Camp As Cultural Capital: Further Elaboration of a Consumption Taste

ABSTRACT - This article reports selected findings of an ethnographic study of gay men’s consumption patterns. In particular, it elaborates upon the Ahomosexual sensibility@ known as Acamp.@ Herein, the author interprets various experiential aspects of camp consumption and then places camp, the institution, within a theoretical framework, arguing that it is usefully conceptualized as a specialized expression of Asubcultural capital@ and habitus development.


Steven M. Kates (2001) ,"Camp As Cultural Capital: Further Elaboration of a Consumption Taste", in NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, eds. Mary C. Gilly and Joan Meyers-Levy, Valdosta, GA : Association for Consumer Research, Pages: 334-339.

Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28, 2001     Pages 334-339


Steven M. Kates, Monash University


This article reports selected findings of an ethnographic study of gay men’s consumption patterns. In particular, it elaborates upon the "homosexual sensibility" known as "camp." Herein, the author interprets various experiential aspects of camp consumption and then places camp, the institution, within a theoretical framework, arguing that it is usefully conceptualized as a specialized expression of "subcultural capital" and habitus development.

Traditionally, consumption has often been viewed as expressions of social organization, status or hierarchy (e.g., Simmel 1900; Veblen 1899). The work of Pierre Bourdieu, the French sociologist, is of considerable relevance and importance to this continuing stream of research (Bourdieu 1984). Over the past three decades, Bourdieu has pursued a continuing project exploring the various dimensions of social life. Drawing selectively and critically from Marx, Durkheim, and Weber, Bourdieu has developed an extensive and dense body of sociological work that broadly conceptualizes social organization as an aren of competition for economic and cultural resources (see Bourdieu 1984). His central research question concerns the ways that stratified systems and domination reproduce and persist (Swartz 1997). Most relevant to this article, consumption emerges as a key fieldBan arena in which people compete for various resources - in which tastes are enacted and social distinctions are made manifest and hierarchical structures systematically reproduced (see Holt 1998). Particularly, consumers are thought to possess various kinds and degrees of cultural capitalBtastes, skills, knowledge, and abilities acquired through formal education, upbringing, work experience, and social interactionsBthat enables them to "properly" appreciate goods and services.

Bourdieu’s work and that drawing from it provides the theoretical springboard for the present work. The purpose of this article is to explore the consumption sensibility known as "camp," the homosexual perspective or aesthetic (Sontag 1964). Although many cultural theorists have written about camp (Babuscio 1993; Bergman 1993; Bronski 1984; Newton 1993; Ross 1989; Sontag 1964), it has yet to be explored empirically. How do gay consumers experience campy objects and activities? The one exception is the study by Kates (1997), but this latter study, although presenting some of the lived experiential dimensions of camp consumption, does not adequately conceptualize it within a broader field of social and political relations. It is the objective of the present article to interpret various aspects of lived camp experience and to place camp, the cultural phenomenon, within a theoretical framework, arguing that it is usefully conceptualized as a specialized expression of cultural capital and gay men’s habitus development. Such an endeavour adds to the consumer research discipline in the following manners. First, the empirical study of camp provides us with an understanding of one particular aspect of gay men’s consumption, a relatively unknown area (Kates 1997). Second, a study of camp adds to a continuing stream of consumer research investigating the social patterning of consumption in postmodern conditions (e.g., Bourdieu 1984; Holt 1995, 1997, 1998). Finally, as part of the recent "postmodern project" in consumer research, this paper contributes to the critical excavation of the voices of previously silenced or stigmatized consumers. Overall, insights about camp contribute to our knowledge of culture and consumption in a complex, fragmented societal configuration characterized by a plurality of changing alignments, allegiances, and difference.


What is camp?

