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They Tenderly Scream “Camp” and We Lovingly Scream Back

The Traitors head-band wearing Parvati Shallow and Barbie‘s head-shaking Ryan Gosling tenderly scream “camp” and enthralled, we lovingly scream back.

Since its inception in Susan Sontag’s 1964 essay “Notes on Camp”, “camp” has been a famously nebulous term: hard to define but easy to spot. A “fugitive sensibility” which, Sontag suggests, takes as its “essence…a love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration”, camp is an aesthetic phenomenon and a “private code” that refuses to announce itself as such but is nevertheless unmistakable. Or, to appropriate a recent social media meme: “If it’s camp, it wouldn’t tell anyone, but there would be signs.”

If the early 2024 pop culture landscape has made one thing clear, it’s this: 60 years after the publication of Sontag’s essay, camp is back and better than before (if it ever really went away). Not since the Met Gala’s fitful attempts to bring “camp” into the zeitgeist has mainstream culture enjoyed such a big camp moment. And, indeed, there are signs. From Parvati Shallow’s bedazzled headbands on Peacock’s The Traitors series to Ryan Gosling’s despairing head shake in his 2024 “I Am Ken” Oscars performance, television is campier than ever, and viewers can’t get enough. But what is it about these recent viral moments of camp that’s resonating so much with audiences? 

I was a late adopter of The Traitors, a UK reality show adapted for US television that is essentially the parlor game Mafia brought to life. But from the start, I was hooked. With a cast comprised of various reality stars, some of whom are noted “gamers” (past contestants from strategy shows like Survivor, Big Brother, and The Challenge) and some of whom are beloved “non-gamers” (a sundry crew of “Bravolebrities”, a Bachelor, a few Love Islanders, and more), The Traitors secretly assigns each player a role as either “Faithful” or “Traitor”.

Across each season’s episodes, these groups compete with and against each other to be the last person standing and win a cash prize. While each episode sees the contestants collaborate in physical challenges to increase the prize pot, it simultaneously witnesses the “Faithfuls” form alliances to cast out the “Traitors” and the “Traitors” conspire to “kill off” the “Faithfuls” and coolly deflect suspicion. 

The Traitors‘ premise is silly, but watching the contestants gleefully enact the charade is entertaining, as each tries to strategically outwit the others to make it to the end of the game. Its appeal no doubt also lies in how the show invites the audience to play the game vicariously, as we inevitably critique the contestant’s strategic misfires, smug in the knowledge that if we were playing the game, we’d be more perceptive than the most aloof “Faithful” and shrewder than the most transparent “Traitor”. More than anything else, however, what’s fundamentally delightful about The Traitors is its unabashed camp. 

Set in a torchlit, faux-gothic Scottish estate, all sumptuous velvet furniture and foreboding taxidermy, and hosted by the fantastically wry Alan Cumming (whose impeccable, theatrical outfits would put many a Met Gala attendee to shame), The Traitors is campy through and through. “If the hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance,” a spirit limned by an extraordinary “degree of artifice, of stylization”, as Sontag decrees, The Traitors is paradigmatic. The mis en scène doesn’t whisper – it screams.  

Still, Season Two’s most satisfying camp lay neither in the show’s opulent environs nor its eccentric host. This year’s best and campiest part of the show is the handful of contestants – none more so than former Survivor winner Parvati Shallow, one of Season Two’s breakout stars. (That the other Season Two star, Phaedra Parks, an attorney and former Real Housewife of Atlanta, should find herself at home in this camp milieu, serving fierce looks and endlessly memeable one-liners, is expected, given the inherently campy nature of the Housewives franchise). If, in Sontag’s essay, “Camp is a woman walking around in a dress made of three million feathers,” then camp in The Traitor’s second season is walking around in a seemingly infinite array of expensive headbands. 

I was unfamiliar with Parvati Shallow when I began watching The Traitors, but when she came on-screen, I could remember and identify her clearly from then on because of her headbands. With every passing day and each new ensemble, a perfectly curated headband emerges – the kind of puffy headband (you’d know it if you saw it) that was very on-trend in 2019. At the risk of being stylistically outdated, Shallow’s penchant for hair accessories is a small but effective stroke of genius, making her instantly recognizable in The Traitors as “the headband girl” early on, even before you might commit her name to memory.

By making headbands her signature style, Shallow positions herself as a savvy pro in reality television– someone who understands that hypervisibility is the medium’s most valuable currency. She also engages in brilliant character-building. 

Though Shallow began the game as a “Faithful”, she was quickly recruited by the “Traitors” to join the “dark side”. For those familiar with Shallow’s legendary Survivor stints, this recruitment would come as no surprise; this was a contestant dubbed “the Black Widow” by devoted fans. Yet, absent that background, Shallow’s headbands on The Traitors would still have identified her as a player primed to keep the others guessing and, thus, worth watching.

Denoting both a kind of girlish innocence (potential faithfulness) and a sort of coronal power (potential treachery), Shallow’s headbands suggest she might readily play for either side. More than that, her headbands signal to observant viewers that she is performing a role, and she knows it. Indeed, later admitting that her headband fashion on The Traitors is a departure from her usual attire, Shallow notes that her wardrobe deliberately channels one of television’s most memorable and powerful “queen bees” (and noted headband connoisseur), Gossip Girl’s Blair Waldorfa woman who could be nothing if not cunning, cutthroat, or coy according to the occasion.  

