Electric Six

ann coulter, rupaul, & icons of camp by Greg Bills



When I read the recent comments by Ann Coulter denouncing soccer and the World Cup as un-American, my first thought was that Coulter had finally gone too far—and revealed herself as the performance artist that I had always suspected her to be.  A blonde shiksa remanufacture of Andy Kauffman, whose stonefaced delivery of one outrageous quip after another creates a perfect simulation of a cretinous right-wing spokesmodel.  Because Coulter never breaks character, it has become standard practice to accept her persona at face value, as a “real person,” or at least as real as every other figure that passes through the celebrity commentary buzz world in which she operates.  The fact that Coulter is given venues to comment on issues that actually matter to the larger society creates an impression that her opinions could be taken seriously even though the actual statements that she makes—almost always in the form of one-liner bulletpoints/jokes, not sustained arguments—are often insupportably ridiculous: “Any growing interest in soccer can only be a sign of the nation’s moral decay” or “No American whose great-grandfather was born here is watching soccer.”

There is no point in attempting to contradict such statements because they do not exist to be engaged with as fact; they are rhetorical flourishes created to provoke.  Her routine is entirely dependent on stirring outrage in her audience.  And we should not pretend that her audience is composed solely of doltish fans and the supporters of her purported conservative ideology.  Her most crucial constituency is always on the left, at the ready to latch onto her latest provocations and disperse them widely. Which is how I found my way to her World Cup comments.  Coulter is forever on the lookout to épater la bourgeoisie, and part of her long-running joke is that because the American Left does not view itself as bourgeois, or shockable, she is able to score points and garner attention over and over again.

Because Coulter is purely a cultural figure, not a political one, she is able to make statements that no one seeking to hold office or wield actual power would allow himself or herself to utter.  Unless that person were some sort of idiot or hailed from a political district so securely regressive that membership in the Ku Klux Klan would not be a disqualification from office.  Such people (idiots and/or institutionalized bigots) do come forward to stir up mini-scandals all the time, but what sets Coulter apart from them is her clear desire to be clever in her sexism, racism, and homophobia.  When she describes female attendees at the Democratic National Convention as "corn-fed, no make-up, natural fiber, no-bra needing, sandal-wearing, hirsute, somewhat fragrant hippie chick pie wagons," she may not be hitting the stylistic mark established by Mencken or Clare Booth Luce, but she is obviously striving.

Her satire may never achieve a Swiftian bite, but it is calculated, premeditated.  She is entirely conscious of intention and effect.  And yet, despite the shrillness of her polemics, she doesn’t seem to want to transform the world—she is not interested in moving the conversation on any issue forward or finding functional solutions.  Instead, she is very intent on enhancing her brand.  Whatever she wants to gain—beyond attention, self-evidently, and a steady income—must have something to do with her investment in her own performance.  The business of Ann Coulter is Ann Coulter.  Her looping circuit of narcissism has led me to consider her in relation to RuPaul.

At the House of Fours, we have been watching Season Four of RuPaul’s Drag Race lately (don’t smirk: life is stressful), and one of the most striking aspects of the show is the prismatic quality of RuPaul as a performer.  The series is a parody of the numerous reality-based competition programs, and is also the thing itself.  Up-and-coming drag queens and established gender illusionists vie to achieve the status of “America’s next drag superstar” by competing in variously composed contests culminating each week in a “lip-sync for your life” in which one unlucky striver is eliminated.  The show seems to be erected most closely upon the bones of America’s Next Top Model and, especially, Project Runway.  On Drag Race, however, RuPaul serves the functions of both Heidi Klum and Tim Gunn.  In her familiar drag diva regalia, RuPaul is the ultimate judge and authority (“I have made my decision!”); while, in male costume, he serves as the backstage mentor and confidant of the competing men.  The backstage RuPaul, who favors cravats and jackets with piping suitable for barbershop quartets or The Music Man, seems every bit as much a drag performance as onstage RuPaul in her jaw-dropping floor length gowns and awe-inspiring upswept blonde tresses.  During the show, RuPaul is constantly promoting his/her own ancillary products—albums, cosmetics, shoes—and this is funny precisely because there is no discernable light between the shameless self-promotion and the mocking of it.  What this shilling does is suggest the outlines of the third RuPaul, the celebrity who exists beyond the bounds of the show itself and can be glimpsed on talk shows and on his enjoyable YouTube series where he drives other celebrities around Los Angeles in a big car and chats them up.  This version of RuPaul may be no more “real” than the diva or the Tim Gunn manqué, and in turn suggests a fourth “authentic” but unknowable RuPaul who eats and sleeps and apparently has a boyfriend who owns a ranch in Wyoming.

