Queer TV performances
that time forgot
review by Katharine Mussellam
Quinlan Miller, Camp TV: Trans Gender Queer Television History (Duke University Press, 2019), 220 pages.
The 1950s are frequently associated with the white picket fence domesticity of U.S. suburbs and the rigid binary gender roles that go along with such an imaginary, and ideological, formation. Popular television shows of the period, such as Leave It to Beaver and The Dick van Dyke Show, are typically associated with this heteronormative constellation of images. In Camp TV: Trans Gender Queer Television History, Quinlan Miller challenges many viewers’ and historians’ perception that television programs from the 1950s and 60s, because of the cultural context in which they were made, rarely contain examples of gender nonconformity or queer characters. Miller contests the assumption that only from the 1970s onwards did television allow queer representation. Miller points to various examples of camp performances in television programs from the 50s and 60s to reveal that queer gender played an important role in sitcom production. Reconsidering elements of sitcoms dismissed and obscured by previous scholarly work, Miller re-examines and re-exposes gender variant performances. Through discussions of TV episodes and archival material, Camp TV provides a detailed picture of the production and cultural contexts of queer gender appearance in sitcoms, ranging from non-conforming dress and gestures to critiques of heterosexual marriage.
As a work that revisits television history, Camp TV develops arguments not mainly through plots of television programmes, but through a focus on performers, production strategies, and genre forms. While Miller discusses the plots of some episodes, much of the text is based on other elements of the comedy series that make up the subject matter of the book. Just as sitcoms developed from sketch comedy in variety shows—comedy “bits” without a long-running story – Camp TV’s examples are often fleeting moments of camp performances within a series and facilitated by its structure. As Miller writes, sitcoms have standardized narrative patterns, repeated in each episode, that inflect rather than develop characters. Each week these characters, often based on stock types, repeat the same inflections and camp performances laid out by the sitcom structure. Just as gender performance is something that is repeated again and again within the frameworks set up by society, sitcoms are based on a structure that functions as a “simple and repeatable frame” for all manner of gags, one-liners, and other comedy bits that can include queer gender (22). Furthermore, not only the plots of television programmes create this, Miller states, but also the industry framework that creates the programmes themselves. Miller’s text frequently references relations between the content of television programmes and that framework.
Another focus in Miller’s text is on the personalities of television performers, both in their roles in sitcoms and on other television programmes, and their appearances in print media publicity. The television programmes in which many actors, particularly character actors, appeared did not have explicitly queer plots or contain queer themes. However, Miller writes that their personae as eccentric people conveyed a genderqueer-ness that continued beyond the characters they portrayed into the wider media landscape. Miller incorporates these various media and the publicity appearances of performers – such as Richard Deacon, Kaye Ballard, Bob Cummings, and Nancy Kulp – to demonstrate the pervasiveness of camp in television and related media. Camp performers were part of the structure of television and their role in enacting a standardized kind of eccentricity extended beyond television to related publicity. Miller uses this information to demonstrate that even if not explicitly categorized as genderqueer, the portrayal of these performers as eccentric across media was part of their appeal to viewers. Because eccentric celebrities attract audiences for being funny and strange, they affirm “the appeal of stigma” even if they are also made ridiculous for their difference (12). While television of the time appears to uphold white heteronormativity, Miller demonstrates that celebrating gender non-conformity was part of how television shows were promoted to audiences and remained popular.
Using such a broad focus means that Miller’s text differs from other writing about queer television. Instead of only doing a textual analysis of the themes, plots, and characters within the shows themselves, Miller analyses the entire media landscape of the time. By referring to archival materials from various media appearing in the same time period, Miller provides insight into how these various media appearances, taken as a whole, worked together to create the camp personae of the performers discussed in Camp TV. With this framework, Miller discusses how queer performers were not exceptions in a generally heteronormative social and media world, but instead suggests that they and their queerness were pervasive. Miller does not just discuss television programmes and performers in terms of responding to, or being created by, the social climate of the time. Rather, the book explains how the structure and the performers of sitcoms at the time created a media landscape that frequently included genderqueer camp. In an important contribution to scholarly methodology for studying television, Miller analyses television as part of an interconnected media world that existed and continues to exist today, especially linking promotion and advertising to the production and forms of television.
