Based on 1978's “tell-all” memoir, Mommie Dearest (1981) portrays the abuses that movie star Joan Crawford inflicted on her adopted daughter Christina. After earning bad reviews and unintended laughs, Paramount launched an ad emphasizing its infamous line: “No wire hangers.... EVER!,” thus embracing a camp/cult appreciation and promoting the movie like an exploitation film about child abuse. Mommie Dearest also developed a camp following among gay men, but their readings had different implications. Paramount encouraged laughter at their failed attempt at seriousness, at the expense of its star's critical reputation, because it generated box-office. Gay camp humor played with (or sent-up) those images, while still admiring Faye Dunaway's performance, because they were fictions of gender identity.
What can be unnerving about Mommie Dearest is the laughter caused by its images of child abuse. However, when I've seen them with mostly gay audiences, those scenes were re-edited and/or re-contextualized to highlight and take pleasure from the non-naturalistic performances, not from the abuse. At New Orleans gay bars, they often screened different Mommie Dearest/“Mamma Mia” edits. A playful relationship with viewers was established from the start, with some gay men responding “I do!” to the invitation by the glamorous Dunaway/Crawford. The video's mocking tone was set through the repetitions of “I will always beat you” that cut to the scenes of Joan hitting Christina, thus playing on the double meaning of “beat.” The re-edited “Christina is not a fan” scene generated the most response, with some men shouting “Choke her! Get her!” when Joan is about to put her hands around Christina's neck. That may sound disturbing, but the gay men were not really asking to see a young woman abused. They wanted a repetition of the excessive acting gestures.
It's one thing to laugh if you think you're actually witnessing a girl getting abused and another to laugh at images that have been remixed, altered with effects, or preceded by a drag show. The repetition or recreation of certain actions, phrases or scenes in different videos remind us that images of abuse in fiction films are only performances, edited to elicit specific responses from audiences.