Latter Day Saints in popular culture
Latter Day Saints and Mormons have been portrayed in popular media many times. These portrayals often emphasize controversy such as polygamy or myths about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and other Latter Day Saint movement religions.
Controversial, negative portrayals
Portrayals of Mormons and of Mormonism in both literature and movies have drawn criticism, with critics such as d'Arc describing the bulk of what the world heard of Mormons in the 19th and early-20th century, via the literature of the day, as "polygamy, mystic revelations to modern prophets, golden bibles, and scheming missionaries adding continually to their harem of wives", and stating that this portrayal found its way into movies.
In 19th century literature
Two examples of 19th century books that incorporate the images d'Arc complained about are:
Jules Verne's classic novel Around the World in Eighty Days (1873) references a "Mormon Elder" who launches into a diatribe about his religion in a rail car where passenger Passepartout becomes a captive audience. Verne follows the 19th-century propensity to view polygamy as central to Mormonism, going so far as to call it, "the sole basis of the religion."
Arthur Conan Doyle's detective novel A Study in Scarlet (1887) is another portrayal that caused controversy. Mormons viewed the portrayal of the Danites in the book as highly erroneous, being yet another instance of anti-Mormon antagonism in popular media. Conan Doyle, according to his daughter, had relied upon what had been published about Mormons by former Mormons (historians believing these probably to be Fannie Stenhouse, William A. Hickman, William Jarman, John Hyde, and Ann Eliza Young), believing those accounts to be factual. Conan Doyle visited the United States in 1923, and one leg of his lecture tour took him to the University of Utah, to lecture on spiritualism. During his stay he received a letter from a Dr. G. Hodgson Higgins, who had formed his impressions of Mormonism based upon the portrayal in A Study in Scarlet, which "gave the impression that murder was a common practice among them", and who suggested that Conan Doyle "express his regret at having propagated falsehoods about the Mormon Church and people". Conan Doyle refused to withdraw what he had written about the Danites and the murders, on the grounds that it was a matter of historical record, but stated that his treatment in the novel was more "lurid" than the treatment by a history textbook would have been, and promised that in the future his portrayals of the Latter-day Saints would be based upon his firsthand experience of them on his visit. Subsequent Mormon characters in Conan Doyle's work were indeed more sympathetic.
In 20th century film
D'Arc gives two examples of the films from 1905 to 1936 that incorporate the images he complained about: the Danish film A Victim of the Mormons (1911),1 wherein a young Mormon missionary in Copenhagen lures the fianceé of a close friend to elope with him to Utah, whereupon he locks her in his basement (a film whose showing Governor of Utah William Spry fought to prevent); and the film A Mormon Maid (1917),2 incorporating what d'Arc describes as "the innocent-daughter-catching-the-eye-of-powerful-Mormon-leader formula". D'Arc argues that the reason that such portrayals became sparse in the 1930s was the introduction of the Hays and later Breen regulatory codes, which sharply curtailed the portrayal of polygamy in movies.
Portrayals of Mormon characters in popular writing have not been universally viewed as negative by Mormons. For example:
The portrayals of Mormons in the work of Orson Scott Card, himself a Mormon, have been viewed as sympathetic of the Mormon world view that reach hundreds of thousands of readers worldwide, and thus that form a useful starting point for Mormons to explain Mormonism to non-Mormons. Similarly, the portrayals of Mormons and of Mormonism presented by Harold Bloom (extolling Mormonism as the quintessential American religion, Charles Dickens (describing the industrious, orderly nature of the Mormon emigrants he encountered on a ship leaving England), John Stuart Mill (using Mormon beliefs as test cases for his assertion that government should not interfere in the private lives of individuals), George Bernard Shaw (carrying Mill's argument further), Joseph Smith as "an authentic religious genius, unique in our national history"), and Wallace Stegner (in The Gathering of Zion) are all seen as sympathetic to Mormons.
