One of my dissertation chapters deals with gender and the family as protectors of religious order, discussing how Mormon discourse contributes to the erasure of women’s voices on a local and institutional level. During my research, I read Fresh Courage Take: New Directions by Mormon Women, edited by Jamie Zvirzdin. It’s a book filled with essays by seasoned writers, and not-so-seasoned writers, traditionalists and progressives alike, and one of the essays that really struck me was “Giselle,” written by the editor herself.
In “Giselle,” Zvrizdin writes about the aspirational values encoded in LDS discourse. Giselle is the name of the ideal woman she constructs for herself, “a constant reminder of the attributes and activities needed to receive the love of God, the approval of my church leaders, and place in heaven with my family. I could not argue with her obviously admirable qualities” (83). Giselle was a domestic wonder, taking care of the house “as fervently as she pursued her daily scripture studies with her family and on her own” (77), “always appropriately and modestly dressed” (78), and “saw her womanhood as synonymous with her wifehood and motherhood, which formed, I could tell, the core of her identity” (80). She was beautiful inside and out, never questioned the church, and “[e]ven [her] wholesome recreational were activities full of busyness and godliness, two traits that became synonymous in my mind” (82).
Clearly, Zvirzdin can never live up to the ideals that Giselle embodies, and over the years, Giselle becomes more real to Zvirzdin than the incarnated Jesus. She “descended into the material real […] in framed pictures of the temple, gold necklaces stamped with the image of a perfect young woman, copies of “The Family: A Proclamation to the World,” […] scripture handouts with raffia bows […] and cross-stitched designs, and letters written to my future self asking how many children I had and what color my future husband’s eyes were” (87). Giselle was a tragic reaction to “scripture portraying women as prized for their beauty and described like precious metals, jewels, and property […] Western expectations of youth, health, and eye-catching adornment […] two centuries of Mormon culture […] that considered birth not only a commandment but also part of a woman’s prerequisite for salvation” (84).
Zvirzdin also frequently received “[exhortations] to be a real woman as [she] grew older. It would appear that it was not sufficient for a woman to be female; to be considered a woman, she had to share in a mysterious and threatened reality known as femininity” (97)—a femininity that required “women […] to pluck, starve, paint, pad and Photoshop themselves” (98) before submitting to male authority. In “Giselle,” we see how the female body is inscribed with social meanings that reinforce male dominance, and require women to perform their gender in hyperfeminine ways in order to gain and maintain religious capital.
But we also see a way forward. Zvrizdin writes about moving to the Marshall Islands and “[beginning] to wonder about different cultures elsewhere in the world and throughout history,” specifically about beauty ideals and gender roles (97-98). And the field of Mormon history is instrumental in her transformation–specifically, reading Todd Compton’s In Sacred Loneliness and finally feeling free to “reject a doctrine that had always disturbed me” (99). Despite everything that Giselle has told her about her place in the divine order, she “[is] an agent unto [herself], with power and authority over [her] body and [her] future” (99):
I felt a mighty quake, and the granite boulder leapt from the base of the mountain and struck Giselle’s lofty pedestal. My ears rang with a deafening roar that no one else heard. When the dust settled, Giselle and her pedestal lay in ruins. … Her presence is mostly gone from my mind now. A few bits of her are scattered here and there, but her pedestal remains broken. Her absence feels strange, like wind blowing across your head when you are used to wearing a hat. I do not miss her. (100, 105)