Raquel: Welcome to Rite Gud, the podcast that helps you write good. I’m Raquel S Benedict, the most dangerous woman in speculative fiction. With me is proud smut peddler, Magencubed. Many things in the world have not been named, and many things, even if they have been named, have never been described.
One of these is the sensibility, unmistakably [00:01:00] modern– a variant of sophistication, but hardly identical with– it that goes by the cult name of Sleepaway Camp. In today’s very special episode of Rite Gud, we will examine that seminal queer text author Robert Hiltzik’s 19 83 film Sleepaway Camp. Thank you for joining me.
magencubed: All right. Well, thank you so much for having me. This is a film that I’ve, I’ve studied pretty closely over the years. I first encountered it at a gender and film studies course, and it’s, it really, I, I find it to be a very powerful and affirming film and I, I, I really appreciate the opportunity to get to talk about that today.
Raquel: Yeah. Yeah. It, I, I, I can’t say enough for this film. It, it truly deserves a place in queer cinema because it is a queer text. The existential heroine of this series, Angela, is a trans [00:02:00] femme. She receives gender affirming care, pre-adolescent from a competent medical practitioner, Aunt Martha. By the sequel, she’s had surgery. Good for her. And unfortunately, our hero, our heroine, Angela, throughout the course of this film has to interface with a society that is less tolerant, that is less accepting. A society that demands very strict lines between the masculine and the feminine, and demands very strict types of gender performance from each camp, so to speak. Now Angela and her brother Ricky are raised together in a communal, queer, non-nuclear family, and then thrust into this rigidly structured society where girls and boys are housed in gender segregated bunks and older post pubescent counselors are responsible for ushering younger pre-pubescent [00:03:00] campers into their assigned adult gender roles.
Angela does not fit into this strict binary and any attempts to force her into it end tragically in violence, but in, in a subversion of traditional gender roles, the violence is not necessarily inflicted upon Angela, but inflicted by Angela upon an unsympathetic cis hero patriarchal society.
magencubed: I think what really strikes out, cuz you’re talking about the, the performance
of how tightly patrolled and controlled gender performances in this film. And I think the first thing we have to talk about is the performance itself. I mean the, I think this film is masterfully directed. I think every, every actor just has such a I don’t know, like an almost lynchian level of like, dedication to it.
It’s, it’s heightened, [00:04:00] it’s truly like a heightened reality. And it just sets the stage as such that you can, however you personally feel about your own gender performance, like you’re able to just get into it with these characters and understand the depth of that performance.
Like Aunt Martha.
Raquel: I, I, there is so much I want to say about Aunt Martha.
magencubed: Yeah. She’s such a fascinating character. Especially you, you touched on, on how she’s preparing Angela and, and Ricky too for, for these roles and how they’ll come up against society and, and I, I think that she does such a masterful job, such a layered, fascinating character.
I was wondering if you had any notes about that, because I know we talked about that offline, but she’s just really fascinating.
Raquel: She is extraordinary. She’s one of the most memorable performances from a, a film that offers a wealth of memorable performances. Despite taking up maybe minute and a half at most of screen [00:05:00] time, she steals the show. Her makeup choices, her really extreme wardrobe choices where she’s color coordinated to an astonishing degree. My take is that in order to prepare the children for integration into a cis hetero patriarchal society, Aunt Martha has heavily leaned into a performance of traditional femininity with the very, very heavy use of cosmetics, the very, very careful color coordination of her outfits, her exaggerated voice, her exaggerated gestures.
Martha, whose profession is a very masculine profession, that of physician is performing womanhood, she’s performing a kind of surrogate motherhood, and while she’s doing so, she’s inviting the children to perform with her with prompts like, “wasn’t that nice of me? Hm?” The [00:06:00] potato chip conversation is really inviting the kids to do their part, to play their role as children.
It, it’s such a fascinating performance. It’s almost like a kind of cisgender drag performance.
magencubed: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. And I think in its excess, because I think that, I mean, I think everything in this film is very maximalist in its presentation, in her gender role as the mother, as the, medical authority uh, as woman, as all of these things that she’s capturing and performing, I do find it interesting that also she makes space for Angela, who’s not, even though she is a trans femme, she’s not the most ostentatious or outwardly feminine person.
