PECULIAR PORTRAYALS: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen. Edited by Mark T. Decker and Michael Austin. Logan: Utah State University Press. 2010.
From Mitt Romney’s presidential bid to the raid on Warren Jeffs’s FLDS compound in Texas, Mormons and Mormonism have occupied a significant piece of the public discourse on religion, politics, rights, and sexuality since the turn of the 21st century. Decker and Austin’s edited collection gathers together various critical analyses of the representations of Mormonism in American popular culture since the 1980s. As is often the case in edited collections, the essays are of varying strength and significance. In Hutchinson-Jones’ essay about Kushner’s Angels in America, Mormonism stands in metonymically for conservative religious movements as a whole, and the way conservative religion harms individuals, preventing them from changing; unfortunately, Hutchinson-Jones’ piece feels like an apologia for Kushner to a Mormon reader, which undermines her analysis’s effectiveness. Austin’s critique of Big Love sees the HBO program as both beginning from 19th century tropes of Mormon “weirdness” and undermining them with portrayals of middle-class suburban “normality”; Big Love, in Austin’s estimation, both humanizes sexual deviance and critiques the LDS Church’s institutional denial of its polygamist history. Kolkmeyer’s use of Under the Banner of Heaven to teach undergraduates about the American dynamics of assimilation and tolerance reveals little about representations of Mormonism per se, but offers the possibility of using Mormonism as a pedagogical jumping off point for teaching about representations of cultural minorities.
Addressing the persistent violence in contemporary Mormon literature, Sanders offers a possible connection between the 19th century Mormon doctrine of “blood atonement” and Mormonism’s bloody history with the eruption of violence in contemporary Mormon male literary imagination; Sanders presents a convincing quasi-Freudian argument—that repressed parts of a culture can erupt in unexpected and bloody ways as individuals try to come to grips with a past their Church seeks to downplay or hide. By looking at everything from mainstream indie films to gay porn, Duffy seeks to counter standard Mormon film criticism that has traditionally seen representations of Mormons as either anti-Mormon or accepting and positive. To this end, Duffy shows how the image of the clean-cut, business-like Mormon missionary has been expropriated from its origins within Mormon culture, and has circulated as an object in-itself that can be used by filmmakers world-wide, who transform the image into a signifier of conservative Christianity, a signifier of cultural ambiguity or outsiderness, or as an agent of transformation within the plot. Decker’s criticism of the novel The Miracle Life of Edgar Mint explores how literature might point to a “postmodernization” and “postdenominationalization” of Mormonism, by localizing and particularizing Mormon experience, thereby denying any singular Mormonness. Decker sees in the character of Edgar, a Navajo convert to Mormonism who suffered traumatic brain injury, the possibility of a Mormonness disconnected from its problematic institutional meta-narratives and focused on an individualized, spiritualized Mormonness. Representations of Mormons by Mormons for non-Mormon consumption (i.e., cross-over appeal from the Mormon market to the mainstream) provide one of the more possibly fruitful grounds of analysis, as Mormons remain outsiders within American culture seeking admittance or normalization; yet Wells’ interpretation of the 2003 version of Austen’s Pride & Prejudice set in Provo, Utah, only begins to scratch the surface of this complex phenomenon.
And finally, Karen Austin’s critique of Mormons in reality television feels preliminary. Austin suggests the use of Mormonism as a narrative trope for producers to indicate either cultural naïveté (e.g., young, innocent Mormon women on The Real World) or cultural rebellion (e.g., young gay Mormons on Survivor); but the piece leaves the reader wanting more specific and detailed analysis of particular portrayals or characters. The strongest among these essays offer complex and layered visions of Mormonism as a historical, cultural, and social phenomenon in relationship to American society writ large. These essays understand Mormonism as a human cultural formation in an often stigmatized position vis-à-vis the dominant society, but also with significant problems in its truth claims and with the kinds of problems Mormonism can produce for its adherents. At their weakest, some of the essays skirt very closely the line between critique and apologia, either for Mormonism and Mormons, or alternatively, for the potentially “offensive” representations to the Mormon faithful. These moments of apologia themselves offer potential points of discussion and critique, and should not detract from the importance of the collection or its strongest essays; yet they are distracting and feel out of place in the collection. Karen Austin’s argument ultimately leaves the reader with the upshot of the collection: recent representations of Mormons suggest that Mormons can be successful Americans only inasmuch as they give up being judgmental of or separate from mainstream society, maintain only those things that are “good” about Mormonism but inoffensive to the dominant culture (195). Together, the essays in Peculiar Portrayals offer an important critique and analysis of the dynamics of assimilation of a stigmatized group, and the vexed relationship between cultural maintenance and cultural transformation as a cost of assimilation.
J. Todd Ormsbee, San José State University