunch of older pieces of pop culture, you’re like, did they know that this was going to be campy, or did we just decide it was campy after they made it? And often, it’s somewhere in between, it’s a gray area.
Annalee: [00:06:42] It really is, and I think that’s what Susan Sontag was getting at in her essay. She was specifically talking about stuff like Ed Wood or 1930s monster movies, which are also, of course, referenced in The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
Charlie Jane: [00:06:56] Right. And we actually have a clip from The Rocky Horror Picture Show, which is, I think, the pinnacle of intentional camp. And, here is Frank N. Furter singing an iconic song.
RHPS Clip: [00:07:05] Whatever happened to Fay Wray, that delicate, satin-draped frame? As it clung to her thigh, how I started to cry, ‘cause I wanted to be dressed just the same.
Annalee: [00:07:35] He mentions Fay Wray, who plays he hapless heroine in the original King Kong movie. Again, a 1930s monster movie, tended to be very earnest and scary but by the time the 1960s roll around, that has become the crème de la crème of camp. And then, of course, Rocky Horror comes out as a play in the early ‘70s. And then becomes a film. That was the original camp, was like, reclaiming this pre-WWII culture. Or maybe WWII culture, because Ed Wood is ‘50s. And saying, like, maybe they kind of knew they were being a little bit queer or a little bit off.
[00:08:15] And it helps that people like James Whale, who worked on a bunch of monster movies in the ‘30s, was openly gay. So, we know some people were in on it.
Charlie Jane: [00:08:22] Right! And so, speaking of intentional camp versus unintentional camp. With peak TV, the list of shows that we have right now that are on the air include things like RuPaul’s Drag Race, which is a huge phenomenon. Pose, American Horror Story, which is this incredibly campy horror show, Steven Universe, Riverdale feels quite campy to me. Killing Eve, Dancing Queen, which is this reality show about drag queens and performers. And a bunch of others. There’s a Brazilian show called Super Drags, which is about superhero drag queens. What does it mean to be campy in an era where so much of “mainstream” culture is aggressively campy?
Annalee: [00:08:58] It’s such a good question. I think that right now we are in this moment where we’ve kind of—a lot of people making culture right now are from the Gen X generation which had this idea of knee-jerk irony, which it comes from Douglas Coupland’s novel, Generation X. Knee-jerk irony is just responding to literally everything as being ironic, including things that are intended to be earnest. Part of that was because generation X experienced the bleeding edge of what has really become mainstream for the Millennial generation, which is downward mobility, a sense of dislocation, as sense of having to fight constantly to remain economically viable. Everything feels very contingent and crazy, so how do you deal with that? You have to become distanced from it. You have to become distanced from your feelings, distanced from your social context just to deal with that level of instability.
[00:09:56] That’s a really back-of-the-envelop cultural analysis.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:00] I feel seen.
Annalee: [00:10:02] Good, yeah. I mean, we are definitely Gen X, so let us tell you about us. But I think that the Millennial generation and a lot of culture that’s popular now, it’s funny because I feel like there’s more consciousness about that kind of knee-jerk irony and campiness and there’s also a turn toward earnestness. This is something that I freaking love about younger creators, is that I feel like, you know, there is something really important about being earnest. And also being, what we once called authentic.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:34] You might even say that there’s an importance of being earnest.
Annalee: [00:10:38] That—you might say that, if you’re quoting from one of the—
Charlie Jane: [00:10:42] Campiest.
Annalee: [00:10:43] —campiest of the campy. Six points to you, if you get that reference.
Charlie Jane: [00:10:49] How has the meaning of camp changed? Is it a moving target, and how far back can we trace it?
Annalee: [00:10:52] Well you were just referencing Oscar Wilde, and so I think that’s an interesting place to begin campiness. To begin thinking about campiness. Certainly, he’s associated with the theater and with openly queer identity. I think that campiness as a mainstream style is really kind of mid-20th century. So, I think we have early inklings of it. We have lots of culture in the early 20th century that get reclaimed as campy, which is, of course, also during the rise of science fiction and during the rise of pulp novels and cheap entertainment that’s designed to just be racy and fun, and not necessarily witty and earnest as we were just talking about.
