Review: Johnny Lingo (1969)

The short film Johnny Lingo was produced by BYU in 1969 and has long held a celebrated place in LDS culture over the past forty years, despite no real LDS content.  (While largely “adopted” into LDS culture, it is based off of a Women’s Day article from Patricia McGerr, a Catholic, and references to the article and “eight cow wives” can be found in many non-LDS forums today.)

The 25-minute Johnny Lingo film can be found on DVD and is now available on YouTube as well.  (The 2004 film The Legend of Johnny Lingo is also available on DVD, although many elements of the Johnny Lingo story have been changed.  This article discusses the earlier short film only.)

Johnny Lingo is a Pacific Islander who returns home to seek marriage to his childhood friend Mahana.  In his culture, marriage requests go through the bride’s father and involve negotiations about a price to be paid in cows — the better the bride, the higher the price in cows.  Not surprisingly, this custom becomes a status symbol and a point of pride for those higher priced brides.  (Sample dialogue:  “Only four cows for you?  My husband paid FIVE cows for me!”).

As it happens, no one thinks highly of Mahana — including and especially her father — and her “price” for marriage is widely expected to be very low.  Johnny Lingo is described as a expert trader, thus it is assumed that he will obtain his marriage to Mahana at a bargain-basement price, although no one is quite sure why he — a successful and handsome young man — would want to settle for such a ‘low quality’ wife, even at a steep discount.

Mahana’s father — counseled to settle for one cow — optimistically suggests “three cows” as the starting price when he meets with Johnny face-to-face (sparking derisive laughter from the audience).   Johnny Lingo surprises everyone by instead offering eight cows for Mahana’s hand in marriage, an unheard-of price that quickly becomes the talk of the village.   Has Johnny Lingo the master trader grossly over-paid for something of low value?  Was Johnny simply making a vain splash in the community, looking forward to future generations discussing his name?  Or perhaps — after seeing Mahana’s countenance change after her marriage — Johnny was deliberately over-paying for a more abstract, personal reason.

The intent of the Johnny Lingo short, summarized in the sub-title, is “Building Self-Worth in Others”:  the principle that treating others like they have great value is the cornerstone to them feeling like they have great value themselves.

It’s a good principle, obviously, but how do you actually apply the Johnny Lingo story in a modern context, though?  Curiously — even though the “eight cow wife” has become a common metaphor in LDS families familiar with the film — a practical application for the Johnny Lingo principle is hard to visualize.   A modern parallel to Johnny Lingo might be if brides were judged socially today on the size of their engagement ring, or by how much money their fathers spend on their weddings, but neither is the case now, and no one is suggesting the key to making one’s wife feel valued is by spending more money on her.

So then what?  What’s the secret to getting (or developing) the modern equivalent to an “eight cow wife” rather than a “four cow wife”?  The film depicts a society with a crude, numerical measure to judge the worth of a woman, but never gets beyond that same crude, numerical measure in providing an answer to that question for modern audiences.   The underlying cow metaphor in Johnny Lingo may have persisted in LDS culture more because of its uniqueness than for its practical application.

Johnny Lingo is basically a-religious, although it’s not too much of a stretch to make a religious connection:  Mahana can symbolize humanity, under-valued due to sin and constantly informed by her Father that she’s ugly and unworthy of greater blessings.  Johnny Lingo would be Jesus Christ Himself, who has the capability as the divine Lord of the universe to ‘buy low’ without any legitimate complaint…but surprises everyone by over-paying (with His life) for the souls of humanity, showing His valuation of the worth of a soul is far greater than “conventional wisdom” had suggested.

