The Eight Cow Wife: A Toxic Iconic Mormon Parable

The first time I remember seeing this film was at a ward party in the 1980s. I was a child and didn’t really understand it, but many of the messages seeped into my worldview and self concept. “Johnny Lingo” was made in 1969 and is steeped in racist, colonialist, and sexist ideas. The setting for the story is a small Polynesian island. The culture is misrepresented and appropriated for a morality tale. The people are presented as rather backward, simple, and mean-spirited. Their values are ridiculous. A white trader is the narrator that interprets the story for the white audience. I looked it up on imdb and found that it has 7 out of 10 stars. Appalling. This suggests to me that Mormon audiences are giving it high marks because it is familiar and they won’t look with their rational minds and see the problems with it. The fact that it was produced by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints interferes with their ability to reason. Many churchgoers will not dare criticize anything put out by the church. The story was written by Patricia McGerr, the screenplay by Claire Whitaker. I was disappointed to see that this misogynistic story was written by women, but not really surprised. Experience has shown me that women are the worst perpetuators of sexism.

“You don’t know what it means to have a homely daughter,” says Moki, the ugly man talking with another man about striking a deal to sell his daughter as a wife. Wives are described as workers who mend the roof and fix supper. And apparently they must also be attractive, though men are allowed to be as ugly as they are and act even uglier.

Daughter Mahana is cringing, hiding in a tree. Her father threatens to bruise her to show everyone what a disobedient daughter she is. Never is his behavior questioned. He is free to berate and threaten violence against his daughter. He demands that she come down. Then at the bargaining he excuses her absence as ‘the industrious girl never stops working’.

The men sit and make an economic arrangement where a woman (Mahana) is bought and sold. Women are property to be exchanged by men. Johnny Lingo, the title character, has a reputation as a shrewd trader. People in the village anticipate he will bargain to get a wife for the lowest amount possible, ‘two hoofs and a tail’ is the joke. The entire village laughs when Mahana’s father asks for three cows. Then comes the plot twist—Johnny Lingo says that is not enough for Mahana and offers eight cows –higher than any price paid for a woman in the village. The wedding will be the next day, he will bring the cows. We hear that ‘with two or three cows a man can buy quite a decent wife on this island’ and ‘for 4 or 5 he can buy a superior one’. Women brag about how much their husbands paid for them. This sets up a dynamic where women are always judging themselves against each other.

Having heard about the bargaining, Mr. Harris (the white shopkeeper) thinks Johnny Lingo is vain – wanting people always and forever to remember that he paid eight cows for Mahana. Johnny Lingo exchanges a shell to Mr. Harris and orders a gold carved mirror as a wedding gift for Mahana. Johnny Lingo is shown as a man who knows the value of things. He knows that the shell he has is rare and valuable and knows what he wants for it.

Mahana thinks she’s being mocked but then the cows arrive, and she reluctantly exits the hut to join Johnny Lingo. At the wedding feast, boys tease “Johnny Lingo had a cow, trade it for an ugly wife. Johnny Lingo married now, he’ll be sorry all his life.” Mahana and Johnny Lingo leave in canoe for their honeymoon, they are gone for months.

Mr. Harris’s shop assistant says Mahana’s ugly face will break the glass of the mirror. Mr. Harris delivers mirror and is shocked to see a beautiful and gracious Mahana accompanying Johnny Lingo. “Your gift to me can be seen by all.” Johnny Lingo says to Mahana. So, apparently her physical beauty is her gift to him. She is sent to get water.

“She was always beautiful,” Johnny Lingo tells Mr. Harris. Duh! All of us in the audience can see that. But she was treated appallingly by her father. It never made sense that people were calling her ugly. “Think what it means for a woman to know what their husbands paid for them,” Johnny Lingo expounds. Mr. Harris admits misjudging Johnny Lingo, who was actually making Mahana happy. “The thing that matters most is what she thinks of herself. Now she knows she is worth more than any other woman on the island,” says Johnny Lingo. Interesting. Do women need to think they are more valuable than their peers to feel happy? It is strange that the moral of this story is supposed to be about what a woman thinks of herself. Actually it demonstrates that a woman should get her sense of her worth from the men in her life. Mahana thought she was ugly and was craven in her father’s household. With Johnny Lingo she held her head high and smiled and was well kempt because he showed her she was valuable.