[00:11:38] I just listened to a great episode of the podcast The Allusionist where the guest was Paul Baker who is an academic who’s just written a history of Polari. His book is called Fabulosa! The Story of Polari, Britain’s Secret Gay Language. And he talked a lot about campiness and how the term camp comes out of this gay language, Polari and that the sensibility of camp came out of that. And he pointed out, and I think that this is really true, that there was a change after camp became popular in the 1960s at the same time that gay rights became a possibility for a lot of people.
[00:12:19] So, instead of gay identity being a secret identity and the language of gayness being a secret language, people were really affirming the idea of coming out and being open. And so, in the gay community, there was a kind of rejection of camp at the same time that mainstream culture, like people watching Star Trek and Batman, and George of the Jungle and all these campy shows in the ‘60s, were embracing it. So, what we see is this shift where camp goes mainstream and queer culture takes this funny turn toward what you might call, kind of butch campiness. There’s a kind of rejection of sissy culture, a rejection of femme-y culture, and camp—
Charlie Jane: [00:12:59] It’s all Tom of Finland.
Annalee: [00:13:00] And it’s all—yeah, it’s all Tom of Finland and there’s this great moment in one of the campiest movies ever made, Can’t Stop the Music by the Village People where we hear that exact turn happen, so let’s listen to that.
Can’t Stop Clip: [00:13:11] Leather men don’t get nervous. Leather men don’t get nervous!
Oh yes they do.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:16] That is my favorite scene from Can’t Stop the Music where he’s like, “Leather men don’t get nervous.” I love that.
Annalee: [00:13:22] It’s so campy, but it’s also that turn where it’s like, suddenly, we’re being butch now. We’re not going to be campy.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:28] The Village People were so butch.
Annalee: [00:13:32] We’re not exactly—they were so butch. They were, though, that’s the thing!
Charlie Jane: [00:13:33] I know!
Annalee: [00:13:34] —is, they were butch icons even though, of course, they were also, like openly gay and also embracing, a little bit sissy culture, but not much.
Charlie Jane: [00:13:42] They were the bridge.
Annalee: [00:13:43] They were the bridge! And it’s just the opposite of contemporary kind of RuPaul or the Tim Curry kind of singing about how he wanted to dress like Fay Wray, right? So, it’s this shift. And I think we’re in the middle of another shift that you identified where we’re seeing mainstream culture embracing this weird new kind of camp where queer culture is kind of undergoing a shift, too, as it gets more mainstream as well.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:10] And we’re living in an era with an unprecedented level of false seriousness. Like, seriousness that everybody knows is false. Like, if you watch any of the cable news networks or any of the morning, kind of Sunday morning political shows. People will pretend to be outraged and everybody knows that they’re pretending to be outraged about something. People will put on a very serious face and say, I am very upset about this thing that everybody knows they’re not upset about. And people will—
Annalee: [00:14:34] Wow… yeah, that’s such a good point.
Charlie Jane: [00:14:36] And our leaders, like, in both parties, but especially, I have to say, in conservative circles have gotten incredibly good at pretending to care about stuff that we all know they don’t care about. And to be upset about stuff, and it’ll be—some member of Congress will make some comment off the cuff and everybody will pretend that they’re deeply outraged for a week or two, and it’s all fake. And it seems like a moment where we need a new kind of campiness to deal with a new kind of fake earnestness.
Annalee: [00:15:04] Wow, that’s so interesting. I mean, concern trolling—
Charlie Jane: [00:15:08] Concern trolling! Yeah!
Annalee: [00:15:09] —jumped to mind when you said that. The other thing that I was thinking is this kind of goes back to the Kardashians, who are of course reality stars. First and foremost that’s how most of us know about them is through reality TV, and we are of course living in the era of the reality TV president. Reality TV politics. And so, in some sense, we’re consuming politics as camp.
Charlie Jane: [00:15:31] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:15:31] And—which is a really knee-jerk, irony, Gen X thing. Sorry Millennials, but like—
Charlie Jane: [00:15:36] We had to watch Beto O’Rourke get dental work done.
