"Game Change" and "Showgirls": Politics as Camp

Curator's Note

Game Change told a familiar story: a big fish in a small pond finds the spotlight and, after proper training, overtakes the aging star she understudies. It is, in other words, basically Showgirls, the 1995 Paul Verhoeven camp classic, which is the argument I make in this video. Such a comparison would normally be meant as a criticism of politics. Instead, however, we could take it as evidence of how entertainment media can represent important aspects of politics - style, aesthetics, symbolic resonance, humor - that we're not otherwise comfortable granting legitimacy.

The default style of politics communicates its intended conduct. Dull suits, dingy conference rooms, and thick, badly-written reports testify to the hyper-rational nature of the enterprise. That's not how politics actually works, of course. We invoke symbols, appeal to emotion, employ visuals, play games, contradict ourselves, and all of these are needful and correct steps in our attempts to resolve rationally unresolvable value systems, or predict how candidates will act in an unknowable future. The press needs to cover these aspects, which have long been a part of our public life, but also needs to represent politics as high-minded and objective, all policy proposals and budget projections and power struggles, in order to keep the riffraff out. And so we get game frame coverage, horse race coverage, inside baseball, personality pieces, and other shaped narratives, which are then criticized as frivolous or damaging. The problem, however, may be not their existence, but their incompleteness. Maybe we just need more ways to represent the aesthetic aspects of politics.

Camp, as Pamela Robertson Wojcik has argued, works to question the naturalism of cultural practices. It does this most clearly with gender. But could it not do the same for politics? Entertainment media treat politics with a cynicism so pure it has become fundamentally lazy, and the negativity's pervasiveness is a major factor in American political institutions' current crisis of trust. Camp offers a third way, one that acknowledges the faults in our current politics without falling into easy ideology. As in Game Change, politics as camp simultaneously critiques and performs the aspects we find so pleasurable, the ones we keep returning to even as we decry their danger. Game Change is far from perfect, but if we read it as a recognition of the power of style in politics, what possibilities open up?


...I haven't seen Game Change. But I find the suggestion that it offers a third way between easy ideology and acknowledging fault fascinating (though I'd argue cynicism doesn't easily collapse onto the latter, either: a fourth way?).

Would you articulate some of the ways the film does political camp in more explicit detail (the way the video does implicitly)?  

Yeah, I think the presence of John McCain helps out a lot - he's this ultimate embodiment of politics-as-sincerity, fixing the system by being outright and honest about it, etc., and then along comes Palin and she's way more exciting and interesting. It's a good way of showing how wewant politics to be sensational in this way. 

I love the video Michael and I hope it finds a huge audience on YouTube becasue of its insightfulness. (I'm also amazed how Showgirls has remained, even 20 years later, such an endless object of contemplation)

Politics as camp is a creative and helpful way out of the problem you outline. I like it because it is very different than merely mocking politics (which is something my post tomorrow touches on). Using camp to understand Game Change is extremely useful, especially the scene towards the end where Nicolle Wallace's tearfully tells Steve Schmidt she didn't vote. Within the narrative of the film this moment is a dramatic climax for the two characters, but I can't help to find it hilarious and a fascinating in not the real story of the 2012 election, but the reenactment of it. The film as whole is such a complex, multi-layered reperformance of performance I think seeing it as camp is the only way it can make sense.

Thanks Michael! I was wondering if you would care to comment on camp as it pertains to the performance of gender in Game Change. While Showgirls seems to acknowledge the camp-factor in its over the top, arguably self-reflexive depiction of Nomi's hyper-feminine performance, the handling of gender norms by all of the characters in Game Change seemed fairly "straight" and serious to me. Given that identity performance and queering of gender norms is such an important aspect of camp, I would like to hear your thought on how it applies (or does not) to femininity (and/or masculinity) in Game Change. 

 Totally. I think Palin's character embodied a kind of fluid identity, with the makeover and the "I so don't want to go back to Alaksa" line, and so the transition from her as mom and Alaskan - the scene at the beginning with her at the state fair, for instance - to her as STAR and thus politically viable figure demonstrated the ways gender needs to be performed in order to be acceptable within electoral politics, especially on the right. At the same time, "Game Change" was an entirely male-created product (Jay Roach, Mark Halperin, John Heilemann, Danny Strong) and so under Robertson Wojcik's terms, this would very much not be feminist camp. But that actually becomes a theme of the movie - all the men around Palin trying to change her and make her something different. She ultimately doesn't control her own identity.

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