implicit lessons taught about women

–          Women are valued primarily for appearance

–          Men set value of women as commodities

–          Worth not inherent, given by a man recognizing it in her

–          Woman needs lavish gifts for others to see her worthiness

–          Women must believe what they are told about themselves by the men in their lives (i.e. “Mahana you ugly”)

–          A woman’s beauty, labor, and sexuality do not belong to her, but to her husband

–          What a woman wants doesn’t factor into the story at all. The men in her life make all the decisions about her fate

–          Men can treat women however they want. If they treat them well they will become beautiful

I’ve been noticing that a lot of my most uncomfortable deeply held beliefs about myself are reflected in this toxic messages in this film. I expected to feel valued by how my husband treated me. Although I didn’t expect him to pay for me, I expected to know that I was valued by getting gifts and being told I was special. My father told me so often that I was selfish, so I tried hard not to be. I took on the role of Mormon martyr mother, denying my own desires and self-sacrificing for my family—but I also became filled with resentment. I thought my husband had to see how hard I was working and be the one to reward me for/give me relief from my work. I was so angry that he never did those things. I was waiting to be an eight cow wife. This story of Johnny Lingo doesn’t show what a woman who recognizes her inherent value looks like. Is there any such story told in all of Mormonism? Can’t a woman who is treated badly still be valuable? Can a woman act with a sense of her own worth and ignore the men in her life? Can she let go of wanting others to convince her of her worth? Can she be her own hero?

Chiaroscuro

Chiaroscuro is a play of light and shadow. Finding noisy messy lovely life in all the shades between.

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30 Responses

  1. Abby Hansen says:

    I remember the first time I saw this movie – and welling up with tears at the end when I saw how good of a man Mahana’s husband was (or so I thought) and what a beautiful story of a person’s worth it was to me.

    That memory stays with me, because now I can see exactly how damaging it was, but also understand how my brain had been trained to think about things. It did affect me later in life – for example, I remember thinking I needed to lose weight as a new mother because my husband deserved a pretty wife – not for myself in any way. I had also internalized on some level that I was property of my husband. It’s nuts!

  2. Mary says:

    I find your analysis of this film as dis-compassionate to the women who wrote it.
    Patricia McGerr was born in 1917 and Claire Whitaker was born in 1928. I would really like to impress upon you what a different world these women grew up in. Their world was entirely patriarchal. In order to get the the Pacific Islands, these women would have had to take an expensive ocean crossing and time consuming ocean crossing. At the time, the United States and the whole world simply had racist, colonialist and sexist ideas. They weren’t considered wrong. They were considered normal. A lot of that has to do with how isolated all of these countries were from one another. As the world has become smaller through airline travel and the internet, we’ve become more inclusive and diverse out of necessity and compassion.

    The women used the only methods society would allow them to get the men in their lives to treat them better. By working within a framework the men at the time would understand. People (not just women) are happier (and are, therefore, more attractive) when they are treated well. This movie simply gives people a tool, viewing others as valuable and worth of, as a way to consider how we treat one another so that we can all live more Christlike lives.

    Is this story as cringe-worthy as you report? Yes. However, as someone who is getting older, I come across a lot of ridicule of previous generations that is nothing more than age-ism. These are women who were simply trying to make the world a kinder place working within the framework and society in which they lived. These women were not “among the worst perpetrators of sexism”, according to their times. In fact, these women probably considered it incredibly empowering in those Mad Men times to be writing and have their work produced into a film by one of the most patriarchal organizations on the planet. They were probably very feminist for their time.

    I would really love to see a stop to criticizing women of previous generations. We need to be allies to one another, not just in the present tense, but to our her-storical sisters, as well.

    • Dani Addante says:

      Very true!

    • Violadiva says:

      Using the rationale of “they were from a different” time as a way to excuse certain behaviors (in this case the writing of the story and script) is apologetic, fragile nonsense. Bad behaviors then (in this case the objectification of women AND the commodification and appropriation of a Polynesian culture by a white woman) were still bad behaviors. And it’s a lie of white fragility to say that racist, colonialist and sexist ideas weren’t considered wrong at the time. People of color knew they were wrong. They were always wrong, and lots of people (abolitionists and suffragists and activists) knew that and worked toward greater equality.