Annalee: [00:15:39] Oh God, if I never see that man again, I will be happy. Jesus. I really want to ask you a little bit more about what you just said about how we need a new kind of campiness to deal with campiness. Because that’s kind of what you’re saying. I’m saying, like, we’re consuming politics campily, but like, why do you think we need a new kind of self-identified campiness to deal with that?
Charlie Jane: [00:15:59] I mean, I think it gets back to what you were just saying earlier about how there’s intentional camp and then there’s unintentional camp that we consume things in a way that make them campy. We’ve gotten very good at intentional camp. We’re drowning in intentional camp right now. I listed a whole bunch of TV shows that are big that are intentionally campy. At the same time, when all of our mainstream political and social culture is so obviously fake and so exaggerated in a way that is unintentionally campy, we need to be better at drawing that out of it and we need to be better at consuming a campy way. And consuming political content in a campy way as well as—like, big mainstream spectacles like The Avengers or any major huge movie. Fast and the Furious, or whatever. We need to become better again at kind of drawing out the camp from those things.
Annalee: [00:16:49] The question I have here is whether or not some of these political spectacles are deliberate camp? I think that’s the kind of danger zone because I think there’s a certain amount of, like what you were saying before, of fake outrage, which is itself campy. It’s like, one of the things about camp is that it’s artifice, right? I wonder as audiences, if we want to go into quick political analysis before we break and talk about science fiction a little bit more. How do we as an audience respond to political discourse that actually is kind of cynically campy, in a way? Because I feel like Donald Trump is a great example of a campy president. And deliberately. I don’t think he thinks he’s being serious. I think he kind of knows—well, it’s hard to say, though, right?
Charlie Jane: [00:17:42] It’s hard to say! It’s in that liminal zone and I think that you have to look back to the era of Richard Nixon who was kind of in many ways the precursor of Donald Trump and who was very very very fake serious and very exaggerated in a lot of ways. And pop culture of the early ‘70s, late ‘60s and early ‘70s was just—
Annalee: [00:18:02] Super campy.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:03] —super campy in a really extreme. And really extreme in particular with how it dealt with authority figures.
Annalee: [00:18:12] Yeah, it’s so interesting. I hadn’t really thought about Nixon as a campy president, but I think he kind of was.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:16] He was! “I am not a crook!” Just like…
Annalee: [00:18:19] Yeah, and he is, for those of you haven’t—
Charlie Jane: [00:18:22] Checkers, I mean…
Annalee: [00:18:22] —who haven’t investigated the deep history of Nixon, he was the first TV president. He’s often talked about as—because his popularity came from a couple of very famous speeches he gave on TV at a time when television was a very new medium for politicians and he gave this homey speech about his dog named Checkers. If you Google Checkers speech, you will find it. And it’s weird to think of Nixon as like, being a master of media manipulation, but he was, and that’s another thing he shares with Trump.
Charlie Jane: [00:18:52] And he was the Planet of the Apes president. I mean, Planet of the Apes franchise basically blossomed and eventually died all during his presidency.
Annalee: [00:19:02] I don’t even know what to do with that. That’s just too much to take in. All right, why don’t we take a break.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:06] Let’s take a break and then we’ll talk more about camp and science fiction.
[00:19:08] Segment change music plays. Drums with a bass line including bass drops.
Annalee: [00:19:22] I have a big question for you, which is, why is science fiction so afraid of seeming campy? And I’m thinking specifically of something JJ Abrams said about Star Trek.
JJ Abrams Clip: [00:19:35] But I think that the key to any movie working, certainly a movie called Star Trek, which could be seen as campy, is finding authenticity.
Charlie Jane: [00:19:43] You know, that’s such an interesting clip because he was directing the first Star Trek movie, which I love, and he’s obviously very concerned with the notion that it might be seen as campy, which, it’s based on the original Star Trek, which was a campy show. Especially when you watch it now in HD, you can see that everybody’s wearing eyeliner and eye shadow, and whenever Kirk is on camera, they smear Vaseline on the lens. They’re all wearing, like—
Annalee: [00:20:08] But that’s not what makes it campy.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:10] They’re all wearing Day-Glo costumes and having really exaggerated reactions to everything.