Michael Austin's analysis of Mormon portrayals
Mormon literary critics, such as Michael Austin, consider the portrayal of Mormons in popular writing to have completely changed over the course of the 20th century, with the portrayal of Mormonism in the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century being that of "a harsh, theocratic, and conspiratorial frontier community" and "a sinister secret society bent on tracking down and destroying its enemies wherever in the world they tried to hide". At the time, Austin states that Mormons were icons of lawlessness, chaos, and sexual promiscuity, conceptions of Mormons and Mormonism that he views to have been incorporated into the works of Arthur Conan Doyle, Zane Grey, Jack London, Robert Louis Stevenson, Mark Twain, and even the made-for-TV movie The Avenging Angel (1995)3). The portrayal at the end of the 20th century, in works by writers from Tom Clancy to Tony Kushner, is described by Austin as being of people who are "hyperobedient, patriotic, conservative, and, in all probability, sexually repressed". He argues that although the portrayal has changed, its relation to mainstream society has not. In both cases, the portrayal of Mormons and Mormonism is highly distinct from the mainstream, he argues, with the 19th century portrayal being in stark contrast to the Victorian values of the time, and the late-20th century portrayal being ironically that of a "Victorian misfit in a promiscuous society". He argues that the role of Mormons and Mormonism in popular writing is "to establish a foil for the [mainstream] values supported in the text".
- To the extent that popular literature is able to reflect popular sentiment, Mormons are not as well perceived in the larger American culture as most people would like to believe.
- Most of these negative images have been fixed since the 19th century.
- These stereotypes should not be confused with genuine political critique.
- By studying the way that Mormons are portrayed in popular genre fiction insight can be gained into the way that Mormonism functions as a category in American culture.
In the 19th and 20th centuries
In addition to the works listed in the Overview, 19th and 20th Century literary and film portrayals of Mormons include:
Paint Your Wagon
In the 21st century
In the 21st century, positive portrayals of Mormons in popular media are still perceived by Mormons as rare; most portrayals are viewed as "usually just polygamy jokes for a cheap laugh, or the 'hip' thing nowadays—gay Mormon missionaries." Some examples are listed below.
8: The Mormon Proposition
8: The Mormon Proposition is an American documentary that examines The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS Church) and its support of California Proposition 8, stating that the church has been actively involved in the denial of LGBT human rights. The film was written by Reed Cowan, directed by Cowan and Steven Greenstreet, and narrated by Dustin Lance Black. It was released on June 18, 2010 by Red Flag Releasing (RFR).
Believer is a 2018 biopic documentary that examines the intersection between LGBT people and the LDS Church through the eyes of Dan Reynolds of Imagine Dragons. It focuses on his efforts to organize the LoveLoud Festival in Provo, Utah in support of Utah LGBTQ youth.
The gay romantic drama Latter Days (2003), set in Los Angeles, California, portrays a young party animal who sets out to seduce an LDS Church missionary but ends up falling in love with him. The film received mixed reviews, and was banned in one movie theatre chain. However, reception of the film at some film festivals was very positive, including standing ovations. The movie was a commercial success and has received at least nine "best film" awards.
Millions (2004) tells the story of a boy who accidentally finds millions of pounds sterling. Replete with religious references, three scenes include Mormon missionaries. They are shown riding their bikes in one scene, being given some of the money through their letter box in another, and being questioned by the police about the money in a third.
Gus Van Sant's film, Last Days (2005), which is inspired by the final hours of Kurt Cobain's life, shows an addled musician being visited by Mormon missionaries. The character is unresponsive and puzzled by their presence.
Two children—named "Mormon Kid 1" and "Mormon Kid 2"—make brief appearances at the end of the American horror film entitled The Strangers (2008). They hand Christian pamphlets to the three murderers as they drive away from a murder scene. If these two were intended to be Mormon, then the movie's portrayal of them is highly inaccurate, as Mormon missionaries are typically eighteen or older, wear name cards on their shirt pockets, hand out Books of Mormon rather than Christian-themed pamphlets, and do not typically address other people as "sinners".
Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes
In May 1991, Tony Kushner's complex, often metaphorical, and at times symbolic examination of AIDS and homosexuality in America in the 1980s, opened on Broadway entitled Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. The play has several storylines, some of which occasionally intersect. One of the featured storylines is that of, "Joe, a young Mormon lawyer, who has taken on the right-wing potentate and monster Roy Cohn as a mentor. Two gay men, neither willing to admit it (though Cohn has started to die of AIDS-related causes). Joe strikes up a friendship with gay Louis, and soon they are lovers; but though opposites may attract, they're still opposites. Says Louis: 'I can't believe I spent three weeks in bed with a Mormon.' After a drunken Joe calls his mother Hannah to say he's gay, she sells her Salt Lake City home and heads east to save him, while working as a volunteer in the Mormon Visitors' Center. Joe finally ends his affair by punching Louis during a fight." The work won numerous awards, including the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, the Tony Award for Best Play, and the Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Play. The play was later created as a 2003 American HBO miniseries, by the same name. The miniseries starred actors, Al Pacino, Meryl Streep, Patrick Wilson, Mary-Lousie Parker, and Emma Thompson. Times magazine film critic Richard Corliss later described the production as, "a splendid showcase for its actors. But Kushner's plea for compassion toward his fellow gays is compromised by his evident bigotry toward Mormons."
The Book of Mormon musical
In March 2011, a religious satire musical opened on Broadway entitled The Book of Mormon. Conceived by Trey Parker, Matt Stone, and Robert Lopez, the play tells the story of two young Mormon missionaries sent to a remote village in northern Uganda, where a brutal warlord is threatening the local population. Naive and optimistic, the two missionaries try to share their scriptures—which only one of them knows very well—but have trouble connecting with the locals, who are worried about famine, poverty, and AIDS.
In December 2017, Jason Cloud's first production Jack Mormon premiered in Vienna, Austria. The play deals with the persisting disillusionment of a Mormon missionary following his failed suicide attempt. Much of the backstory and symbolism are left open for interpretation by the audience but the condemnation of the pressure missionaries are subject to by society and the Church itself are apparent. Cloud who is a Latter Day Saint in real life, lost 15 pounds (6.8 kg) and stopped attending services in preparation for the role.
The HBO show Big Love stars Bill Paxton as Bill Henrickson, a modern-day polygamist who lives in suburban Salt Lake City with his three wives and seven children. Commentators such as Jesella and Ryan point out that polygamy was banned by the LDS Church "more than 100 years ago" and is against the law in Utah, the state where the show is set, and that the family is not explicitly Mormon. A statement to that effect precedes the first episode but is presented as "being some sort of cult-like offshoot of the church". Other commentators have simply described the Henricksons as a "Mormon family" and left it to others to draw the distinction. The show has caused controversy, with Mormons and LDS Church leaders reacting to what they perceive as being a veiled stereotype. The LDS Church released an official statement saying:
- The Church has long been concerned about the continued illegal practice of polygamy, and, in particular, about reports of child and wife abuse emanating from polygamous communities today. It will be regrettable if this program, by making polygamy the subject of entertainment, minimizes the seriousness of the problem. Placing the series in Salt Lake City, the international headquarters of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, is enough to blur the line between the modern Church and the program's subject matter, and to reinforce old and long-outdated stereotypes. Big Love, like so much other television programming, is essentially lazy and indulgent entertainment that does nothing for our society and will never nourish great minds.
HBO defended its show, asserting that its portrayal of the characters as outside of the LDS Church and continually having to hide their status from other people actually helps to educate non-Mormons about Mormonism, with Carolyn Strauss, president of HBO Entertainment, saying:
- It is interesting how many people are ignorant about the Mormon church and think that the Mormon church actually does condone polygamy. So in an odd way, the show is sort of beneficial in drawing that distinction.
The show again hit a sensitive spot when, in 2009, it recreated a temple ceremony that members of the church consider to be sacred. The creators deemed it "a very important part of the story" and made it clear that they were going to air the episode as planned after apologizing for offending anyone. The church's response to the news about the ceremony stated that as an institution, they would not call for a boycott. Also, it stated that despite assurances three years ago from HBO and the creators of Big Love that the show was not about Mormons, Mormon themes and increasingly unsympathetic characters were being woven into the show.
