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?