Miller traces how the formulaic structure of television sitcoms is what makes the format conducive to producing camp performances and queer gender. Because sitcoms often feature eccentric characters with “idiosyncratic gender expression” and in ironic couplings, the makers of sitcoms “created queer gender by developing tropes of ambiguously believable romantic interest and sexual devotion” (28). In the first chapter, Miller discusses the history of camp on TV and the evolution of the sitcom from variety shows. Through several examples of camp performance and queer gender in these variety skits, such as those featuring Milton Berle and Ed Wynn, Miller demonstrates the queer gender possibilities of sitcoms. Skits on these programs often parodied gender expression and norms of heterosexual relationships and breakups from films, as well as parodying famous eccentric personalities and drag performance.
Camp performances could also bring attention to the construction of heteronormative gender norms. One particularly interesting example Miller describes is from an episode of the show My Friend Irma, in which Irma learns how to perform feminine gestures from the European man Kropotkin, who also relates other ways in which his character does things generally considered feminine. Decades before Judith Butler’s writing on the performativity of gender, this skit points out that it is a social construction for certain gestures to be feminine. These gestures and behaviours are “cultivated through style and experimentation, with an unsettled relation to bodies and looks,” and they are not necessarily “a natural possession of white women” who are supposedly the bearers of that femininity (34). While perhaps not discussed in those terms, sitcom producers understood, on some level, gender performativity.
For media scholars, a general understanding of the time period covered in Camp TV operates under the assumption that because of norms and expectations at the time, creators would not have been able to get away with queer performance. This is only partly true according to Miller. Television studios and producers devised regulations, not dissimilar the Hayes Code for films, to “clean up” television – i.e. remove potentially offensive material – and make it respectable according to white heterosexual norms. However, camp parody that included banter with multiple meanings allowed for sexual jokes and queer gender to continue. Miller also notes that television technology at the time also allowed for camp to circulate without censorship at the broadcast stage. Even if certain concepts would have been discouraged at the developmental stages, television-recording devices were not commercially available to audiences, and therefore they could not record live programs to play back at a later date. This gave camp the potential to circulate free from censorship once it made it to broadcast.
Much of the second chapter of the book focuses on The Bob Cummings Show and the persona created for the show’s titular male lead by his wife Mary Elliott Cummings, who also shaped the other characters in the show. Miller frames this discussion through camp’s circulation in Hollywood, where Cummings’ television programs were produced and set. Miller refers to Susan Sontag’s definition of camp as “how to be dandy in the age of mass culture” (60) and also how camp style operated as a way for queer individuals to express that queerness in a way not “intelligible to straights” (61). However, while not necessarily intelligible as queer to everyone, Hollywood still became fluent in camp vernacular, which allows another person to know that someone is queer without being told that information directly. The eccentricity of camp became associated with Hollywood itself and coincided with queer gender in The Bob Cummings Show, which was set in Hollywood. Miller’s descriptions of Bob Cummings’ camp is as a trait that is not particularly indirect, but still contains implicit critiques and meanings. The Bob and Margaret characters are two single people who live together; their characters play out scenes that question sexist norms of heteronormativity. On one level, this is done through Bob’s serial monogamy and his sister’s disinterest in dating and marriage. Bob’s profession in show business also produces comedy related to gender non-conformity. One episode Miller discusses in detail involves Bob’s including the purchase of a women’s garment in his tax audit. This garment is “shocking” in both its colour and the fact that Bob bought it. While not particularly strange for someone in show business or for a married man to buy, it raises questions because he is single and has no partner whom to give it as a gift. Miller describes Bob’s character as genderqueer, since he “rarely disavowed interests construed as feminine according to social protocols for heteronormative behaviour” (81), which Miller ascribes to part of the show’s success.
