Will Elna Baker Get Respect?

Sunday’s New York Post gossip column, Page Six, contained an item I can identify with, because several of my relatives don’t seem to like New York, where I live.  Elna Baker’s mother worried when her daughter headed to NYU for college instead of BYU, warning her to beware of smoking, drinking, drugs, homosexuality and exotic dancing in sin-filled New York City. Elna says, “I left thinking, ‘Great, my mom thinks I’m moving to the big city to become a lesbian stripper.’ “

Instead of becoming a “lesbian stripper,” Elna experienced life in New York City, dating both members and non-members, working in a variety of low-paying and short-term jobs. She also collected a lot of stories–humorous stories that examine the intersection between identity, faith, sex and love in a context of Mormon values in a cosmopolitan city.

What Page Six doesn’t indicate is anything about Elna Baker’s success. She has read and performed her stories on The Moth (podcast), on This American Life, and Studio 360 (NPR programs), and at the Upright Citizens Brigade, The PIT, The Magnet and at many other comedy clubs throughout New York City. Now, a collection of her humorous stories, The New York Regional Mormon Singles Halloween Dance, will be published by Penguin in October.

Baker’s work is interesting because it is aimed at a non-LDS audience, yet is often informed by Mormonism. But her portrayal of Mormonism (at least in what I’ve seen) is more ‘look at these strange things in our culture.’ As this latest work is released, I’m not sure that it will gain Mormonism respect, but I do think that Elna Baker will gain more respect from her work.

[Several of Elna Baker’s stories can be found on her website, ElnaBaker.com.

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22 thoughts on “Will Elna Baker Get Respect?”

  1. William–think you can use one of her stories for Short Story Friday? She certainly sounds interesting. . . I find myself wondering, though, did she stay active? I mean, there’s a lot of middle ground between Molly Mormon and Lesbian Stripper. I know it doesn’t exactly matter (at least in reference to her literary contributions) but I swear that’s the first question most Mormon readers will ask.

  2. .


    Everything I’ve found suggests Yes. This is old and this is recent and both suggest yes.

    But I’ll tell you what surfing around looking for her has told me: I want to meet her. She seems to be doing more or less exactly what I’m trying to do. Only on stage and cuter in glasses and with about an eight-year headstart.

  3. Oh, I’m buying it for SURE.

    When I moved to NY, many people I knew told me, “If you move there, you’ll NEVER get married.” I never got the “Lesbian Stripper” warning, however.

  4. It will be interesting to see the reaction to her book. I attended NYC singles wards at the same time as Elna and she was a rather polarizing figure. Yes, she is mostly funny, but a lot of it comes at the expense of the church or its quirks. A lot of people were bothered by the fact by Elna would be representing the church to so many people and the manner in which she did it. I think that by most accounts she stayed “active”–at least in the NYC sense of the word. She made some decisions about her act that some members would find questionable, but she is definitely a talented story teller and worth checking out at least once.

  5. Bambi, do you feel like Elna is “dissing” the Church? Or just using the fact that it seems weird to many outsiders?

    This is, I think, why Elna’s comedy will be interesting to follow. Like many LDS Church members, and I assume like Elna also, I’m quite conflicted and often embarrased by certain aspects of Mormon culture.

    Of course, there has to be some line where poking fun of Mormon culture becomes denigrating the sacred or promoting beliefs incompatible with Mormonism. I don’t claim to know where exactly that line is, but I’m sure that it is not as restrictive as the more conservative in Mormon culture believe.

    This is, of course, something we’ve explored here before, probably multiple times, but especially in William’s idea of the need for a radical middle.

    It is also probably one of the most frequent issues with comedy — comedians poke fun at people and ideas. They are often offensive. The question is whether or not they are being offensive about something that is sacred or something that merely makes us uncomfortable.

  6. .

    As someone who has written seriously on should-be-offensive topics and humorously on should-be-inoffensive topics, I can assure you that far far more people find the latter offensive. If there is interest, I could post a self-promotional example next week.

  7. I don’t think Elna is dissing the Church, but I could certainly see how some people feel that she is. At the same time, she really does play up the fact that it is really weird to outsiders. People laugh at the stuff about Mormons, but are ultimately drawn in by the universal aspect of spirituality. She makes fun of stuff that many LDS people would make fun of among other members–stake dances, pioneer treks, the focus on marriage…but somehow it isn’t quite the same when she is making fun of those things to an audience. Her stories deal with her struggles as a single girl in NYC who has a Mormon background, but her background is not the typical LDS background–i.e. she isn’t a Utah Mormon. I think that a lot of LDS girls wouldn’t relate to her at all on the LDS level. (I think many might look at her like Julie on the Real World.) As for that matter, that is why Elna is able to relate to predominantly not LDS audiences. I think it will be interesting to see her grow as the book is published and garners more attention and I hope that she will be a shining example.

  8. he typical LDS background”“i.e. she isn’t a Utah Mormon.

    Perhaps you mean to say STEREOtypical Mormon?

    There ARE other Mormons between Denver and New York.

  9. I have to say that I am in the same boat as Elna. My parents were distinctly scared of the big city and the opportunities/challenges that can be found in such “worldly” places (though I think its just as easy to become a lesbian stripper in Utah as anywhere; only because I have seen many such things happen here).

    So, at the age of 18 – and after a fantastic experience attending high school in the Minneapolis/St. Paul area – I was packed off to BYU because they thought it would “fix” me. They lived with the notion that somehow being around all those righteous young people would be an inspiring environment for me.

    What happened, however, was just the opposite. I experienced a culture shock for which I was unprepared. I discovered just how “weird” Mormon culture can be and was totally unprepared for how conservative members of the church can be (and the often often harsh judgements that come along with that conservatism). And my way of dealing with it was to poke fun.

    My point in writing this is not to be critical of the culture, but to say that I believe we ought to be able to look at the peculiarities of our culture and to laugh at them, particularly the Utah brand of Mormonism (which can very often be parochialism in the extreme).

    Having lived here for 20 years, I can also say that what I at first viewed as a cruel banishment has turned into real enjoyment of a place. My wife and I and our children really love living in Suburban SLC and have found many terrific advantages to living in a place like this (really we view it as a gateway to the rest of the western US, which we love – we love to Kerouac alot).

    But, from to time, I am reminded that the culture in certain parts of the church here is still odd, narrow, weird – whatever appellative you want to apply – and I love to joke about it, cause the stuff we do sometimes IS REALLY HILARIOUS (the book club discussion alone is enough to send me into fits of laughter).

    So, rock on Elna, I look forward to reading the book. If some are offended, well they are offended. But, I would say that taking offense is choice we make, not some uncontrollable force that governs our lives.

  10. .

    I would say that taking offense is choice we make, not some uncontrollable force that governs our lives.

    Well said.

  11. Punchline Mag interview with Elna (hat tip Theric).

    “What would you say is the greatest challenge you’ve faced in both the comedic and religious worlds?

    It’s hard to be true to yourself. I’m not Mormon enough to please most Mormons. I’m not non-Mormon enough to please most people in the comedy world. I don’t know which side I’ll end up on yet, but I’m trying to figure it out on my own time. Either that or straddling two worlds is such great fodder that I’m really just in it for the jokes.”

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