GEND101: Queering Film – Wet Hot American Summer, Queering the Teen Movie

‘For the cult of the child permits no shrines to the queerness of boys or girls, since queerness, for the culture at large…is understood as bringing children and childhood to an end,’ (Edelman 1998, 25).

Gary: ‘McKinley needs to experience “The Ultimate”!’

J.J.: ‘You mean, penis-in-vagina?’

Gary: ‘No, dickhead—sex.’

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Wet Hot American Summer is perhaps one of the queerest teen films ever made. WHAS is a fictional “sex comedy” that follows the adventures of campers and counselors at Camp Firewood. It features an all-star cast, most of whom were less than famous at the time, including Amy Poehler and Bradley Cooper in their feature film debuts.

But the queerness of the film doesn’t lie in seeing these now-famous celebrities acting in the strange and seemingly endless silly roles that the film offers. Rather, WHAS queers the genre of teen film altogether. It troubles and ruptures normative time structures, and explores a number of taboos around sexuality and desire, including gender, age, and non-human objects. However, most notably the film queers the figure of the child, highlighting the blurred boundaries between child/teen/adult. While heterosexuality in the film is marked by death, in contrast queerness operates as a kind of future openness where anything is possible.

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As queer theorist Jack Halberstam discusses, the queering of time involves a different approach to imagining the possibilities of life, and the temporal expectations that go hand in hand with heterosexuality (such as the “biological clock” of having children). Halberstam remarks that queer time means, “the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing”. In queer space, there is no orientation toward the “future” per se, but rather, the present moment expands and swells with possibility.

We see this operating in WHAS, which reveals multiple temporal layers that subvert any “ordinary” sense of time. Filmed in 2001, but set in 1981, WHAS invokes an immediate sense of nostalgia for a time past and time and place is strangely displaced in the film. This is heightened by the fact that it covers just one day of camp, extended out over the length of the feature. Throughout many of the scenes minutes seemingly stretch into days, allowing an inconceivable amount of action to take place.

Unburdened by a concern for conventions, the campers and counselors exist in a queer time where they are driven predominately by sexual lust, which is raging and uncontainable within the normative boundaries of sex and gender. The direction is not toward the “future” (the end of the camp, where the film literally ends) but rather, the present moment (where the camp, and film, seems to last forever).

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Sexual desire in WHAS is unruly and multi-directional, and many taboos are challenged as a result. The most obvious of these is the taboo on homosexuality, which is usually entirely absent from teen films. However in WHAS the only explicit sex scene we see is between male characters Ben and McKinley. When McKinley’s friends don’t yet know about his sexuality, they try to set him up with girls, to no avail. However when they discover McKinley and Ben holding a secret wedding ceremony, their response is not the set of homophobic jokes that we might expect. Instead the film makes a minor joke of their utter acceptance of the pair, and the couple goes on throughout the film unremarked upon.

Similarly taboos around sex and age are played with in the film. The adults act like children (literally, because the 16 year old camp counselors are played by actors in their 30s), and the children act like adults. For example, the children in arts and crafts counsel their teacher Gail following her divorce, and at the end of the film we learn that she is now engaged to one of them. No one reacts with shock or dismay at this flaunting of age boundaries, it simply happens. Though these challenges to taboos are clearly intended as a joke, the punchlines are so deadpan and told with such subtlety that we’re left wondering if we’re not the abnormal ones for expecting a fuss to be made.

The strangest of these non-issues in the film involves breaking down the taboo of desire for non-human objects. Gene, the camp cook, often speaks with a can of vegetables, and is in love with the refrigerator. While Gene is a veteran of Vietnam and therefore might be seen as merely recovering from the effects of PTSD, his sexual orientation toward the fridge is real and acknowledged. In a final scene he implores the campers to be “proud of who you are” and everyone in the mess hall cheers as he leaves, humping the fridge.

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Finally, WHAS overturns the expectations of death and destruction usually associated with queerness, instead showing how heterosexuality is the space we should be most concerned about. As another queer theorist Lee Edelman discusses, the figure of the child in America is often used to represent the future, and this means that being queer and non-reproductive marks you as associated with death, as having no future. But in WHAS heterosexuality is connected with death rather than reproduction. As Andy and Lindsay kiss, multiple children drown. As Victor pursues sex with Abby, he dumps his campers by the river, who nearly die (but are saved when Victor ceases his quest).

In WHAS heterosexuality is haunted by harm to the child, perhaps a commentary on the inevitable ways in which heterosexual norms of the family lead to dysfunction and destruction. But more importantly for these characters the prospect of family life does not signify the future, as we might expect, but rather the end of camp, the end of their childhood innocence. To resist being foreclosed by a path already set out, this future must be held off as long as possible, indeed it must be killed for the present future to expand and extend into endless possibilities.

By contrast, when a space probe is about to hit the camp and kill everyone, we see female characters Lindsay and Abby kiss and everyone survive. Here homosexuality is symbolically paired with an opening toward life, rather than death.

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WHAS shows us a world where time, age, sex, desire and the future take on radically different qualities to the ones we might normally expect. Where we would imagine humiliation we see celebration, and instead of condemnation there is adulation.

Unlike other teen films it crosses boundaries of sexuality without trying to reinstate normative heterosexuality and expected pairings. Indeed as we see at the end of the film, the character that we have been following, Coop, is brutally rejected by his love interest. Far from the happy ending we anticipate, life goes on without the closure of the heterosexual narrative.

While WHAS is clearly intended as a parody, it reads as a manual for seeing the world differently. Camp Firewood is a place where pretty much anything goes. As viewers we are confronted by the fact that our laughter reveals not how things ought to be, but instead, what’s wrong with our assumptions in the first place.

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Hannah picHannah is a PhD student at the Australian National University, and recipient of the inaugural ANU Gender Institute scholarship. Her work focuses on the topic of feminine gender expression as explored in feminist writing and queer femme subculture. She has published on The Conversation, in Us Folk Magazine and the Australian Humanities Review. You can visit her blog at binarythis.com or follow her on Twitter @binarythis

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