I had the following thought recently: does Mormonism need its own version of the Bechdel Test?
The Bechdel test (to quote from the BoingBoing post linked to above)…
asks three questions: 1. Are there two or more women in it that have names? 2. Do they talk to each other? 3. Do they talk to each other about something other than a man?
I bring this up because, to be frank, I’m tired of the same stuff coming up again and again in both cultural products and news commentary that involve Mormonism, especially when it ignores the realities and complexities of modern Mormonism. Almost of it flattens us a people and elides vast parts of our beliefs, socio-cultural practices and history. Actually, let’s ignore the news commentary — that’s probably a separate list of tropes that should be put together (and that list starts with magic underwear and the Mountain Meadows Massacre). The same is true of some of the cultural references; however, where there are actual Mormon characters in narrative art, there needs to be some sort of way to evaluate how they are being deployed (or not-so-much deployed).
I don’t think we can formulate this quite like the Bechdel test. Almost every work of narrative art has women in it; most don’t have Mormons. So perhaps it’s something more like: Do the Mormons have names? Do they get to talk at all? When they talk or are talked about is it about something other than Mormonism? If it is about Mormonism, does it go beyond the tired tropes? Are the Mormons being used as stand ins for generic cultural conservatism? This all lacks the snap of the Bechdel test which is devestatingly awesome in its simplicity so help me out here. What would you suggest?
I also want to be clear that this not a call for Mormon apologetics in culture. Not every use of Mormonism needs to be positive or thorough or even super-nuanced. Certainly it’s valid for writers to use Mormons as a type of cultural shorthand in some cases. But by the same token, creators of Mormon narrative art should be attuned to how they’re doing it. The Bechdel test is an effective piece of criticism. Perhaps Mormons need their own version.
Oh, and I propose we call it the Pratt Test in honor of Orson Parley P. Pratt who vigorously defended Mormonism by emphasizing its unique doctrines (and yes, there’s a bit of a mean pun there, which is fully intentional [as in those who fail the test are…]. Hmmm. So maybe that’s not the best idea. Maybe call it instead the Orson test in reference to Orson Pratt, Orson F. Whitney and Orson Scott Card).
12/4/2011: edited to reflect the fact that it was Parley — not Orson that I was thinking of. Although Orson also did write several defenses of Mormon doctrine.
In his Sunday morning session address from the April General Conference, President Uchtdorf spoke about love. Titled “You Are My Hands,” it was a great talk delivered wonderfully, which is what we have come to expect from him. I want to call out one line in the talk that, paradoxically, affirmed for me the importance of well-crafted narrative art.
Pres. Uchtdorf said:
True love requires action. We can speak of love all day long–we can write notes or poems that proclaim it, sing songs that praise it, and preach sermons that encourage it–but until we manifest that love in action, our words are nothing but “sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.”
Now that would seem, at first glance, to cast aside the whole notion of expressing love through words. Love without action is dead. Which is why it caught my attention. But notice the verbs used: proclaim, praise, preach. All good methods of discourse, but all intended to drive a didactic response — to provoke action or, in the case of the receiver of the proclamations, reaction.
That’s not how narrative art works. Not exactly. And the more I thought about this talk, the more I wondered why love was important. I feel it is. I know it’s important in my life, that life would be dismal without it, but why? Continue reading “True love, progression and narrative art”
#78 in David Shields’ Reality Hunger: A Manifesto (Amazon):
“It is important for a writer to be cognizant of the marginilization of literature by more technologically sophisticated and more visceral narrative forms. You can work in these forms or use them or write about them or through them, but I don’t think it’s a very good idea to go on writing in a vacuum. Culture, like science, moves forward. Art evolves.”
I’m not saying Shields is right* or wrong (nor am, I, contrary to one of the hyperventilated claims by a blurb or review of the book — can’t remember which — either loving or hating the book. It’s got some good points and some effective goading; it’s got some ineffective goading and some silly preoccupations). And to be fair to Shields — there’s also a lot of context (618 different sections) that’s missing if all you see is #78, and the work itself is a pastiche that includes (unattributed except for in the notes section at the end of the book) aphorisms and quips and earnest predictions, etc. from many other writers, so this is an act of cherrypicking.
All that said: does art evolve? Or does it progress? Or does it restore? Or does it preserve? Or does it increase? Or does it roll forth? (to use a series of verbs that have some resonance in Mormon thought).
*I originally had “write” when this was posted. I may trot out the silly postmodern puns from time to time, but “write or wrong” wasn’t intentional at all.