Sontag notes that “camp which knows itself to be Camp (“camping”)” or “deliberate camp” is “less satisfying” than “pure camp”, which is “always naïve”. The “successful” exception, however, is “self-parody [that] reeks of self-love”. Shallow’s sartorial fashion choices in The Traitors inhabit the role of a “queen bee” archetype – denoting her as smart but scheming, authoritative but a little haughty – in a “successful” self-parodic camp. In other words, her winking, unwavering performance makes her a campy joy to watch.

In this regard, Shallow’s self-conscious but unremitting devotion to role play also, perhaps unexpectedly, shares something in common with Ryan Gosling’s. Indeed, Gosling’s recent “I’m Just Ken” Academy Awards performance not only seems perfectly poised to fill the camp void that The Traitor’s Season Two finalé leaves behind (the two aired just a few days apart), but it also provides another sign that we’re witnessing primetime televisions campiest moments in recent memory.  

Sontag describes “instant character” as a defining feature of camp, and “character”, she elaborates, is “understood as a state of continual incandescence – a person being one, very intense thing.” “This attitude toward character,” she resolves, “is a key element of the theatricalization of experience embodied in the Camp sensibility.” 

You’d be hard-pressed to find another example of “instant character” more striking than that of Gosling’s Oscars performance (or, for that matter, of Shallow’s on The Traitors). In the aftermath of the broadcast, critics, celebrities, and home audiences could not get enough of Gosling’s elaborately choreographed rendition of the Barbie movie’s performance “I’m Just Ken”, which was a contender for the “Best Original Song”.

You’d be forgiven if you didn’t realize at the time that both the song and Gosling himself (nominated for –Best Support Actor”) lost their respective categories, given the lavish praise his performance garnered in subsequent days. As one Variety editor gushed, “Ryan Gosling fully belting out ‘I’m Just Ken’ is one of the most incredible Oscar musical performances I’ve ever seen. People were screaming, cheering, and gasping inside the Dolby.” Or, as another devotee, speaking for so many of us, aptly put it: “Did you also wake up the morning after the Oscars and immediately rewatch Ryan Gosling’s ‘I’m Just Ken’ performance several times or are you normal [?]” 

Of course, since his turn as “Ken” in director Greta Gerwig’s summer blockbuster, Gosling has received no shortage of acclaim for his charming fidelity to the role. Despite much discourse about the bald irony of Margot Robbie (playing the titular Barbie) and Gerwig being “snubbed” by the year’s awards circuit, few would deny that Gosling himself was not deserving of recognition for his scene-stealing act. Yet his Oscars solo, more than his supporting movie role, turned Gosling’s performance into camp. For while his Barbie role – despite its embrace of stylization and artificial extravagance, could not wholly rise to the level of camp, in part because the film’s sensibility (rightly) aimed at sort of “moral indignation” or engaged feminist politics that Sontag views as antithetical to camp’s spirit – his Oscars act, stripped of that context, was propelled along by little more than Gosling’s irrepressible charisma, his impressive Mickey Mouse-club singing chops, and the indefatigable adoration of an A-list crowd. 

Nonetheless, not even the Oscar performance’s over-the-top styling or apolitical import secured Gosling’s place in the camp canon. Though set against a vividly pink-washed theater, featuring its star in a neon bedazzled suit and pleather gloves, and staged as a melodramatic Gentleman Prefer Blondes pastiche – there was, as with Shallow’s turn on The Traitors, something subtler at play: a head shake.  

As Gosling concluded his song’s first couplet in the Oscars performance, he crooned, “It doesn’t seem to matter what I do / I’m always number two” as he sidled up to Barbie (Robbie), anticipating her approving notice. But as Robbie, stifling laughter, failed to look at him, Gosling grimaced, shook his head, and stood up, venturing toward the stage. In that split second, and with that head shake, Gosling embodied camp.

On one level, it was a gesture of contrived despondency, instantly recasting Gosling in his Barbie role. With the head shake, he once more adopted the aggrieved posture of a man relegated to an ancillary existence in his girlfriend’s world. On another, it was a gesture of pure camp – a moment of “instant character” and a motion to the audience that Gosling would be nothing but scrupulously and unapologetically committed to his bit for the duration of the next four minutes. His performance was, in short, a sign that Gosling was going to be one thing, very intensely, in all its synthetic glory; he would now be Ken.

“When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it’s often because it is too mediocre in its ambition,” Sontag writes, “The artist hasn’t attempted to do anything really outlandish.” This is undoubtedly the axis on which Gosling’s Oscar performance rests: in attempting to do the most outlandish rendition of “I’m Just Ken” that he could muster and by delivering it in spades, Gosling’s lofty camp ambition was bare. 

Like Shallow’s performance in The Traitors, the brilliance of Gosling’s performance at the Oscars lay not just in their devotion to the part but in the way their performances worked to keep their audiences in the palm of their hands, eagerly awaiting every next move. That both performances have been so cheerfully embraced by their respective viewers should, therefore, come as no surprise; it’s genuinely hard not to be swept up by an unadulterated camp event.

Still, in both cases, the allure of the performance transcends mere spectacle. What Shallow’s headbands and Gosling’s head shake share is how they elicit from their viewers a certain fondness that feels unwitting yet proves inescapable. In the end, nothing could be more camp. As Sontag reminds us, “People who share [camp] sensibility…are not laughing at the thing…they’re enjoying it. Camp is a tender feeling.” In our era rife with political and cultural division and turbulence, we could use this little dose of escapism – and a lot more tenderness. 

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