Kayla Lessard's Reviews > Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America

Mother Camp by Esther Newton
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Jan 27, 12

Read from January 25 to 27, 2012

Esther Newton’s Mother Camp, is a compelling example of a first-hand ethnography. Through fieldwork, Newton uncovers the complexities of the culture of female impersonators in American society during the 1960s. Prior to Newton’s work, there had been no full ethnography of the homosexual community in the U.S., which enabled her to create her own path and shed light on a community that was virtually invisible to the greater public.

The way that Newton reveals her research to the reader enables them to see professional impersonators in a non-judgmental context. She paints a picture of the professional impersonator community as a social network. However, she also lets her readers into the intricacies of the network through a substantial outline of the, “homosexual community.” As outsiders the readers are told of the ways in which fairies and drag queens fit into that that structure. They are also told about the fundamental divisions within it, such as camp and non-camp homosexuals. Although, Newton gives the readers few reasons as to why they should see her as an expert on the culture, she does define terms throughout the entire book, which enables the reader to fully understand the many excerpts of interviews that she shares with them. The interviews are a way for Newton to give a voice to her informants. At points she gives her reader examples of her own experience in the field. This increased her authority but she could have done more of it to strengthen her arguments.

Newton gives her readers a view of professional impersonators as real people. She mentions struggles with drugs and alcohol, verbal abuse from audiences, and the difficulties to work with Bosses who are not homosexual themselves and who are controlling of the impersonators. The most powerful part of the ethnography is when Newton outlines the difference between working at gay bars, straights bars, tourist clubs, chic clubs, and traveling shows. The realities of the communities’ everyday struggles are revealed in a humanistic way. The reader is told about the range of prestige between the different settings, in the pay scale and in the amount of support they receive from the owners of the clubs. These are all reinforced by first hand accounts of experiences in all the different setting which are very powerful. Newton’s ability to match interviewer excerpts with photographs gives her readers strong emotional attachment to certain impersonators.

Newton could easily be criticized for giving limited depth and perspectives because she gives little information on the viewpoint of people looking at the community from the outside and even gives few of her own opinions. However, she does convey an effective glance into the world of professional impersonators and their struggle with finding a place in American society where they belong.
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