Mormons in media need better representation
The year is 2001. I’m a tween watching “Ocean’s Eleven” at Provo’s now-defunct Movies 8, and out of nowhere I hear it: Have you been to Utah? I think you’d really dig Provo.
It’s a line spoken by one of the “Mormon twins” — two of the titular 11 — and it’s a simple throwaway joke. But it stopped me in my tracks. Hollywood knew about Latter-day Saints? About Provo?
Up until that moment, I hadn’t realized that for all my participation in pop culture, I had never expected to be included in it.
I blasted the Backstreet Boys but turned down the volume if ever they swore. My friends and I found ways to sanitize music and movies. Like a wholesome version of telephone we used some combination of denial and CleanFlicks to force popular media into a form we could consume. We didn’t do this with anger or indignation, just a tacit understanding that to be in the world but not “of the world” meant accepting the fact media would never include us.
But then, there it was! You’d really dig Provo.
Four words I still remember hearing 20 years later. It’s a memory that proves what I’ve been trying to for years: being included matters, and it matters for Latter-day Saints, too.
For some years now, I’ve co-run an Instagram account called @MormonsInMedia. It started as a joke between my writing partner Jill and I, where we’d text each other any time one of us saw the word “Mormon” pop up in something we were reading or watching. It was always surprising, rarely accurate and sometimes painful.
Once we started tracking the references, we couldn’t stop seeing them. Minimal effort revealed Latter-day Saint moments in what felt like every major TV show from the last 30 years: “Friends,” “Frasier,” “Cheers,” “Gossip Girl,” “30 Rock,” “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” “Stranger Things” — and what feels like every season of “The Bachelor.” There is a Latter-day Saint joke in the very first and very last episode of “New Girl.” There are six references across the seven seasons of “Gilmore Girls.” And that’s just TV. We’ve found innumerable references in books, podcasts, music and other forms of media.
“Nearly every reference was a casual joke about the cultural aspects of out faith that make its members feel unrelatable.”
At first, every reference felt thrilling. But by the time we had enough to fill a spreadsheet we found ourselves annoyed. Almost every reference was a casual joke about the cultural aspects or stereotypes of our faith that make us feel unrelatable.
We didn’t feel represented, we felt caricatured.
Jill and I started to think twice about our instinct to expect nothing by way of representation. If Latter-day Saints are such an inconsequential group as to not deserve it, why did we show up so often? And if we did deserve representation, why wasn’t any of it better?
My definition of quality representation is a portrayal that expands a group beyond a stereotype. Something that adds complexity or humanity. Over the last four years, I’ve seen so many types of representation, I made a rubric to help myself categorize and assess them.
The Representation rubric
C grade: Punchlines that play on Latter-day Saint stereotypes.
B grade: Stories that represent Latter-day Saints well.
A grade: Well-told Latter-day Saint stories from Latter-day Saint voices.
I’m aware of this is a highly subjective grading scale, based entirely on my viewing preferences rather than what is empirically bad or good. But here are what grades I’m giving out, if I’m teaching the class.
Up until very recently, almost every reference we came across fell into the C category.
There are the classic polygamy jokes, like in “Two Weeks Notice” where Sandra Bullock says “maybe in Utah” she could take two dates to dinner. There are the sobriety jokes, like the moment Michael Scott reads a supposed piece of Latter-day Saint literature at Meredith’s intervention, or on “Friends” when Rachel debates telling a date she can’t drink because she’s a Latter-day Saint (she’s pregnant).
In “That ’70s Show” we have too many kids. In “30 Rock,” we’re so weird we celebrate leap day.
On their own, most of these jokes made me laugh. But taken together, the humor starts to feel lazy. Offensive or not, this type of reference reduces Latter-day Saints into stereotypes and punchlines. We are chaste, or sober, or polygamists, or nice. In a word, we are made to seem “other,” and we mostly exist to make people laugh.
To me, representing Latter-day Saints well means making them well-rounded. I’m not interested in seeing perfect Latter-day Saints — I want to see real ones. Complicated ones. And I am thrilled to have seen them in a few places this year.
When we first learned that Dustin had a Latter-day Saint girlfriend in Season 3 of “Stranger Things,” I felt a familiar dread. What would they make of Suzie? A weirdo? Another caricature? I was not expecting a hero.