Not everyone agrees as to the interpretation of the Johnny Lingo short, however, nor whether it is even a positive message for and about women.  At the 2009 Sunstone conference, feminist writer Holly Welker criticized Johnny Lingo for being fundamentally sexist and more about male identity and power than female self-esteem.   From the linked Salt Lake Tribune summary:

Mahana has no say in the marriage. She cannot refuse the husband who has bought her, even if she doesn’t like him or believes that his price is too low. The bridal bargain is a contest of wills between two men: Mahana’s father and her future husband. “Johnny Lingo” is about its active and powerful hero, not the passive heroine….Indeed, Mahana’s transformation is “not because someone loves her, or because she loves someone, or because she is treated with respect and kindness, but because she knows she is the most expensive commodity on the island.”

This seems a little over-the-top.  Welker’s comments seem to be attacking the culture depicted in the film rather than the actual characters or story.  Of course the society in Johnny Lingo — where the worth of women is determined by raw numbers of livestock and the father controls the ultimate fate of his daughters’ marriages — is sexist.  But complaining about a film having a sexist setting would be like calling To Kill A Mockingbird “racist” because it is set in a racist society — it misses the point entirely.   What do the characters and the story have to say about the culture they live in?  Do they support the biased assumptions and cultural traditions in their society or do they transcend them?

Whether or not the Johnny Lingo story was based on an actual civilization that paid for wives in cows, history provides numerous examples of cultures where potential grooms were required to negotiate with brides’ families before the marriage would be approved (usually with the bride herself having little say in the matter).  Sometimes the husband paid for the bride, and sometimes the bride’s family paid the husband.

There’s no evidence that Mahana is opposed to marrying Johnny Lingo at all, so Welker’s comment about the bride having no ability to refuse the husband who has bought her are irrelevant in this context.  Most brides in human history had little say in whom they married (most grooms, too).  Mahana doesn’t have nearly enough dialogue — and if there’s a ‘sexist’ angle by which to approach the film, it might be this one — to come to any direct conclusions about why her sense of self-worth has increased, whether due only to being “the most expensive commodity on the island” or something else.

The crux of the matter is Johnny Lingo himself:  Johnny is the main character, and thus his actions are the primary (and only) lens to judge the message and intent of the film.  Johnny Lingo (the person) didn’t create this culture of buying-a-wife-through-cows, and there’s little evidence that he agrees with it.  Do his actions in the film support that culture, or undercut it?

Johnny’s problem is simple:  there’s a girl he wants to marry, but village customs dictate he has to negotiate the right to marriage with her father first.  As it happens, his desired bride is not particularly valued by others on the island as a wife — good news if he wants to get that woman at a bargain, but not good if he disagrees with the valuation system, or feels Mahana is psychologically damaged by being consistently undervalued.

So what options does he have?  Let’s look at four possibilities and theorize what the results might be, and whether that would create a story more pleasing to Welker or other Johnny Lingo critics.

Option #1:  Johnny could refuse to participate in the “sexist” cultural tradition he finds offensive, and actively protest it any chance he gets.  He insists in public forums that he (and any man) should be able to marry any woman willing to marry him without having to obtain their father’s permission, or pay costs in livestock.

End Result:  Johnny almost certainly ends up without a wife (whether Mahana or anyone).  Mahana ends up being married to some other guy on the island who ponies up the one cow (or half a cow) price to her father.  (Even though Mahana may appreciate Johnny’s efforts towards her gender, will this result help her self-esteem much?)  Johnny’s social activism gets dismissed as him merely being “cheap” — unwilling to pay even the discounted price for a bride within his own culture.  No significant cultural change occurs, and Johnny becomes a martyr for a lost cause.

Option #2:  Johnny bargains down to the expected one cow (or parts of a cow) with Mahana’s father.  Basically, he acts like a businessman — getting a good deal on a public commodity, according to the cultural economy of the island.  Even if he disagrees with Mahana’s valuation (or the system in general), after marriage he is free to spend his time and energy helping Mahana feel wanted and valued.  Perhaps at a future date they can work towards changing the bridal customs on the island together.