The literature on camp suggests that it is a specific manner or style of consuming characterized by the ironic appreciation of excess, exaggeration, and flamboyance (privileging "style over substance"; see Sontag [1964]). In a sense, camp consumption is a cultural mode of interpretation or way of consuming (see Holt 1995) that "rummages" through the things, icons, and meanings of popular culture and ironically reworks them in a gay social context (Kates 1997; Newton 1993; Ross 1989). As Sontag (1964) suggests, camp consumption is usually associated with gay cultures that exist in large European, North American, and Australian urban spaces (Altman 1982; D’Emilio 1983). Recent conceptual work on camp converges on a number of salient points. First, camp is the aesthetic of the overblown, exaggerated, and ironic, as personified by garish, elaborately dressed and coiffed drag queens who perform in gay bars. But camp is not always the aesthetic of the extreme. Often (and perhaps most relevantly) the ineffable camp perspective playfully, subtly, gently, and ironically reworks the oppression experienced by gay men by re-inscribing everyday objects and shared social practices with different meanings.

Yet, from the perspective of consumer researchers, camp has yet to be conceptualized and studied empirically as a family of meanings or discourse that informs consumption taste, particularly given the renewed interest and work in this area (Bourdieu 1984; Holt 1997, 1998). For purposes herein, taste is usefully conceptualized as elaborated consumer preferences that serve to socially classify both self and other and have important implications for social stratification or hierarchy (Bourdieu 1984, p. 77; Holt 1997, 1998). Given the sociological orientation of this article, it is necessary to incorporate the insights of Pierre Bourdieu, a theorist who provides the necessary conceptual language and empirical insights to further our understanding of camp as a cultural mode of symbolic consumption.

Cultural Capital, Habitus, and Taste: A Brief Account of the Work of Pierre Bourdieu

For Bourdieu (1984), social reality is conceptualized as a struggle over key resources, and classes reproduce themselves within the context of this struggle. Particularly germane is the notion of "cultural capital," as distinguished from economic capital (money, property, and so on). Cultural capital is, in turn, internalized by the habitus, a "system of durable, transposable dispositions" (see Holt 1998, p. 431) that is developed through upbringing since childhood, education that stresses abstract reasoning and critical thinking skills, social interactions, and work experience in which these skills may be actively practised and enhanced. Another way of expressing this is that the habitus is the organizing set of principlesBstructured by past experience, yet also generative of inventive possibilities - for continued strategic practice. The habitus also internalizes classifications for good or bad, vulgar or refined, or cultured or uncouth. Hence, consumers gradually become predisposed to exercising consumption preferences characteristic of their class habitus and corresponding level of cultural capital (Bourdieu 1984; Holt 1998), demonstrating a systematic (and often subtle or unconscious) opposition or distaste for the preferences of other classes. It is the habitus that mediates between objective conditions of social existence (such as poverty) and the individual consumption practices that subsequently emerge (Bourdieu 1984). Further it is the habitus that "organizes how one classifies the universe of consumption objects to which one is exposed, constructing desire toward consecrated objects and disgust toward objects that are not valued in the field" (Holt 1998, p. 4). In other words, consumers routinely enact their tastes in everyday life, and by doing so, they classify self and other, implicitly indicating their level of cultural capital by the nuanced manners in which they consume. Differences in the standard of living between dominant and subordinate classes, as internalized by the habitus, are thought to produce a "basic opposition between the taste of luxury and the tastes of necessity" respectively (Bourdieu 1984, p. 183).

Although cultural capital broadly structures patterns of tastes for those possessing the lowest and highest levels of it (Holt 1998), many important questions still remain to be explored, given the complex North American social context of social mobility, fragmentation, and differentiation. Relatedly, Bourdieu has been criticized for the supposed "hyperdeterminism" of habitus (Swartz 1997). Defenders of Bourdieu are quick to note that the habitus is a mediating, not a determinative, construct. Hence, the habitus, and by implication, consumption practice, is open to subsequent modification, particularly under different social contexts from which it was formed to begin with (see Swartz 1997). I propose that gay subculture and "coming out of the closet" (i.e., a socialization process usually entailing the acceptance and disclosure of one’s sexual orientation to others, the concurrent exploration of urban gay "ghettos," and the formation of social and sexual bonds with othergay men) does indeed constitute such a radically different social context. This claim is strongly supported by extensive historical and psychological literature in the gay and lesbian studies field (e.g., Altman 1982; Chauncey 1994; D’Emilio 1983). Further, gay men must negotiate between gay and heterosexual social worlds whilst engaging in socialization within the gay subculture (Kates 1997) and this phenomenon has implications for consumption tastes, the habitus, and cultural capital. As I illustrate below, camp consumption tastes are incorporated into participants’ consumption practices, in most instances regardless of educational, class, or occupational background, for the social field of gay culture intersects with the habitus, with meaningful effects.