And I think that it, she just allows the children as she’s creating this role, acting as a role model literally for them, she is able to [00:07:00] let them experiment and, and feel out their, their gender and everything. Cause I think Ricky is interesting because he’s such a true ally in all of this, honestly.
He’s such a tragic figure, honestly, because he really shows that like allyship… to, to be an ally is to be an accomplice, and you have to be ready, to take the, the violence that comes from that, when he becomes the, the target of the camp owner or camp operator, and who’s in him himself
an agent, an actor of rapacious male entitlement and, and, and sexuality. And he’s such a authoritative figure, authoritarian figure, I should say. Having Ricky come up against him, I think, was fascinating.
Raquel: Oh yeah. Ricky is fascinating because he does fit into the traditional male gender role pretty well. He gets along well with the other boys. He can easily perform the various masculine rituals, the ritual where he [00:08:00] accidentally gets a kid to shove his face into another boy’s buttocks. His use of extraordinary swear words, the immortal quote, “eat shit and live,” which I, I mean, I could talk for hours about that.
He really is in every way a, a traditional boy. He fits into it perfectly well, but he hasn’t forgotten to be a good ally, and that’s difficult. He’s got to sacrifice that sort of cis male privilege in order to do that, and he willingly does so out of an act of love.
magencubed: Yeah, I think that that’s, I think that’s really powerful. That’s one of my favorite things about the film, like that line is, is golden. Eat shit and live. I mean, my God. But yeah, I found his relationship with Angela to be so touching. His willingness to put himself on the line, especially in the context of the story where kindness is so frequently just met with derision.[00:09:00] Because the masculine feminine alignment within the camp itself–
and I, I think we have to talk about the fact that the camp does really represent society, you know, and, and from the the stratification, uh, of class and race to gender. All of it. And I do find it really, really interesting that the camp so, so eloquently sums up
society. It is a heaving mess. You’re not entirely sure who is in control. But the rules are changing constantly. You have the camp counselors who are, they’re these indeterminate ages, these indeterminate hierarchies and power structures within their own, sort of authoritative state, that the, the ones that do care about the kids end up perpetuating further harm through ignorance or neglect. No one’s hands are clean from any of the things that are happening.
And the way that the shots are framed with [00:10:00] like so many people. It just, every single scene is heaving with life. It feels like even though it is in the country, in the woods, in a sleepaway camp, it is so well shot and it feels like such a, a lived in space with such a crazy jumble of people.
I find the way that it’s filmed, the, the cinematography, the way the shots are composed, so fascinating
Raquel: Yeah, there’s a real sense of mise-en-scene here.
magencubed: Yeah. I think it does perfectly encapsulate the fact that the camp is society. And as Angela and Ricky are entering this space…
Raquel: they’re entering this space that, that is going to initiate them on the cusp of puberty– which is a very frustrating time for anybody, but for, for a trans kid, is particularly fraught– into these traditional gender roles, and that is a big part of the purpose of it.
magencubed: Yeah, I would absolutely agree.
Raquel: A member of our discord, uh, Mr. Eric Sandwich, he wrote in one of our discussions because we’ve discussed this film at length. ” [00:11:00] I knew the movie sort of in my gut felt chaotic and busy, but it took a rewatch to figure out why every single goddamned scene has like 40 people in it.
No one’s age is particularly apparent or matters. It is completely unclear who is a teen camp counselor and who is a little kid and who is a grown ass adult.” For instance, in the skinny dipping scene, the boys, while they’re preparing, complain that they got 15 boys and could only recruit five girls. But the question is to be of
skinny dipping age, you’d have to be a counselor probably, right? Counselors are a little more pubescent or post pubescent versus the campers who are a little bit more pre-pubescent. You’d more likely go skinny dipping with other kids in, their late teens, not, not tweens, but then why are there at least 15 boy camp counselors? That’s an unusually large [00:12:00] number of counselors. So how many people or how many campers are at this camp? It’s enormous. It’s unbelievably large for the staff that’s there, which again suggests that this is larger society. And the fact that every frame is so busy, every frame has dozens and dozens of characters in it.
Some of whom never appear again, some of whom do appear again. It appears that the filmmakers took the Italian Neorealist approach and brought their equipment to an active summer camp in session and simply performed in front of it and, and recruited a very northeastern Italian himbo to be one of the more sympathetic camp counselors.
