My friend and I won two tickets to “The Book of Mormon” showing as part of Broadway in Boston. Having known nothing about the musical, we were curious and excited to be going. Nearly two weeks later, we are still discussing how we feel about the production. We agree that overall we like it and there are some very funny parts, but we are also troubled and disgusted by it on a number of levels. Moreover, the fact that we like it makes us quite uncomfortable.
As a Broadway production, the cast was amazing! The songs were creative. Characters were dynamic and showed marked growth. “Spooky Mormon Hell Dream” was outright brilliant with its use of humor, satire and fear to explain the Mormon preoccupation with hell as punishment for immorality and/or disbelief.
The musical also had a few positive suggestions about the essence of religion and the morality of the religious person. Towards the end of the production, even when their supervisors order them to go home, the Mormon missionaries stick around because they value the friendships they have made and want to help their friends by supporting them through tough times. It is clear that the authors believe one of the many gifts of religion is its ability to comfort during tragedy and suffering. In addition, it seems that the writers also saw within religion the building blocks necessary to rationalize and support people doing good work for others. We appreciated this acknowledgement within the musical of an admirable and practical outcome of religiosity.
Nevertheless, the production left both of us wondering if all this good is undercut by questionable patronizing motives and racist perspectives. So many times throughout the entire production, we felt varying degrees of concern, disgust and outright anger. Probably what disappointed the two of us the most was that the musical ended without offering the audience an alternative vision countering the musical’s own racist, patriarchal perspective and patronizing tone.
It seemed as if the audience is supposed to see themselves as “better than” those silly Mormons: their odd religious beliefs, their racist perspective on Africa, their uncanny ability to turn off their feelings in order to be happy, and their naiveté toward the larger world. This racist perspective on African includes the Ugandans being portrayed as dirty, primitive, unbelievably naïve, gullible and child-like in their ability to understand, help themselves and make appropriate decisions.
Likewise, the musical pokes fun at religious people in general. For example, in order to connect with the Ugandans, one of the missionaries begins inventing answers to their questions and he tells them those answers are found within the book itself. In this example and others, the show argues that all belief is made-up, that religion is only human fantasy and that only the most gullible, naïve people would believe that absurdity. An example of this is when the audience is meant to laugh at the Mormon belief that Heavenly Father lives on Kolob. Is that anymore “funny” or “strange” than the Roman Catholic belief that communion is Jesus’ actual body and blood, or the Jewish idea that G-d speaks to human beings from an unconsumed fiery bush? Different, perhaps. Funny, we aren’t quite sure.
This patronizing atmosphere bolsters the musical’s patriarchy. Within the play, the white women are played by white men dressed as women. The only strong female character is depicted as childish, a heterosexual love interest, and an unbelievably ignorant Ugandan. For example, she “texts” by using a typewriter, is easily persuaded into new beliefs by a man she found attractive, is helpless and needs the protection of the men in her life, doesn’t understand metaphors, and becomes just as “happy” as the Mormons when she begins to believe. In the song, “Turn It Off,” the Mormon missionaries sing about their ability to not feel anything when it comes to domestic violence, homosexual urges and death from cancer. Another song that proscribes patriarchal behavior is “Man Up.” Masculinity is patterned after Jesus’ ability to accept the cross like a man. Elder Cunningham describes manning up as literally growing a pair of balls, standing up and doing hard things, not behaving like a girl, being hardened towards feelings, fighting and being overly sexual. Clamming up and passivity are considered effeminate. Society stereotypes Mormon men ringing doorbells as passively accepting doors slammed in their faces and oddly strange (and gay?) with their matching dress code and the homosocial nature of their missionary work.
Even with all of this discussion between the two of us, and we talk about it a lot, we have an unresolved question (that applies to satirical shows like South Park as well). Is it acceptable to laugh at overt racism, patriarchal attitudes and blatant sexism played out in the actions of smiley Mormons? We would be lying to say that we didn’t laugh, but we also didn’t feel great about doing so. It seemed wrong. Still does. Yet, maybe, we all need the opportunity to laugh at the absurdity of injustice so that we can see that another way is possible.
Perhaps this laughter could be justified if it produces some kind of action to heal the world. We wish that “The Book of Mormon” had shared with the audience a vision for a better world. In that way, the production could have steered the audience toward the good. Since this did not happen, it is up to us to ponder our next move and, more importantly, move past thinking and dialogue to action. Using laughter to heal the world is something the writers of “The Book of Mormon” did not intend, but is something we are more than capable of doing. See the show. Laugh a bit. Be outraged even more. Then, do something to make the world a better place so patriarchy will not have the last laugh.
Ivy A. Helman, Ph. D.: A feminist scholar currently on the faculty at Boston College teaching in its Perspectives Program and an Adjunct Lecturer at Merrimack College. Her most recent publications include: “Queer Systems: The Benefits of a More Systematic Approach to Queer Theology,” in CrossCurrents (March 2011) and Women and the Vatican: An Exploration of Official Documents(2012).