Mahana, You Naked: Johnny Lingo and the Politics of Nakedness

By August 2, 2012

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.

Article filed under Miscellaneous


  1. Interestingly, the women at the Polynesian Cultural Center wear skin-colored shirts over their torsos; there’s not a navel in sight. (Apparently, that policy was the request of David O. McKay, who was somewhat scandalized by bare midriffs on a visit to La’ie.) One author I read said that patriarchy was the reason men could be more bare than women, but my opinion is that it’s just an expression of overarching cultural norms of gendered dress in America.

    It is also notable that non-Polynesian employees of the PCC -i.e., white ones- also don traditional Polynesian dress. Not to mention how missionaries in Polynesia can wear sandals and lava-lavas (or so they have in the past).

    Comment by Michael H. — August 2, 2012 @ 9:09 pm

  2. What I found most striking was your your experience as a non-Mormon in the Mormon culture region with Mormon friends, compared to mine as a Mormon outside that region with no such friends. I think that I would be considered very Mormon by almost any categorization; and yet, I have never seen Johnny Lingo, was only first made aware of Charley a couple of years ago, and was fairly oblivious about dressing standards (my parents didn’t really talk about it with me).

    Now, that said, I think that it seems that there are two ways this issue has been approached: 1) a cultural imperialism that results in obviating disparities in dress standards, and 2) a form of cultural paternalism, which you seem to be hinting at, which allows for the perpetuation of disparities, albeit with a whiff of superiority by the observer. Are there other possibilities? E.g., real cultural sensitivities…like when JFS allowed for the use of kava?

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 2, 2012 @ 9:28 pm

  3. Michael H., that is interesting and something that I hadn’t realized about the women at the PCC. I have looked at a lot of photos, but won’t get a chance to go to Hawaii till this fall. I wish I could spend a few weeks there. I would love to talk to some students about their experiences. It would be interesting to know the white students interpret the costumes they don.

    J. – I would actually lean towards one and two. I am not sure about three. From what I understand from talking to native PI groups, there’s a lot of ambivalence about being asked to perform native dances and wear native costumes. On the one hand, a lot of groups feel like its belittling and reductionist. PIs are only invited when their hula skills are valued. On the other hand, they appreciate the funds which allow them to do good i n their communities. Its also impt to recognize that PI culture isn’t always or even often integrated into the church. There are some great websites on this. I’ll post them tomorrow when my only internet isnt my smart phone.

    Comment by Amanda HK — August 2, 2012 @ 9:49 pm

  4. Amanda – Something that you might find interesting is Vernice Wineera’s PhD dissertation on the PCC from 5/2000, entitled “Selves and Others: A Study of Reflexivity and the Representation of Culture in Touristic Display at the Polynesian Cultural Center, Laie, Hawaii.” It contains an ample number of employee interviews, as well as tons of background info on the development of the PCC.

    I’ve got an electronic copy I could email if you’d like to read it.

    Comment by Michael H. — August 2, 2012 @ 11:50 pm

  5. Awesome series and great post.

    I thought a lot about modesty while in Provo. The Utah Mormon style of dress (longer skirts, sleeves, etc) fits my dress style pretty well and so I didn’t have to spend hours sewing sleeves. (Which is good since I can’t sew.) But I do remember after a couple of weeks in Provo being kind of shocked when I went to a concert and saw girls in shorter, sleeveless dresses. And then I went to Bryce Canyon and felt really, really relieved to be able to wear a tank top without thinking about it because the modesty thing was giving me a headache.

    All of which has nothing to do with the specific issue of modesty and PI culture. It’s just a long way of saying that I’m looking foward to this series and thinking about how we approach bodies with y’all.

    Comment by Saskia — August 3, 2012 @ 12:29 am

  6. I hear you Saskla. I’m in BYU right now. When I go home for the summer (Montana), I always have to take a moment to readjust to the revealing clothes. Somehow, after months of not seeing them, it always surprises me when I first do again. Can’t explain it.

    Comment by DavidF — August 3, 2012 @ 9:12 am

  7. Thanks for this, Amanda. Really fascinating, and it reminds me also of the Living Legends dance group at BYU which my wife was a part of several years ago. The men, particularly in the “Polynesian” dances are bare chested and the women have a similar strapless top as those shown in pictures of the PCC. See these first group of pictures, for example. Not to add to an already sizeable project, but this is a group that tours internationally rather than being a fixed location within an already “Pacific” context and they tell a version of the Lehi story (“the great spirit led our ancient fathers, etc.”), so you might keep them in mind as well.

