Mormon Cinema

lds-section-dvds

My boyfriend is not LDS and has limited experience with our ilk (basically just me). He asked me to educate him about Mormon culture. And what better crash course is there than Mormon Cinema? We’ve just started, but so far we have hit Once I Was a Beehive and Sons of Provo. The plan is to finish with the classic comedies (Single’s Ward and The R.M.) before taking on more serious fare (The Best Two Years, Charlie, and God’s Army). Eventually, we might hit the more historic flicks (The Work and the Glory, Legacy, and 17 Miracles).

As a life long member myself, it has been very enlightening to watch these movies through fresh eyes. We frequently paused both movies so I could answer the BFs questions. He was especially fascinated and horrified by the concept of girl’s camp testimony meetings; having been raised a good Episcopalian that much emotion in religion makes him hilariously uncomfortable. While he laughed a lot at Sons of Provo, some of the jokes required explanation (what does ‘make it manifest’ mean, and why do they keep ‘turning the time over’ to people? Also, are Mormon Buddhists a real thing?). Some things that I took for granted he finds strange; the fact that being a Mormon takes up so much of one’s time and identity is a foreign idea, as evidenced by Sister Carrington’s over-the-top scrap book of girl’s camp plans. Or the fact that the number one requirement for Everclean’s new member was that he be ‘spiritual’. For me, that is the only way I have ever experienced my religion. Other things that I was concerned would really freak him out didn’t; all the magical thinking (CTR rings saving homeless men from choking at the soup kitchen, praying bringing lost dogs back from the dead…you know, the usual) apparently is not unique to Mormondom.

My boyfriend also made the point that on average Mormons are over self reflective in some ways. We know we are weird, and we know other people think we are weird. In fact, other people do think we are weird, just not in the ways we might expect. It was interesting to him to see what jokes Mormons made about themselves to themselves.

For me, though, the best thing to come out of my new role as cultural guide has been the opportunity to revisit my own origins with a fresh perspective. My boyfriend does not have all the baggage I do with Mormonism. He can see the good and the bad without prejudice. It has helped me gain perspective. I got a lot of good things from growing up Mormon: I always had adult role models besides my parents I could go to for help. I always had a sense of community. I had practical experience leading my peers and planning activities, as well as speaking in public. I was instilled with a crazy work ethic, a sense that my worth was great in the sight of God, and a deep belief in the importance of being kind. Of course, each of these has unintended negative side effects, but the net experience was definitely positive.

On the flip side, I’ve been able to identify why some things bother me in ways that I haven’t been able to articulate before. The song ‘Sweet Spirit’ from Sons of Provo is a good example. (Link) In case satirical LDS pop is not your thing, the song is about a young lady who, in spite of her homeliness, is beautiful on the inside. On the surface, this is a good message. In reality it is offering condescending pity to a woman who will never get married and therefore has no worth. It is basically every marriage lesson I ever had in Young Women’s boiled down in to a three minute song.

This whole experience has driven home to me the usefulness of occasionally approaching one’s own culture with the attitude of an outside observer. The lack of emotional investment can allow for greater clarity in remembering the good and articulating the bad.

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32 Responses

  1. spunky says:

    This is brilliant, JessR! My husband was not Mormon when we met– he joined after we were married. But still, possibly because we’ve never attended a “typical” ward, things come up that require cultural explanation. More than that, however, when I am critical church culture, he often tells me that the person doing whatever awkward thing it was– was at least trying, and is a volunteer. And he is right. Second to that, he mentions how often he think the women in the church seem to marry beneath themselves– possibly to just marry another Mormon. I was shocked the first time he mentioned this– being raised with the idea that “temple marriage” was superior– even if not a perfect fit. But as I’ve steadied in my relationship with him, and the church– I can’t help be see what he sees…. a lot of women marrying men because they are Mormon, rather than because they are socially or personality-wise well suited, a lot of women engaging with women as close friends, because their husbands are not really their “best friend”, and a lot of women dealing with depression and loneliness in marriages that are yet loving and kind. It places me in an awkward position of what to teach my daughters.