End Result:  Since the predominant cultural tradition says that a woman’s worth is determined by the price her husband paid, and Johnny has supported it by bargaining a low price as expected, any after-the-fact activism will have a credibility handicap from the beginning.  Why would anyone listen to Johnny condemning the current system after he exploited that same system to obtain a bride at a cheap price?  (This also undercuts any attempt to increase Mahana’s self-esteem).  Johnny now has the wife he wants now, but in doing so has confirmed Mahana’s own opinion of her value, and certainly no cultural shift will be forthcoming.

Option #3: Johnny pays an ‘above market’ price for Mahana — say, four cows.   A price that’s higher than expected, but still a ‘normal’ price that’s within the established market bounds defined by cultural tradition.

End Result:  Going above expected market price, even above Mahana’s father’s own asking price, makes a small statement, and Mahana probably feels more valued than in option #1 or #2.  She’s now considered equal to a great many other women on the island.  However, Johnny has still conformed to bridal tradition, and will have a credibility problem if he later opposes it.  He has still essentially reinforced the notion that a woman’s value is measured in cows, even if Mahana herself is worth a cow or two more than previously anticipated.

Option #4:  Johnny pays an exaggerated and ridiculous price for Mahana — eight cows — shocking everyone.

End Result:    This is what happens in the movie, of course, but what happens after the movie ends?  Has Johnny supported the bridal market customs of the island by participating in it, or has he actually sabotaged it in a subversive manner?

Let’s continue the thought experiment and theorize about what would happen after Johnny’s notable eight-cow marriage proposal:

(1)  Johnny and Mahana get married and become household names that everyone talks about for years.

(2)  Some of the other women (the “five cow” women, in particular) start feeling jealous due to their sudden loss of status.  They used to be at the top of the bridal social class, and now they’ve been replaced.  And not by someone they respect as their superior in looks or class, but a woman whom *everyone* had agreed was a lower-class woman, and whose sudden elevation was due to a technicality: a groom who just happened to say the word “eight” instead of “three”, possibly out of purely selfish or vain motives.  Mahana is the same person she was before Johnny Lingo arrived, and so are they — the difference in cows paid doesn’t change any of that.

Note that by even thinking this, those women have already started to subconsciously divorce personal worth and social class with the marriage prices paid in cows.  Cultural change has already begun.

(3)  Other single men will become jealous of Johnny’s sudden notoriety.   Eventually, one of those single men with a lot of resources will ‘1-up’ Johnny Lingo by offering TEN cows for his wife in the hope of reaping the same renown.  Naturally, this will be quickly followed by someone else paying 12, then 15, then 20, and so on.

This price inflation will be encouraged by the brides’ fathers who will naturally feel their daughters are Mahana’s equal (or superior) and will start asking for higher and higher prices from the beginning, as part of their own quest for familial status.  (“Why settle for five when men are now paying 20 cows for a wife?  If *that* woman over there is worth twenty, my daughter certainly is, too!  Maybe thirty!”)

(4)  As you might expect, this escalation in the bridal market soon forms a bubble, with bridal prices reaching ridiculous and unsustainable proportions.  Rich grooms may end up paying 50 to 100 cows for a wife eventually, and soon the price paid become more of a symbol of the groom’s wealth than the bride’s value.  Fathers will be asking for bridal prices based on what the groom can afford, not on how their daughters compare to other women — thus further divorcing the connection between price paid and female worth.

Socially, a “four cow” woman will start hearing prideful comments from other women, not about being “five cows” now, but being a “two hundred cow wife”.  That woman can’t help but think there is no possible way to create a qualitative 196 cow difference between that woman and herself, regardless of any perceived difference in beauty or social class. The price paid has now become meaningless.

