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

by Ethan Tussey

by Michael Barthel for IN MEDIA RES

"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?

Game Change vs. Showgirls

comparison of camp

from Game Change (2011)
Creator: Danny Strong
Posted by Ethan Tussey