There is a strange schizophrenia about popular images of Mormons. On one hand, we get stereotyped as shinny, well-scrubbed, conservative, paragons of middle American virtues circa 1955. On the other hand, we get stereotyped as dangerous, homicidal, polygamist fanatics. As Gordon points out in his post the latter stereotype popped up recently in Law & Order: Criminal Intent, but that is hardly the only place one sees it. Remember that the religious bomber in the movie Contact was from Prowan, Utah. At the same time, Mormons pop up in Tom Clancy novels as shining examples of American decency. As I pointed out in an earlier post, this second stereotype also has a dark side in the eyes of some. For example, the English spy novelist John La Carre has dropped Mormon characters into his novels, where they serve as the personification of the naive and slightly frightening earnest true believers of the American national security state.
It seems to me that the problem with all of these images is that at bottom they are not really about Mormons.
Rather, Mormons exist as markers and place holders in larger arguments. We become the pawns in the cultural clashes of others. Thus, we are the personification of the violent religious fanatics that haunt yuppy nightmares about the “Religious Right” played out on Law & Order, or we become stand ins for arguments about Americanism, heterosexuality, etc. What we never get appear as are real people or real Mormons.
I suspect that this problem will continue unless we come up with ways of telling our own stories, and it will probably continue even if we do tell our own stories. As it now stands, the dominant Mormon voice shaping a public image of Mormonism is the Church. Understandably and justifiably, the Church’s agenda is tied to proselyting, which necessarily simplifies any portrayal into a kind of iconographic representation of the gospel message. This limits the range of stories that are told. Think of the difference between Labor of Love a Church-produced film about a missionary’s experiences and God’s Army, Richard Dutcher’s indy film about missionaries in Los Angeles.
On this front, I actually think that Mormon commercial kitsch may be our salvation. The reason is that the kitsch indicates the presence of an economically self-sustaining Mormon market. Obviously, the market produces a great deal of garbage, but it also holds out the promise of sustaining something of more depth. What I find encouraging about Dutcher’s work is not only that he has some moments of powerful story telling, but that his project was commercially feasible and therefore (I hope) economically self-perpetuating. The bottom line is that the big wide world is probably simply not interested enough in “us” to portray us accurately or sympathetically. That is something we must do.
There is another possible solution, which is much more difficult and which no one has yet really mastered. If images of Mormons are being used as pawns in a larger social conversation, perhaps Mormons should use their own stories to say something in that conversation. Dutcher basically is trying to tell honest stories about Mormons for Mormons. It is basically an internal exercise. An alternative would be to tell stories about Mormons in order to talk about some topic independent of “us” that the world is interested in. This, however, is much more difficult than the route taken by Dutcher for the simple reason that you must have something to say other than “Mormonism.” Still, our Chaim Potoks may yet emerge