    In the end, marrying outside of the church made me more compassionate toward (many) church members, made me better disassociate from church culture and see Mormons more clearly as a group of people trying to do the right thing, for the most part. The bonus for me was that he did join the church, possibly more to sooth my mind about the matter.

    Thank you for this post– it really is an important issue to address!

    • Jess R says:

      Interesting point about women marrying down. I see that, too, in my single’s branch. I think it’s partly, too, because of missions. Women usually stay in school and are better established as adults than RMs the same age.

      Thanks Spunky!

  2. Ziff says:

    I really like how you describe this experience of getting to see the culture you were brought up in from the outside. Also, your point about the things that we think are weird not always being the ones people from outside see as weird is a great one. A lot of our peculiarities are shared more than we expect. Great post!

  3. Violadiva says:

    “We know we are weird, and we know other people think we are weird. In fact, other people do think we are weird, just not in the ways we might expect. ”

    Yes! So true! I laughed out loud at this one. Some of the things that we make SUCH a big deal about doing are really not perceived that way by others. I’ve experienced this a lot in regard to missionary work; i.e, how I imagine in might go in my head is not at all how it goes in real life. On one side, I would feel very self-conscious and hesitant about talking to someone about my faith (what if it offends them and they don’t want to be my friend anymore?!) on the other side, I’d feel tremendous pressure to make sure that the first time I tell the Joseph Smith story is dripping with spirit and testimony so that they would experience a spiritual “a-ha!” moment as a result. Both of these are kind of ridiculous expectations for a gospel related conversation, I have learned. Most gospel conversations I have now with people of other faiths just come up organically; I don’t have to plot and stew over what to say. They ask about prophets, our belief in God, Joseph Smith, and I just answer. Or I volunteer something about the church, or my life within it, without worrying that I’ll offend them for bringing it up.

    • Jess R says:

      I’m with you. One thing that makes it easier for me, too, is to remember that every single other religious tradition has some pretty weird stuff too. LDS stories and doctrine are not any more or less strange than any others. I don’t react badly when others share those parts of their beliefs with me, and odds are they will do the same for me.

  4. Caroline says:

    Love this, Jess. Also show him Brigham City, a murder mystery set in a Mormon town with Mormon characters. A good film by Dutcher.

  5. You’ve picked some great flicks! The two in your photo, Pride and Prejudice http://www.amazon.com/Pride-Prejudice-Kam-Heskin/dp/B0002ZH5PQ/ref=sr_1_10?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1461256640&sr=1-10&keywords=pride+and+prejudice and The Other Side of Heaven http://www.amazon.com/Other-Side-Heaven-Christopher-Gorham/dp/B00008CMSU/ref=sr_1_1?s=movies-tv&ie=UTF8&qid=1461256672&sr=1-1&keywords=the+other+side+of+heaven , are also two of my favorites. I had a coworker who told me that she went to see The Best Two Years in the theater for the exact same reason you described. She wanted to learn more about Mormon culture, since she had some Mormon coworkers. She asked me, does that really happen, how you are serving your mission and all of a sudden, one day, something clicks and you can understand the language? And I thought about it, and yes, it was. Of course, I studied like crazy, but one day, something finally clicked and I didn’t have to work so hard to understand anymore. I could hear what they were saying easily.

    • Jess R says:

      I love The Other Side of Heaven, too! My boyfriend’s fondest dream is to have a missionary tag, so that would be a great movie for him…it will scare him in to giving up his dream, or make him want to take me to the Pacific Islands. Either way I win!

  6. sylvia says:

    My (Moroccan Muslim) husband and I watched “Napoleon Dynamite” together and his reaction was, “I didn’t know there were villages like that in America! I want to visit!” So now he’s planning to do a big road trip to visit the RMs who served in our ward.

