Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen

By Mark T. Decker; Michael Austin | Go to book overview

Massachusetts. After all, what’s not to like about a generically attractive, Ivy League–educated entrepreneur with a seemingly stable family life and bipartisan credentials? The LDS Church’s 2008 decision to support California’s Proposition 8, which denied gays and lesbians the right to marry, however, not only placed the institution well to the right on the American political spectrum but also allowed opponents of the measure to wonder publicly why a church that had once openly advocated polygamy was now encouraging its members to donate more than 50 percent of the funding of an effort to define marriage as the union of one man and one woman.

Mormons have often referred to themselves as a “peculiar people,” implying that their devotion to their faith and the unique truth of their gospel sets them apart from the rest of the world. But for many people who are unfamiliar with the faith, Mormons are just peculiar. Most people simply don’t have the time to think deeply about a group of people who try to present themselves as neat and orderly members of the American mainstream while they are simultaneously haunted by the specter of their nineteenth-century eccentricities. Instead, most people, when they think about Mormons at all, take at face value a conflicted public image with a long history. Well before the 2002 Winter Olympics, the 2008 presidential campaign, the raid on the YFZ ranch, or the controversy surrounding Proposition 8 captured the attention of the news media, Americans had easy access to pejorative literary and filmic depictions of Mormons and Mormonism. Many unsavory Mormons populated the pulp novels of the nineteenth century, and more respectable authors like Mark Twain crafted critical depictions of Mormon customs and theology. Silent film audiences were sometimes treated to the spectacle of beautiful women entrapped by scheming Mormon polygamists.

Contemporary portrayals of Latter-day Saints have been no less problematic. For example, Tony Kushner’s Angels in America focuses on a politically dangerous Mormon character whose religion has turned him into a hypocrite. Lighter entertainment sometimes features Mormon characters best described as absurd, such as the missionaryturned-porn-star in Orgazmo. And while Big Love’s portrayal of polygamist and businessman Bill Henrickson is sympathetic, the show’s appeal rests heavily upon its creation of a fundamentalist Mormon suburban surrealism. Even authors who had a Mormon upbringing often create peculiar Mormon characters, such as the sometime-Mormon main character of returned Mormon missionary Brady Udall’s The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint, who finds his life permanently altered when the postman runs over his head.

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