Suffering Sappho!: Lesbian Camp in American Popular Culture, by Barbara Jane Brickman, explores the concept of camp, a style characterized by exaggerated and playful performances most often associated with gay men. The author, who is an Associate Professor of Media and Gender Studies at the University of Alabama, challenges the idea that lesbians do not engage in camp, arguing that lesbian camp thrived in American popular culture after World War II, a time of significant social change.
Suffering Sappho! discusses the limited recognition of lesbian camp in the context of camp studies despite some recent efforts to acknowledge it. Brickman’s aim is to establish a historical and theoretical foundation for lesbian camp, emphasizing the importance of looking back at the pre-Stonewall era and the closeted culture as more than just “the bad old days”. The book highlights how lesbian camp serves as a strategy for survival and self-expression in the face of societal hostility and evolves over time while remaining relevant to subsequent generations of queer individuals.
The main objective: “…[I]f she [the figure of lesbian camp] is so omnipresent, so routine, so real, why would one even need to labor over a thick academic interrogation of her? (Why are we here?) Well, naturally, the answer sends us back to where we began. What seems so visible, so obvious, so present to me—the lesbian—has a nasty habit of dematerializing, being ghosted, or fading from view—upstaged, banished, or disappeared, even all this time after Stonewall, after her chic vogue in the queer 1990s, and through to today. I suppose my hope is that camp will help her to survive, once again, and bring her, chuckling with deep ironic laughter, back onto center stage.”
One of my favorite parts of the history presented in the first chapter is a dive into the Kinsey Report—most people don’t even know there are two reports. The author discusses the reaction to the female report published in 1953 that focused on women’s sexual behavior and attitudes. While some news outlets saw it as a potential controversy, many presented it in a straightforward and unexciting manner. Surprisingly, some women’s magazines even gave it positive reviews. Some critics downplayed the report, but others believed it could improve marital relationships by emphasizing sexual compatibility.
The reaction to the report reflects the contradictory attitudes of the time towards women’s sexuality. On one hand, changes in sexual and gender norms were occurring, but on the other hand, there was a desire to preserve women’s purity and traditional roles as wives and mothers. Women gained more freedom and agency, but they were also confined to old roles. The press largely ignored the report’s potential feminist messages and instead defended traditional ideas about women’s moral superiority. This reaction to the report reflects the complex and conflicting attitudes toward women’s roles and desires in the post-war period, especially when it comes to sexuality.
Brickman’s roadmap begins by revisiting the neglect of lesbian camp in the context of gay and lesbian history. This neglect is despite the fact that lesbian camp had a prominent presence in the 1950s, with Tallulah Bankhead as a central figure during this period. Bankhead was an American actress and an iconic figure in the entertainment industry, known for her distinctive personality, flamboyant style, and unconventional, usually provocative behavior. Bankhead was openly bisexual and known for her affairs and relationships with both men and women. She embodies many characteristics associated with lesbian camp culture.
The author’s many examples of Bankhead’s quippy remarks put me immediately into a YouTube rabbit hole that ultimately led to Marlene Dietrich, Lucille Ball, and many others in this long tradition. Bankhead’s charismatic presence, her distinctive sense of humor, and her bold attitude offer up a queer role model who is unapologetically herself.
Suffering Sappho! then proceeds to explore various menacing pre-Stonewall queer figures across different forms of pop culture, including Marijane Meaker’s pulp fiction in Chapter 2, which features unsettling characters that contribute to lesbian themes, relationships, and the struggles of queer characters in a society that largely represses their identities. Meaker’s novels played a significant role in providing representation for lesbians and exploring their experiences during a time when novels of this type were not widely available, making her a notable figure in the history of queer literature.
Chapter 3 focuses on exploitation films, particularly their portrayal of monstrous and desiring daughters, especially Roger Corman’s 1957 teenage exploitation film Sorority Girl. While the film doesn’t explicitly portray lesbian relationships, it definitely possesses subtextual lesbian themes. The close and intimate relationships among the sorority sisters, their strong bonds, and their emotional connections can be interpreted as conveying lesbian desire and camaraderie. Moreover, Sorority Girl embraces camp aesthetics that include melodramatic acting, exaggerated characters, and over-the-top dialogue. The characters defy societal expectations and the conventional roles assigned to women in the 1950s, aligning with the broader themes of camp that often involve questioning and subverting established norms.
In Chapter 4, the author delves into the world of camp comedy, featuring actresses like Eve Arden and Ann Sothern, who embody queer spinsters through their on-screen portrayals of independent, unmarried women who display a strong camaraderie and shared living arrangements. These characters challenge traditional gender roles and expectations of women during that era. Chapter 5 examines the iconic representation of the lesbian separatist, especially through the lens of a campy Wonder Woman, which is quite easy to surmise nowadays thanks to many modern interpretations of the character.
Readers will intuit much of this chapter if they are familiar with the 2017 Patty Jenkins film starring Gal Godot, whose portrayal has garnered attention as a figure of lesbian camp due to her androgynous aesthetics, her revealing yet empowering costume, and athletic physique resonating with camp’s affinity for gender ambiguity. Gadot’s portrayal, like others before her, highlights Wonder Woman’s strength, independence, and resilience, valuing women who defy conventional gender roles and expectations. Then there are also the subtextual lesbian themes present in her close and affectionate relationships with Amazon women.
Chapter 6 shifts the focus to Black performers, such as Gladys Bentley, Ethel Waters, and Stormé DeLarverie. Their rebellious camp was built on practices of disidentification with norms, as Black butches are often overlooked when lesbian history is portrayed in a whitewashed manner. Stormé DeLarverie is a prominent figure in queer history, best known as a drag king and a key participant in the Stonewall uprising, often considered a catalyst for the modern queer rights movement based on her record of activism and defiance against police harassment.
Suffering Sappho! concludes with an epilogue, where the author addresses the ongoing evolution and recognition of lesbian camp over the subsequent 50 years. The epilogue highlights how lesbian camp continues to flirt with discovery and rediscovery, signifying its enduring relevance in the years that follow. The overall result is a comprehensive exploration of the history and representation of lesbian camp across various cultural contexts.
One minor challenge is in the layout of visual examples in the book—not the author’s fault whatsoever. But it’s a peeve of mine when a still frame of a film or one square of a comic strip is dropped into the middle of the relevant chapter, often breaking in mid-sentence. This disturbs the reader’s train of thought, and the place where the image is dropped usually comes too late or too soon to be of genuine use in understanding the example. For my taste, the best solutions are either to include the visual example at the front of its relevant chapter or else bundle all the images together and insert them in whatever convenient spot will not interfere with the reading of the text.
Overall, Suffering Sappho! covers an astounding range of literary material across many mediums, with detailed close readings that allow this secondary source to stand alone without having to read or watch the entirety of the example under consideration. Additionally, each chapter makes the argument in a fresh way that doesn’t necessarily build on previous chapters, allowing professors to excerpt a single high-value essay to make the case for the entire book in their preferred medium, such as in a course focused exclusively on film, television, or comic books. Gender Studies professors, and perhaps History or American Studies professors as well, will find many ways to teach Suffering Sappho!, which is suitable for an undergraduate audience in possession of basic knowledge of feminist theory.