      The way we learn from history to do better in our generation is to see our foremothers for everything they were, both good and bad, and learn from both. We can’t brush aside the bad and only focus on the good, because then we’ll make the same mistakes they did. Identifying their strengths and weaknesses is not being a bad historical ally – it’s learning from their mistakes.

      For example, can we honor and be grateful for our early suffragist foremothers at the same time as recognize how they left people of color out of their activism. In our activism, we can learn from this and do better. https://www.the-exponent.com/toward-intersectionality-censuring-white-mormon-feminism/

      Another example, LDS racism persisted for over 100 years past the point when our sister faith, RLDS, revealed through Joseph Smith III that men of any race could be ordained in 1865. In a time when post-civil war JimCrow type racism was taking hold, some people were still on the right side of history.

      https://www.the-exponent.com/seeds-of-faith-eradicating-the-roots-and-shoots-of-racism-in-modern-mormonism/

      Turning a blind eye on the errors of our ancestors does not honor them, It ridicules them and creates them as immune to foibles and prejudice, which is no way to look any anyone from history. It’s not ageism to see our ancestors for the complex, multi-dimensional people who they no doubt were.

      As far as these author women using tools of oppression and patriarchy to get the men in their lives to treat them better, Audre Lorde said it best, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.”

      • Mary says:

        I was expecting a reply along these lines and my post was already getting long. I usually agree with you, however, I’m going to continue to defend my previous statements.

        I was married to an abusive man for 21 years. I divorced him over the vociferous objections of 99% of the people in my life. I only had the support of my sons, my therapist, two siblings and two friends. I live and work in Utah County. I can tell you it is sheer Hell going counter to the prevalent culture. There were days that if I didn’t have the support of my sons, I would have gone back.

        I’m not saying these women were abused, but I am saying their voices were very limited. They may have submitted a more egalitarian, but it could have been edited in script form and In the post-production phase without consulting them. “I Am A Child Of God” was written by a woman and SWK changed a word in it without consulting her and Chieko Okazaki wanted to know why the women weren’t involved in the drafting of The Family Proclamation.

        If it was entirely the work of those women, I do agree they could have written something from a higher place within themselves, but then there is the possibility the church wouldn’t have produced it (not necessarily a bad thing).

      • Risa says:

        Very well said Violadiva.

    • Chiaroscuro says:

      I understand that they grew up in a different time and all that. But this movie is still being shared (and influencing younger generations than mine) and I believe it perpetuates harmful ideas. Older women can be both a great support and encouragement to younger women, or they can be oppressive by perpetuating patriarchal ideas. Its not about ageism. If you would like to write a guest post supporting your views, please do. https://www.the-exponent.com/site-map/submit-a-guest-post/

      • Mary says:

        Actually. I agree. I think the movie simply needs to not be shown anymore as something that isn’t relevant to modern audiences.

        I’ll see if I can formulate my thoughts into a post. Thank you for the invite. I work in historical preservation and I witness a lot of mocking of previous generations, especially our foremothers.

    • Anna says:

      Violadiva, I don’t see the original post as recognizing any good in these early women. I see it as just bashing them for being a product of an earlier age. As you said, there is both good and bad in our early feminists. But this article recognizes no good in them. I see them as trying to survive as best they could in an abusive and patriarchal society. Did they do it perfectly? No. But neither do we today. People only do as good as they know. As they know better, they *sometimes* do better.

      So, really you see zero good in the story? Because I see several truths that it points out. 1. When a child is emotionally and physically abused, they grow up not understanding what love is. 2. Treat such a child lovingly, and they will transform. Not in a few months. It usually takes as many years as the abuse lasted to heal from the abuse. But this story teaches me that we shouldn’t write off abused children as damaged goods. 3. When women in a society are treated as a commodity, they learn to value themselves as a commodity. Hence, the women of the village comparing themselves by their purchase price.

      What you see as cultural appropriation, I see just as a comment on a different culture. Even an accurate comment on a different culture. Cultural appropriation is BYU doing the haiku.