This article reports selected findings from an ethnographic study of gay men’s consumption patterns. In addition to participant observation of a gay and lesbian youth group and a gay men’s professional organization over the course of a year and a half, forty-four gay men were formally interviewed (McCracken 1988). The men were identified through the gay and lesbian youth group and the gay men’s social organization (The "Brotherhood"). From initial contacts, more men volunteered and the sample "snowballed" from there. Interviewing was conducted until redundancy of themes was identified (see Corbin and Strauss 1990; Glaser and Strauss 1967). It should also be noted that the audiotaped interviews were not transcribed until after all interviews were conducted. However, during the fieldwork, the researcher took copious notes during each interview, and these notes guided further questioning and investigation. The men were aged from 16 to 53 and although most were white, a concerted effort was made to include black, Asian, and First Nation participants. Further, and relevant to this report, informants’ family backgrounds, education levels, and occupations were also discussed.

During the long interviews, a variety of topics were discussed including personal biographies, "coming out of the closet," and social activities. Further, many areas of consumption were discussed in depth: food, home dTcor, socializing, drinking, clothes, cultural products (theatre, film, art, reading, and other live performances), attending bars, travel, and advertising. Although the interviewer set the topics of interest (consumption and coming out, for example), interviews were semi-structured, allowing participants to set directions and express their own views and attitudes (see McCracken 1988). After the interviews were all completed, tapes were transcribed verbatim. The written interviews were read over several times in order to get a broad sense of the common themes grounded in the text (Glaser and Strauss 1967; Spiggle 1994). After that, themes were refined and related to each other conceptually and to relevant literature, a process called "tacking." It should be noted that the data resonated and "made sense" particularly well after a review of various sociological works of Pierre Bourdieu. Although the etic categories of cultural capital, habitus, and field (Bourdieu’s main conceptual terms) do not derive directly from the interview data, painstaking attention was paid in the descriptions and interpretations below to show that the data meaningfully illustrates these etic categories (cf. Holt 1997, 1998; Thompson and Haytko 1997; Thompson and Hirschman 1995). The findings were interpreted with Bourdieu’s framework deliberately in mind in order to elaborate on camp as a consumption sensibility that has significant implications for social hierarchy and classification, including some but excluding others, as accounted for below.


One of the purposes of ths article is to illustrate the lived dimensions of camp consumption. In other words, in what ways do the study’s participants consume in campy manner? How do they classify, evaluate and appreciate campy things, experiences and people (cf. Holt 1995; Kates 1997)? To do this, findings were organized and classified into three major headings for conceptual exposition and clarity: appreciation of objectified cultural capital, embodied cultural capital and gay diva worship, and camp as problematizing the social status quo.

"It’s a Gay ThingBYou wouldn’t understand!"Appreciation of Objectified Camp

Some consumption objects such as feather boas or Aubrey Beardsley prints are considered campy due to their enduring association with gay or theatre subcultures (Kates 1997; Sinfield 1994; Sontag 1964) and serve as examples of objectified cultural capital. Yet, products have different meanings for different interpretive communities, given the complex fragmentation of society. Further, objects do not have any immanent meaning per se, but become meaningful only in practice and social context (see Holt 1997). It is more accurate to conceptualize camp consumption as a particular style of consuming or as consumption with a distinctive manner of expression. Hence, many object or constellations of objects can be campily consumed if the consumer has acquired the requisite skills and tastes.