In Season 4, not only do we get more mentions of Suzie, we road trip to her house! Inside is a happy chaos of creative children and rebellious teenagers. There is Suzie’s dad, writing her a heartfelt (and painfully accurate) letter about dating outside the church. There are her siblings filming a very dramatic piece of theater. There is brilliant Suzie out on the roof working on her telescope.
I have known families like Suzie’s, and I loved watching their eccentricities dialed up to an eleven for the big screen. I loved it, really, because Suzie was more than just a token believer. She’s a no-nonsense hacker who saves the day. Her eccentricities are endearing, and while her religion is one of them, it’s just that — one.
HBO’s “Tokyo Vice” follows the story of Jake Adelstein, an American writer for a Japanese newspaper who starts covering yakuza gangs. One of his few ex-pat friends is Samantha — a smart, self-assured hostess with dreams of starting her own club if only she can outrun her past. Midway through the season, we find out what that past entails — a Latter-day Saint mission and subsequent crime against her faith.
Her mission for the church serves as a rich backstory for the character. It is the reason she fell in love with Japanese culture, the thing she painfully went against in order to stay in the country. And the details are spot-on, from the CTR ring buried in her jewelry box to flashbacks of her cheerily riding a bike through the streets of Japan wearing a knee-length skirt, nametag and helmet.
Watching it, I felt certain there was a Latter-day Saint in the writers’ room, but despite extensive googling so far, I’ve found zero connections. Even though the show is based on a memoir of the same name, Samantha’s character in the book is not a member of the church.
But frankly, I don’t care whether it was written by a Latter-day Saint, because whoever did write it did their research. And I don’t care that it’s a bit far fetched, I’m here for the ride. She is savvy and brave and was once a Latter-day Saint missionary. She’s complicated, and that makes her feel real.
To me, it’s a no-brainer that any group’s stories should come from its own people. But what’s interesting when the group is a religion is how widely the tone of each voice can vary depending on their experiences.
I do understand the frustration of feeling like our stories most often come from disillusioned voices, which is why it was so refreshing to read Jennette McCurdy’s depictions in her buzzy new memoir “I’m Glad My Mom Died.”
The book chronicles McCurdy’s experience as a child actor and the trauma she suffered. We also learn that the “iCarly” star grew up in the faith (who knew?) and was significantly influenced by it in her younger years.
Her experiences range from loving the warm fuzzy feeling she got in primary to hating feeling like people expected her family to go inactive. Her passages about church are detailed and accurate and funny, and most surprisingly to me, they felt neutral. It’s clear McCurdy is no longer attending church. But it also seems clear she doesn’t carry any bitterness toward it. She treats her time as a Latter-day Saint the same way she does everything else in her book — with bitingly honest humor that left me aching for her as a much more complex person than the child actor I thought I knew.
“Whether negative, neutral, or positive, everyone’s story within this religion is valid. I just want to see more of them told.”
The most positive example I’ve seen this year was “The Girlfriend Who Didn’t Exist,” which told the story of Manti Teo’s superstardom through college and the scandal that later came to define him. The show is humanizing both for Manti and for Ronniah (the alleged girlfriend), adding complexity to a story that millions of people across the globe had simplified to a headline, or maybe even to a meme.
Teo says that the three pillars of his culture are faith, family and football. Throughout the show his faith is a steadying, behind-the-scenes factor that keeps him grounded. It’s the reason he chose to attend Notre Dame where his career took off, and it ends up being the thing that helps him forgive himself and move on.
I felt refreshed to see a positive portrayal of Teo’s faith. But more, I appreciated hearing the story straight from its subjects.
Everyone’s story counts. And I just want to see more of them told. And given the explosion of Latter-day Saint-related content we’ve seen in recent years, I have to think it’s possible.
I am increasingly convinced that Latter-day Saints deserve mainstream media representation, not because we are marginalized but because we are unique. And we have a complicated history and a rich present.
One of us is currently on “Survivor.” One of us was almost the president of the United States. All of us have stories to tell. And I can only hope that with this recent surge of shows that we begin to also see more rich and varied representation than what we’ve seen in the past.
I’m holding out for a still-practicing Latter-day Saint to write something honest and beautiful and painful and funny about the complex lives real Latter-day Saints live. I want a show about a singles ward that isn’t “The Singles Ward.” I want to watch a mixed-faith couple or a couple who overcame hardship or a struggling missionary or a mega-popular vlogger who happens to also be a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
Maybe I’m asking for too much? But then again, we still believe in miracles.