The portrayal of Mormons in Cold Case has also drawn criticism from Chris Hicks for being disrespectful. He has stated that the program is an example of the unequal treatment of Mormons, stating that where insane people of other religions are portrayed in television drama, pains are taken to point out as part of the plot that they are "non-practicing", yet no such pains are taken when it comes to Mormons. As a result, the faith is seen as directly related to the insanity of one character with the implication being that all Mormons are strange people. He also expressed concerns that the temple garments of Mormons did not receive the same sympathetic dramatic treatment or respect as do the sacred symbols of other religions.
In season 6, episode 10 of the popular series Dexter, there is a reference to Mormonism connecting it to a radicalized end of days killer. The entire season focuses on religious symbols and apocalyptic beliefs. In this episode, Angel Batista notices a bookcase full of titles belonging to the murder suspect, Dr. Gellar. Among them is the third volume of the early Mormon historical fiction series The Work and the Glory, subtitled "Truth Will Prevail". The book's connection to Mormonism is not acknowledged by the show's characters, verbally or otherwise.The inclusion of the book is likely coincidental, considering the book is a historic-fiction set in the period from 1836 to 1838 and has little to do with Latter-day Saint end of days doctrine.
Mrs Brown's Boys
Irish hit series, Mrs. Brown's Boys features an episode about religion in which the Mormon missionaries turn up at her house and discuss religion. She mistakes them for undertakers, and holds them "hostage" for a couple of hours.
In Season 6, Episode 9 of Psych, girls sporting BYU (a Mormon university) T-shirts are seen entering a bar. This is out of place since Mormons do not drink alcohol. The inclusion was due to Psych's Campus War website which had users play games to earn points for their school.
Commentators have been surprised by the comparatively positive portrayal of Latter-day Saints in South Park. Mormon commentators have described it as "unexpectedly, our best treatment". In South Park, despite the fact that Mormon characters are "generally pollyannas with bike helmets and missionary tags", and an entire episode, "All About Mormons", is devoted to lampooning Joseph Smith and the founding of the religion, the portrayal is considered to be generally positive. In the episode "Super Best Friends", Smith is portrayed positively, appearing in a Super Friends parody involving other religious figures who are allied in the fight against David Blaine. In the episode "Probably", it is only the Mormons who "got it right" and who go to heaven after death and all adherents of other religions go to hell, though this "reversal of fortune" is likely just a literary device for giving debates of religious salvation a humorously ironic twist, rather than a meaningful endorsement of Mormonism. Mormon characters in the series are the only ones who commentators view to be "consistently compassionate, or even courteous".
In Fallout, a video game series set in post-nuclear war America, Mormons are portrayed as one of the last surviving religions. One of the biggest and most powerful Mormon controlled towns is New Canaan, built on the ruins of Ogden, Utah. Mormons are featured heavily in Fallout: New Vegas expansion "Honest Hearts", wherein their missionaries are spreading the religion to tribals in Zion National Park and teaching them to defend themselves against neighboring tribes and Caesar's Legion, a totalitarian slaver society co-founded by Joshua Graham, one of the Mormon missionaries now turned against Caesar.
- Schindler, Harold (April 10, 1994), "The Case Of The Repentant Writer: Sherlock Homes' Creator Raises The Wrath Of Mormons", The Salt Lake Tribune, p. D1, Archive Article ID: 101185DCD718AD35 (NewsBank). Online reprint Archived 2006-09-23 at the Wayback Machine., with permission, at HistoryToGo.utah.gov by the Utah Division of State History, Utah Department of Heritage and Arts, State of Utah.
- James V. d'Arc (Fall 1976). "The Saints on Celluloid: The Making of the Movie "Brigham Young"" (4). Sunstone Magazine.
- Michael Austin (1994). "The Function of Mormon Literary Criticism at the Present Time". Annual of the Association for Mormon Letters. Rocky Mountain Modern Language Association Conference.
- Michael Austin. "Mormon Stereotypes in Popular Fiction: 1979-1998". Mormonism in Popular Literature Bibliography.
- "Notes From April 2006 General Conference – Saturday". The Baron of Deseret. April 4, 2006.
- "Latter Days reviews". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved 2008-06-29.
- "NATIONAL THEATER CHAIN SAYS "NO" TO LATTER DAYS". MCN Press Release. 2004-01-20. Archived from the original on 2007-05-24. Retrieved 2006-12-18.