Jordan’s passage below illustrates one of the ways in which objectified camp taste is acquired in everyday or informal consumption experiences:

There’s a joke that a friend of mine and I came up with when we went to the gay campground: "How can you tell it’s a gay campground? Well, the bar’s open 24 hours. There’s an inground heated swimming pool. There’s a barn that’s converted into a dance club at night. And there’s minigolf!" (laughs) [I: Did they have all those things?] They HAD all those things! But you pitched your tent, or you could rent an old trailer. You do the campfire thing. It’s wood. It’s huge. It’s a huge property. [I: You talked about the campsite itself. And the in joke about gay men and camping. Can you explain the joke to me?] Okay. I think it’s a lot to do with the fact that gay men are not necessarily seen as the types that will go out and rough it. In the brush, portaging through. A lot of the stereotype of gay men is that their very urban. I think a lot of the stereotype is that of gay men as very urban. And you find them in the cities, usually downtown in apartments, in condos and stuff like that. And that’s a really big stereotype because as I said before, I get a lot of people at the youth group that I host from out of town, from like [a nearby town]. From way out in [the country] and out the other end too. So...the campground being characterized as gay plays on that stereotype of being very urban and in ground swimming pool at a campground?! A bar? You don’t do your hoedowns, but you do your club music on Friday, Saturday nights with the DJ trucked up from [a nearby city]. Minigolf is a city type of thing and stuff like that. [I: Is there some truth in the stereotype? To a certain extent yes #cause you do find a lot of the gay population concentrated in urban centres because that’s where gay men and women tend to be...tend to congregate. Being able to go to the ghetto is you know, a self-empowering experience because when you’re out alone in Holland’s Landing or in Newmarket, you’re alone. Yes, you have [straight] friends and stuff, but I don’t honestly think it’s the same. Being able to talk to your friends...your straight friends about your experiences as being able to talk to another gay person who has experienced or gone through the exact same thing that you have or close to it. But I think the campground plays on the stereotype of having the minigolf. Stuff like that, yeah. There is some truth to that, but I think you’ll find that no, a lot of gay couples or a lot of gay groups of friends are venturing further outside of the community as a group as gay people. And so it’s starting to come down, but...yeah, the stereotype is still there and I think that’s why you could say Cedars is a gay campground other than, I don’t know, the [other national] park isn’t. (Jordan, 26, Eurasian, university degree, IT systems consultant)

For Jordan, a campground became a "camp"-ground when gay men consumed in it. The transmission of cultural consumption knowledge in the gay men’s social milieu was very much like having an "in joke" explained and finally "getting the joke" on an ongoing basis, and then realizing that one is "in". In this regard, the stereotyped behaviors or images of camp taste and gay men as urban aesthetes serve as important guides or templates of acceptable styles and meanings of camp consumption. Gay men can then improvise and play in the spirit of the bricoleur, slyly undermining the seriousness of the elegance by applying an ironic sensibility. The other important social dynamic at play is that gay men are able to socialize on their own in conditions free of antigay violence or social disapproval in gay urban "ghettos" or campgrounds, as above. Such material conditions set the stage for an exclusive camp cultural sensibility to be apprehended, acquired, enjoyed, and expanded upon. When Jordan notes "you’re alone," he is referring to the fact that he was alone with other gay men, and heterosexuals were systemically excluded from the festivities. Consumption practices then become part and parcel of a process of social differentiation and stratification (cf. Holt 1998).

Informants provided numerous examples of consumption situations in which their own consumption tastes are positively framed in contrast to those of heterosexual men (and a range of feelings of hostility, disgust, sympathy, or indulgent amusement are proffered toward the latter, their "vulgar" tastes and consumption practices). In these instance and others, consumption tastes serve as valuable expressions of cultural capital. It is the manner of consumption that distinguishes gay men from others. Jordan and other informants link their use and appreciation of these products to a heightened, conscious sense of social affiliation with gay men, disaffiliation from allegedly unenlightened and vulgar straight men, and more liberated, progressive gender identities. It was often articulated in the interviews that due to their unthinking and uncritical adherence to outdated masculine conventions, heterosexual men are unable to consume in a refined manner that acknowledges and appreciates the finer, "classy" attributes of products. It is this belief and the ironic pleasure it afforded that served as a form of social distinction for gay informants. As some informants expressed it, "straights just don’t get it!" Campy consumption, one type of the "taste of luxury," (Bourdieu 1984) was demarcated as the exclusive preserve of gay menBand some "enlightened," "gay positive," or "educated" straight men.

