When I moved to Minnesota in 1998, a number of my new Midwestern friends and acquaintances saw my Mormonism as a curiosity. Many of the people I met had never known a Mormon “in real life” before, and a few held some interesting misconceptions. A woman in my MFA program assumed I had left the Church because she was certain that faithful Mormon women couldn’t wear makeup, and I “obviously used mascara.” When my husband and I sat down with a local builder to discuss purchasing a home, he learned we were from Utah and asked the inevitable follow-up question, but with a twist: “So were you guys Mormon?”
“Were?” I asked.
“Yeah. When you lived in Utah. Were you Mormon?”
“Well, yes. We were Mormon then. And we’re still Mormon now.”
He looked puzzled. “So they let you stay Mormon even if you leave the state of Utah?” (I don’t know if he assumed allegiance to the Mormon church was like old fashioned Eastern bloc communist party membership: once we got in our hot air balloon and sailed over Utah’s border during the dark of night, under threat of machine gun attack, all affiliations were thereby severed.) He continued: “Where do you guys go to church?”
“There’s a Mormon church just a few miles away. In fact, there are a number of Mormon churches all over the Twin Cities,” my husband answered.
The builder shifted in his seat, increasingly stymied. “Seriously? I’ve never seen one in my life.” Then he leaned back in his office chair and yelled out into the lobby. “Gloria! Get in here!” The receptionist dutifully poked her head around the corner. “See these guys?” He jabbed his finger in our direction, even though we were the only other people in the room. “They’re Mormons!” he said, astonished.
My husband and I weren’t quite sure how to react to being treated like a Ripley’s Believe It or Not! display called “The Amazing Mormon Couple Who Courageously Escaped From Utah,” so we simply, meekly, waved.
“Huh!” she said. “Wow. I’ve never met a Mormon before.”
No kidding? I thought.
Fast forward thirteen years and things have changed. Although we recently moved back to Minnesota and have met all sorts of new people, I’ve yet to encounter a seriously off-base question, or even a mildly frightened stare. I’m sure there are plenty of folks who’ve never met a Mormon “in real life,” but their numbers are dwindling. And even if they’ve never met a Mormon in the flesh? Here in Minnesota, they’ve been introduced to plenty of televised Mormons during commercial breaks. Minnesota is one of the markets for the new “I’m a Mormon” ad campaign, and Alex Boye regularly proclaims his church membership during Oprah or episodes of Modern Family.
Even if you don’t have the I’m a Mormon ad campaign in your neck of the woods, Mormons are plastered all over TV. Remember when Julie from The Real World was a relative novelty as one of our first LDS reality stars? (Julie’s season was the only time I watched The Real World and I felt a little guilty about how riveted I became. Anybody know what happened to Julie?) Nowadays, you can’t swing a pair of spangly high heels without hitting a Mormon dancer shaking his or her moneymaker on shows like Dancing With the Stars or So You Think You Can Dance. (Benji Schwimmer remains my favorite. That season of SYTYCD? Rocked!) Shows like Survivor and The Amazing Race also enjoy filling their “conservative religious person” or their “used to be a conservative religious person but isn’t anymore” slots with Mormons. The most recent season of The Biggest Loser featured six Mormon contestants who willingly subjected themselves to verbal lashings from Jillian-the-mean-personal-trainer, followed up by compassionate hugs from Bob-the-nice-one. Even Donnie and Marie seem more ubiquitous than ever. Also: that Jimmer guy. I hear he was on TV a few times over the winter.
Mormons outside the entertainment industry have been enjoying (is that the right verb?) a good amount of news coverage as well. In the years since my first Minnesota move, we’ve had the Winter Olympics in SLC; the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping, rescue, and trial; all the Warren Jeffs craziness and the FLDS raid in Texas*; the Mormons’ role in California’s Prop 8; Mitt Romney’s first presidential bid. And that’s just a sampling. The truth is that anybody who’s been paying even the smallest amount of attention over the last decade would know that Mormons are allowed to leave the state of Utah, and that mascara is not only permitted, but occasionally used to excess by faithful LDS women.
And here we are in 2011. Both Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman are contemplating the presidency. The South Park people have hauled in a truckload of Tony awards for The Book of Mormon musical. In the last two weeks alone, two major news magazines have run extensive articles on Mormonism: Newsweek‘s cover story, “The Mormon Moment” (with its controversial cover) and Business Week‘s God’s MBA’s: Why Mormon Missions Produce Leaders (with its controversial depiction of Mormon women). The notion of a Mormon in the White House has occasioned a good deal of fair, intelligent coverage, but anti-Mormon prejudice has also reared its ugly head. Reviews of The Book of Mormon musical have often mentioned the “sweetness” that tempers the musical’s irreverent jabs at our theology and culture, but other reviews, like a particularly egregious example from The New Yorker, exhibit a not-even-thinly-veiled contempt toward the LDS church. (I’m not going to link to this one because of its crude language, but you can google it if you like.)
The truth is, while I’m mostly glad that Mormonism is becoming more and more mainstream and many of the most egregious stereotypes and misconceptions about our people are being slowly dispelled, I’m a little protective of my tribe as well. A certain amount of hazing comes whenever a new kid (or a minority culture) deigns to seek respectability within a larger, more powerful society, and I think Mormonism is experiencing that type of initiation. I listened to a few of the Book of Mormon songs — prepared to take a joke like the mature, secure Mormon woman I fancy myself to be — and I was surprised at the humiliation I felt rising up in my chest, making my heart pound like a middle schooler who sits down at the cool kids’ table only to be sniggeringly informed that she has lettuce in her braces. And that New Yorker review? As a longtime subscriber, that review simply made me mad. I even wrote a letter — the first time in my life I’ve ever written a letter to a magazine or newspaper editor.
I never received a response to that letter to the editor, and I’m not really surprised. For all our progress, I don’t believe we’ve quite reached the stage where society is fully able to embrace us. Yes, Mormonism is a worthy subject for a celebrated Broadway musical . . . but only as fodder for a satire that’s written, directed, and produced by non-Mormons. It seems to me that a celebrated Broadway musical about Mormons — satire or no — that’s also created by Mormons remains a long way off. Mormons are a staple of reality shows because our otherness makes us interesting, not because we’re considered representative of average Americans. (But should we even want to be representative of average Americans? I’m not sure about that.) I’m still skeptical that a Mormon could become President, at least this go-round. But I could be wrong. Because when I consider how far and how fast public awareness about Mormonism has increased over the last ten years? Who knows what the future may hold.
*It’s been brought to my attention that some people are a little confused about my inclusion of Jeffs and the FLDS raid in the news, since members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have no affiliation with the FLDS church. First, let me apologize for the confusion. Members of the LDS church aren’t polygamists and anyone who practices polygamy is excommunicated. Jeffs and their ilk aren’t Mormons. BUT . . . whenever these stories get national coverage, we tend to get dragged into the conversation as well, either because news organizations mistakenly conflate the FLDS with the LDS or, what seems to be more common in the last decade or so, at least with responsible news outlets, they briefly explain the difference between the FLDS and the Mormon church. Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that all the stories about the FLDS have actually helped clear up some of the confusion about the difference between the two groups. I hope I haven’t added to any confusion here.
How do you feel about current media portrayals of Mormonism? Do you think becoming more mainstream should be our cultural goal, or are we better off being seen as “a peculiar people”? And did the lyrics to The Book of Mormon musical’s “I Believe” give you a tiny stomach ache as well?
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