Mormons and the Media: If a Carnivorous Crocodile and a Stripling Warrior Fought…

By August 29, 2012

Professor Jared Farmer and the State University of New York at Stonybrook very generously posted a free e-book last week—Mormons in the Media, 1832-2012. Though the title should be “Mormons in American Media,” the 342-page book and the hundreds of images therein need to be seen. They are beautiful and brilliant—some impressively horrific in their full technicolor glory. Farmer builds upon a foundation established by Gary Bunker and Davis Bitton in their 1983 The Mormon Graphic Image, 1833-1914: Cartoons, Caricatures, and Illustrations and is able to radically enlarge it. The expansive scope of these pages can easily induce a little head spinning—the very best kind.

Mormons in the Media is highly accessible for undergraduates, lay readership, and a provocative basis for Mormon history lectures of many varieties. It likewise includes an extensive reading list for more comprehensive analysis. Academics will find some profitable suggestive analysis and simply find more images here than any other single source. By way of comparison, Spencer Fluhman’s new monograph A Peculiar People contains only 12 images; Kathleen Flake’s The Politics of American Religious Identity includes 17. Sarah Gordon’s The Mormon Question boasts 45 images, and even with a confined focus on the “Mormon graphic image” Bunker and Bitton’s account is able to reproduce 129 images. Farmer dwarfs the rest. (I got tired of counting after 400.) The e-book format allows an unprecedented focus on the depictions themselves, better than any print book with illustration restrictions. (Certainly other authors would have jumped at an opportunity for more images.) The images are a powerful tool to begin to understand the worlds shaped and being shaped by both those inside and outside of Mormonism in America.

However, the sheet number of images themselves is not enough. An understanding of the graphics is never merely self-evident. Farmer provides significant contextualization and analysis as he “curates” the collection. He begins the excavation of consistent themes, familiar tropes, and demonstrates general transitions over time.

This is not a comprehensive examination of Mormons in the media, nor does it claim to be. Clearly aware of his limitations, Farmer notes that this is not a “true cross-section of images of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” Yet, he offers up a supremely valuable overview through which he builds a wide array of research possibilities. Reflecting Farmer’s prior work, the “Saints and Lamanites” section includes more text than most other sections, including concise reviews of Mountain Meadows Massacre literature. He perceptively gives “The Mormon Problem” a wide berth—it is not just polygamy for Farmer. Really much of the book could specifically fit under the Mormon Problem category—at least the 19th and early 20th century sections.

Perhaps my favorite chapter, “Menacing Hair,” provides an interesting transition to the second half of the book. (Who knew that Mormon beards resembled upside-down “stately Lombardy poplars” so closely?) The second half may be considered more analytically shallow, but it clearly opens the way for new work as it summarizes a vast run of popular culture (from the predictable Donny and Marie! to South Park and Big Love to the less predictable Mormon pin-ups and escorts), internet memes (the instructive difference between Mormons ninjas and a variety of other dangerous internet predators), and a litany of blog topics littering our most recent “Mormon Moment.” I think most Mormons will generally find depictions of the temple garments at least slightly disturbing–as usual. (Perhaps Twilight vampires’ pasted on heads seem somehow less revolting than Mitt and Ann Romney’s?) However, even the discussion of “magic underwear” depicts a brief history behind a consistent outsider obsession with Mormon undergarments.

One must not underestimate the entertainment value of such a collection. Yet alongside the entertainment, Farmer’s extensive work to identify such a wide spectrum of media forms and begin the process of categorization and analysis will prove useful for years to come. Most importantly Farmer reminds all of us that this is not the first “Mormon Moment,” this twenty-first century moment is only a continuation built on a long and sometimes tortuous past shaped by these images.

 

P.S. Farmer is prophetic in naming Mormon Shawn Engemann as Larry King’s seventh wife and “final marriage.”

P.P.S. Of course if Larry King is really dead, no prophecy required.