"It’s the pictures that got small": Embodied Cultural Capital and Gay Diva Worship

One distinct aspect of gay men’s consumer culture is "diva worship," the passionate and almost fetishistic devotion to female Hollywood stars such as Marilyn Monroe or Judy Garland or more recent celebrities such as Cher, Barbra Streisand, or Madonna (Ross 1989). During the fieldwork of this study, diva worship was observed in many social contexts: during drag shows in gay bars, references in casual conversation to the 1939 film, the Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland ("Something tells me we’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto!"), posters of Madonna and Marilyn Monroe displayed publicly in shops, and the constant presence of Madonna in gay nightclubs. Diva worship has a long history in North American gay communities as well, as evince by the presence of so many screaming, crying gay men during Judy Garland’s last concerts in New York during the 1960’s. Indeed, to ask if someone is "a friend of Dorothy’s" is a covert manner of asking "are you gay?" What are we to make of this cultural particularity?

It should be emphasized that not all of the gay informants expressed a fondness or taste for diva worship, but all were aware of it. Antonio, in the following passage, reflects on the heavily gendered character of this consumption practice and recount a narrative common to informants and even cultural critique of camp:

I think that that gay men are attracted by...well, they’re attracted by two things. Either, two extremes. Either extremely strong women or extremely weak women. On the strong end of the spectrum, you have Barbra Streisand. You have Cher, I suppose, to a degree. People who have come back or fought there way to the top, survivors, and also people who have the reputation of being nasty. People who step on other people to get there, you know, and then I guess, you know, they respect that kind of toughness. I don’t know if Barbra Streisand is a nasty person, but she certainly has a very kind of, domineering trait, from what I hear. People like that. On the other hand, you have someone like Judy Garland, just the opposite. You know, made a mess of her life, had no business sense whatsoever. People loved her because she was such a victim. This is a...she was a victim, in many ways. She wasn’t a happy person. She was successful, but she had an unhappy life. Alcohol, pills, these addictions that they had. (Antonio, WM, 38, university degree, interpreter, emphasis added)

As alluded to above, there are noteworthy aspects of diva worship that should be emphasized. First, diva worship is usually founded upon an appreciation of a cliched tragic narrative or myth, as exemplified by the aging star, Norma Desmond, in the film Sunset Boulevard ("I’m still big. It’s the pictures that got small.") A person, despite the odds and personal tragedy, "makes it big," experiences a great public success usually in the entertainment world (the rise), and then, as a tragic victim of circumstances or personal demons, suffers calamitous misfortune and subsequently passes into obscurity (the fall). The second point to note is that these people are invariably glamorous women. Gay men, through camp consumption, identify gladly with the "plight" of the other gender!

The appreciation of divas consists of both experiential enjoyment and the more distanced, ironic camp sensibility. Although the songs of Garland or Streisand are enjoyed for their immediate pleasure and gratification, proper, "campy" consumption of a diva requires the knowledge of the tragic diva myth and the identification with a woman for her strong and weak personal characteristics. The drag queen or female star may appear exaggerated, over the top, and outrageous, but the consumption style employed by informants to appreciate her is actually rather subtle and intricate. It not only acknowledges the overblown aspects of the diva’s appearance or personae, but also it plays with the "tragic narrative" of her life and evokes a level of identification with her suffering. At the same time, there is a gentle undercurrent of parody of that suffering, revealing its contrived character.

Gamson (1994), in his study of celebrity consumption, identifies five distinct styles with which consumers enjoy famous people. Although some consumers still take the notion of celebrity at face value and defend talent and accomplishments as the legitimate foundation of fame, many more consumers adopt a more "postmodern" strategy, enjoying the marketing artifice as part of the packaged personae. But diva worship may defy easy classification. Diva worship is a form of communal co-optation of mainstream cultural elements (cf. Kopytoff 1986; Miller 1987) wherein celebrities are re-inscribed with meanings localto gay culture (see Geertz 1983). The parody of diva worship lies in the incongruity and contradiction created by, for example, the juxtaposition of the wholesomeness of Dorothy (the main character of The Wizard of Oz) and its significations in gay men’ livesBa "telltale" sign of same sex desire. This manifestation of camp brings delight in the privileged knowledge and unintended uses of divas by this particular interpretive community.

