Mormon Images

November 30, 2003 | 3 comments
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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

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3 Responses to Mormon Images

  1. Richard Oman on December 1, 2003 at 1:42 am

    Interesting ideas. There are four 19th century images of Mormons that you might want to explore.
    The first is a rather sympathetic painting of a Mormon missionary (probably Erastus Snow) teaching a Danish family in the 1850’s. The painting by the non-Mormon Danish artist Dahlsgard is on permanent exhibit in the National Museum in Copenhagen.
    Second is a book, Twelve Mormon Homes, by Elizabeth Kane, the wife of Thomas Kane.
    Third is a report on the Mormon chartered immegrant ship, Amazon. The report was written for the British House of Commons by Charles Dickens.
    The fourth is a publication by L.D.S. historian Davis Bitton about Mormon visual images in the popular 19th century press. These tend to be rather negative sterotypes. Bitton focuses on political cartoons.
    What these sources show are rather positive images of Mormons by non-Mormons when the goal is to calmly describe Mormons. It is particularly helpful if the author has had some prior positive contacts with real live Mormons. But when the political and social worlds get really stirred and turn hostile, objectivity fades quickly. This is particularly true when the person commenting on Mormons has had no previous contact with real Mormons.
    I do find it interesting that the British Parliment was looking to Mormons as role models in how to organize an emigrant ship. Many Britons were dying during passages on non-Mormon ships. So the focus was not on Mormons as the problem. But rather Mormon experience as a useful model.

  2. GREG on December 1, 2003 at 2:19 pm

    I usually just laugh off offensive representations of Mormons in popular culture. But it amazes me the lasting impact they sometimes have.

    When I was working at a court, one of the judges on the court was a huge fan of the Sherlock Holmes novels. For him, his conception of Mormonism seemed tied up with Doyle’s portrayal of Mormons in “A Study in Scarlet.” This judge understood, of course, that it was a distorted view, but still, there seemed to be an effect of having Doyle’s depiction as a primary contact with Mormonism.

    Perhaps that type of impact should teach me not to ignore the sometimes unfortunate portrayal of Mormons in popular culture.

  3. Jeremiah John on December 2, 2003 at 6:28 pm

    I have a Jewish friend who heard we tapping out a beat on my knee as I often do. He causally but seriously said “Are you a drummer? You have very good rhythm for a Mormon.” I hadn’t heard that stereotype before; perhaps the Mark Madsen championship parade dance is catching up with us.