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Camgirls and the politics of camp - Terri Senft

Terri Senft
Date: 2010-07-21 17:56
Subject: Camgirls and the politics of camp
Security: Public
A student asked me to discuss my thoughts on camgirls and camp performance. Here is my answer:

In my work on camgirls, I was interested in a thinking through (some) camgirl performances through what Patricia Mellencamp calls' feminist camp.' Like 'swishy' men and 'hyper-femme' women in gay camp , feminst camp performers are deliberately excessive in their performances of gender, going 'over the top' in a way that causes a certain type of viewer to think, "No way is she completely serious about this. It's all too much. What does this excess signal about the constructed nature of all femininity?"

The subtitle of Mellencamp's book o("from Mae West to Madonna") sort of sums up both the sort of performer involved in feminist camp: white, western, young, conventionally attractive, media savvy and generally bisexual. The audiences for such performers vary and include anyone with interested in watching, I suppose, but the desired readers of feminist performers (and remember, no performance 'means' anything outside of reading) would be someone who identifies as both a feminist and an ironist, with a 'wink, wink, nudge, nudge' approach to gender.

Seduction tends to be a big theme in feminist camp, as does sending up the notion that men are 'emotional slaves' to women, which feminists see as a lame fantasy covering the real social inequities between genders, such as the fact that even today, men own ninety percent of available land on the planet (so much for male slavery to women.) Feminist camp tends to overplay the seduction/emotional slavery thing as way to comment on it and hopefully, show it for the damaging fantasy it is. It's a strategy that has plenty of criticisms that I won't go into here.

When I was researching young women webcammers, I noted that a fair amount seemed influenced by idea female camp aesthetics . For instance, many seemed to know 'post-porn' performer Annie Sprinkle (you can Google her) who deploys her hyper-femininity to make feminist counter-public critiques. Please note: no camgirls I spoke to used the words 'female camp' or even 'counter-public' to describe themselves, but many did talk about using their own images to 'speak back, in a funny way' to mainstream media messages about women.

Though I was originally intrigued (and perhaps even seduced) by the idea of that women webcam performers might change the political landscape through female camp, after looking at the evidence, I had step away from that hope. In my book, I discuss the fact that both historically, both camp and counter-public politics have operated on the premise of known spatial constraints and audiences. When we speak of something as 'mainstream' or 'underground,' we display how we think of public life as geographically distributed. The problem was, for camgirls, public and counter-public audiences routinely overlapped: not only was it difficult to say whether something was becoming mainstreamed; we couldn't even locate where the 'streams' originated, or where they were heading!

Perhaps if there had been some discrete spaces where feminists gathered to discuss camgirl performances this wouldn't have been the case, but it certainly was at the time.

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April 2011