Most relevant to the social stratification argument (based on Bourdieu’s work as outlined above) is that diva worship may constitute one of the most enduring and visible types of symbolic boundaries between the gay men’s consumer subculture and mainstream heterosexual culture (see Holt 1997). As a distinct form of consumption practice, diva worship serves as a key basis for social affiliation with other gay men. The visible, garish, and "screaming" drag queen so often featured during telecasts of Lesbian and Gay Pride Day celebrations is a constant and potent reminder of the differences between the cultures, differences that reinforce the social boundaries. In recent practice, diva worship of Garland and older celebrities has transformed into admiration for contemporary figures such as Madonna, Cher, and Roseanne. Like the older celebrities, they are "strong" women who have coped with tragic circumstances (perhaps surviving as a successful woman in a patriarchal world can be painful enough). Yet, according to informant reports, these newer divas are considered more resilient and openly "gay positive," and subsequently, worthy of widespread adoration (cf. Gamson 1994). Perhaps most tellingly, some informants made derogatory comments about heterosexual’s presumed ignorance of these diva’s signifiance to gay culture and how the messages in their lives and works are "meant" for gay men. In such a manner, gay men lay claim to their celebrities and socially organize around their consumption.

CampBBut more so: Camp as Problematizing the Social Status Quo

One of the other discoveries about the lived experience of camp is that some of the informants were aware of the term itself and were able to relate it to sophisticated analyses of homophobic prejudice. Some of the informants explicitly "philosophised" about camp:

Camp to me means fun, it means experimentation with drag. It means role playing. Basically, it means a dark, twisted humour whether it’s in a film or whether it’s experimentation among friends, but it basically means letting down your guard and having fun, being with people, you can be open and honest and trustworthy with, and kind of experimenting with your own personal boundaries. So I think one of the reasons that gay people have picked up on camp is God! With the way society has ostracized gayness and gays and lesbians in general, we’ve really had to dig deep right down to our souls and realize, what do we want out of life? What are our true beliefs? What is our purpose in this world? By camp or campiness, I find that we know what our boundaries are. We know when we can be vulnerable, and when we know when to hold back and through camp, we can share some humor and some closeness, and at the same time, laugh, have fun, I mean, this world, there’s no reason for so much hatred and violence and negativity. [Something] seems to be camp because it’s exaggerated. It doesn’t need to be realistic. It needs to be testing the boundaries, so to speak, and by doing that, it become very camp. I find that camp is something that gay people understand a little bit better than straight people simply because, for some strange reason, well two reasons, actually. One I think it’s really because we did have to get in touch with our emotions, so we can understand a little bit more where people are coming from when it is humor, when it’s meant to be vulgar, when it’s meant to make you laugh or make you cry. Or it’s the double entendres, which brings us to he second point, which gay people have gone through life and got through mainstream using double entendre meanings, double entendre type...products and words and things like that. Like, if you were "a friend of Dorothy’s," that meant that you were gay, so when it comes to camp, a lot of camp has to do with double entendres, so with gay people, Oh, my God! They love it, and if they don’t get the joke, they want to get it, whereas with a lot of straight people, if they don’t get the joke the first time, they may not want to know the answer, they don’t question. "What do you mean? I don’t get it!" They just accept it for what it is, just like in society, you suddenly become of a certain age, and you get married, and you go through the patterns of life because that’s what’s expected of you. You don’t ever have to question your own life, your own thoughts and values and beliefs and all the rest, so therefore you never have any reason to doubt what’s being presented to you. And with camp, that’s exactly what it’s doing is its giving you that other perception and it wants to do it in such a way that it’s a pleasant experience if you allow it to be. (Russ, 29, WM, university degree and professional designation, management accountant)

Such thoughtful commentary reflects an awareness that exceeds the usual ironic perspective and knowledge of most informants; in effect, Russ’ passage evinces a metadiscursive awareness of this knowledge and camp perspective of the world. This type of awareness is elucidated by Giddens’ (1984) concept of the "double hermeneutic." Scholars study the emic understandings that consumers hold about their social worlds. Researchers then invent or elaborate upon (or, in the case of camp, even co-opt!) conceptual terms about the social world that frame their academic debates so they may develop systematic insights into the dynamics and structures of society. Some etic terms seep into everyday usage and popular speech ("deconstruction" is a good case in point), enriching the understandings of some educated consumers. "Camp" is both an academic, etic term used extensively by theorists in cultural and gay and lesbian studies and a culturally specific term commonly employed by gay men. For example, a group of gay men might agree to maintain "low camp" in a location populated by possibly hostile heterosexuals. What this means is that all flamboyant, feminine, colorful, and ironic expressions (such as "Oh Mary! Get that tacky ensemble she’s wearing!") and/or gestures should be eliminated in order to "pass" as heterosexual, if temporarily.

