Mormons seem to occupy a large footprint in the American mediascape, from stage and screen to true crime stories and internet subcultures. An analysis of these trends is an incredibly welcome project. Taking up this charge, Brenda R. Weber’s Latter-day Screens: Gender, Sexuality, and Mediated Mormonismcombines three important trends in the contemporary study of Mormonism. First, it engages media studies, part of a small but growing body of work in this track. Second, it seeks to break the analytical barrier between the monogamous mainstream Latter-day Saint tradition and fundamentalist, polygamous groups. Significantly, one might add here ex-Mormons as key characters, whose narratives often drive the analysis. Third, it offers a sustained attention to gender and sexuality in Mormonism using a queer analytic. In these ways, this book makes contributions to this field, even when it misses its mark.
The substantive center of the book draws on an exciting variety of materials. They range from film to reality and scripted television; media stories of kidnapping, rape, and murder; Mormonism on Broadway; marketing of beauty products and essential oils; YouTube, blogs, and Reddit threads; vampire novels; and memoirs and magazine interviews. If not completely comprehensive in its review (I kept expecting an analysis of megahits like Angels in America or even “Dr. Jeffrey Cole,” the single father Black Mormon character on House—storylines that weave race and sex together in ways that would have benefited the book), the archive is an impressive collection of both mainstream and obscure media. While the bulk of the analysis falls on the period since the 1990s, occasionally it dips back into the 1970s. The chapters are organized around polygamy, race, femininity, and queer identities, weaving together these rich materials to illuminate important themes about the representation of Mormonism.
Readers should be aware that this book is also deeply personal, inviting them into Weber’s own life story as an observer of Mormonism as a framework of analysis. The main chapters are a work of scholarship on Mormonism in the American mediascape, but the book opens and ends with Weber’s unhappy childhood in Mesa, Arizona, as a lonely non-Mormon in a sea of Mormons. “My childhood was defined by exclusion,” she explains (289). This experience as an outsider-insider to Mormonism shaped her in ways that are similar to other coming-of-age accounts, filled with rejection that fueled grit. Weber describes how she had to extricate herself from the Mormonism that shaped her. The guiding imperative was “a need to be like Mormons yet to somehow be better than them” (293).
This need is not just an anecdote that bookends her substantive analysis of “mediated Mormonism;” it is a structuring idea for the book. The drive is to account for, explain, reject, and escape the teachings and values of Mormons and replace them with better ones. The analytical framework is divided into two parts, one that establishes “Mormonism as meme,” a recurring set of cultural and mediated images that attach Mormonism to questions of gender and sexuality. This is where the book best shines. The second is “Mormonism as analytic,” the results of which may be more controversial. In this view, Mormonism is a provocation that has a pedagogical function in American culture, “a cautionary tale on authoritarianism” (83). Surveillance, discipline, punishment, and obedience are key themes Weber observes and seeks to expose for readers: “Behind the toothy smiles lies a cutthroat authoritarianism that demands perfect obedience to its rules” (83).
The hostility toward Mormonism, and Mormon women in particular, may be jarring to many who may read this book. Feminist and queer scholars of religion, who have come to be suspicious of the secular liberation tradition that diminishes religious women and LGBTQ folk, do not inform the analysis here. Weber frequently reminds the reader that she is only working with “mediated Mormonism,” that is the representation of Mormonism through the various outlets she analyzes. However, she often blurs that boundary by attempting to explain or justify the representation with claims to insider knowledge of Mormons and Mormonism. The stereotypes, it turns out, have a very plausible anchor to reality. She warns, “the Janus face of Mormonism is both appealing and not to be trusted” (246).
Scholars of Mormonism will be struck by the frequent errors, both small and great, of fact and analysis. These range from incorrect terminology (the “R” in RLDS stands for Reorganized, not Reformed, and the blog Feminist Mormon Housewives is repeatedly misnamed, among others) to misrepresented or anachronistic history (such as stating that Mormons relocated to Arkansas after they were in Ohio or much of the history and description of Mormon theories of racialization). Descriptions in the book also display a tendency to exaggerate or to accept uncritically ex-Mormon narratives (such as the degree of survelliance Mormons experience or what counts as an excommunicable offense). One gets the feeling that had experts on Mormonism reviewed the book they might have caught some of the more egregious mistakes.
As a reader, I craved a fulfillment of the promise to explain why American media is fascinated with using Mormonism to illustrate bad forms of gender and sexuality. Often the book delivered in spades examples of how Mormonism is used to mediate broader cultural conversations. Since the 19th century, Mormons have been invoked as gender and sexual deviants, though the nature of that deviancy has shifted. But for Weber, the reason often seems to be that Mormons are guilty as charged. In this way, the book participates in the very project it seeks to analyze, producing media that criticizes Mormonism’s lack of conformity to American norms. What would it look like to turn the lens backward, onto the culture that demands and consumes these narratives of Mormonism? What do we make of American interest in such representation as its own form of surveillance to discipline Mormon difference?
Latter-day Screensprovides a mixed experience, offering an intriguing collection of materials, some genuinely insightful frameworks, and asking some important questions about the role of Mormonism in mediated culture. However, the book’s errors and its central polemic make it a troubling contribution to feminist studies in religion and the study of Mormonism.
Taylor G. Petrey is assistant professor of religion at Kalamazoo College.
Taylor G. Petrey
Date Of Review:
May 31, 2021
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.
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