      The authors were not promoting colonialism. Just writing from a colonial period. Colonialism is what my great grandfather did when he went on a mission to the South Pacific and tried to convert them to Christianity, Mormon Christianity, but still seeing the islanders as heathens who needed white culture and religion. Now, the first person who told the story may have been guilty of colonialism, but hey he was a fictional character, and we really don’t know anything about him.

      Is it insulting to women that the story doesn’t come out strongly condemning buying and selling women? Well, maybe, but that isn’t the primary point. The primary point is that abused children learn to hate themselves, and the Pacific Island setting of the story is incidental.

      The real important points is that Johnny Lingo and Muhana were childhood friends, so Johnny knew the good in Muhana. He had seen how her father treated her and he loved her for who she was. He saw more than just the result of the abuse.

      Is it wrong to buy and sell women? Well, of course. But the authors never said it was good. It was just a part of that culture. Were the white people like my great grandfather who went in and tried to change that culture all bad? Well, one thing those horrible colonialists tried to stop was that cultural practice of buying and selling women. So, the very colonialism you are condemning was both good and bad.

      Does Johnny Lingo teach some horrible messages if we swallow it whole? Yeah.

      But see, my first exposure to it didn’t teach me that I was only valued for beauty. I saw my own horrible father in Muhana’s horrible father. I wished someone could come and pay one cow to get me the hell away from him.

      So, sure, I can see the bad messages. I would rather stories of abuse not be confused with buying and selling women, which is just another kind of abuse. But, given that was part of the culture, how should Johnny have shown he loved Muhana? I would rather they be set in my own culture so that I could have gotten an idea of what to do because nobody was going to come and pay any cows to rescue me from abuse. Nobody seemed to care.

      I would rather that the story focused on the positive way Johnny treated Muhana, instead of skipping from the purchase price to her turning beautiful. He must have taken her away and taught her how to clean and comb her hair, because obviously the girl had no mother to teach her how to bathe and comb her hair. How did he talk to her? What did he do that transformed her? because it was not the purchase price all by itself. We are not shown any of that and it was probably more important than the price. Which an abused child would have written off just like the villagers did, as stupidity, not really a reflection of her worth. As an abused child, I know it takes far more than one huge compliment

      You say you want to talk about both the good and bad, but then all you do talk about is how bad the film is.

      Overall, I think it should have been retired about two years after it was made. But the church seems to like to hang onto racist, sexist stuff long after it’s expiration date. So, since the church likes to promote this kind of simplistic tear jerking crap, let’s examine the bad messages that the church doesn’t seem to care are there.

      1. It isn’t that easy to fix the damage of neglect and child abuse.
      2. Some things like buying and selling women need to be pointed out as wrong, not used as harmless plot devices.
      3. Colonialism is bad and the church is still guilty of it today. Please read Kiwi Mormon for some good discussions on the church trying to export Utah culture.

      But please don’t blame the original authors for the buying and selling of women or the colonialism that they didn’t promote. They just wrote a story in that setting. They could have mentioned that the Polynesians were also polygamists and then you could have blamed them for promoting polygamy too. Just like the author of Gone With the Wind was not responsible for slavery, she just told a story in that setting, these authors are not responsible for the bad in the culture they wrote about. Could the authors of the story have done a better job? Well, yeah. But then the story wouldn’t be the simplified version of life where one simple factor changes everything and they live happily ever after, kind of fairy tale the church loves to promote.

      • SisterStacey says:

        I disagree. It shouldn’t be retired. It has too many positive points. Retire that horrible Uncle Ben film where he’s magically cured of addiction in one night. Or the one where the lady dies because her children don’t write her letters.

  3. Dani Addante says:

    I grew up watching this movie when I was a kid. I like the part in which Johnny Lingo supported her. I feel that having the right people around you is what helps a person reach their potential. But, yes, this movie does have a lot of problems. When I watched it again a few years ago, I noticed that Mahana never got a choice in the marriage, and you have Johnny talking for her when things get awkward towards the end, and telling the shopkeeper that Mahana has to go get water. The worst part is when Mahana is traded for cows and the men are debating on how many cows she’s worth. I’m surprised that this movie was written by women.