Annalee: [00:20:13] Yeah.
Charlie Jane: [00:20:13] Damn it, Jim! It’s like—
Annalee: [00:20:15] No, it’s the whole show, I think. I mean, it comes out of that era of like, [crosstalk].
Charlie Jane: [00:20:19] It’s very much of the same eras the original Batman show which is often described as the campiest TV show of all time. It hink that science fiction creators and fans are very, very scared of seeming campy because we, I mean, myself included, desperately, desperately want to be taken seriously. We want to be seen as being important and meaningful and just as good as the big kids in the literary area. And you know, I was thinking a lot about this story where Octavia Butler always talked about why she became a science fiction writer, and it was because she watched a movie called Devil Girl from Mars, which was an incredibly campy film about a girl from Mars who comes to Earth looking for human men to bring back to Mars. And she looked at that, and was like, I can do better than this. And what she meant, in some sense, by better, I think, was something less ridiculous. And I think that that’s the impulse that powers a lot of science fiction over the last several decades.
[00:21:13] Science fiction starts out as this really pulpy genre both on the page and on screen where everything is kind of a little bit goofy, and everything is very exaggerated and you have all these archetypes and especially the movies and TV shows of the ‘40s and ‘50s and ‘60s are almost all super campy. I saw an article the other day that described The Day the Earth Stood Still as campy, just because of the special effects and how it looks, and the robots standing around. And I was like, really? Okay, if we’re regarding that as campy, then, just everything.
Annalee: [00:21:43] Well, I think that’s an example, absolutely, of an audience receiving it as campy, so—
Charlie Jane: [00:21:48] Absolutely.
Annalee: [00:21:50] —and often when time passes, things become campy, so, The Matrix can look campy to us, too…
Charlie Jane: [00:21:57] That’s actually very true.
Annalee: [00:21:56] And it, in fact, is a bit of a campy series.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:01] Quite campy. Those trenchcoats, I mean.
Annalee: [00:22:03] It’s campy. I mean, it’s butch camp. I just want to put in a plug here for The Day the Earth Stood Still at the time it came out was incredibly stark and stylish, and would not have been received as…
Charlie Jane: [00:22:14] Yeah, no, it’s a beautiful film. And it’s—I don’t mean to say beautiful as like the opposite of campy. But it’s a very restrained kind of serious film. It’s not, at all…
Annalee: [00:22:20] But I mean, it does read as campy now, for sure.
Charlie Jane: [00:22:23] Yeah, and so, I think that in science fiction in particular there’s this fear that we won’t be taken seriously and that we’ll be seen as juvenile. Pulpy and silly. So there’s this very, very, we’re going to sit very still and be very uptight and you know, we’re just going to be serious. Often that backfires and becomes more campy in some ways and I think that’s one of my big takeaways of the history of the last few decades of systematically trying to erase campiness from science fiction. Especially superheroes, is that often you kind of wrap back around and it becomes more campy. And one thing that occurred to me while I was prepping for this episode is that two of our recent Best Picture Oscar-winners are in some sense about kind of rejecting the camp of science fiction.
[00:23:06] You have Birdman, where Michael Keaton, who played Batman in the two Tim Burton films—
Annalee: [00:23:12] The butch camp films.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:14] Yes, the butch camp Burton films, which, at their time were also trying to de-campify Batman but ended up being incredibly campy.
Annalee: [00:23:20] Mm-hmm.
Charlie Jane: [00:23:21] In the process, thus proving what I was saying before. So Michael Keaton is this very serious actor who wants to make a very serious stage play that proves that he is an important artist, but he’s being stalked by his superhero alter-ego from these movies he starred in, who’s clearly supposed to be Batman, and who is kind of ridiculous and over the top and is always making these speeches.