(5)  As the prices for brides escalate, obviously not every family can afford to keep up.  The inflated bridal prices will end up effectively locking a large subset of men out of the bridal market entirely.  Those “middle-class” families still need wives, however, and a division in social class will take place, with a smaller secondary market for brides forming out of necessity — one  almost certainly not based on cows at all.  As with all economic bubbles, it will pop when the pool of rich grooms that are capable of meeting the ever-increasing bridal prices grows smaller and smaller.  As it collapses, more and more previously “upper class” families will fall directly into this secondary market for brides created already by the middle class.   When the bubble has dissipated completely, that secondary market now become the cultural norm.

Some members of the island community may push for the secondary system to go back to the way things were:  reasonable three or four cow prices, but that ship will have already sailed — not only because there are now too many 50 and 100 cow wives that complicate the previous social divisions, but because even if they did someone would simply bid “eight” again and the process would repeat.

Even if it takes many years, the end result would be that Johnny Lingo has cleverly acted as a subversive radical.  He worked within the system to get the bride he wanted while helping to destroy that valuation system at the same time — all while conveniently helping his bride feel valued.  What could (or should) Johnny Lingo have done differently in his situation to conform more to modern progressive thought?

Is this a far-fetched reading of the film?  I don’t think so.   As the film ends, Johnny comments on the obvious effects that the crude island valuation system has on the women (all women, not just his wife) that aren’t at the top, showing he’s considered the big picture rather than just his own relationship.  It’s easy to infer that Johnny knew exactly what he was doing by bidding eight cows instead of, say, four or five.

Welker and other critics may be responding, perhaps, to the fact that many LDS talk about Johnny Lingo without fully recognizing or admitting that the setting and bridal market of the film is sexist in the first place.   A fair point, especially since I suspect her real concern is sexism in current LDS culture, not criticism of BYU short films from forty years ago.  However, the idea that the actual story of Johnny Lingo apart from the setting is sexist — that Johnny Lingo isn’t already acting in the most progressive way possible — seems hard to support.

Like Saturday’s Warrior — another older LDS “classic” — Johnny Lingo may be beyond criticism in 2011.  Most LDS have either seen it and formed an opinion, or have already ignored it.  It has seemingly survived through the years more because it has an cute and interesting concept with many quotable lines than because of a compelling message.  Everyone knows that women should feel valued, but by presenting a moral that is strangely detached from any practical applicability in modern times makes Johnny Lingo more of a unique curiosity than a compelling and meaningful film.

My Grade:  B-

  • Wm

    Excellent reading of the film, Kevin.

    I think that fact that Mahana doesn’t have much of a voice in the film is an important critique. On the other hand, her lack of a voice is very much related to the oppressiveness of her father, an authority which Johnny Lingo completely undermines.

  • mimosachan

    Dude– you are way overthinking this. The only reason anyone has ever watched JL is for the chance to shout, “Mahana! You ugly!”

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  • Beverly Craig

    I have shown this movie MANY times in adult education classes. The message of how we treat and feel about others and how they receive our messages of approval or disapproval comes through loud and clear. B-??? Excuse me! I think this is one of the best movies on self esteem available.

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  • bonnie

    “But complaining about a film having a sexist setting would be like calling To Kill A Mockingbird “racist” because it is set in a racist society — it misses the point entirely.”

    Your argument her is seriously flawed! The point of To Kill A Mockingbird was to speak up against racism at a time when that wasn’t very popular. IF this movie’s theme was based on taking a stand against sexism, against women being represented as commodities, or against women being something traded between men then you’d stand a chance. This movie is terrible and I’m so sad it is still being shown to young people today. It was bad enough when I was shown it in the 1970s.

  • Kevin Burtt

    But Johnny Lingo (the man) *is* “taking a stand against sexism” for all intensive purposes in the film. What does he do in the film that would indicate he agrees with any of the culture and traditions of his people? What should he have done differently?

    In TKAM, we don’t see Atticus Finch marching around holding a sign protesting segregation at any time. He seems to derive the same benefits of being a white male as everyone else does in the culture he lives in. However, he stands for what is right *within* the system, as does Johnny Lingo. Again, the setting is the setting. What do the characters do within that setting?