- But Was It Camp?Sadie Benning's It Wasn't Love
Can we talk about butches anymore? Should we? This essay is premised on an affirmative answer to this question and seeks to present a "backward" approach to a twenty-seven-year-old object in an effort to consider how we might be able to talk about the butch again. This is decades after the 1990s, when the butch gender expression was often drawn upon to demonstrate the unnaturalness of gender essentialism and how nonnormative sexual identities and gender expressions were not just assimilating aspects of heterosexuality.1 Though butch as an identity or gender expression might have some proverbial cobwebs to shake off since it last cycled through popularity,2 this essay argues that certain modalities, genres, and aesthetic movements actually benefit from the accrual of historical, cultural, and scholastic irrelevance—like camp. Camp is the cure for the butch's stubborn untimeliness, and this essay will argue that camp is one of the avenues for tackling the thorny issue of identity in ways that guard against essentialism and hierarchies. Through a butch reconsideration of Sadie Benning's famous short video It Wasn't Love (1992)—a video rarely associated with butchness—I will mark Benning's portrayal of butch stylization, posturing, and erotic play to demonstrate how camp's relationship to masculinity is less oppositional than decades of camp scholarship might have us believe. It Wasn't Love's distinctly and [End Page 98] unflinchingly butch depictions strive to mobilize different ways of being masculine, where distinctions serve to both complicate and destabilize rigid systems of gender. However, this isn't exactly your aunt's or uncle's camp. Benning's approach in It Wasn't Love inverts and reshapes more traditional relationships between camp and excess, ultimately crafting camp that mines the slimmest margins of the incongruous for their subversive and erotic potential.
The proud backwardness of this inquiry echoes the call of Heather Love's work in Feeling Backward, a text's whose objects insist on lingering in their own late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century moments as well as a text that attributes camp to the backwardness linked to queer cultures.3 Though this essay does not attend to affect, it rejoins Love in tending to texts that seem at odds with contemporary approaches to queer theory and queer studies. Love's situating of her project and the turn-of-the-century literature it examines against the narratives of historical and linear progress that exemplified certain trends at the time of her writing are comparable to the tensions that exist between my own approach and the emphasis of the field.4 The post-Stonewall cohesion and celebration of identity stands in contrast to the ambivalence that Love locates in some of the authors and literature she elucidates. Yet, in the twelve years between Love's writing and our current moment, identity has continued to pose a problem for queer studies and queer theory. This is in large part due to the ways that the theoretical promise of queerness has almost always been gleaned from its lack of referent or definite object of study, its pliability, its openness. However, this is a somewhat deceptive openness although not disingenuously so.5 The problem of identity within both queer studies and queer theory is only compounded by conservative and divisive turns toward marriage equality, the uptick in LGBTQI commercialization, and the radicality of identity dulling with the passage of time. It is no surprise, then, that as Kadji Amin says in "Haunted by the 1990s: Queer Theory's Affective Histories," queerness became more invested in broadening its horizon toward greener and more politically urgent pastures, clinging to its indefinition while "emphatically" demarcating same-sex identity and sexuality as part of its history that some might rather forget or, at the very least, move past.6
In asking if we should talk about identity within the scope of queer theory and queer studies I do not want to downplay the literal and figurative violence that identity politics can wreak. Identity and its attendant forms of politics have been weaponized. As Madhavi Menon argues in her...