All hail The Butch. The Instagram project @ButchCamp is archiving the history of the butch identity in all of its power and campness, From KD Lang to Fran Lebowitz to Xena Warrior Princess to Katharine Hepburn, and a ton of other badasses. By Sophia Larigakis.
Queer histories are frequently clandestine, fragmented, non-linear. Their historians are on the front lines (not peering out of the ivory tower) and wield their subjectivity — in the form of memory and affect — as a weapon against the white-cis-heteropatriarchal violence of dominant history.
ButchCamp is an ongoing queer historiography project, articulated through an important 21st century medium: Instagram. The project is run by Lisbon-based artist Isa Toledo and Arnhem-based graphic designer Rosie Eveleigh, and features images and witty text on butch characters and icons by theme, ranging from barber cuts to Hollywood sewing circles to sci-fi & cyborgs—and the butch beyond. ButchCamp is an important archiving project that highlights and celebrates the queer form — ephemeral though its contours are — that is butchcamp.
Sophia: How would you define “butch”?
Isa and Rosie: Girl, it’s tricky for us to presume to define anything, especially a term like butch, which is such a personal thing for so many people. But we can sketch out our understanding…
“Butch” is commonly used as a noun, right? “The Butch.” It’s a sexual style or a type of sexual legibility that deals with embodied aspects of so-called “masculine” presence: qualities, aesthetics or affects. Butch presents actions and visual cues, usually through clothing, that could be read as markers for lesbians, a tangible statement of non-heterosexuality, a refusal, or even inability, to “pass.”
The history of the self-identified “Butch” in the last century is super fascinating and rich. In the 20s you have the singers and “bulldaggers” of the Harlem jazz renaissance, and the Butch/Femme dynamic of the gay bars in the 50s and 60s. You then see The Butch go through a fraught phase of being anachronistic and even embarrassing to the androgynous feminist-lesbian community of the 70s before finally getting to a point, around the early 80s, when it begins to be reclaimed as a sex-positive, kinky and valid aspect of lesbian cultural tradition.
But there’s also the butch as adjective, which we’re super interested in! Can you have a butch pair of shoes or a butch pose? It moves away from identity and wanders the realm of signs and subtext and inference, which is more the cloth we’re cutting at ButchCamp.
How did BUTCHCAMP start?
Gossip, natch. We first coined the term ‘butchcamp’ itself on a group Whatsapp as a name for some ineffable quality we’d been trying to put our finger on. Whenever we’ve lived in the same place, we would obsess about all the people we know and how they might be queer. Proust has this line in The Captive & the Fugitive: “The daughters of Gomorrah are at once so rare and so frequent that… one does not pass unperceived by the other.” We (the D of G) recognize each other by ‘astral signs’ — maybe finding these astral signs are the heart of ButchCamp. The more you look for something the more you start seeing it.
It was also present in the material we sought out; Terry Castle’s Sontag obituary Desperately Seeking Susan was one of those vital texts: “Sontag was wearing her trademark intellectual-diva outfit… The famous Sontag ‘look’ always put me in mind of the stage direction in Blithe Spirit: ‘Enter Madame Arcati, wearing barbaric jewellery’” — we would read it aloud! It really got to the essence of ‘camp’ clothing performance, effect, affect, longing, idols. But there was something else: an ineffable dykeyness to the whole shebang.
In “Notes on Camp,” Susan Sontag defines Camp as bound to “artifice and exaggeration” — it “sees everything in quotation marks… it is the farthest extension, in sensibility, of the metaphor of life as theater.” What does camp mean to you?
We love Sontag. The notes are seminal but kind of out-dated, but in Sontag’s defense the core idea of camp as a love of the unnatural and artifice, a super serious frivolity and an existential condition as much as a sensibility, are all still on-point. That’s all very well, but it’s all a bit too sincere. In Britain (where we met) “camp,” to a layperson, is synonymous with faggoty, but more often than not it’s just something you do in the woods with tents.
As we do with our Instagram account, we’ve found the best way to illuminate camp is to keep with the long legacy of pointing it out again and again.
A super critique — and our big inspo — was Bruce LaBruce’s essay/performance Notes on Camp/Anti-camp. It outlines the evolution (or devolution) of camp from a marginal, subversive sensibility into a mainstream-coopted version of itself. To LaBruce, the so-called Classic Gay Camp canon (Mae West, Art Deco, John Waters movies) is no longer enough in a world where reality television is enacting a sort of populist camp, there needs to be greater breadth of classification.
LaBruce creates new categories like Straight, Ultra and Conservative Camp and names examples for each. This is all fabulous, but LaBruce barely mentions the idea of Lesbian Camp. There’s always this annoying sense of lesbians being marginal to the sort of High Gay Camp — dykes as the eternal side-kick, like suburban camp — and perhaps if that’s true, the upshot is that we’ve managed to preserve some of the idealized conception of camp in its underground manifestation. You know… Sontag’s bio pic on the back of I, etcetera was our young Capote circa Other Voices, Other Rooms. Dropping the name Mercedes d’Acosta is a dead giveaway, bringing up Tara’s death on Buffy, posting that Angelica Huston jodhpur pic or any Queen Latifah, Young Leo DiCaprio’s hair, Tilda Swinton, Missy Elliot, Cherry Jones as Eileen Myles…
While LaBruce laments the loss of camp’s subversive importance, we’re trying to make the point that camp-as-a-secretly-shared Badge Of Identity still exists within the lesbian community and should be disseminated and encouraged and explored, while at the same time reclaiming some classic camp for ourselves (Tallulah Bankhead! For fuck’s sake!).
