Brenda R. Weber is Professor of Gender Studies at Indiana University, editor of Reality Gendervision: Sexuality and Gender on Transatlantic Reality Television, and author of Makeover TV: Selfhood, Citizenship, and Celebrity, both also published by Duke University Press. Her newest book, Latter-day Screens: Gender, Sexuality, and Mediated Mormonism examines how mediation of Mormonism through film, TV, blogs, YouTube videos, and memoirs functions as a means to understand conversations surrounding gender, sexuality, spirituality, capitalism, justice, and individualism in the United States.
You mention in the acknowledgements that two of your close friends—fellow non-Mormons who also grew up surrounded by Mormon culture—thought writing the book was a mistake. What was it that allowed you to move beyond their fears (and perhaps your own) and continue on with the project?
One of the things I try to capture in the memoir section of the book (coming at the end) is the way that Mormonism influenced practically every aspect of my growing up in Mesa, Arizona, because the religion has such a strong set of beliefs practices, and behaviors—through things like what one can eat or drink but also about your use of time and your perceived friendliness. It also set limits on how hard I could think (and still be considered nice) and what exactly I could aspire to become professionally and personally, and it absolutely forbade the legitimacy of LGBT loves or lives. So for me and my other non-Mormon friends, we lived with a constant sense of a very powerful presence that could be felt and could judge us but couldn’t really be detected or blocked, like the air we breathe. It had a way of seeping into us and taking up residence in our bodies. I think my friends and I dealt with this largely by not dealing with it—we left town, moved on, grew up. Writing the book meant dismantling a coping mechanism I had used for nearly 30 years, and my friends were concerned about no longer having this capacity for separation.
As with most of my projects, it was my fascination with learning that made me move beyond those fears. Instead of turning my back and mind on those people and beliefs that had governed my childhood, I became truly interested in understanding the history, culture, and media representations of Mormons, both mainstream and fundamentalist. It was a wonderful way to purge a lot of childhood ghosts, but I do still have anxieties that I can never again go to a high school reunion and I’ve pretty much been de-friended by all of my LDS friends from childhood. And I want to emphasize, this is not something I could have done as a child or a teenager. I needed to be an adult with enough certainty about me that taking a part a necessary scaffolding wouldn’t undo a broader sense of my self.
Images and ideas of Mormonism, or what you call “mediated Mormonism,” are quite powerful cultural tools: You describe mediated Mormonism as a “lens” through which we can see the inner workings and mechanics of American culture. What do you see as particular to the Church of Latter-Day Saints that allows its representations to have this powerful clarifying effect?
As an American religion born in the nineteenth century, Mormonism came alive as new possibilities in media were also born. Religion scholars have long talked about the advent of the printing press as presaging both the Protestant Revolution and a spread and diversification of Christianity. Mormonism nicely illustrates this story as well, fittingly in the New World of the Americas where the book is set. The Book of Mormon was first published in Palmyra, New York in 1830. Joseph Smith ordered a run of 5,000 copies (at a cost of $3,000), which is an astronomical number and cost for that time period. But the print run tells us a great deal about the rise of book culture in the United States, the zealous emergence of a number of new religions in this time period, the rise in literacy across more rural parts of the United States, and the general affordability of publishing in this period.
I had an opportunity while researching this book to visit E. B. Grandin, the print shop that made The Book of Mormon, now turned into a site staffed and run by the mainstream LDS Church. While there, I was astounded that if I stood on tippy toes at the back door, I could see the Erie Canal, which was like an information super highway in the nineteenth century, moving goods and in this case ideas across the country and into Canada. With the spread of the book soon went the spread of missionaries, because this has always been a very proselytizing religion.
This circulation of Mormon missionaries and ideas served to crystalize Mormonism as a recognizable “thing” in the culture, what in the book I call Mormonism as a meme. Broader American and even international culture has not always looked on Mormonism in a positive light, but it is often referenced to do a larger symbolic work. So, as we see in the case of Big Love or Sister Wives, fundamentalist Mormons are called upon to serve as “American everymen” who live their lives a little differently. They become proxy figures for asking if there are limits to the American experiment.
You argue that the struggles against norms taking place inside and around Latter-day screens actually become accelerants for social justice. For instance, you discuss how Utah’s dismissal of their case against the polygamous Brown family from Sister Wives coincided with the state’s issuing of licenses for same-sex marriages. What potential (and limitations) do you see in cultural media like reality television to become agents of change in broader legal and political spheres?
Well, culture has always been an agent in the legal and political sphere, so it’s not like this is a new thing. Fighting to eradicate slavery, for instance, brought forth a whole new set of protest literatures from slave narratives to sentimental novels.
But as I discuss in my 2014 book Reality Gendervision, people love to hate on TV, particularly reality TV. And don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to critique, but I don’t think it is the medium itself that is to blame. Perhaps I have convinced myself as a media scholar, but I think the issue is really about critical thinking skills and media literacy. The more people can think critically, the more all kinds of media can be used in beneficial ways.