  4. Emily says:

    This movie used to make me so incredibly uncomfortable in seminary. Another comment earlier said something about Johnny lingo being friends with Mahana in childhood. Was that in the movie for real? I really can’t remember much other than how awkward I felt when lingo purchased a wife. And then how much MORE awkward I felt when she magically turned beautiful all because a man gave her attention. The whole movie felt mortifying.

  5. SisterStacey says:

    I have to strongly disagree. I love this movie! It used to show in the temple when I was a young woman. I have seen it so many times. I always wanted a Johnny Lingo to see my value. (Oh, that actor was so hot!) I always saw it as showing how love can transform a person. That it isn’t good to compare your “worth” to others. To me, the message was that it’s not good to put a monetary value on a woman. (Remember the scene with the women saying how many cows they were worth? I never got a “oh, this is how it should be” feeling from it. I thought it was sad). And Moahana’s dad is a JERK! The script makes that perfectly clear! I always wanted a “I’m a 10 cow wife” shirt not because I thought I was better than another woman, but because I saw my worth as being that. Without a man. Just me, because I’m awesome.

    And, finally, may I point out that this movie actually has actors in the roles who are of the race and nationality portrayed? No whitewashing. It’s so rare! The Church can’t even do that with our Bible or Book of Mormon videos TODAY! White guys playing Middle Eastern people and Native Americans. Did you forget the brown face in the “The Testaments?”
    Maybe it’s nostalgia (but I did watch this recently), but this film shows a special place in my heart because it gave me hope in some dark times.

    • Chiaroscuro says:

      I think we are seeing the same things. My problem was that I was waiting to be loved in that way and ‘transformed’ and I would rather a message in which a man’s love is not what transforms the woman. I also agree about the monetary value being placed a woman being bad, and about Mahana’s father being a jerk. Even if the actors are not white, the story has big problems with cultural appropriation, colonialism, racism, and sexism. These are the problems listed in the article.

  6. Em says:

    Interesting post. I agree that it has deeply problematic messaging. I think that it should be shared today only properly framed, with discussion of problematic elements. I’m honestly shocked that the church had women in any kind of decision making role with media back then.

    A previous commenter suggested we should retire the one about an old woman dying because she didn’t get mail. I disagree. It teaches vital truths about the often under-diagnosed issue of mail-deficiencyitis. Some sensitive people can literally drop dead from not handling enough paper. And I hope that at my funeral my child will tell my grandchildren “she died because you didn’t finish your thank you notes after Christmas.” Nothing could be more powerful, moving, or spiritually relevant. If anything we need MORE shows like this.

  7. Heather says:

    I love the discussion this post has spurred. It’s so interesting how strong our reactions are to these old church movies that most of us watched as kids. I find myself agreeing with so many perspectives—yes it’s horrible to trade women for livestock (though it still goes on today in counties like Botswana where the lobola/bride price is often done in cattle); yes it’s true we can be transformed when we feel valued; yes the dad is an A hole; yes it was great to see non white faces as the heroes of a church film. Watching a group of smart women deconstruct Johnny Lingo has made my day. Just don’t watch the new version that’s a two hour commercial for Tahitian Noni, a multi level marketing product from Provo, not Papeete.

  8. RoseE Hadden says:

    This movie seriously messed me up for much of my young adulthood.

    No LDS man would marry or even date me. I wasn’t an eight-cow wife. I wasn’t any wife. I couldn’t pay a man to be seen in public with me. And, following the message of this film, that meant I was worth nothing as a human being.

    I know that you reading this want this story to end with “But then I met my husband and he loved me for myself and I saw my value!” Nope. Didn’t happen. Never going to happen. The hurt turned to anger and the anger turned to action and the action turned to pride in myself. In terms of the movie’s metaphor, I have my own cows. They are mine.

    • Nightfox Riveria says:

      Oh my gosh, you poor pitiful thing. You didn’t understand the intricate culture and traditions laced into this movie. The eight cows were a dowry but instead of the wife’s family to the man, it went from the groom to the bride’s family.

      I’m so sorry you thought yourself worthless but their culture isn’t meant for a proper white-faring lady like yourself.

