House of Gucci: Camp or Not Camp?

Yes, it’s time to unpack the multiple definitions of the sensibility and the aesthetic—again.

by Kyle Turner

lady gaga and jared leto in house of gucci
Courtesy of MGM. Collage by Ivana Cruz for W.

It may come to no one’s surprise that, in Ridley Scott’s House of Gucci, Lady Gaga as Patrizia Reggiani (ex-wife of Maurizio Gucci) is doing so much. So, so, so much. The whites of her eyes flood the screen when they gaze at anything, anyone (usually those who, or that which, is attached to material wealth), blinding in their awe and amazement; her thick, unrelenting (maybe questionable) accent slathered onto every line no matter how quotidian; her body language, from the sign of the Gucci-cross to the way she writes her number in cranberry-colored lipstick on the window of Maurizio’s (Adam Driver) Vespa, she freely luxuriates in every space of the frame; and she wears each look, steel wool sponge hairdo, or black and pink polka-dotted dress, while savoring the tension between “Lady Gaga: the serious actress” and “Lady Gaga: the megawatt star” such that the screen can barely contain her too-muchness.

Jared Leto as Paolo, the black sheep of the Gucci family, is also doing a lot; whimpering, crying, letting the lilts in his vowels become tidal waves, wearing what looks like pink velvet, urinating on a prized Gucci silk scarf. When the two are together in a scene, one scheming and calculating and the other a sad sack chump, they melt the rhetorical bar between high art and low pop culture to bathe in its irrelevance and to wash themselves with the sheer excess of it all. They are, like Gucci’s products and legacy, gaudy and weird, joyfully pointed in an unusual and perhaps rare way. It is spectacle and spectacular. Dare I say, Lady Gaga and Jared Leto’s performances are…camp?

Whether “private language” (per Emily Nussbaum), that which “we make fun out of” (per Christopher Isherwood), that which we recognize as “tragically ludicrous” or “ludicrously tragic” (per John Waters), mode of performance or mode of enjoyment (per Susan Sontag), that which is subverted, that which is debased and parodied and mimicked with both love for and little regard to fidelity towards its source, that which is artificially, theatrically aestheticized, or that which is exaggerated, “camp” is chimeric. The more one researches, or even thinks about camp, certainty will surely laugh in one’s face and then don the inquirer in the hideousness of their own ego.

But as the term has become more and more popularized, particularly, first, in the wake of Sontag’s essay “Notes on 'Camp'” in 1964 and, then, with the ways in which the Internet has (kind of) collapsed ideas of taste and access, two kinds of people have emerged: those who like to call anything “camp,” whether that be a costume from WandaVision to a frame in Taylor Swift’s “Bad Blood” music video; and those who love to declare what is and isn’t “camp.” I am tragically of the latter, ahem, camp.

Camp has been conflated with its easily mistaken fraternal, eternally jealous twin kitsch (the difference: kitsch is the object, camp is the performance; e.g. Anna Wintour’s Camp: Notes on Fashion Met Gala outfit was not camp, but her wearing it and thinking it embodied camp was itself camp). The confusion as a marker of quality runs rampant on the Internet, where every cultural artifact can be declared one or the other, and I confess it drives me absolutely up the wall when something that is so clearly not camp is called camp! So few things are actually camp anymore. Even queer punk Canadian filmmaker Bruce LaBruce agrees with me (or, rather, I agree with him) that at least “distinctions must be made,” as “the contemporary tendency of the gay sensibility to allow itself to be thoroughly co-opted, its mystery, and therefore its power, hopelessly diffused.” He goes on to argue that basically, due to a “hypercapitalist” and “conservative” society that has engulfed queerness, “the whole goddamn world is camp.” And if everything is camp, then nothing is camp—at least, not without those delineations.

Here are some recent examples that were pure “naive camp”: the film adaptation of Cats, Billie Eilish winning a Grammy Award for a James Bond theme song nearly a full year before the movie even came out, Billy Porter getting mad at Harry Styles for the latter’s Vogue cover. Things that are not camp: the Real Housewives, Lady Gaga’s Chromatica, the Overlook Hotel-print carpet in every Alamo Drafthouse movie theater.

Every so often, friends of mine will send me a tweet from someone calling something that is patently banal (or just kind of grotesque) camp. My eyes will bulge with brief flutters of fury, and I will huff, puff, and be mistaken by someone on the street as someone looking for a house full of pigs. I will orbit the thought, “How dare they misuse this precious term!!!” A friend once joked that if you say “camp” in the mirror five times, I’ll show up behind you and say, “In what way is it camp?”

There is some real irritation here, insofar as I often feel the reflex to bandy the word about but not really think about its implications or history, which is reflective of a contemporary tendency to not think about a broader history of queer culture and art, especially in juxtaposition to heteronormative culture. (At least, not beyond the terms of “straight people made a lot of [popular] culture which did not permit LGBTQ+ people from depicting their authentic identities and relationships,” which is valid, but also a narrow way to engage with art and culture, even its systematically imposed limitations and boundaries.) I just wish people would think about whether or not something is actually subversive, or theatrical, or a way to challenge taste and the status quo, or a way to politicize aesthetics itself. Is that so much to ask?

Everything is so serious on the Internet, so even debating about the frivolity of camp loses that exact thrill. At least, so says my therapist. Twitter, which is a prime example of philosopher and media theorist Theodor Adorno’s nightmare and a peek into a world subsumed by an economic paradigm that makes everything and nothing exaggerated and subversive, is not the most useful apparatus to debate (or gaslight, gatekeep, girlboss) the semiotics of camp.

Then again, all this hand wringing I’m doing about calling things camp, or not calling them camp…could that be the most camp thing of all? Does it matter who calls what camp and if they’re right? If camp is a term rooted in excess, artifice, and too muchness, does that mean its misuse (or “misuse”) and conflation with other terms to articulate style or performance makes the Ouroboros-esque loop-de-loop back to being camp again?

Or maybe the most camp thing, which is to say the most heightened, unfit, mawkishly tasteless, frivolous thing, is to care about how people use camp in the first place—especially in a cultural landscape where everything and nothing can be said to be everything and nothing at once. Mine is nothing if not an overly theatrical, intensely frivolous (to observers, I’m sure), parodic, ironic, lovingly contradictory performance of caring way, way too much, adoring too passionately, and aspiring too boldly to wrangle with my child-sized hands what amounts to a sensibility (or perception of such) that’s like the smoke slinking from Lady Gaga’s cigarette in the movie. This essay is pretty camp, I think. And, if this essay isn’t camp, then thinking this essay is camp is what’s camp...right?