Unlike most “reality stars,” however, the artifice here is openly acknowledged by RuPaul and by the show. This is a series about drag queens, after all, and camp is the oxygen it breathes.  At least as it was codified by Susan Sontag for the benefit of self-identified intellectuals in the 1960s, camp is often viewed as a winking celebration of failed or suspect art as the means of establishing alternate cultural touchstones for a coterie “in the know.”  Camp views the world through the simultaneous lenses of mockery and worship, and in terms of drag performance, and Drag Race in particular, this sensibility focusses our interest on the earnest attempt at least as much as on the sustained success. In this context, contestant Chad Michael’s evocation of Cher on a fake game show is more vivid and fascinating and fun than Cher herself on a real game show would ever be.  Camp reminds us that it is all made up—gender, culture, identity—it is all absurd, but we can rejoice in it anyway.

If this camp spirit used to be the secret handshake of gay culture, it has long since spread its attitude into the mainstream.  The most casual stroll through YouTube will reveal how this nothing-sacred/everything-fabulous approach has detached itself from a specifically gay sensibility and opened the whole world up to parody/celebration.  An entertaining example of what can only be seen as “straight camp” appears in the work of Dick Valentine, the lead singer and songwriter of the indie rock/pop band Electric Six. His tunes and lyrics are structured so that the singer's swaggering, hypermasculine persona always falls short of convincing the listener of his playboy bona fides.  His best songs make me laugh even as the power pop succeeds in delighting with its rock god prowess.

And if we follow the spectrum from the transgression of the drag artiste through the giggles of the piano-playing cat to the other end of the dial, do we eventually reach conservative camp…and Ann Coulter?

I hesitate to describe Coulter in terms of drag because it would be too easy to delineate her hardness, toughness, and cruelty as somehow indicating an essentially masculine nature, as if a woman could not exhibit all of these qualities without being suspect in her gender.  Nonetheless, the Coulter Visual Kit assembles many of the same over-exaggerated touchstones as drag femininity—high high heels, long long legs, front and center breasts, long blonde endlessly tossable hair, heavy mascara—in order, it seems, to appeal to the purportedly heterosexual, “genuine” men, whose centers of gravity she chooses to orbit.  It is hard to imagine that there is much in her presentation meant to appeal to women, or that Coulter has much interest in connecting with a female audience, except as a model for others to (fail to) emulate.  Her ideal might be to exist as the only woman allowed entry into the palace of masculine power: strong, seductive, and ready to lock the gate behind her.  In fact, she has suggested disenfranchising women, pointing out that without the gender gap, a Republican would have won every presidential election since 1950.  That she herself would lose her vote does not trouble her because she is absolutely secure in her exceptionalism.  This is a traditional stance for the conservative woman celebrity: Phyllis Schlafly, for instance, seemed to fantasize herself as the Last Public Woman, who placed herself reluctantly on the national stage so that all other American ladies could be allowed to remain at home, cooking and cleaning, invisible.  Unlike Schlafly, Coulter’s persona does not suggest anything remotely homey or domestic in either her written or televisual form—and it is this extrovert quality that most reminds me of RuPaul.