  9. Risa says:

    Next I would like to see you take down “The Phone Call.” We used to watch that all the time in Seminary in the 90s so we could make fun of the actors’s 70s style clothes and hairstyles. (What I wouldn’t give for a feathered Farrah Fawcett look now). The movie ends like so many do, with a beautiful girl being the prize for the nerdy boy. Come to think about it, that basically describes Mormon culture to a T.

  10. PBJ says:

    It’s an awful movie, and I’m really surprised at the call to arms defending it. I probably shouldn’t be, but I am.

  11. Michelle says:

    Many great comments ! I just want to add, even her transformation from ugly to beautiful was sexist and racist. You are not only beautiful when conforming to society’s current expectation of beauty ideals for women. The movie didn’t focus on intrinsic value of people , but on how society sees them. The ending undermined the message of valuing people because they are people , alive, and have their own wants and desires. In the end it’s all better because Johnny sees her as beautiful. Which is still through the lens of someone other than Mohana herself. If the movie wanted to portray a message about valuing people and not letting society determine someone’s worth there definitely could have been a more effective and morally consistent story to tell. As for racist, to turn her into a beauty they straighten her hair. straight hair isn’t a matter of brushing curly hair out or unkempt hygiene. This is pushing western ideals as the epitome of beauty and from the perspective as someone with curly hair, Mohana was always beautiful just different.

  12. Pam Trusty says:

    Yes. You are correct that our value does not come from a man on this earth. Our worth is in Christ Jesus. But…. in this story… Johnny Lingo did say she was beautiful and worth much All along. He saw it. Even though women should not rely on other people to know their worth, it is a reality in society that women often are bombarded with society’s view and Hollywood is thrown in our faces, etc…. and even though we all Should be mature enough to still hold our head high because God says we have worth, He still did call for us to “encourage” each other for we grow at different rates. This story is meant to challenge men to encourage their wives and invest in them and do what they are called to do to help them grow. Of course the Holy Spirit does the work through us, but on the man’s end, God calls them to do this, and because of the symbolism in marriage and husband as her head, if a man is obedient in this, God does use that to help the wife. If a man does not obey, of course God can still use other means to grow her too.

    • Pam Trusty says:

      Oh but also back in the day and culture that this story was set in, that sexism and those attitudes were present, so the story is written in reflection of what was already going on… but that does not indicate that those cultural views are acceptable. But..that in in light of all of it a husband’s encouragement would mean much to a woman even though she still should already know her worth because God gave it to us.

  13. Pam Trusty says:

    Oh. I am not Mormon. I am a Christian who attends either a Baptist or community Church of various Christian denominations who believe in the humanity and Deity of Christ Jesus our Lord and Savior. So I hope it was ok to still comment on the article and movie. I didn’t know if this site was specific. I got it on a Facebook link.

  14. John Bromwich says:

    If the point of art is to invite discussion this film has clearly served its purpose. Alas we do not live in an ideal world but as a man, I would rather be Johnny Lingo than her father and I’m guessing if a women had to be traded, then better 8 cows from Johnny Lingo than 1 cow from a mean spirited other. Hopefully the next film will invite a different conversation, reflecting a better world.

  15. Nightfox Riveria says:

    Come on, let’s be honest here.

    This movie was made during sexist times where child abuse and spouse abuse was considered normal. Back then poverty was pretty big so a ‘dowry’ in exchange for a women’s hand was to show that the man could care for the daughter. Child labor was also very popular, in fact it is still popular in 3rd and 2nd world countries today. The movie Johnny Lingo was made with as much care and glossed over truths so it would an audience of children and naive adults could watch it.

    Let’s not be idiots, okay? If you think this movie was offensive please consider that the women in this movie were at least well-treated despite the contradictory history displayed in this particular movie. Besides, this is takes place in an imaginary island where imaginary laws exist. Forgive the movie-makers for taking liberties on a culture they don’t even understand.

    • Nightfox Riveria says:

      I’m sorry you don’t have a considerate husband but let’s not lash out at the g-rated movie that was remade and released at a time when pg-rated movies had people cussing and other more toxic behaviors were normalized, like Ghost Busters.

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