Article filed under Book and Journal Reviews Categories of Periodization: Modern Mormonism Categories of Periodization: Origins Categories of Periodization: Territorial Period Comparative Mormon Studies Digital Humanities Gender Material Culture Politics Popular Culture Race Women's History


Comments

  1. Great review, J. Downloading my copy now!

    Comment by Nate R. — August 30, 2012 @ 8:54 am

  2. Thanks for the review, Janiece. In addition to the fantastic content Farmer has provided, I’m interested in this sort of project more generally. Perhaps some of our more digital humanities-minded bloggers (Tona? Tod?) could weigh in. Are there other projects (free ebook/online museum exhibit) like this? Is this something that counts as published scholarship? Or is this simply a service Farmer is providing out of a love and interest in the subject?

    Comment by Christopher — August 30, 2012 @ 9:21 am

  3. Wonderful.

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 30, 2012 @ 9:40 am

  4. Thanks, J– Wonderful summary, and I appreciate the placing of Farmer’s work alongside other historians’ use (or limited use) of images. Your review reinforces more than anything the immense possibilities of online publishing compared to traditional print media, which can be so cost-prohibitive, especially where graphic reproduction is involved.

    Comment by Andrea R-M — August 30, 2012 @ 10:49 am

  5. I don’t think this would count as published scholarship, as it’s appearing under the auspices of Farmer’s own university as a free educational resource rather than as the publication of any press, academic or otherwise. So it likely didn’t undergo any kind of peer or editorial review, and it doesn’t look like Farmer secured publication rights for the images. Obtaining image rights for publication would have taken approximately a decade, and would have cost approximately an arm and a leg.

    It’s a fantastic resource and a tremendous service to his field, but this would probably not go on his CV as a publication. Contrasting this work and the books mentioned in the review illustrates the limits on print media, but it isn’t quite an apples-to-apples comparison.

    Comment by D. Martin — August 30, 2012 @ 12:41 pm

  6. Chris-
    Just looking at the website (still in production) for the Color of Christ made me think about that too. It seems that they are using their website to broaden their audience and while that might not add more to their CV, it might add more to the number of books sold.

    D. Martin- Comparing the books I mentioned with Farmer’s work here isn’t apples to apples and I could have acknowledged that. Farmer’s analysis certainly doesn’t have the depth of the other monographs (they all narrow in when Farmer tries to briefly cover a whole host of topics), but the image of Mormonism as created in the media is central to all of those arguments and I think that just having these images easily accessible is really significant.

    Just as a side note – I think it is interesting that the first three books I mentioned were all published by UNC. Gordon in 2001 with the most images, next Flake in 2003, and then their most recent venture with Fluhman and the least. It would not be surprising if they are no longer willing to include the number of graphics that Gordon was able to include. It will be interesting to see what happens with Oxford and Paul Reeve’s next book which could also be very reliant on the media images.

    Comment by JJohnson — August 30, 2012 @ 6:07 pm

  7. “Though the title should be ‘Mormons in American Media’”

    As long as we’re being specific, the title should probably be “Mormons in English-language American Media” to reflect the lack of engagement with the linguistic diversity of American media, particularly in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

    Comment by sar — August 31, 2012 @ 11:49 am


Series

Recent Comments

David G. on Article Review: "The Many: “Thanks, Ryan. This is an important article that's full of insights and proposals for better understanding the intertextual relationship between Mormon scriptures and the Bible.…”


This Month in Mormon Literature, May 2017 | Dawning of a Brighter Day on Gem from the Local: “[…] Hangen. Gem from the Local Archive: My Turn on Earth. The Juvenile Instructor. Hangen reviews and gives the cultural context for Carol Lynn […]”


J Stuart on JI Summer Book Club:: “I can only imagine how the Ulrichs and other families involved are feeling. My thoughts, love, and prayers are with them.”


Juvenile Instructor » JI Summer Book Club: Update on JI Summer Book Club,: “[…] and Women’s Rights in Early Mormonism. (The first two posts of the series can be found here and […]”


Erik F on JI Summer Book Club: “Phebe's letter to her parents is amazing. No doubt that Ulrich is trying to show that faith came before polygamy for women. Although, this…”


Ben P on JI Summer Book Club: “Thanks for this, Matt. I think you struck at what I found to be central in the book's first few chapters: the role of religion…”

Topics


juvenileinstructor.org