Bryce Harper and Mormon Masculinities

By January 22, 2018

Bryce Harper was the first Mormon to be compared to Lebron James. He was also the first Mormon to have a temper tantrum full of particular 4-letter words go viral. Bryce Harper also posed for ESPN’s The Body issue without a stitch of clothing on him.[i] He was, by any definition of the term in regards to styling and dress, immodest. Mormonism’s modesty culture encourages young people not to “use a special occasion as an excuse to be immodest. When you dress immodestly, you send a message that is contrary to your identity as a son or daughter of God. You also send the message that you are using your body to get attention and approval.” Harper is tattooed, rocks a perfectly-coiffed modern hair-do, and his eyes sear into the viewer. His body may be objectified, but he is not a passive observer. Quite the contrary. His stance, eyes, and rippling pectorals denote physical and charismatic power. Most casual observers would not peg him for an active Latter-day Saint.

Yet, his Mormon-ness is important within the LDS community. Memorably, for me, he attended a missionary farewell in Northern Virginia while I lived there in 2013. One of those weird six-degrees-of-Brigham Young separation (his then-girlfriend’s former roommate’s brother). Harper was careful not to draw attention to himself, but when you’re that jacked and that tall it’s hard not to stand out. When he entered the chapel, an elderly woman sat next to me and asked, “Do you know who that is?” I answered that I did and she responded, “I’m so glad. We need more young men like him.”

This struck me as very odd. Harper didn’t serve a mission and was well-known for being competitive beyond even other professional athletes. He didn’t attend BYU. What made him so important to this octogenarian sitting next to me?

Harper is a far-cry from the Danny Ainge of the 1980s, who was known as a killer on the court and paternal cheapskate off of the hardwood.[ii] Ainge was also framed specifically as a Mormon, having attended Brigham Young University. Ainge’s Mormon-ness fit typical images of Mormon men as fatherly, hardworking, and an excellent teammate. Still, Harper is the latest in a long line of Mormon athletes to embrace his faith on a public stage. He shut down a question about drinking as a “clown question” and thereby created a meme about posing stupid questions (Harper was also underage at the time).

He was married in an LDS temple. He posts about church attendance on Instagram and other social media sites.

He does not look or act like Donnie Osmond or Wally Joyner—other white male LDS celebrities. In this way, he very much fits in with the “I’m a Mormon” public relations strategy of the LDS Church’s. There’s many ways to Mormon in the modern United States, and fighting on the field doesn’t mean that you can’t believe in modern revelation. Heck, you can use your popularity to get people to visit lds.org.[iii]

Indeed, by deviating from the typical Mormon masculinity , Harper gives credence to the message behind “I’m a Mormon.” He also performs a type of Mormon masculinity that is less about “drinking milk” and more about slamming home runs. And, if the older woman I spoke to in 2013 is any indicator, many Mormons are willing to embrace a wide variety of Mormon masculinities—including aspects of Mormon men’s personas that don’t conform easily to those most visible in missionary service or church service.

Will Harper be used as an example of the ideal Mormon man anytime soon? I doubt it. But that’s part of his appeal. He’s a baseball player. He’s a  husband. And he’s a Mormon.

[i] I plan to dig into the politics of the male Mormon body in another post.

[ii] Be warned the article linked about Ainge’s paternalism is part of an article about the drug overdose of Len Bias.

Also, Ainge is still a cheapskate. He and Gordon Hayward were spotted there shortly after the Butler alum switched teams in July. I’m totally over the Jazz losing Hayward, why do you ask?

[iii] Harper links to an lds.org URL in his Instagram profile.

Article filed under Gender Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. It’s fascinating the latitude he’s given on standards. Are mormons not as aware of their baseball Mormon heroes as basketball/football? I wonder if he’s less well known bc he was never a byu household name. Is it because times are more modern? Is it because men aren’t policed like women are in our culture? I don’t know—but I love that he’s out there as one way to mormon to an outside espn audience, who is likely more familiar w him than my neighbors are.

    Comment by Kristine A — January 22, 2018 @ 9:52 am

  2. I think it’s because Mormonism was never a part of his identity coming into the mainstream, either. His Mormonism wasn’t a big deal until the “clown question” interview.

    Also, a little insane/not surprising that the same year that Harper poses nude that Lindsey Stirling gets harassment for wearing a very modest dress that happens to be nude-colored in certain parts. A post for another day.

    Comment by J Stuart — January 22, 2018 @ 9:54 am

  3. One reason that Harper didn’t go to BYU is because he was drafted out of High School, but Joseph you opened my eyes to him!!! I taught our kids don’t start the fight but you can defend ourselves, I would get very upset if someone threw a hundred miles per hour fast ball at my head, or a beer bottle from the stands because you just blasted a home run after making a driving catch, there may even be a few unrighteous words, when you mess with someone that is as competitive as he is thinking may slip even though he is built like Greek God his is still human!!!