It’s really extraordinary. It’s a remarkable approach.
magencubed: It really is. Like I said, the performances are very maximalist, but just there is such a naturalistic quality. I, I think of the scene when the kids are [00:13:00] coming off the buses and just running with joy and it’s such a, it’s such a natural moment for these kids, teenagers.
Like it’s such a jumble of people. And have that just have that against Angela and Ricky and their very somber sort of trek into the, the camp. There’s just such a gravity to, to that, the, the, the juxtaposition between those two concepts. It really kind of reminds me of, In the Realm of the Senses and that crucial scene when the male protagonist, is it, his name escapes me at the moment.
It’s the story of Sada Abe and her criminal history. That critical scene of, her lover, as he knows that their love is doomed, him walking down the street against the oncoming rush of Japanese mainstream society.
And World War I and, and modernity and everything that’s barreling down for them. [00:14:00] It really kind of reminds me of that. It’s just that these two characters are, are making this plunge essentially into the depths of society and this camp, and it’s, it’s this somber trek against this lively raucous
summer, this, these summer vibes, this film is excellent with summer vibes. I, I will absolutely give it that. I really love that it just, it gives, especially when as the film begins to unfold and you begin to see everything from Angela’s perspective, it really just gives that, those scenes so much more weight and, and the juxtaposition between, like you said, the very naturalistic filming and acting versus this
Well directed, these well choreographed maximalist performances. It’s just really fascinating. Really fascinating.
Raquel: Yeah, I. There’s this wonderful bit of, of cinematography around the beginning too, when we’re showing just the feet, just the, the tread of happy campers [00:15:00] running into the camp while screaming. The filmmakers shot it at a Dutch angle, so it’s shot as though these campers, even though they’re gaily shouting with joy, are descending.
They’re going down like they’re descending into hell.
Raquel: and it’s such a fascinating dissonance.
magencubed: Mm-hmm. . It really is.
Raquel: Yeah, just this beautiful work of visual irony.
magencubed: mm-hmm. Absolutely. And are we going to get into how exactly Angela goes about her acclimation or let’s say, um, assimilation, failed assimilation, like her sabotaged assimilation into the feminine sphere. Because I think the relationship and antagonism with Meg and Judy is, is so fascinating and there’s such a wealth to get into with.
Raquel: Yeah. Oh my goodness. Especially Judy. Judy is just [00:16:00] fascinating. But yeah, Angela, despite trying to integrate into society still chafes uncomfortably against the rigid gender role of the feminine, there are many scenes in which she refuses to perform traditional femininity by simply answering people’s
prompts who, who are trying to get her to act like a proper girl and just replying with a thousand yard stare, just passive resistance all the way. It’s really fascinating.
Raquel: and the character of Judy is I, I would say, an incredible performance of a TERF. I mean, her fashion sense, where she’s wearing a brightly colored t-shirt with the name Judy on it, is very much something that a British TERF would wear at a rally in the UK while taking selfies in front of some Nazis that have shown up to defend them.
The way that Judy chides Angela for her body for not showing off her [00:17:00] body for, for not conforming, calling her quote unquote, ” a carpenter’s dream: flat as aboard and needs a screw.”
Raquel: And that is constantly really sexually harassing Angela, trying to make her get her beautiful body in the water, quote unquote, demanding that she shower with the other girls and so on.
The fact that Judy aggressively sexually pursues Angela’s sort of friend, sort of boyfriend– which we could talk about that more in a little while– Paul, who appears significantly younger than herself, Judy is, is in her late teens, and Paul appears just barely on the cusp of manhood. Suggests that Judy might be a stand-in for transphobic feminist art critic, Germaine Greer, who wrote in her controversial erotic art book, The Beautiful Boy that the ideally attractive boy must be ” old enough to be capable of sexual response, but not yet old enough to shave [00:18:00] the. This window of opportunity is not only narrow, it is mostly illegal.
The male human is beautiful when his cheeks are still smooth, his body hairless his head full maned, his eyes clear, his manner shy and his belly flat.” which is a very normal thing to write. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with that there. Extremely normal. Extremely normal. Germaine Greer, thank you for lecturing us on traditional gender roles.