RussBin common with those informants with high cultural capital from upbringing, education, and professional backgrounds - demonstrates a penetrating social reflexivity about the complex social world that he negotiates daily. He has gained the sophisticated understanding that camp is a perspective of the social world (or an interpretive framework) particular to "out" gay men. Implicitly, Russ links a form of consumption (camp) to a form of social oppression (homophobia), and hence, his appreciation of a particular instance of camp consumption (the song "I’m too Sexy") allows him to problematize the "natural" givens in a field of pervasive social inequity.

Russ’ passage also illustrates the critical, reflexive, and questioning orientation to the world so characteristic of campBand of high cultural capital (see Bourdieu 1984; Gouldner 1979; Holt 1998). It should be noted that Russ’ exposition is uncharacteristic of most informants due to its depth and critical disposition. Camp, as an interpretive framework, is best described as a presuppositional, taken-for-granted understanding or as a form of practical knowledge that remains unarticulated until realized in consumption contexts (Bourdieu 1984; Giddens 1984). Yet, systematic reading of the interview transcripts yielded an interesting insight. Almost all of the informants spoke of various funny, ironic, campy types of consumption experience (usually to do with drag, gender bending, or extremes of masculinity r femininity, or even food as illustrated above). In contrast, a substantial number of informants (approximately one quarter), in addition to recounting enjoyable camp experiences, were able to explicitly identify and define camp as a politicized way of looking at the world or as the gay sensibility that was "loose," "funny," "gay," or "critical." In short, they could "theorize" about it in a "pop psychology" manner. Importantly, these were the informants who had attended university, worked in professional occupations, and came from homes with educated parents. The difference between the two consumer interpretations is not a difference of kind, but of nuanced quality, characterized by the application of critical reflectivity, a key characteristic of humanistic education (Gouldner 1979). Yet, through the appreciation of camp experience, almost all of the informants demonstrate some conscious understanding of their "social situatedness" (i.e., how they are treated in relation to other groups and an abstracted heterosexual Other). And for a minority of them, this conscious understanding is inflected with an explicit, sophisticated analysis of how camp consumption relates to life possibilities, power, and social positioning (see Swartz 1979). Hence, for Russ, learning to "get the joke" of camp is a means of understanding self in relation to an occasionally hostile society and criticizing normative views on gender and sexuality as exclusive, unduly limiting, and unfair.

Among the other informants who offered thoughtful appraisals as camp and oppression was the consensus that camp sensibility offered a challenge to a particular aspect of the societal status quo. Corey, a law student with self-confessed Marxist sympathies, articulated a commonly held (and now, often challenged) stereotype about gay menBthat they are most often "creative" and engaged in artistic occupations such as interior design, and act as fashion arbitersBbut then used that observation to make a more penetrating insight. Like Russ, he linked an understanding of camp consumption to social oppression. But he specifically identifies the historically transgressive character of camp sensibility (Chauncey 1994; Sinfield 1994)Cits subversive challenge to gendered conventions and to the very heart of the institution of gender itself.


The central finding of this paper is that the gay informantsBof diverse class, occupational, ethnic, and cultural backgroundsBacquired the appreciation of the camp "tastes of luxury" and the parody associated with it (cf. Bourdieu 1984; Holt 1997). Camp is, foremost, an orientation to the social world and a strategy that seeks to play, exaggerate, and gently satirize, exposing underlying assumptions. For example, the drag queen is an embodied form of camp that calls into questioned the "natural" quality of masculine and feminine gender roles, accomplished through inversion and outrageous hyperbole. Camp consumption entails the acquisition of not the aesthetic taste, but of a particular aesthetic taste with a rich history behind it (cf. Altman 1982; Bourdieu 1984; Chauncey 1994; Sinfield 1994). Camp is lively, funny, mocking, sometimes "bitchy," and assumes a self-referential pose to its own parody.

