Camping Out: the Drag Club as Carnival in ‘The Birdcage’ (Harry Johnson)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dYLk34GCXbo Keeley Escapes

In the chapter ‘Uses of Camp’, in his book No Respect; Intellectuals and Popular Culture, Ross touches on the theory that while drag provides a safe space for transgression from oppressive societal norms, that safe space still functions within that oppressive society (Ross, 162). In doing so, Ross quotes Newton, saying that “camp says, ‘I am not like the oppressors.’ But in doing so he agrees with the oppressors’ definition of who he is”; this seems to meet Eco’s definition of the carnival, and anti-Bakhtinian notion that the carnival does not represent true freedom (Eco, 3). This tension, between camp spaces being places where freedom of expression is allowed, but also spaces within a society which may not necessarily allow such expression outside that space, is made easily visible in The Birdcage (Nichols, 1996).

In The Birdcage, the safe spaces camp provides are a drag club, run by a gay male couple, Armand and Albert Goldman (Robin Williams and Nathan Lane, respectively) who live in an apartment above the club, and, more broadly, the very liberal atmosphere of South Beach (at least, the film’s version of South Beach). The repressive society takes the form of conservative Senator Keeley (Gene Hackman), and, later, the national press. When plot devices move the Senator to visit the apartment, Armand and his straight son are forced to clear up all overtly gay and camp décor – décor itself having a high potential to be camp, as Sontag claims (Sontag, 277) – while Albert, who is deemed ‘too gay’ (although ‘camp’ may be used here too) at first hides, and then dresses as a woman to fool Keeley. This attempt to disguise the carnivalesque nature of the club and the Goldman’s lifestyle does not work, and the press arrive, looking for Keeley.

After the masquerade put on by the Goldmans does not work (a masquerade which, on Armand’s part, may be seen as a Mulvey-esque inhabiting of a masochistic gaze; Armand, to become a conservative, straight man, must see himself as a conservative straight man), Keeley must escape the disapproving societal gaze of the media. The media, armed with cameras, enter the club, looking for the conservative; he escapes, disguised in drag. That the club is not overly disrupted by the presence of the media, and that dressing in drag allows Keeley to escape, shows that society (the media) allows the transgression of drag in the carnival space of the club, but would not allow an individual, one presumably against such liberal displays, is not permitted to have transgressive tendencies.

Thus, transgression (here, with regards to performing gender) is allowed in carnival spaces, but its suggestion outside of those spaces is not societally permitted.

(A side note: there is definitely more to be said here about the various masquerades in this film)

Eco, Umberto. ‘The Frames of Comic ‘Freedom”, in Carnival. Berlin: Mouton Publishers (1984).

Ross, Andrew. ‘Uses of Camp’, in No Respect; Intellectuals and Popular Culture. London: Routledge (1989).

Sontag, Susan. ‘Notes on “Camp”‘, in Against Interpretation and Other Essays. London: Penguin Classics (2009).

2 comments

  1. I fully agree with your point about transgression, and would also add on that there is a bit of irony in the scene where Keeley must escape from the reporters. In order to attempt and preserve his image, he must dress in drag, which is going against what he stands for. I also liked how you tied in multiple weeks topics to add to a greater understanding.

  2. Drag and its connections to camp have been discussed in Ross and Sontag’s essays. Drag can become camp because often the people performing drag are portraying theatrical stereotypes of themselves that are defined by the oppressive outside world. When Albert dresses as a woman to trick the senator she is portraying an exaggerated stereotype of herself.

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