[00:23:42] And then you have another film which also won the Best Picture Oscar, Argo, where Ben Affleck is this very serious, grizzled, [doubly?] guy who goes to Iran and is trying to rescue these embassy workers and it’s very kind of—it’s shot in this very gritty, serious, stylized way. And then, meanwhile, his cover is that he’s making a fake science fiction movie, and everything we see about the fake science fiction movie he’s making is ridiculous and glitzy and all these silly costumes walking around. And, it’s like, the contrast is part of what powers that movie between serious Ben Affleck and the ridiculous science fiction movie that he’s supposedly making. I feel like both of those movies are intrinsicly commenting on the movie industry and making a judgment about what we value. And what we value is the seriousness of Michael Keaton and Ben Affleck, and not the kind of goofiness of this thing that’s kind of associated with them, off to one side.
Annalee: [00:24:36] It’s also interesting that the thing that we value in these films is also white men.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:40] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:24:40] Which, is, I mean, it’s not a surprise.
Charlie Jane: [00:24:43] Straight white men.
Annalee: [00:24:45] It’s not a total surprise, because we live in culture. But the reason why I bring that up is, because, as we kind of mentioned at the top of the episode, campiness is associated with queer culture and African-American culture, and usually the intersection of both. Part of this move to de-campify science fiction can actually be a move to kind of silence the voices of people who are women and people of color. I wouldn’t say it’s just silencing people who are women, or people of color. But silencing them when they talk openly about that. When they talk about the experience of being marginalized, or the experience of what it means to be people of color. Because if you’re willing to be a black woman who write muscular novels about white guys, no one’s going to say that’s campy, right? And that’s just fine because you’re participating nicely in the genre as given.
[00:25:38] If you actually do something like, what Octavia Butler did, which is like, insist that—or not even insist, just say like, welp, just a fact. All my main characters are going to be black women. The end. Bye!
Charlie Jane: [00:25:50] Yeah.
Annalee: [00:25:51] So, what does it look like when we kind of decampify science fiction?
Charlie Jane: [00:25:57] Like I said before, there’s been this huge kind of campaign to remove camp from science fiction, and especially from superheroes. But from all kinds of things. We’ve had the gritty reboot. And the gritty reboot is often kind of shorthand for less campy, more serious. More grounded. More authentic, as JJ Abrams said. The key to making Star Trek not campy is authenticity. And then he made this Star Trek movie, which I adore. I think it’s an amazing film—but literally there’s glimmering lights on the screen in every frame, there’s like—
Annalee: [00:26:26] Yeah, he somehow figured out a way to make sequins in the air with lens flare, it’s like—
Charlie Jane: [00:26:30] He really did! It’s like—
Annalee: [00:26:31] —literally like a bedazzled oxygen.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:33] The air is full of sequins throughout that film, and you know, my favorite case study is Battlestar Galactica. The 1970s Battlestar Galactica show is insanely campy.
Annalee: [00:26:44] It sure is.
Charlie Jane: [00:26:44] Everybody walks around in these giant cloaks and shoulder pads, and like, the Cylons are glittering and everything is ridiculous. Then in the 2000s, they’re like, we’re going to make a serious, gritty reboot of Battlestar Galactica. And it ends up being insanely campy, just in a slightly different way. You have, like, Caprica-6 walking around in her swishy red dresses, you have, like, Baltar—
Annalee: [00:27:06] You have Baltar becoming like a sex slave in that room with—I feel like there’s a shag rug somewhere. He’s just like—
Charlie Jane: [00:27:14] He’s trapped inside a giant lava lamp being a sex slave to Cylons. And, you know—
Annalee: [00:27:19] That is—I feel like that was literally a 1970s movie.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:21] The later seasons of Battlestar end up becoming all these scenes of the Cylons sitting around arguing, and it gets kind of, a little bit campy. And the same thing happens with superheroes. I think this has been well documented that every time you try to drain the camp out of superheroes, it just comes back more and bigger.
Annalee: [00:27:40] Batman vs. Superman.