Thank you for your feminism.
Raquel: Meg, though Meg is less vulgarly aggressive, I think she’s much more of like a passive TERF.
Raquel: She’s the kind who’s who, who’s not being so aggressive, but she’s just asking questions, you know, she’s just asking questions here.
magencubed: Yeah. And I, I find this film to be so prescient in in the social shifts that we’re seeing, and how well that especially Judy, like you said, encapsulates that. Because I do find it very, very fascinating that sexuality is [00:19:00] held at such, a cautious distance
between the female campers and the male campers. And the women very much are, are, are always on high alert around the, the teens and the c counselors of indeterminate age, let’s say. But amongst each other, sexuality and the demand for sexual performance is so aggressive, you know, because they’re, they are not only asserting their dominance
and their cis cisgender superiority, let’s say their true womanhood, by flaunting it over Angela and, and coercing her into performing in ways that she’s not comfortable with. Because, like you said, she does often meet these horrid questions and comments with just a thousand yard stare.
And the way that she’s framed in the film is very fascinating because it’s always that she’s just, every time it cuts to reaction shot, she’s just slightly out or sort off center. You know?
Raquel: Yeah, she’s always sort [00:20:00] of at the bottom of the frame looking very, very small.
magencubed: Mm-hmm. And you just, you get that sense of powerlessness, and disconnect from real, like not reality to some extent, yes.
Because this is the reality of the camp and society. But the other women, these ideas of performance and these expectations that when they cut to her, like you just, she does feel so strange, but there is such a strength in that cold stare. And it is really fascinating to, to watch her over and over in every scene, never buckle and never crack, even though she’s just put through so much until the moment obviously, that she does take her revenge.
And then she does become a violent actor and an empowered actor in the story. I mean, I, I, I personally think that Angela did nothing wrong, you know? But I would like to hear, yeah, I would like to hear your take. Cuz I mean, Angela, a queen, [00:21:00] we stan .
Raquel: Absolutely. I, I think it’s notable that despite being framed as a literal monster, every single one of her acts of violence is an act of self-defense in one way or another. Her very first victim is a child molester.
Raquel: and I think it’s very notable that the, the rest of the staff of this camp know that he’s a molester.
He brags about it quite openly. He openly boasts of his attraction to young children, to his fellow staff members who just regard it as a harmless joke. It’s all very, very well known. And that is Angela’s first victim. And, and he goes rather unmourned after he dies because the other staff members can get a little bit of extra money for it. But that is her very first kill. And every act of violence is against some who is either a physical threat or a social threat, or an existential threat to Angela’s personal safety.
Raquel: It’s very empowering.[00:22:00]
magencubed: It really is. And I mean, and as you said, the way that they try to frame her as a monster, at the very end, even that, I would not read that as monstrosity. I would read that as transcendence. She has transcended the expectations and the roles that she’s been assigned, on every level.
Her relationship to Paul didn’t serve her. That was her first attempt to really reach out. But even his attraction to her was extractive and duplicitous because the moment that Judy showed up, there he was. With some complaints here and there. But as soon as she moved in, he did what he did and
Raquel: that one of his first overtures to Angela’s to tell a story of, of sexual exploitation, his his story about how he and the other boys went on a panty raid the girls’ bunk.
magencubed: Yeah, exactly. And then even [00:23:00] their first innocent kiss, in the grass, she does try to tell him no, you know, she’s not very comfortable and he kind of just keeps going until she does push him back and assert those boundaries. So we kind of have this, Paul as a chaser, as a very extractive, entitled young man.
We haven’t determined how old he is, you know, but it, it’s still is an existential threat. No one respects her boundaries. No one respects any of that. Her silence her, her, her, her just wanting to be by herself, , and, and in that moment when she sheds all pretense, she sheds her clothes and she does away with Paul.
She does away with Meg and Judy and everyone. And in that moment that is truly like transcendent because they see her as– the camp counselors see her as a threat. They see her as a monster, but she’s truly herself. She’s truly become [00:24:00] something new and something better because she is in control of herself and she’s in control of her body and her relationship to herself and her relationship to her sexuality.
And in that moment it is just a truly, it’s, it’s really powerful to me and it has really stuck with me over the years, honestly.