This rejection of conformity to heteronormativity by Bob as well as other characters in the sitcom was also part of Bob Cummings’ offscreen persona. In a discussion just as interesting as that about gender performances in the show itself, Miller writes that Mary Elliott Cummings was highly involved in the construction of Bob’s persona and also in how the media discussed and photographed them. Miller describes a feature in the Los Angeles Examiner depicting the couple in which Bob performs camp gestures and wears a bright green suit. Miller also describes another feature picturing Mary Elliott holding an Emmy that was in fact awarded to Bob, as if she were its rightful owner. In another photograph, Mary Elliott holds the Emmy while Bob is identified last in the captions after others in the foreground, suggesting he is the least important of everyone pictured despite having the title role on the Cummings Show. Along with descriptions of Mary Elliott’s calm and professional persona in contrast to his, the way she and Bob are depicted in these photographs upend gendered assumptions about authority and behaviour, with Mary Elliott taking the typically male role and credit that usually goes to male creators. Since Miller spends quite a bit of time contextualizing and discussing these images, it is unfortunate that they, nor any frame captures of the Cummings Show, appear in the book. Miller’s descriptions are fairly evocative, but it would have been helpful to be able to see what Miller describes as pertinent information to the chapter.
Following the in-depth discussion of queer gender in the Cummings Show, Miller moves on in chapter three to discuss how The Dick Van Dyke Show critiques heteronormativity; such a perspective runs contrary to many critics’ analyses and audiences’ memories of the show. Miller focuses on the character of Laura Petrie (Mary Tyler Moore) who is not only a wife but also a former dancer. According to Miller, this makes Laura exist in a liminal role, partway between home and office spaces, that breaks from gender norms. Miller also discusses the Sal character (Rose Marie), a member of the team who works with Rob Petrie; Sal’s role often functions as a commentary on norms of monogamy and the expectation that a woman’s greatest goal in life is marriage. While Sal receives taunts by other characters for her string of boyfriends, she usually has a witty retort instead of constantly wallowing in spinster-hood.
The various men Sal dates are a source of camp because they are eccentric characters played by character actors (whom Miller returns to throughout the text as performers of queer gender), as well as because of their relationships to Sal and their roles in the show’s plots. For example, one of Sal’s boyfriends is a man named Eddie who is feminine in expression in contrast to Sal’s “public top behaviour.” Miller says this couple “double-crosses cis expectations” in relation to their individual gender expressions and their roles in the relationship (102). In another episode’s plot, Sal dates a man who is both an undertaker and married, but it is unclear which is worse about him. His character’s presence leads Laura and Rob Petrie to discuss open relationships as something valid and accepted by some. Their conversation suggests that the alternative, monogamous heterosexuality, could make someone “square.” Sal’s strings of boyfriends occasion multiple commentaries on heterosexuality and what could be accepted, instead of the show’s simply representing Sal as a woman who fails at reaching proper, socially-sanctioned fulfillment. Miller contrasts this perspective on Sal with that of other authors who focus on episodes that portray her as unhappy with being single. Miller points out that many other episodes have a different message about Sal’s situation altogether, and cannot be weighted less than those that do present a more normative view of women’s relationships. Like many of the camp performances in Camp TV, the normative can exist alongside the subversive.
In the same chapter, Miller writes about other programs that dealt with queer gender in relation to singlehood and married life in camp ways. One program, Occasional Wife, both is and is not about married life, as the title implies. The principal characters in the show are two single people, Greta and Peter, who both pretend to be married in their respective workplaces: Greta because a wedding ring on her finger prevents harassment and unwanted advances, Peter because of biases in choosing to hire married people. This premise alone critiques gender norms related to marriage status, but as Miller notes, camp is produced through the way that many jokes in the series “consist of the characters voicing traditional complaints about their marriage, which does not actually exist, a contradiction the writers used to fuel double entendres about dating and sex” (119). The two characters frequently bicker, which points out that the complaints about marriage are considered evidence that they are in one. While not explicitly stated in Miller’s text, this commentary in Occasional Wife is but one example of the commentary on marriage in other shows of the period, such as I Love Lucy, where married couples are constantly verbally sparring and complaining about their partners. Miller’s argument suggests a critical reading for these moments.