  7. Olea says:

    Don’t forget Saints and Soldiers! And the full length (and maybe even the old!) Johnny Lingo.

  8. Kellie says:

    My non member husband loves the RM and Singles 2nd Ward. Especially RM, he thinks Kirby is a riot.

  9. Patty says:

    I need to do this! I’ve seen several, but several were new to me. Once We Were Beehives is on Netflix now.

    • Jess R says:

      That’s what started the whole thing! We were browsing Netflix looking for a show and I mentioned something about girls camp. I was surprised how much I liked it.

  10. Jenny says:

    This is awesome! How fun to be able to share your culture in this way and to see it from more of an outside perspective! It makes me want to go back and watch some of those old videos too.

  11. Heather says:

    Love love love this. Sons of Provo is my favorite. It captures so much. And that “Sweet Spirit” song is excruciating. It is so cruel, so condescending and yet it reflects with laser precision how many guys feel justified in reducing women to physical attributes, especially weight.

  12. Liz says:

    No Saturday’s Warrior, then?

    I actually have only seen 2 or 3 really Mormon films (“Johnny Lingo,” “The Singles Ward,” and “Napolean Dynamite,” if you can even call that one a Mormon film). Maybe this why I have never felt culturally Mormon! I might have to embark on this same crazy journey and then return and report. 😉

  13. Em says:

    You should go to the ward library and borrow whatever they have — vhs ideal because lots of gems weren’t reformatted. Seminary videos from the 90s, plus that one that has other gems besides Johnny lingo — pioneers in petticoats, the mailbox ( grandma died because you finally wrote to her), etc.

    Also maybe a tour of Mormonads. Not film, but a deeply ingrained part of growing up Mormon.

  14. Quimby says:

    ” We know we are weird, and we know other people think we are weird.” – I wrote an essay last term about Mormon culture and I said pretty much the same thing there. That’s one of the most endearing things about Mormon culture; we can laugh at ourselves. True story: Before I was born my parents moved into a very small town where they were the only Mormons. Their first day there, the neighbour knocked on the door. When my mom opened the door she announced, very earnestly and sincerely, “I heard you were Mormons and I wanted to see your horns.” My mom invited her in; my dad told her that they’d just had their horns surgically removed; my parents became best friends with her and her husband; and 10 years later my dad baptised them.

    I actually haven’t seen a lot of Mormon cinema, but while you’re immersing yourself in Mormon culture do check out Mormon music. Who can forget “I’m a Mormon, yes I am!” or, my personal favourite (and yours too I’m sure), “When you tell one lie, it leads to another”

  1. May 30, 2016

    […] “Mormon Cinema.” Jess R at The Exponent II on using Mormon movies to explain her culture her non-LDS boyfriend. “For me, though, the best thing to come out of my new role as cultural guide has been the opportunity to revisit my own origins with a fresh perspective. My boyfriend does not have all the baggage I do with Mormonism. He can see the good and the bad without prejudice. It has helped me gain perspective. I got a lot of good things from growing up Mormon: I always had adult role models besides my parents I could go to for help. I always had a sense of community. I had practical experience leading my peers and planning activities, as well as speaking in public. I was instilled with a crazy work ethic, a sense that my worth was great in the sight of God, and a deep belief in the importance of being kind. Of course, each of these has unintended negative side effects, but the net experience was definitely positive. On the flip side, I’ve been able to identify why some things bother me in ways that I haven’t been able to articulate before. The song ‘Sweet Spirit’ from Sons of Provo is a good example. In case satirical LDS pop is not your thing, the song is about a young lady who, in spite of her homeliness, is beautiful on the inside. On the surface, this is a good message. In reality it is offering condescending pity to a woman who will never get married and therefore has no worth. It is basically every marriage lesson I ever had in Young Women’s boiled down in to a three minute song.” […]

  2. June 9, 2016

    […] current post, by Jessica Robinson, is reposted by permission from Exponent […]

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