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.