Pin It
Screen Shot 2018-08-13 at 11.09.50

How @BUTCHCAMP is defining a lesbian camp aesthetic

We speak to the founders of the Instagram account tracing the sensibility of lesbianism

“Started by Isabella Toledo and Rosie Eveleigh, BUTCHCAMP is an online project and archive that visually and thematically represents a vertigent of the camp aesthetic which is closely tied to lesbianism, and somewhat away from the commercialized gay male epicentre. A feast for the eyes – always culturally and historically very interesting. Enjoy!” – Mykki Blanco, guest editor of Dazed, August 2018

Scrolling through the BUTCHCAMP Instagram is an incredibly considered history lesson in the sensibility of ‘lesbian camp’. Take the incredibly rare video of Queen Latifah as the Wiz in Wizard of Oz that is published alongside two other posts titled ‘Stage Sirens’. Here we have a set of three images tracing prolific lesbian theatre actresses. ‘BUTCHCAMP Passover’ is another set of images that signifies BUTCHCAMP’s far-reaching and deeply complex research, where the collective traces the sensibility of Jewish lesbianism.

The word ‘camp’ has its origins in French, with se camper translating to ‘to pose in an exaggerated fashion.’ Its meaning and value has changed greatly across history, particularly as theorised by writer Susan Sontag in 1964, and photographer Bruce LaBruce in 2012. In her essay titled Notes on “Camp”, Sontag described camp as a love for the unnatural, of artifice and exaggeration that existed as a secret badge of identity between a group of insiders. Fifty years later, LaBruce wrote his essay Notes on Camp/Anti-Camp. In it, he advanced Sontag’s theories into modernity by describing the ways in which camp had been stripped from gay communities as a secret code for their queerness, and commercialised in the heteronormative mainstream. In LaBruce’s extensive essay, he sections camp into different subcategories. From conservative camp, to classic gay camp, bad gay camp, and straight camp, LaBruce’s list is exhaustive. But one largely overlooked categorisation is missing: lesbian camp.

“(BUTCHCAMP) is a chimera, one that evolved from within the history, politics and culture of the ‘butch’ as well as the legacy of ‘camp’” – Rosie Eveleigh

Cue BUTCHCAMP: an Instagram account attempting to correct an historical oversight. The duo, made up of artist Isabella Toledo and graphic designer Rosie Eveleigh, launched the project in 2016 when they realised that lesbian camp (much like the majority of lesbian history) was missing from theories on camp. To achieve this, BUTCHCAMP works through a process of intense research, image amassment, and publishing in sets of three on Instagram to establish historical narratives between images across history.

Situated within a network of online queer communities, like online magazine Girls Like Us and the emergence of femmester memes, BUTCHCAMP is a key example of the powerful ways in which technology is allowing marginalised communities to find their own histories and communities.

Here, we speak to the founders about all things butch and camp:

Why did you decide to start BUTCHCAMP?

BUTCHCAMP: We used to have a WhatsApp group with some other dykes where we would try to pinpoint certain camp qualities – like the recognition one feels when other dykes walk; we call it the 10 to 2 walk. It’s this very visual thing where you could clock someone for being gay from across the street. We then wanted to coin something for that kind of swagger, that performance, and we settled on ‘BUTCHCAMP’. From here we were like ‘OK, now let’s go find stuff’, images mainly. We started off on Pinterest and Dropbox, swapping and re-classifying pictures until eventually we were thought ‘OK, let’s put this out there’. We started the Instagram, and on it wanted to establish a dialogue between all the images, to set the trend. If we could find three images that pointed at the same characteristic, then there was a thrill of narrative happening which we wanted to share.

“Ann Coulter is in conservative camp, as is Donald Trump because they all have these elements of artifice and performance, and this sort of Rococo madness” – BUTCHCAMP

Why did you guys decide to unify the aesthetic of butch and the sensibility of camp?

BUTCHCAMP: Well, the interest has always been mainly in the nuances of camp. We started exploring these after coming across Bruce LaBruce’s perfomance/essay ‘Notes on on camp/anticamp’ which was a revision of Sontag’s original treatise. His commentary on the commodification and breadth of contemporary camp makes room for all these sublists beyond the classic gay male camp’. So Ann Coulter is in conservative camp, as is Donald Trump because they all have these elements of artifice and performance, and this sort of Rococo madness. It’s not all roses and Mae West. But even though his lists are super varied, bad straight camp, ultra camp, liberal camp, it seemed really typical that in his huge list, he didn’t have a dyke camp. So we set out to find and share what that is, exactly. Sharing is essential because there’s a second side of camp that isn’t just camp as an adjective or something that people are – it’s something they feel in the presence of camp. So camp also exists in recognition, like this shared language, and the butch aesthetic is very much included in that, but not to the exclusion of other forms of dyke camp. For example, when you bring up Greta Garbo, Dolly Parton’s BFF Judy, Queen Latifah as Matron Mama Morton, there’s this thrill that another camp dyke might feel immediately. Those are all very famous glam examples but the project tries to highlight the varied nature of that camp recognition.

“When you bring up Greta Garbo, Dolly Parton’s BFF Judy, or Queen Latifah as Matron Mama Morton, there’s this thrill that another camp dyke might feel immediately” – Butchcamp

How did the name come about?

BUTCHCAMP: One of our original intentions with the portmanteau was about bringing together markers that were seemingly at odds to each other. LesbianCamp, as a name, rang too much like a black and white Tumblr photo of those two gals making out in their underwear on the bed; BUTCHCAMP as a sensibility is more the way Stormé Delarverie is sitting on the stool bouncing the door at the Cubby Hole. DykeCamp was something in the middle, and while being cosied in-between those two options sounds fun, it doesn’t quite smack of a kind of homo-awareness we are looking for. In the early days, we were thinking a lot about how historically the butch has been the butt of the joke, when she is clearly as funny and fabulous as the faggot. As the project has progressed, BUTCHCAMP has become its own word, with its own terms. It’s a chimera, one that evolved from within the history, politics and culture of the ’butch’ as well as the legacy of ‘camp’, but it’s own thing, 10-to-2-ing to its own beat.