In the book, you describe the kidnapping victim Elizabeth Smart as a “cultural meme,” serving as a sign of the ultimate innocent victim who meets the affective demand to be “happy” after trauma. How do you see these same demands– for innocent victims who don’t “hold a grudge”—working in our own cultural and institutional logics surrounding sexual assault and violence? Is Smart as a meme a direct mirror for our larger culture, or an exaggeration that allows us to see ourselves more clearly?
I see the image of Elizabeth Smart as absolutely an outlying representation, particularly in an era of #MeToo that asks survivors of sexual assault to claim their stories and to be willing to share their feelings of anger about them. Also, I want to be clear that I don’t fault Elizabeth Smart for her affect. I have no idea what her actual feelings are inside, and she may well have a different emotional experience that she, rightfully, does not divulge as part of her public persona. Or maybe she doesn’t. I wouldn’t want to be understood as saying that Smart is wrong in being happy but that the effect of her affect (if you want to put it this way) is to suggest she will never attack. This, in turn, reinforces normative notions of heteronormative femininity that suggest a woman’s value is heightened through her willingness to put others before herself, including their emotional needs. I use a line in the book from Judith Freeman’s excellent memoir The Latter Days (2017) about receiving instructions on femininity as a young Mormon girl. Freeman and others were given an example of sitting in a church pew and not feeling well. If this happened, they were advised, it would be far better to throw up in your purse than to ask others to stand up so that you could get to the restroom. Better to barf in a handbag! That’s the kind of gender identity at the heart of the happy affect I examine in the book.
You close your book by discussing LGBT+ Mormons and their relationship with media as a space for self-recognition, working against patterns in the church where a denial of self-knowledge is often a condition of subjectivity, like in the show My Husband’s Not Gay. Do you think that twenty-first century social media can accomplish this self-representation in a new way that television cannot?
I wouldn’t say that it is mutually exclusive (either television can do it better or social media does) but cumulative. When I use the phrase Latter-day Screens, this is exactly what I’m getting at – that cultural ideas, impressions, and images are produced through a conversation between different media platforms (television, feature film, memoir) and through both high and low, professional and amateur production, all coming together in these relatively coherent symbols that are labeled “Mormon.”
Ideas change through continual and repeated exposure to an idea. Just this week, for example, a new television show popped onto my TIVO, called Trapped: The Alex Cooper Story (Lifetime, released September 28, 2019). It offers a made-for-television version of the 2016 memoir Saving Alex, written by Alex Cooper. Cooper writes about being raised LDS and coming out to her parents, who in desperation, forcibly put her in reparation therapy. It’s a brutal, sad story with a triumphant ending. But Saving Alex is not a singular story—there are many memoirs about LGBT+ lives and loves and the hardship of living as gay and Mormon, many of them self-published, many others serving as the backbone of film or television representation (as for instance in The Falls: Testament of Love or Latter Days).
Social media is critical to all of this because it is immediate and it is amateur, meaning one doesn’t require a ten-million dollar budget and backing from Hollywood before telling one’s truth, or testifying (a key tenet of Mormonism). Mediation, as we discussed in the first question, here serves as quintessentially Mormon, or, as many of the people who create media content around Mormonism say, “As out-Mormoning the Mormons.” Dan Reynolds, the lead singer of Imagine Dragons, says it most powerfully in the documentary Believer,
There’s one thing my Mormon values have taught me since I was young. It’s that no matter what the world says about who you are, what you believe, still do it. A hundred percent. That spirit was the spirit that carried me through my mission. I felt like I was baring my truth regardless what anyone thought about me. That’s all because of Mormonism and my parents, they all prepped me for this moment now. A determined Mormon is a scary thing, I will tell you that. Because they don’t stop. I knocked a hundred doors to get into one door. I knocked a thousand doors on my mission. If there’s one thing I can guarantee it’s that I will continue to knock this door until somebody answers.
That’s on page 21 of my book, if anyone wants to read more!
What is something you hope readers will take away from this in-depth account of the various ways in which Mormonism circulates in our media?
In terms of media, I hope that readers perceive the clarifying capacities of Mormonism, when we understand it as both a way of seeing and a way of thinking. Really, my book is not so much about Mormons as people or Mormon ideas. Instead, it’s about Mormonism as an idea. Decoding its many values is a bit like taking apart a complex engine, in that we really begin to see and understand how bits and pieces work together to create something far bigger than the sum of its parts.
In terms of the overall project, I hope that readers see that everyone has a story worth telling, and I hope they understand my regard toward actual Mormon people as being not judgmental but also not completely sympathetic. For me, my experience with the influence of Mormonism helped me understand the workings of hegemony, a critical term within gender studies that is often used and seldom defined. But basically, hegemony has to do with the invisible systems that compel people not only to act in ways opposite to their self-interest but also to believe those power relations are superior to other ways, so they champion their continuation. I had a hard time understanding how I could never have been formally schooled in the values of Mormonism yet knew the codes so well I had internalized them. Writing this book allowed me to understand that hegemonic process more and in so doing to be free of them in some ways.
Read the introduction to Latter-day Screens free online and save 30% on the paperback edition using coupon code E19WEBER.