It is impossible to imagine the drag diva incarnation of Ru at home sipping chardonnay and clicking through a Netflix queue.  Superstar RuPaul does not go home; Superstar RuPaul is disassembled and put in storage.  Similarly, I cannot conceive of what it might mean for Ann Coulter to step offstage.  There is an uncanny-valley, “Meet Mr. Lincoln” aspect to Coulter that does not suggest downtime or repose—but maintenance, perhaps?  I can envision Coulter being toweled-down and massaged like a thoroughbred, or lubricated at the joints like a robot boxer, but when I try to picture Coulter after the fund-raiser, back in the hotel suite, I end up with undoubtedly inaccurate images of blond wigs on foam heads and body parts peeled from velcro strips to be carefully loaded into padded boxes.  Her identity feels like an artificial construct.  I don’t mean to suggest that the private Ann Coulter does not exist, only that the public Ann Coulter is entirely performance, a figure willed into being by the collusion of the actor and her audience.

Consider her presentation of herself as a voice of the common folk. Coulter spends endless time harping against “liberals,” with their iPads and lattés, their soccer mom/nanny state overprotectiveness, and their emasculated embrace of identity politics.  Yet if you spend even a moment considering what her off hours must be like, it is impossible not to assume she (or her housekeeper) is shopping at Whole Foods, sipping a coldpress iced coffee, searching for the right Kate Spade purse. Despite her lockjaw voice and her puffs of opinion sprinkled with legalese, she is meant to be understood as a Tea Party woman of the people.  Any of her supporters who thought about it for even a moment would see that this Cornell and University of Michigan-trained lawyer is not Annie C. stocking shelves at the Costco out on the main highway, but they are nonetheless willing to admire her populist illusionism.  If you watch clips of her appearances on Fox News, notice how the hosts ask her questions in a mock-serious tone, feeding her set-ups for her outrageous quips.  Everyone more or less recognizes that she is as outlandishly engineered as an oversized pair of falsies, but she is indulged because she gives good show.

In exposing Coulter as an example of conservative camp, it is possible to underestimate her power as a cultural force in the same fashion that Antonin Scalia is misleadingly defanged by all those reports of how sweet and charming he is out in the duck blind.  Coulter may be camp, but she is also archetypal.  Her template is, of course, the Mean Girl, popular and privileged despite (because of) the fact that she is widely feared and despised.  While I was roaming through Facebook on the day Coulter bashed the World Cup, the revulsion that people expressed towards her was deep; images of nausea and vomit abounded. Granted, most or all of these commentators lean to the left along with me, but their disgust demonstrates one of Coulter’s cultural functions as a locus for a particular kind of loathing.

By allowing Coulter into the imaginative space in my head to write this essay, I could not help revisiting my own encounters with mean girls of the past.  I remember walking down the street on the Newport Peninsula in Orange County sometime in my twenties, passing two girls with their beefy boyfriends sitting at a table outside a burger place.  I must have been giving off a desperate scent of self-conscious social awkwardness because one of the girls left off slurping her soda to look up and shout, “Oh my god, look at how skinny that guy is.”  And the other girl added, “Some skinny fag.”  I suppose they were secure in taunting me while the muscle of their dates hulked nearby, although what it gained them to insult me I couldn’t guess.  I have been verbally accosted more often in Newport Beach than anywhere else on Earth; since becoming an adult, I have been verbally accosted almost exclusively in Newport Beach.  Maybe it has something to do with the density of rich Republicans on vacation.  It is not hard to imagine which role Ann Coulter would play in my little anecdote with her “clever” viciousness and her smug sense of entitlement—at least the “Ann Coulter” that she plays on TV and in her books and columns.  And sometimes I wonder if it is too easy to loathe the very public Coulter if our focus on her deflects attention from the more-hidden troll kings of Halliburton and Goldman Sachs.  But for those of us not invested in believing she is some sort of political genius, it may be most useful to think of Ann Coulter and her mode of bitter camp as a type of homeopathic treatment: she draws the poison to the surface so that we can be reminded that it has pooled inside us.