    Comment by J.R. Rusk — January 22, 2018 @ 2:50 pm

  4. Mormonism’s modesty culture encourages young people not to “use a special occasion as an excuse to be immodest. When you dress immodestly, you send a message that is contrary to your identity as a son or daughter of God. You also send the message that you are using your body to get attention and approval.”

    Whence cometh this quote? Because wherever it comes from, I think I’ve seen it before and I think it (and its ilk) are the reason, when I go for a 10K run in the heat of July in the middle of the deserted woods, I’m still EXTREMELY hesitant to run in just a bra (or even a bra and tank top) for fear that A. someone might see me and B. that that person will think I’m taking advantage of the situation as an excuse to parade myself around in public half-dressed to get attention.

    Comment by seripanther — January 22, 2018 @ 3:21 pm

  5. Hi Seripanther, It’s from the For Strength of Youth pamphlet.

    Comment by J Stuart — January 22, 2018 @ 3:22 pm

  6. ?1.) Good job, J. ?
    ?2.) Lol at using “jacked” in a serious essay.?
    ?3.) How would you define Mormon masculinity? I’d be interested in talking about the theology of the body in Mormonism, the Priesthood, and how that may or may not intersect with what is defined as masculine. Does having the Priesthood imply a level of masculinity that is missing among men without it? How would black/brown masculinity be perceived within that same spectrum (Donny Osmond to Bryce Harper)? Lots of questions and thoughts, haha.

    Comment by Janan — January 22, 2018 @ 3:48 pm

  7. Janan: you’re absolutely right about race. I’m thinking about ways of getting at defining Mormon masculinity for non-white men, particularly related to priesthood and temple. I think that there are some real problems with analysis of race in Mormonism that don’t account for gender (I know I’m preaching to the choir here). There’s more to be done on heterosexual men and queer men and men of color. I’m hoping that this is the start of a longer conversation about masculinity and gender within Mormonism. Thanks for reminding me that I was speaking about white men without specifically naming their race. That’s a problem.

    As for Mormons of color that are also celebrities, I’d love to think more about Polynesians and people of Latinx descent. I’ll think on it some more.

    Comment by J Stuart — January 22, 2018 @ 3:52 pm

  8. Harper is a sign that we Mormons have a chance to move past the era during the last forty years when Mormon celebrities represented, above all, the hope that we might become accepted in the cultural mainstream. We celebrated Mormon entertainers and athletes in the hope that their mainstream normality might rub off on the rest of us. Ironically, this helped to pigeonhole these celebrities as Mormons, and it made them somewhat dependent on their popularity within the Mormon subculture.

    Harper is a different kind of Mormon celebrity who is not much preoccupied with repping his religion. He has indeed embraced his faith publicly, but he has never done so in a way that caters to the celebrity culture inside Mormonism. (This might partly explain the lack of outrage over his f-bombs and nude photo spread.) He seems never to have felt the need to be seen as a conventional, Utah-style Mormon, so he helps to redefine what a conventional Mormon can be.

    Comment by Loursat — January 22, 2018 @ 4:07 pm

  9. If I looked like Bryce you can be damn sure I would be plenty immodes about it…

    (Nice post.)

    Comment by Kevin Barney — January 22, 2018 @ 7:22 pm

  10. “He does not look or act like […] David Archuleta or […] other white male LDS celebrities.”

    …Are…are you sure about this sentence?

    Comment by Anon E. Mouse — January 22, 2018 @ 7:36 pm

  11. I didn’t think, Mouse. I updated the post.

    Comment by J Stuart — January 22, 2018 @ 8:18 pm

  12. If this is what direction Mormon masculinities are going in in our culture, then as a man I want no part in it. Temper tantrums and focusing on physical appearance and objectification is toxic masculinity if you ask me.

    Comment by Tony D. — January 22, 2018 @ 9:42 pm

  13. Nice post. I follow sports and celebrity very little (had to google Wally Joyner), but such people tend to be in the public eye, gossip shows, magazine covers in supermarkets.

    Comment by Ben S — January 22, 2018 @ 9:55 pm

  14. I don’t think it’s fair to call someone a cheapskate because they are a customer at Panera bread, or because they sipped some 7-Up at a Hyatt. Let’s lay off the name-calling, OK?

    Comment by Eddie — January 23, 2018 @ 11:18 am

  15. Lol damn harper is good even though i don’t like his team GO PHILLIES

    Comment by James12345' — January 30, 2018 @ 7:28 am

  16. Lol damn harper is really good

    Comment by James12345' — January 30, 2018 @ 7:28 am


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