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Social Text 18.2 (2000) 59-82

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What Makes Things Cheesy?
Satire, Multinationalism, and B-movies

Annalee Newitz

The secret of life, in one cliché, if I may sum it up for you, is: ENJOY, EVEN IF YOU'RE NOT ENJOYING.

--Howard Stern

From Camp to Cheese

A new kind of humor is haunting U.S. popular culture. Critics and consumers have dubbed it "cheese." Yet we have no formal definitions of the term, only textual associations. Reruns of The Brady Bunch and Mork and Mindy are cheesy. Blaxploitation is cheesy, as are Mexican horror movies and gore flicks in the tradition of Herschell Gordon Lewis. Godzilla is cheesy; Bruce Lee and nearly all Kung Fu movies are cheesy; John Woo is sometimes cheesy; and Quentin Tarantino is the auteur of cheese. Clothing and music from the 1970s are cheesy; and the 1980s are quickly becoming cheesy too, especially New Wave music and John Hughes movies. There is deliberate cheese (The Brady Bunch Movie) and cheesy consumption (watching Shaft [1971] just to hear a black guy say, "Right on, baby," without a hint of irony). Connoisseurs can get the Something Weird Video catalog and buy specialty cheese items, like Fredric Hobbs's Godmonster of Indian Flats (1973), for a rare taste of deliberate cheese that can be consumed cheesily as well.

Like camp, cheese describes both a parodic practice and a parodic form of textual consumption. It is the production of, and appreciation for, what is artificial, exaggerated, or wildly, explosively obscene. And like camp, cheese describes a way of remembering history, a kind of snide nostalgia for serious cultures of the past which now seem so alien and bizarre as to be funny. "Camp," writes Pamela Robertson, "is productively anachronistic and critically renders specific historical norms obsolete." 1 One might make a nearly verbatim comment about cheese. The point of cheese, whether deliberate or "read in" by the audience, is to offer criticism of social norms, to relegate their power to the ash can of history through the "productive" use of derisive laughter. Andrew Ross sharpens the focus on Robertson's comments by noting that [End Page 59]

the camp effect . . . is created not simply by a change in the mode of cultural production, but rather when the products . . . of a much earlier mode of production, which has lost its power to dominate cultural meanings, become available, in the present, for redefinition according to contemporary codes of taste. 2

Here Ross links camp humor to bygone powers of economic production--in effect, camp makes history "obsolete" (and silly) by paradoxically keeping its outmoded cultural products in circulation. Ross notes that this kind of camp feeling helps explain British consumption of Victoriana during the 1960s. It represents a "recognition of the eclipsed capacity of real British power to play the imperialist game of dominating foreign taste." 3

Cheese, I would argue, performs a similar function within U.S. culture at the turn of the millennium. Where camp is, as Susan Sontag believes, a predominantly Euro-American phenomenon, 4 cheese adheres to cultures and multicultures of the Pacific Rim: this includes cultures from Asian and South/Central American islands and countries, the United States, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia. Not surprisingly, given Ross's thesis, this region is also gaining a reputation as the locus of economic strength, global trade, and cultural production in the new world order. The Pacific Rim is a blend of postimperial and postcolonial cultures, all of which strongly remember--and in some areas still live with--the modes of production and products of imperial capitalism. Cheese is one method by which these cultures attempt to laugh off their imperial histories. Interestingly, the "wacky foreign stuff" consumed as cheese in the United States, such as Godzilla movies and Jackie Chan films, have their own counterparts in Asia. Disney icons, U.S. rock of the 1950s and 1960s, and U.S. television shows are marketed for parodic consumption in Japan and parts of China. Such cross-national consumption has led to cheesy cultural hybrids: Jackie Chan's U.S...


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