- Corliss, Richard (2011-04-25). "10 Memorable Depictions of Mormons in Pop Culture". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2017-06-08.
- "HBO: Angels in America: Home". HBO. Retrieved 2017-06-09.
- Angels in America (TV Mini-Series 2003– ), retrieved 2017-06-09
- Corliss, Richard (2011-04-25). "10 Memorable Depictions of Mormons in Pop Culture". Time. ISSN 0040-781X. Retrieved 2017-06-09.
- Riedel, Michael (2010-04-14). "Just 'Park' it here". New York Post. Retrieved 2017-06-09.
- "This Month in Mormon Literature, October 9, 2017 - Dawning of a Brighter Day". Dawning of a Brighter Day. 2017-10-09. Retrieved 2018-04-18.
- Cloud, Jason. "Blood, Sweat and Tar at the Jack Mormon Premiere". PRLog. Retrieved 2018-04-18.
- Kara Jesella (2006-03-10). "Is Three Wives a Crowd?". AlterNet.
- Maureen Ryan (2006-03-09). "It's hard out here for a polygamist: "Big Love"". The Chicago Tribune.
- "Chuck Tryon" (2006-02-24). "TV Reads". the chutry experiment.
- Peter Bowes (2006-03-10). "Polygamy drama debuts on US TV". Los Angeles: BBC News.
- "Church Responds to Questions on HBO's Big Love". Salt Lake City, Utah: lds.org. 2006-03-06.
- Chris Hicks (2005-06-05). "TV portrayal of Mormons mean, callous". Deseret Morning News.
- Serenity Valley (2006-05-29). "Trapped By the Mormons".
- Steve Evans (2006-06-03). "South Park Mormonism".
- Jared Farmer, Mormons in the Media, 1830–2012
- "Mormons, Image of", Frequently Asked Questions about The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Brigham Young University, archived from the original on 2008-03-09 — Day, d'Arc, and Lambert analyse the portrayals of Mormons in the visual arts, film, and fiction, respectively.
- Scott Helman and Michael Paulson (2006-07-20), "Filmmaker seeks to shed light on Mormonism. Aim is to aid Romney in a presidential bid." (paywall), The Boston Globe — Helman and Paulson report on attempts using popular media to demystify Mormons and Mormonism to non-Mormons, aimed at countering "the nearly two centuries of prejudice against Mormonism" and at paving the way for Mitt Romney to run for United States President in 2008.
- "John C." (pseudonym) (2005-12-09), "Out of the worst books...", Various Stages of Mormondom (blog) — a discussion of the best and worst portrayals of Mormons and Mormonism in popular fiction, from Conan Doyle's perceived use of the "Evil Mormon" stock character to Robert A. Heinlein's Sixth Column where Mormons are portrayed as "good practical people who are religious, but who are also kind of opportunistic (religiously speaking) and, therefore, perfect for the heroes' plan"
- Steve Evans (2005-02-08), "Dealing with Anti-Mormon Media", By Common Consent — Evans prescribes ways for Mormons to address what they consider to be negative portrayals of Mormons in popular media, opining that such portrayals are "ultimately [...] the cost of doing business as the restored Gospel" and "should receive their proper level of attention on [Mormons' parts]: that is, none at all". Evans exhorts "Let us not respond to evil by debasing ourselves with plaintive campaigns or angry rebuttals; rather, show people what our religion is really about by being the same kind, fun, interesting people we've always been. If people ask you about the book? Yawn, and respond that people are always saying crazy stuff about the Mormons."
- Hunter, J. Michael (2013), Mormons and Popular Culture: The Global Influence of an American Phenomenon, Santa Barbara, California: Praeger, ISBN 9780313391675, LCCN 2012033778, OCLC 776495102
- Decker, Mark T.; Austin, Michael (May 1, 2010), Peculiar Portrayals: Mormons on the Page, Stage, and Screen (1st ed.), Salt Lake City: Utah State University Press, p. 208, ISBN 978-0874217735
- Latter-day Saint Characters in Media at LDSFilm.com — listing of movies and television shows that have major characters that are Mormons