Book Review: Mother Camp

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Ester Newton explores the drag queen subculture within the gay community in her fascinating book Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America. She researched this book from 1965-1968 and produced possibly one of the first scholarly works to treat the gay community as a subject worthy of study rather than derision. The book uncovers several themes that revolve around camp, gender and sexual orientation. By studying the lives and performances of gay men who make a living as drag queens she shows how camp relates to gay male humor and performance and argues that the relationship between gender identity and sexual orientation are different. Newton profiles the distinctions between “professional” drag queens and the “street” drag queens and uncovers how gender is produced, reproduced and ultimately performed by both gay and straight people.

Drag queens or “female impersonators” (3) had a unique relationship to the broader gay community. They represented important yet contradictory roles that made gay men anxious. When a “covert” (31) (i.e. closeted) gay man stepped into the sexual world of the gay bars, his private sexual deviances became public knowledge. The drag queen in the bar flaunted that sexual deviance on stage, thus making the intimate secrets of closeted men public discourse. Newton observes, “the drag queen symbolizes an open declaration, even celebration, of homosexuality” (64). Yet by flaunting sexual deviance, the drag queen also represented what many white, middle-class gay men feared, specifically flamboyance that would draw attention to their sex lives. By transgressing gender roles, drag queens represented not only liberation, but also the stigma of being outside the dominant heteronormative world.

All drag whether formal, informal, or professional has a theatrical structure and style. In other words, drag queens needed an audience. Newton uses two comparative case studies to show the pros and cons of performing for either a gay audience versus performing for a straight audience. Both respond to a drag queen with varying degrees of approval, disapproval, envy, contempt and delight. For example, she argues a drag queen performing for a gay audience could play into group identity and build solidarity. Yet to do so, the performer had to resemble a woman plus have verbal wit to maintain the respect of the gay audience (61). On the other hand, drag queens received better pay while performing for less friendly straight audiences who refused to buy into the illusion. Both gay and straight audiences could turn hostile and show their contempt for the performer, but a skilled drag queen could use her wit and humor to gain mastery of the audience. A queen succeeded when she got an audience, gay or straight, to suspend their disbelief and forget that they were watching a man perform in a dress and makeup. Newton shows how drag queens used camp to achieve this end.

As the title of the book suggests, “camp” plays a central role in the lives of drag queens. Newton builds on Susan Sontag’s 1964 article “Notes on Camp” to get at the distinctions and meanings of camp. Newton defines camp as “relationships between things, people, activities or qualities, and homosexuality” (105), in other words cultural artifacts that can be appreciated and described as tragically ludicrous or ludicrously tragic. Newton identifies three characteristics of camp: incongruity, theatricality, and humor, each deployed as a strategy of survival in a world hostile to people who transgress sexual and gender norms. Drag queens wore women’s clothing, makeup and moved their bodies in particular ways to approximate womanhood, while at the same time lampooning it. Newton recognized that drag also touched the lives of closeted gay men who did not perform professionally as drag queens. Instead, closeted gay men had to impersonate a heterosexual man, in other words, they had to appear to the straight world as fulfilling, not violating, the requisites of the straight male world through clothing, speech, and movement. In this way, Newton shows the performative nature of gender for everyone, not just drag queens.

The book also dispels the myth of a united gay community pre-Stonewall. Newton shows that the men she studied all shared a homosexual orientation, but that this characteristic did not necessary unite them socially. The gay community divided itself along age, gender, racial, and “recognizable social strata” (28), which Newton defines as similar to class distinctions. For example Newton notes that the men she studied placed “an extreme value on youth” (27) and socialized within their age bracket. When asked about women, many men spoke contemptuously of lesbians leading Newton to conclude, “men far outnumber women in the gay life” (27). Newton met few gay, black men during the course of her study and speculated that they were “confined to the ghettos” (28) of the cities where they lived. Finally, Newton shows how drag queens formed social hierarchies. The “professional” drag queens looked down on the “street” drag queens for their lack of talent, polish, and for their overt homosexuality in public. Such behavior by street drag queens threatened not only their lives but also the chances of professional drag queens to be taken seriously as legitimate entertainers.

In some ways Mother Camp feels dated in a RuPaul’s Drag Race world, yet it remains historically important. Newton identified how during the 1960s gay men used camp as a method of resistance to homophobia. Post 1969, “coming out” became another method of resistance to straight domination. Yet Newton’s main point is that the deeper stigma of homosexuality will not be eliminated so long as antagonistic and asymmetrical gender expectations about the roles of men and women persist. Male effeminacy and the stigma of being a “sissy” remain contentious debates within the gay community today. This book addresses those issues with a concise statement on the social force and arbitrary nature of gender roles.

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