Raquel: Oh, it’s fantastic. One thing I would like to talk about, and I, I confess I didn’t put this in the outline, is the motif of water. Because the element of water plays a really big role in very nearly all of Angela’s kills. I mean, her first kill is dropping a pot of boiling water on a pedophile chef.
Another kill is her drowning an obnoxious boy. Another kill is her stabbing, uh, a cruel camp counselor in the shower as she’s preparing for a date with the really inappropriately old and awful camp owner. Another kill is she, [00:25:00] she throws a beehive on a boy while he’s defecating, after he threw a water balloon at her.
And of course our final kill is on the beach. So I’m wondering what can be said about this motif of water and violence, water and eroticized violence.
magencubed: I, I mean, to me, I would link it back to the the death of her father and her sister. I would link it back to that because that would be, her like first brush was like violence. And it, it’s something that’s happens to her family, you know, and that’s when she is first victimized, let’s say.
And I would, I would link it back to that and Violence being a reclamation in, in, when she’s older and then taking out the people that have tried to harm her or, or pose a threat to her. Because that first act of violence was in the water, was related to water in a body [00:26:00] of water.
And that that act, that accident set her on the path to Aunt Martha and, and, uh, the journey that she went on. So I think that it, that, that motif relates back to that as sort of a, a reclamation, a transformation her assertion of herself.
Raquel: Yeah. I’m kind of wondering too, if we’re getting into some sort of symbology here where water… a lot of old traditional religions have a primordial sea goddess that gave birth to all life as, as in fact the ocean did give birth to all life on this planet ev eventually. So I’m wondering if perhaps it could be that water represents the bounds of traditional cis femininity, the, the obligation to produce offspring, the obligation to have children. That that water, instead of giving life to Angela ends up
taking life away from her as, as her father and I believe her [00:27:00] father’s same sex partner are killed in a ski boating accident at the beginning of the film. And, and so water is always this unspoken menace of the demands of traditional matriarchy, of, of the demand to be able to get pregnant and produce a baby because Angela, Angela violates that demand.
Angela defies that demand. She is a woman who cannot bear children, which is something that many, many transphobes and just generally many misogynists find deeply objectionable.
magencubed: Mm-hmm. . Yeah. That is, that is a very interesting take too.
Raquel: I mean the bees that are thrown by that man when he’s defecating… bees again, they are a matriarchal society. And what is the queen bee responsible for? The queen bee is responsible for reproduction. All the other bees are, the other worker bees are asexual Drones, uh, feminine bees [00:28:00] who do not have sex and cannot produce offspring.
So it it, it’s just incredibly rich symbolism in this scene.
magencubed: Mm-hmm. I, yeah, I would absolutely agree. I had not considered the bee in that context, but that is very, that’s definitely very fascinating. I would love to look more into that.
Raquel: Yeah. And the fact that he’s stung to death by bees. The queen does not sting. She will not risk the safety of the colony by, by killing herself with a sting. It’s just these non-breeding female worker bees who kill him and, and, and it’s almost Angela leaving her own calling card in a
way, saying, “I’m a non reproductive female and I’m killing you while you’re shitting.”
Raquel: It, it’s really, it, it’s, it’s extraordinary. It’s, there’s, it’s such a rich text.
magencubed: It really is.
magencubed: I, I haven’t gotten to the sequels yet, but maybe you could touch on them a bit.
Raquel: Oh, the sequels are really, really fascinating. I feel the sequel’s, Angela’s character is radically different. I, I feel like the sequels somehow predicted the rise of picrew avatar, queer puriteens. In Sleepaway Camp 2: Unhappy Campers, Angela, she’s, she’s post-surgery. Uh, she says she’s gotten therapy and she’s had surgery. She has gone from defying society’s expectations of women to rigidly enforcing society’s expectations of conservative morality, of conservative gender roles, brutally enforcing them. And, and I find that fascinating. It’s like she’s been encouraged to conform to society’s [00:30:00] expectations of what a woman, of what a girl is supposed to be so much, and it has inflicted its violence upon her and been inflicted upon her through violence.