    Comment by Jared T — August 3, 2012 @ 9:43 am

  8. Michael, I would love to see that dissertation. My e-mail is

    Saskia — I know exactly how you feel. I was looking at my summer clothes with sleeves yesterday trying to get dressed before I went to the archives, and all I could think was why are my clothes so dowdy?

    Jared T. — Interesting! I should see if they are performing anywhere near me anytime soon.

    Comment by Amanda — August 3, 2012 @ 11:18 am

  9. Great stuff, Amanda.

    Comment by David G. — August 3, 2012 @ 11:19 am

  10. Interesting thoughts, Amanda. There is a danger of reading too much into it, though. Maybe the filmmaker was just trying to be as “authentic” with the costumes as possible, given the audience. Could it be nothing more than that?

    Incidentally, I grew up LDS (still am) on the east coast and was vaguely aware of Johnny Lingo, but never actually saw it until I was a missionary in Germany!

    Comment by Jeff Davis — August 3, 2012 @ 11:28 am

  11. I am sure he was trying to be as true as possible to what he saw as Polynesian customs. The question is why being “authentic” always involves naked Polynesian bodies. After all, kava is also an authentic part of Polynesian culture and, though some have supported its use within the church, its status within the church is at best ambiguous.

    Comment by Amanda — August 3, 2012 @ 11:33 am

  12. Amanda, Liberty Stake President Hugh J. Cannon accompanied David O. McKay as the apostle toured church congregations throughout the world in 1920-1921, and spent some time in the South Sea Islands and New Zealand. He wrote about it in this book:

    Hugh J. Cannon, David O. McKay: Around the World; an Apostolic Mission, Prelude to Church Globalization, Spring Creek Book Company, Provo, Utah 2005, p 14-17. (Reprint).

    The trip was also serialized via letters in the Deseret News throughout 1921. It’s been a while since I read some excerpts, but Cannon’s experience in the South Sea Islands also prompted him to write a particularly uncomfortable fiction piece that was serialized in the Improvement Era, that Ardis Parshall published in her blog . Be forewarned, the fictional piece is to say the least a prime example of racist views towards Polynesians (and others) from that era. However, they may be worth looking at in your research.

    Comment by kevinf — August 3, 2012 @ 11:48 am

  13. These comments just reminded me of my stint on the BYU Folk Dance Team. The Team did a men’s Samoan dance, which was perfromed without a shirt. Serious whiteness going on. I think that was the only shirtless dance; though costumes were generally authentic. We aught to get Josh Probert to comment…

    Comment by J. Stapley — August 3, 2012 @ 7:27 pm

  14. LOL, Stape. I smell an article title: “Serious Whiteness:_____”

    Comment by Jared T. — August 3, 2012 @ 7:29 pm

  15. Good stuff, Amanda. I’m glad to see more attention being paid to Mormon notions of modesty, and think your use of pop culture to examine such notions is an important contribution.

    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.

    For what it’s worth, a shorter and earlier version of that article appeared here at JI in 2008, and some of the discussion in the comments might be be useful.

    Comment by Christopher — August 4, 2012 @ 7:42 am

  16. Also, I like any post that results in Stapley reflecting on his folk dancing days with Josh Probert.

    Comment by Christopher — August 4, 2012 @ 7:43 am

  17. Jonny Lingo, Saved by the Bell, nipples, and J’s folk dancing: this might be the most eclectic post and thread at JI ever, but also one of the best. Well done!

    Comment by Ben P — August 4, 2012 @ 8:04 am

  18. […] ?Mahana, You Naked: Johnny Lingo and the Politics of Nakedness?, Amanda, The Juvenile Instructor. The first substantive post in a series about Mormon literature and the creation of a history of Mormon girls. Amanda compares the way the Mormon film Johnny Lingo displays Polynesian bodies, compared to the way the novel Charley portrays white Utah Mormon ideas of modesty. ?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?? […]

    Pingback by This Week in Mormon Literature, August 5, 2012 | Dawning of a Brighter Day — August 5, 2012 @ 1:22 pm


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