Camp TV: Commercial Counterpublics and the Cultural Production of Queer Gender
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This dissertation explores the production of queer meaning in U.S. media culture. Adapting the concept of “camp” and theories of “counterpublic” formation, it presents a cultural history of queer discourse in the commercial medium of television. Drawing on archival research into the industry, the work explores queer representation by focusing on emergent possibilities around the cultural production of queer gender. Using story outlines, episode scripts, network memos, research notes, business records, and press releases from sponsors, censors, and production companies, as well as filmed pilots and broadcast programming, it reformulates accounts of TVprogramming in light of “insider” histories. An introduction explains the methods, which offer new directions for media history, and the model of critique, which furthers the fields of gender and sexuality studies and the subfield of queer media historiography. Chapter two surveys the queer content on television in the 1950s, demonstrating the heterogeneity of show business traditions that influenced televisioncomedy and its transformations during this time. Chapter three addresses the interrelation of queer gender, gay vernacular, and camp discourse around actor Bob Cummings, exploring the residue of vaudeville traditions in the print culture publicizing sitcoms during the postwar era. Chapter four looks closely at The Bob
Cummings Show, a series that exemplifies “insider” discourse and the possibilities for sitcom camp in this period. Chapter five looks at fictional “insiders” in the context of married couples, charting the redistribution of camp discourse in backstage sitcoms during the 1960s. Chapter six explores the production history of The Ugliest Girl in Town, a female impersonation sitcom, interrogating the construction of queer gender as a trend thatfails to register in the dominant historical record. This research shows that “insider” discourse became a central aspect of U.S. public culture in part due to television’s emergence as a form of popular entertainment in the postwar era. The dissertation argues thatdespite popular conceptions about the dominance of the closet and conservative family-oriented series in the 1950s and 1960s, camp TV from the time exists asa powerful conduit for counterpublic histories ofqueer cultural production.
Exaggerating his seemingly naturally formed “ss’s,” Wynn announced that he was appearing “through the recklessness of Speidel. ”126 His physical comedy typically consisted of fidgeting and giggling as he waved his hands up and down in helpless or confused exasperation. When he was somewhat more poised, he would commonly clap them together, wringing them lightly against one another in delicate movements of mock stately contemplation, and other times stroking his nipples to a similar effect. Many of Wynn’s routine poses incorporated the traditions of queer Jewish stage iconography Sartin discusses.
Her costume included a homely wardrobe and accessories like glasses and bows—the hallmark codes denoting “secretary” on TV—but the Zelda performance achieved its success based on Van Doren’s ability to combat Bob’s “wolf” behavior with quick-witted repartee. Having established the front office as a wolf’s den from which no woman can escape unscathed, The Bob Cummings Show writers turned the predator/prey situation on its head. Creating comedy out of Van Doren’s skill at revoking the access Bob expects to have to her body, they script elaborate displays of sparring wordplay in which Mamie expertly distracts and “inadvertently” insults him.
During the postwar era, sexism and heteronormativity were closely linked through the dominant “predator/prey” framework of sexual relations. Rooted in biological essentialism, this 157 model construed romance and courtship according to a “chase” narrative that naturalized strict gender roles. As Elaine Tyler May has explained, in this period women were expected to “snare” men “passively…with bait rather than a net. ”240 This seduction script was affirmed by the ideological reduction of gender complexity.
In the context of this emergence, the question of queer gender, camp production, and queer subjectivity remains complex, not least because queer representation on 32 television in postwar era was not centered on “same-sex” erotics. Understanding the way camp rejects the “same-” and “opposite-sex” rubric of sexual identity—including within “gay” culture—allows us to recapture not only lives “lived in defiance of gender norms” (Halberstam’s goals for transgender history), but also the representations of queer defiance of gender norms in industrially-produced media culture that circulated new discursive possibilities for queer lives.
Celebrity discussions often presumed that seemingly impersonal facts like the type of film stock used in a picture or the restaurant selected for a night out were understood to be crucially important to a person’s identity and the process of making meaningful distinctions among different artists and stars. Taken together, the panelists’, celebrity guests’, and hosts’ commentary on programs like What’s My Line highlighted the kinds of knowledge people in the industry had about elite taste cultures, media production processes, the role of press relations, and the work their peers were doing.