Camp may also be considered a democratic leveler in some ways. The informants came from a variety of class backgrounds and occupations. Yet, with some qualitative nuances, they were all able to appreciate the camp sensibility as embodied in drag, clothing, food, or dTcor. Yet, given Bourdieu’s conceptualization of the habitus, this finding is somewhat problematic. How is the "taste of luxury" so widely disseminated? Cultural capital is, traditionally, embodied during consumers’ upbringings and social interactions with family and peers. Through formal education and informal socialization, those who hve higher levels of cultural capital develop a more critical, problematizing, and distanced appreciation of the world and an accompanying, metaphysical aesthetic taste (e.g., Holt 1998). Yet, it is recognized that the early development of the habitus does not necessarily preclude further development and change later in adulthood (Swartz 1997). Theoretically, camp consumption is used as a means to experiment with identity, finding one’s social space in society. According to the findings of this study, once a gay male consumer develops an understanding of camp’s multifaceted meanings, he can interact more freely with other gay men, ironically re-appropriating the dominant meanings of consumer culture to fit new social contexts. Through the appreciative lens of camp experience, almost all of the informants demonstrate some conscious understanding of their "social situatedness" (i.e., how they are treated in relation to other groups and an abstracted heterosexual Other). And for a minority of them, this conscious understanding is inflected with an explicit, sophisticated analysis of how camp consumption relates to life possibilities, power, and social positioning (see Swartz 1979). For instance, for Russ, learning to "get the joke" of camp is a means of understanding self in relation to an occasionally hostile society and criticizing normative views on gender and sexuality as exclusive, unduly limiting, and unfair.

All informants gave accounts of their "coming out" process, when they accepted that they were gay, disclosed it to others, and began exploring the gay urban subculture. Despite the individual and group differences of these narratives, there was one important commonality evinced among them: coming out required the explicit rejection of an old "way of thought" and even of an old way of life. Many informants reported that they painfully struggled with guilt, fear and shame, but eventually arrived at a kind of acceptance of a socially awkward sexual bias. Coming out also meant coming to terms with a new social reality. Marriage, children, and social connections with the family of origin were all recast in a new light. Yet, with some measure of self-acceptance came a qualitatively different way of looking at the social world. In the terms of the rhetoric of gay liberation that intertextually informed so many of informants’ accounts, "gay is as good as straight!" Within periods ranging from months or years, informants learned to reassess their old beliefs about homosexuality and positively recast them. Sometimes, informants felt anger and rage at systemic inequalities. In almost all cases, informants developed a relatively more critical, penetrating orientation toward the naturalized givens of the social world. This critical mindset impacts the structure and contents of the habitus, albeit in subtly different ways. Hence, is contended that the struggle of the coming out processBand the new social interactions it entailsBthat underlies the complex camp sensibility learned by university professors and warehouse workers alike. The social implications of camp are of great interests to consumer researchers. Camp consumption is strategically employed by informants to legitimate and construct social differences with heterosexuals (cf. Bourdieu 1984) through a localized form of "subcultural capital." The data support the contention that camp includes some and excludes the many. The experience of camp is like being "let in on" an in-joke and enjoying the privilege of knowing what those excluded do not. But more seriously, camp tastes serve as a multifaceted basis for social stratification. Camp sensibility unites gay men, for example, by allowing them to denigrate the allegedly "low-class" tastes of heterosexuals. Cam (Asian male, 22), for example, in a rather exasperated tone noted that he "could not believe" that heterosexuals still did not know that the 1970’s pop singer Sylvester was, in fact, a woman. In the micropolitics of everyday social interactions, such knowledge and distinctions have real, practical effects and serve to bring gay men together, united in pleasurable contempt. In so doing, camp tastes creates discursive and social distance betwen gay men and the abstracted (and denigrated) "mainstream" or "heterosexual" other.


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Steven M. Kates, Monash University


NA - Advances in Consumer Research Volume 28 | 2001

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