What is “butchcamp” exactly?
Well, there’s ButchCamp the project and butchcamp the quality. As we’ve described, butchcamp as a quality, like classic camp, resists exact definition, but we know it when we see it and we can point to it —–> our entire feed is one big pointing exercise!
ButchCamp: The Project, is an attempt to find and classify things that are generally camp and, more specifically, a sort of lesbian camp. But LesbianCamp isn’t quite camp enough for a project name, you know. Bless the word ‘lesbian’ — we like the term! — but in this context it does conjure an affective, homo-romantic vibe that is too narrow. We’re out for dykey things that smack of lesbianism or have a sapphic gist without necessarily identifying as such.
Once we posted an outrageously camp twinsbian photograph of Lisa left-eye Lopez and Mel C (in her post-spice dykey phase) and someone commented: “Not a lesbian!” and we were like “Not the point!” Heterosexual texts in culture can be read as queer (that’s the whole soul of femslash, the whole hook of Xena), or signify butchcamp, if they contain the right markers — like Princess Anne in military drag.
Early on we got into an Instagram discussion with Lea DeLaria, high priestess of butch, over a post about Agatha Trunchbull. DeLaria, quite understandably, went on what she called a “PC language complaint” that was along the lines of:
“NOT BUTCH!!!! there’s a difference between butch and tough, butch and strong and butch and mean”
to which we were like:
“OMG! We’re not equating butchness with meanness!! It’s not her cruelty or her meanness which make her butch…it’s ‘butchcamp’… the butch boot close-ups, the shot-put/javelin 1972 Olympic get-up mixed with a camp fear of black cats and love of chocolate bonbons… We’re interested in the ways that butchy campness and campy butchness can wink at each other in something like a noir children’s story.”
To us, ‘butch’ calls to mind the spirit of the active signifying practice at the heart of camp – it’s in a sense a more immediately political word than ‘lesbian.’ We always strive (rather un-campily) to be self-critical and self-aware.
Might there one day be a FEMMECAMP?
We’d never thought about it! We’re spitballing here, but maybe FemmeCamp is the other side of lesbian media, the glossy commercial side; the Cara Delevigne, Kristen Stewart world, the so-called ‘celesbians’? Along these lines, there’s also something more pernicious out there: the co-opted mass produced kind of aesthetic, a sort of American Apparel view of lesbianism, “bathtub lesbians,” the sort you see on super popular Instagrams and Tumblrs, often showing two young (usually white) girls kissing, tangled up in bathtubs or autumn leaves, a lot of soft-core DIY, usually very sincere, but always very staged, always full of artifice — surely camp, in essence?
Buuuut, that said, attaching FemmeCamp to something we see as negative is probably unfair to femmes, and we have a special place in our hearts for all the femmes of the world!
Dana Luciano writes: “To be en mal d’archive (in need of archives) is… not just to desire a past, but to burn with a passion for origins, which [Derrida] identifies as a nostalgia, a homesickness.” Do you see BUTCHCAMP as an exercise in origins, a quenching of nostalgia for an unwritten history?
There are so many points to this question! Archive and history, nostalgia and homesickness…
Nostalgia’s an icky sort of word, slimy and oily from misuse, kind of a turn off, because it immediately calls to mind a retro-fetish, like #nostalgia, which is so bleugh — from its Etsy aesthetics to its smoothing out of the past. But maybe all queers have felt at some time a profound longing to have belonged to something, a desire to have felt the texture of certain times firsthand, and we reckon this ‘true’ nostalgia does in fact look and sound like that old summer camp stand-by ‘homesickness’ maybe masquerading as #nostalgia.
What we queers so often experience is a sort of simulacral homesickness, i.e. a sentimental feeling for a ‘home’ (the longing in ‘belonging’, lol) that we might not know first hand, and this home essentially has a lot to do with idea of origin! Is home/origin where you come from? Where you choose to be? Who you look up to?
We think of ourselves (strategically and literally) as having a presence in our history and project, and as such embrace the messy, affective, personal and ephemeral nature of all that comes with that. We’ve all experienced those moments where the mess in a story is totally omitted. It happens too much and it’s boring. The actual story is more interesting than dominant history has told it. Queer history has to arrive from this kind of mess because it’s personal; the topography is pieced together from ephemera, sideways glances and gossip. We want a place in history, but not like it’s been told historically.
Your themes are amazing. I’m particularly a fan of “Twinsbians & Doppeldykes.” What’s a BUTCHCAMP theme/category you wish existed?
Airport security: it’s difficult to get a good photograph while you’re being frisked. If anyone has one, send it to us!
Sophia Larigakis is a Canadian writer living in New York City.