Charlie Jane: [00:27:43] Yeah, and you know, the whole story of Batman… like, the Burton films are incredibly campy, even though the stated objection was to remove camp. And then, obviously, it gets even campier with Schumacher. And then the Nolan Batman films, which I think are the ne plus ultra of trying to decampify Batman, they get kind of ridiculous. Especially the third one where Bane is kind of strutting around with his mask and being like, “BLURBLURBLEEBUBUBUHBLUHBLUH
Annalee: [00:28:04] Let us return to what—he is—butch camp.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:08] He’s talking like Cookie Monster. He is super butch camp.
Annalee: [00:28:10] He is like a member of the Village People.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:11] Oh my God. And you’ve got Anne Hathaway going around in her little latex jumpsuit, and like—
Annalee: [00:28:16] And Anne Hathaway, like, she is campy. I love her for that. She’s just like—
Charlie Jane: [00:28:21] I love how campy she is.
Annalee: [00:28:20] —not afraid to be campy. But let’s just, for a moment, dwell upon the 1960s Batman with this little clip.
Charlie Jane: [00:28:27] So, this clip is from a YouTube channel called Fancy Teeth talking about how campy the 1960s Batman was.
Fancy Teeth Clip: [00:28:34] If someone brings up the 1966 Batman TV show in conversation, they probably used the word campy. It might as well be the show’s official adjective, and boy. Is it ever campy.
[1966 Batman scene change sound effect.]
No, never again will that ghastly girdle thwart my plans! For I, the Clown Prince of Crime have found the answer to it!
What is it, Joker?
My own utility belt! [Laughs maniacally.]
Charlie Jane: [00:29:02] Yeah, I love that, and I feel like, I’m just going to say it—Batman is intrinsicly campy. He wears a giant bat on his chest. He carries Batarangs, which are boomerangs shaped like a bat so he calls the Batarangs. He drives a Batmobile. You know, he has a sidekick who dresses in like a circus outfit and is called Robin and he fights a clown. And it’s a very campy character.
Annalee: [00:29:22] And, you know, people have known this forever. Like, you were asking earlier, like where does camp come from? And even in the 1950s, Fredric Wertham, who was the psychologist who went on a crusade to eliminate comics because they were making kids gay, he thought that Batman was turning kids gay and making them into juvenile delinquents, which of course, he thought delinquency and queerness were the same thing. From the beginning it’s been a little bit queer, even though it is funny to say that because I think that’s kind of… I was saying, like the ‘60s is when we become conscious of that but I think we have been conscious of it for a while. Perhaps thanks to Oscar Wilde. Maybe he had something to do with Batman.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:01] I think Oscar Wilde and Batman are inextricably linked for sure.
Annalee: [00:30:07] I really want to read that article when you write it. So… I’m wondering. We’ve been talking about camp and science fiction. Is camp kind of the escapist side of science fiction? Is it a form of escapism? Or is it—that kind of orthogonal?
Charlie Jane: [00:30:27] I think it’s not an accident that the things that are campiest are often—have the biggest element of wish fulfillment and the biggest element of getting to escape from your drab, terrible world and go to someplace colorful. Go to someplace different and strange and wonderful.
Annalee: [00:30:43] And sparkly.
Charlie Jane: [00:30:43] And sparkly, and I think that impulse to escape from the kind of drabness of ordinary life is a camp impulse, and I think that that’s one of the main things that science fiction really kind of caters to. It’s one of the things that is great about science fiction is that it does allow us that idea, of like, well, instead of having my boring life I could get a magic ring and wear a sparkly green jumpsuit and fly around making shiny green things everywhere. I’m talking about Green Lantern, but…
Annalee: [00:31:15] No, I got it.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:18] You know, a lot of these fantasies—part of what makes them so powerful and so wonderful is the same thing that makes them kind of campy. And I think that part of what happens when you try to remove the camp from science fiction and superheroes and other—and fantasy, and everything. When you try to become gritty and grounded and serious and grimdark, is that it kind of loses some of the, what we loved about it in the first place. And I think that the otherworldly, the alien, the strange, the different? Those things often tend to be campy, too, because they stand outside of our world. They have a different perspective. They’re often, you know.
Annalee: [00:31:54] They have a different aesthetic.