“BUTCHCAMP as a sensibility is more the way Stormé Delarverie is sitting on the stool bouncing the door at the Cubby Hole” – BUTCHCAMP

Why do you think lesbian camp is so omitted from history?

BUTCHCAMP: Just recently we were reading about Sappho, and the reason we only have fragments of her work today is because it wasn’t deemed as suitable in the education of young men, and it fell from the canons of knowledge. Worse still, her work – the by-product of which was also documenting the lives of women of archaic Greece – was allegedly burnt in the 1000s (due to “disgusting tribadism”). Then, in the Renaissance period, pronouns in translations of her poetry were switched from female to male in order to make the love verses more heteronormative and palatable. So we see how actual knowledge, people, experience are lost forever – and of course not just to historical figures.

BUTCHCAMP: Another reason can be seen through the lens of capital. The fact that cis, white gay men have had more power and influence to make shows and books that reflect them, rather than lesbian women or trans folk, or queer POC, operates like pay disparity that happens within the straight world, but it's intensified. In the 90s and early 00s, Gay men were rebranded as these fabulous power consumers with the likes of Queer Eye and Will & Grace.  The only show that protagonised lesbians to hit the mainstream was The L Word, and that was still extremely niche and narrow. It’s a cliché, but it still comes down to power and influence; who is getting chances of exposure, who is getting book deals, who's being hoisted up.

Who are some of the key figures BUTCHCAMP celebrates and why? 

BUTCHCAMP: There’s something about the glamorous mean mummy vibe of The Matchmaker in Mulan and Ursula from The Little Mermaid that’s really oiling our gears right now. See Agatha Trunchball for another approach. Take one step sideways and you have the Beast from Beauty and the Beast. We also love anything to do with a uniform: firefighters, security guards at airports, cowgirls  – anything that involves a specialist strap or shoe. We were especially captivated for some time last year with official photographs of female astronauts (aka Sapphronauts) – it’s the official photograph, the pomp, the excess of the patches, helmet and gloves, space regaylia, mixed with coiffured hair and blue eyeshadow that really works.

“There’s something about the glamorous mean mummy vibe of The Matchmaker in Mulan and Ursula from The Little Mermaid that’s really oiling our gears right now– BUTCHCAMP

In terms of retracing history, how has technology helped BUTCHCAMP?

BUTCHCAMP: It’s the absolute ease of finding images. When you’re dealing with something so visual, the ability to amass images, but also be able to get the context for them, is amazing. The possibility of reverse engineering history and context from simply a picture is something that doesn't quite happen easily if you go to the library. The use of Instagram is also so varied — it operates as a feed that integrates itself directly into peoples lives during the day, but also exists as an archive that people can delve into; so what’s also been great and surprising is that in this last year was we could take a long hiatus from posting daily and still hundreds of people would come, look at all our images, go back down into posts we did two years ago and comment. It kind of stays fresh in that way. Technology allows things to feel really alive somehow, that things that we posted in December 2016 still feel relevant, sharable, comment worthy, liked — it’s a nod to the timelessness of this history.

Why is technology important to tracing and documenting queer history in general?

BUTCHCAMP: Technology feeds this history effortlessly into everyday life. Stephen Fry has a part in one of his autobiographies where he describes first finding queer authors, and how deeply and secretly he would have to search for these books to find any kind of self-recognition. Somehow, it feels like an expanded version of that. There's this opportunity to search and seek, and jump from link to link easily, so that you can create your own body of interests. Yet, at the same time, it comes to you. This 'following' thing is something that we contemplate a lot, because if you find three or four people with common interests, they'll just bring parts of queer history, queer technology to you.

In BUTCHCAMP’s manifesto, you discuss simulacrum homesickness (searching a sentimental feeling for a ‘home’). Is BUTCHCAMP aiming to provide that sense of ‘home’?

BUTCHCAMP: Absolutely! However, we think BUTCHCAMP couldn’t do that alone. Herstory was one of the first big Instagrams to get this traction and then expand on it with their personals app which creates IRL bonds. There’s a whole group of online lesbian content creators on Instagram who also make zines (xenaworriorprincess as ‘the ex-girlfriend of my ex-girlfriend is my girlfriend’), write newsletters (dykeanotherday, godimsuchadyke as Between The Dykes), start magazines (dyke_on, girls like us), create apps (herstory). We would have been so excited to have been 15 and to have found that somewhere. It was so hard, especially if you grow up outside the urban queer epicentre. So it’s great that this is very much within one of the most mainstream social media platforms there is.  

What do you think collectives like BUTCHCAMP can bring to the next generation that are looking for these references?

BUTCHCAMP: The ability to find and also create their own content. Also, hopefully inspiring baby queers to not just take in all the things that are fed to them uncritically, in terms of the market or the mainstream. I mean, Glee is great, but it’s not enough. There’s so much great stuff that is evergreen, so much theory that needs to be revisited. If you’ve never seen it before, the fact that it happened in 1940 or 1970 or 1897 doesn’t matter if you’re seeing it for the first time, it’s new to you. And the more content people put out there, even in things as lighthearted as niche lesbian memes, the more people are able to recognise themselves, and then maybe the more inspired they are to create content. Like we were saying before about the disparity of lesbian content, it needs to be created, seen, shared, supported. So hopefully more kids will.