And now she feels it necessary to inflict that violence against others saying, “well, If I have to conform, if I will be punished from deviating from traditional gender roles, then I will punish all of you just as harshly.” I mean, this was made at the height of the AIDS epidemic when, when the President’s administration was saying that death from AIDS deserved as God’s punishment for homosexuality. Well, here’s Angela saying “If people deserve to die of AIDS for being gay, then this sassy teenage girl deserves to die being drowned in an outhouse for using too many swear words.”
magencubed: Hmm. Yeah. That [00:31:00] is shockingly prescient, I think. And I think that that really comes down to just the strength of the writing. To build on these ideas through the years and then to the where, like today, I, I hear that and I, I, I start thinking of Blair White and the, the hardcore, like the alt-right and like trends, figures on the political pundits. I can’t say that that these films predicted Twitter and YouTube, but like an argument could be made that they were far ahead of their time.
Raquel: Yeah, it, it’s absolutely brilliant and
just that scene where Angela sings, “I’m a Happy Camper” with this rictus grin that does not reach her eyes at any time. It’s, it’s beautiful and it’s heartbreaking. This is a woman who’s trying to convince herself that she’s a happy camper, that she enjoys the box that she’s been shoved into, and she clearly doesn’t.
Raquel: She clearly doesn’t, [00:32:00] and in the next sequel Sleepaway Camp 3: Teenage Wasteland. I feel like it’s, it brings to mind, to me, it must have predicted the self infantilization of many contemporary queer writers and artists. Angela presents herself off as a troubled youth, despite being visibly very clearly older than the other teen campers in order to carry out her
puritanical crusade against people who have premarital sex or drink beer or, or use swears. And once again, in this third installment, she’s confronted again with a chaser. There’s a boy there that she’s tied to who speaks very much of patriotism and, and plans to have a political career but is very clearly interested in B D S M with a transgender woman.
He really strikes me as the many, many, many [00:33:00] conservative lawmakers who seek to ban same sex marriage, who seek to ban visible discussions of queerness while sending direct messages to handsome twinks posting thirst traps on Instagram.
magencubed: Mm-hmm. And not to cut you off, but your comment about the self infantilization, I think is so fascinating because there’s so much toxic behavior, among queer writers and queer, online queer spaces where people not only do they fan infantalize themselves, but they, they talk about,
“oh, that’s just my second puberty. I was denied puberty and I was denied a fun childhood. So now we will, and now I will do that again. And I will, I’m having my, my, my carefree era,” and you’re like, but some of this, these behaviors are so destructive. But that’s like an interesting commentary or, [00:34:00] or at least an interesting thing to read those, those moments of people who just couch problematic behavior in this, reclaimed youth or the second go around. I, I just think that that was an interesting, take as well.
Raquel: Oh it, it is such a rich text and it’s just fascinating the way this series so abruptly switches Angela from being a very clearcut, unambiguous hero to a sort of an anti-hero.
Raquel: It’s just wonderful. It is, it is absolutely rich. I cannot recommend the Sleepaway Camp series enough. Everyone should watch it.
It should be required viewing for any fan of, of, of queer cinema, for, for anyone with an interest in queer culture, for every human being, really. I feel like everybody should be expected to watch Sleepaway Camp.
magencubed: Oh no, I, I absolutely agree. It is, it is such a, an enriching… I find the first film to be very enriching and I haven’t spent too [00:35:00] much time with, with the sequels yet. But this conversation has really, inspired me to dig deeper into those. And I absolutely cherish that. The first film, the first installment, it is such a fascinating and rich text. It really is. And it
people to spend a lot of time with it and to dig in deep and sit with these characters. It’s really a wonderful film. So I, I am total agreement.
Raquel: Yeah. Now I think we’re drawing to a close of this session. Though we could pontificate on the thesis of Sleepaway Camp forever, we are unfortunately out of time. Before we go, is there anything of yours you would like to promote?
magencubed: Well, my name is, uh, Magencubed. I am a smut pedler. I predominantly write, queer erotic horror romance type things. You can always find me on Twitter at @magencubed. You [00:36:00] can find all links to all of my work at magencubed.net. And I have a free monthly newsletter at magencubeddot.com. And that’s everywhere that you can find me.
Raquel: Well, thank you so much for coming on and talking to me about this incredible film, and thank you all for listening to this very serious, very sincere, very special episode. Until next time, keep writing good.