Charlie Jane: [00:31:54] They have a different aesthetic and often they might seem exaggerated and weird to us because they’re different and because if you have an alien creature it’s either someone wearing a big latex mask and giant costume or it’s some CG creation, but it something kind of outlandish and strange. It’s hard not to make those things a little bit campy at times. You risk killing what we love about science fiction and fantasy and all these other associated other genres when you try to remove that from them.
Annalee: [00:32:22] Yeah, and I think that this goes back to where camp comes from, which is, it comes from cultures of people who were literally under siege. Who feared for their lives sometimes. Who gathered in places together to share community but always knowing that at any time the police could come and break it up and, I mean, both queer groups and groups that were advocating for African-American rights, any kind of group that was marginal that was trying to form some kind of oppositional culture, or even just to have fun. I mean, that’s the thing about camp, right? Is it’s not about getting together and fomenting revolution. It’s like, just having fun. We just want to go dress up and hang out and dance, or watch a silly movie or wear a funny mask. That’s—in some contexts, that is actually incredibly challenging to mainstream culture.
Charlie Jane: [00:33:18] Yeah, and I think it’s absolutely no accident that so many of science fiction’s greatest creators have been marginalized in one way or another. Either because of sexuality or because of their ethnicity or some other reason. Because I think that that impulse for escapism, and that impulse to have fun creating something that’s colorful and shiny and glittery and excessive and kind of slightly arch, and ironic. That impulse, like you said, comes from being marginalized and I think that when you look at the things that are most successful in science fiction and fantasy, they’re frequently things that just intrinsically are kind of ridiculous and exaggerated. There were a million people who created serious important fantasy stories, but J.K. Rowling came along with Harry Potter where there’s a magic big hat that you put on people’s heads that tells you what their personality type is. And like, all these—a million other things that are just like, delightfully silly, and goofy.
Annalee: [00:34:16] What are some of the hallmarks of contemporary camp? What makes something campy today that just wasn’t even possible, say, five or ten years ago?
Charlie Jane: [00:34:25] Technology has changed our approach to camp hugely, because when we consume old media now, we do it on these giant HD screens where you can see every little bit of glitter, every piece of eyeshadow that spock is wearing. Every little detail that when people watched them on a tiny black and white screen back in the day, they wouldn’t even have noticed.
Annalee: [00:34:43] We can see the artifice.
Charlie Jane: [00:34:44] We can see the artifice more clearly and everything is kind of GIFfed. And I think people who make TV shows now, and I think movies as well, know that they are creating something to be GIFfed. Like something is going to be made into a bunch of GIFs on the internet. And GIFs are kind of intrinsically a campy art form if you think about it. And I think that pop culture, the reign of the GIF has really transformed how pop culture approaches its campiness. Both in how it tries to avoid campiness, but also in how it tries to create campiness.
Annalee: [00:35:14] That’s interesting. GIFs and memes, basically, and those are solidly within how an audience turns something into camp. Because that’s the audience reception at work, and—
Charlie Jane: [00:35:24] But people now create culture knowing that that’s going to be done to it.
Annalee: [00:35:28] That’s interesting. So, you might create something earnest, knowing that there’s going to be a campy take on it, which is… going to make it hard for us to do what you said at the top of the show, which is to say, try to consume media knowing whether it’s campy and artificial or not because now media producers are smart enough to just stay in that liminal zone, and just keep fuckin’ with your head, man!
Charlie Jane: [00:35:51] I’m just going to say everything is campy. Everything is campy.
Annalee: [00:35:53] Uh-huh.
Charlie Jane: [00:35:53] Everything.
Annalee: [00:35:55] Then, is there any way out? Where do we? How do we find some seriousness? When it comes to things like science fiction, I don’t mind that, but when it comes to my news media, is there an outside to the campiness?
Charlie Jane: [00:36:09] That’s a really good question and we’ll leave it to you, our listeners, to figure it out.
Annalee: [00:36:14] When we come back, some recommendations!
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Annalee: [00:36:30] Okay, Charlie Jane, what’s your recommendation?
Charlie Jane: [00:36:32] So, I finally caught up on Russian Doll—
Annalee: [00:36:33] Good job!
