If, as Butler (1990) suggests, gender is the repetition of acts and gestures, performances that may be somewhat malleable but cannot be escaped (as one can not step outside of the discursive process), then “camp” might be understood as the queering of those performances through the intentional exaggeration and remix of those acts and gestures. Camp, as a queer aesthetic, troubles gender by making gender’s constructed nature explicit. By spotlighting the performative nature of gender, sexuality, race, class, and so on – by turning the up the volume on the subtext – camp challenges the regulated norms of the performance, and thus reminds us that it is a performance, indeed.
Medhurst identifies camp as a survival strategy emerging from a gay male “sensibility.” He identifies came as “one of our most fearsome weapons…and one of our most enriching experiences” (1997, p.275). The outrageous performances of radical queers, invoking a camp aesthetic, have the potential to function as a transgressive engagement with the hegemonic gender order. Sullivan notes that it is Sontag’s analysis of camp as a sensibility that “among other things, converts the serious into the frivolous” (p.193) that brought the notion of camp beyond its gay male roots and into a larger pop culture discourse. It is important to note that Sontag’s article also drew criticism from those fearing the co-opting and mainstreaming of camp would cause it to lose its subversive edge. The extent to which that has occurred, and the degree to which such critiques rely on the strategies identity politics remains debatable, “nevertheless,” Sullivan reminds us, “critics continue to use this term in order to explore the ways in which particular texts, or elements thereof, queer – in the broadest sense of the term – heteronormative values, beliefs, and institutions” (p.193).
The implications of camp for a study of nerd masculinities are significant, particularly in an era in which nerdiness has become chic. The intentional donning of fashion that has been historically associated with nerdiness (and by that I mean has appeared in mass media repetitions of acts and gestures deemed nerdy), like the mainstreaming of camp, has the potential to challenge hegemonic masculinities or simply become the latest victim of their insatiable appetite for new strategies to preserve patriarchal power. Nugent is fairly critical of the trend in which urban hipsters dress in plastic framed glasses, short pants and clunky shoes. This exaggerated and self-defined performance of nerdiness, in his analysis serves as a strategy for professional creatives to deal with the impossible task of keeping up with rapidly shifting cultural trends. He argues that to the young professionals working in media/entertainment fields for whom remaining cool and relevant is a career necessity, the nerd represents a freedom from that pressure. The ironic result is the transformation of the ultimate uncool into the new hip (Nugent, 2008).
But that same aesthetic, at least in terms of fashion, seems to also be a staple of contemporary punk movements. What nerds lack in achieving coolness, is being reclaimed by those set on resisting the heteronormative power of cool to begin with. I wonder about the role of nerdiness in the camp antics Matt “Mattilda” Bernstein Sycamore chronicles in his journal of San Francisco’s “Gay Shame” movement. In the images documenting their direct actions found on their website (www.gayshamesf.org), along with wild makeup, wigs and boas, gay shame members can be found wearing plaid pants, horn-rimmed glass and running shoes with Velcro straps. What strikes me as interesting is that in these images the nerd, the drag queen, and the punk seem to have been poured into a blender and offered back up as a recipe for tasty anarchy.
The analysis of camp has much to offer an analysis of nerd masculinities, particularly those representations produced by those who claim a nerd positionality. When I first began thinking seriously about nerds, Joss Whedon (all hail, King of Nerds) aired a three-part, on-line mini-series titled Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog (www.drhorrible.com, 2008), a sci-fi musical featuring a nerdy anti-hero in conflict with a bully, jockish superhero over world domination the affection of a woman. It is pure camp, as musicals tend to be. As the superhero exaggerates his performance of hegemonic masculinity and the anti-hero seeks a new strategy for domination, we witness both the potential for a campy nerdiness (or nerdy campiness) to draw attention to the ridiculous nature of both his and the superhero’s performance of masculinity. One could argue that Dr. Horrible fails to disrupt hegemonic masculinities, as the nerd’s intent is to introduce a new strategy for maintaining hegemony rather than a substantial disruption of the politics of patriarchy; yet, Neil Patrick Harris’ performance of the character has room to be queered in as much as it seems to be played with a wink and nod towards his own (the actor’s) sexual identifications. Regardless, this most explicit blending of nerd and camp aesthetics by a nerd icon like Whedon, draws attention to the potential for furthering the relationship between the two.
So, queer theories may offer in problematizing nerd identities, or perhaps more accurately, some ways in which nerd studies may intersect with queer theories — but these are just musings, and there’s need further development of the arguments. First, the study of nerd masculinities while largely attentive to, does not assume the study of male-bodied nerds. Also, I recognize that while my particular use of queer theories remains in active conversation with theories of masculinities shaped primarily by feminist theories, there are some tensions. As has been demonstrated, I embrace a contructivist project as well as the notion that power is always contextualized and capillary, yet I still hold that an analysis of patriarchy remains critical as long as it is done in such a way that acknowledges the challenges of dependencies on essentialized notions of sex, gender, race, and sexuality.