This is the first substantive post in a series about Mormon literature and the creation of a history of Mormon girls. This post tries to think about Mormon literature expansively and thus, takes as its subject a film that has sometimes been referred to as the “fourth Mormon gospel.” Next week, Susanna Morrill gives us her take on Mormon teen romances.
I first watched Johnny Lingo at my cousin’s birthday party. I remember more of the confetti cake and sprinkles than I do of the movie that night, but I enjoyed it enough that I insisted that Liz and I watch it one night after the Joseph Smith Summer Seminar. We popped some popcorn, put in the DVD, and curled up in some blankets. When the movie came on, the first thing I thought after a decade or longer absence was, “Oh my gosh, I can see his nipples!”
It wasn’t that I hadn’t seen a man’s nipples before. I had taken swimming classes at the domed indoor swimming pool in my hometown, had watched appreciatively as my brother’s friends played skins-and-shirts basketball, and had stood on the sidelines when several of my classmates – male and female – had stripped their clothes off and run naked in the snow as part of my school’s annual Finney Fun Run. What shocked me was that it was a Mormon man who was standing around without any clothes on. I associated nakedness and being scantily clad with surreptitious activities that people participated in on Friday and Saturday nights. Taking off your clothes, wearing midriff tops, and bearing your knees and shoulders were supposed to be things you did to piss of your more conservative neighbors. Yet, here was a Mormon movie that was showing off parts of the male body. At that moment, my thought was quite simply, “What gives?”
The answer to that question lies partly in the differing expectations of modesty for people based on their geographic region and skin color. I had grown up in the Mormon culture region where tank tops and short skirts were considered immodest and improper. Novels like Jack Weyland’s Charley had reinforced that idea. When the title character of Weyland’s first novel converts to the church, she spends hours sewing sleeves on her dresses to make them appropriate for her new life. The tiny stitches she uses symbolize her industry, thriftiness, and commitment to the church. This moral economy which associates sleeve length with morality is missing from Johnny Lingo. The film is set on an island in the Pacific, and although the characters are Christianized, their bodies are fully on display. The red dress that Mahana wears at the end of the film after she has realized that she is beautiful bares her dark brown shoulders, and Johnny is naked to his waist except for a string of kukui nuts and an expanse of cloth that he throws over his shoulder. This clothing is meant to evoke for white viewers the traditional cultures of the South Pacific.
In some ways, it might be possible to view decoupling of sleeve length and morality as a positive thing, but the image of Polynesians found within Johnny Lingo plays into long-standing tropes about Pacific Islanders. In the eighteenth century, men like Captain Cook and the Comte de Bougainville described Tahiti and its surrounding islands as a kind of paradise where women swarmed the ships of European men and willingly sold their bodies for a nail. One explorer famously wrote about a group of older woman who watched as a young girl had sex and shouted instructions on how to make it more enjoyable. Images of beautiful young women naked to their waist and willing to have sex for little or nothing persisted even as Tahiti and the South Pacific became Christianized in the nineteenth century. In Typee, for example, Herman Melville describes the willingness of young women to have sex and the pleasure that it brought to sailors who had run away from their ships. Moreover, the main character watches as women take multiple lovers and move freely from one relationship to the next, he notices little jealousy between the islanders. In the twentieth century, such images have continued even as the United States has become increasingly involved in the Pacific. The word “bikini” has been associated in the American imagination not with a group of islands destroyed by U.S. nuclear testing but with a particularly revealing swimsuit favored by many American women. Scholars like Ty Tengan and Huanani Kay-Trask have noted that the image of the naked Polynesian body is ubiquitous throughout American culture. It appears in beer commercials, travel posters, and TV shows like Saved by the Bell, just to name a few. Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that Mahana and Johnny Lingo wear fewer clothes than their counterparts in other BYU-produced films.
Yet, as I watched that movie as a young girl, I did find it surprising. I expected Mormon men and women, whether they were Polynesian and white, to be covered. Even though I had never been baptized as a Mormon and would never have considered doing so, I had learned through my friends and through various trips to Sunday School with my babysitters, grandparents, and friends’ parents who were LDS, that being modest meant covering certain parts of body. My idea of modesty was bound up in a certain time and place. An article published a few years ago in Dialogue called “A Style of Their Own” suggests that current ideas about modesty within Mormon culture developed only in the 1950s. But, it was what I knew and what I assumed to be a universal norm. Seeing a Mormon film that embraced bare shoulders shocked me and made me wonder what was going on.
As I have begun thinking about what writing a history of Mormon women and their relationships to their bodies might mean, I have thought more critically about what the potential effects of films like Johnny Lingo. How do films like Johnny Lingo affect the way that white, middle class Mormons think about their Polynesian brothers and sisters? Just as importantly, how do such films affect the way that Polynesian Mormons think about themselves and their bodies? What is it like to be a part of religion that places such a high value on the covering of bodies and yet constantly displays the bodies of some individuals? It is important to remember in answering this latter question that it isn’t just Johnny Lingo that displays the bodies of Polynesians in Mormon culture. The Polynesian Cultural Center, which is owned by the church, constantly asks students at BYU-Hawaii to don “traditional” costumes that would never pass honor code. What value do such practices place on different bodies? Is one type of body, always white and always covered, more valuable than the brown that is not? Why is it okay to bare some bodies and not others? Such questions are perhaps begging the question, but they are important ones to think about as we begin to ask how certain types of literature and media affect the ways that we think about and approach the bodies of others and ourselves.