Charlie Jane: [00:36:33] —which is this show on Netflix. I know, I’m like the last person to watch that.
Annalee: [00:36:38] It’s so good.
Charlie Jane: [00:36:38] I’m still just blown away by it. It’s the best TV show I’ve seen in, basically probably since Killing Eve. The best live-action TV show I’ve seen in forever. And I love Natasha Lyonne, I would watch her just describe different flavors of custard for an hour. But, you know, that show is so clever and all of the stuff about time and reality that they weave in and the relationship that ends up emerging between Natasha Lyonne’s character and the other lead that kind of comes out toward the back half of the season is just so beautiful. I’m just… I’m in awe of that show, and I feel like it’s really filled me with a new appreciation of what’s possible on television.
Annalee: [00:37:17] Yeah, the thing I love about that show is how it tweaks the Groundhog Day trope and really—because I normally hate Groundhog Day type stories and it plays with that. It shows you how each time you live through a moment, it can be dramatically different than the previous time. And I just…I love that. I love how it feels like we’re moving forward even though we keep getting reset. Just love it, so good.
Charlie Jane: [00:37:40] So, what’s your recommendation, Annalee?
Annalee: [00:37:43] I just watched The Wandering Earth on Netflix. This is a film that came out earlier this year in China. It was the second biggest grossing film in Chinese history. It’s the third biggest film worldwide this year. It earned a lot of money, is what I’m trying to say. It’s this crazy space epic. It’s based on a short story by Liu Cixin, who wrote The Three-Body Problem, which is part of a huge best-selling trilogy, or quadrilogy in China and the US. It’s about a wildly improbable event, which is part of what I loved about it! It was actually pretty campy.
[00:38:20] What happens is, for some reason the sun is exploding. It’s getting bigger. It’s going to eat the Earth. So, what we do as a planet, we get together. This is set in the near future, by the way. It’s like, not a billion years from now. We turn the Earth into a space ship, as you do. All the Earth’s governments get together. We put all of our cities underground. A bunch of people do die, I’m sorry about that. This is all just the premise of the show.
[00:38:47] So, the design is amazing. Like, we see the planet being converted into a space ship, we see these incredible underground cities. We see these incredible jets that are attached to the equatorial regions of the planet, and so, the planet blasts off from orbit and is trying to go to the next star system. The action comes when the usual thing that always happens in space operas, where we’re trying to do a slingshot around Jupiter to get out of the solar system. So, Earth is trying to do a slingshot around Jupiter, but something goes wrong. And so it turns into just this crazy adventure where a family is trying to help get the Earth back on course and survive and also they’re like, going through this crazy landscape of what the planet looks like now that it’s turned into a space ship. It’s amazing. It’s action-packed. It has humor. You actually fall in love with the characters because they’re adorable, and it’s just amazing.
[00:39:46] And the thing that’s triple weird is that Netflix just dropped it. They bought it. They bought the rights to it, literally one of the world’s most popular films. They haven’t been advertising it, like they haven’t been promoting it. It’s this huge sci-fi epic and you can watch it on Netflix now, so I would say check it out as soon as you can because who knows what the hell Netflix is planning next. Maybe they’re just going to eliminated it because they don’t know what to do with it. But yeah, participate in one of the world’s biggest fandoms and check out this film and just like, be amazed. It’s so great.
Charlie Jane: [00:40:20] So, thanks so much for listening. This has been Our Opinions Are Correct and you can find us everywhere that podcasts are posted. Please like us and subscribe on Apple and Google and everything else, and please leave a review if you like the podcast. You can follow us on Twitter @OOACpod, and on Facebook as OurOpinionsAreCorrect. And we have a Patreon—
Annalee: [00:40:39] Yay!
Charlie Jane: [00:40:39] —Patreon.com/OurOpinionsAreCorrect. And thanks so much to the amazing Veronica Simonetti with Women’s Audio Mission for being our producer and thanks to Chris Palmer for the music. And thanks to you for listening.
Annalee: [00:40:53] Yep! See you in a couple weeks!
Charlie Jane: [00:40:53] Bye!
Annalee: [00:40:54] Bye!
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