By now, you’ve probably seen Emily Matchar’s article “Why I can’t stop reading Mormon housewife blogs.” (Her tagline: “I’m a young feminist atheist who can’t bake a cupcake. Why am I addicted to the shiny, happy lives of these women?”)
If you missed it, Matchar’s point is this: In a post-feminist world, where domesticity is often ignored or treated with derision, it’s sometimes nice to fantasize about domestic bliss. And a lot of women are doing just that by reading Mormon mommy blogs. Mormon women, it seems, offer up in their blogs “picture-perfect catalog lives” that seem “adorable and old-fashioned and comforting,” Reading them lets contemporary women participate in a sort of escapist domestic fantasy.
Since its publication in January, I’ve read and heard dozens of reactions to Matchar’s article—from the pleased (“Hey, people are noticing how great we are!) to the annoyed (“Hey, stop gawking at us like were cute, furry pandas!).
But to me, Matchar’s article reads as a really bizarre homage to the Mormon housewife. Consider a few passages:
- “To read Mormon lifestyle blogs is to peer into a strange and fascinating world where the most fraught issues of modern living — marriage and child rearing — appear completely unproblematic.”
- “Mormon blogs are . . . a way to imagine a sweeter, simpler life.”
- “Mormon bloggers . . . make marriage and motherhood seem, well, fun. Easy. Joyful. These women seem relaxed and untouched by cynicism.”
Completely unproblematic? A sweeter, simpler life? Untouched by cynicism? Who are these women Matchar’s writing about? Where are they? Perhaps somewhere in the world there’s a Mormon stay-at-home Mom whose life is in complete harmony with all domestic things, but if that’s true, I’ve never met her. The Mormon women I know are (thankfully) much more interesting.
I think it’s pretty clear from Matchar’s article that she and her blog-reading acolytes really don’t know Mormon women at all. They have, I’d argue, no real sense of the Mormon stay-at-home-mom experience. (Consider what one woman quoted in the article says: “I want to arrange flowers all day too!”)
In her defense, Matchar questions whether the lives of Mormon housewives can really be “as sweet and simple as they appear.” She also points out that “Mormons are particularly famous for their ‘put on a happy face’ attitude.” But Matchar and the other women she cites in her article are still pretty happy to accept the impression of domestic bliss they see in Mormon blogs. And why shouldn’t they be? We’re obviously happy to present that image.
And that’s what bothers me about all of this:
Matchar isn’t getting her inaccurate views of Mormon culture from anti-Mormons or Big Love or The Book of Mormon musical or general ignorance. She’s getting her inaccuracies from Mormons. We’re the ones handing those inaccuracies to her. We’re the ones crafting a false persona. Of course, we’re not doing so maliciously. We’re just editorializing. We’re putting our best face forward. We’re dressing our public selves in the white shirt, the dark suit, the shined shoes.
In short, we’re wearing masks. In fact, I think we Mormons are really (and I mean really) good at wearing masks, so good, in fact, that we may not even always know we’re wearing them.
(And let it be clear–I’m not talking just about Mormon women. Mormon men are proficient mask wearers as well.)
Which brings me to the point I’d like to make about the Mormon writer. It seems to me that one job of the Mormon artist should be to unmask Mormon culture. Consider what Charles Baxter says about plots in his must-read collection of essays Burning Down the House:
“It seems to be in the nature of plots to bring a truth or a desire up to the light, and it has often been the task of those who write fiction to expose elements that are kept secret in a personality, so that the mask over that personality (or any system) falls either temporarily or permanently” (113).
If Baxter is right, and I think he is, then the work of any fiction writer (and, by extension, any artist) is to remove masks. This is one reason I write. Because Mormon culture is fraught with masks, and underneath these masks are real people with real problems—young couples desperate to have children but who can’t, victims of abuse and neglect who struggle to find real healing, fathers of large families who feel more lonely at the dinner table than anywhere else, single women in middle age who yearn for marriage and children.
And also beneath these masks lies the faith of all these people—the difficult journeys they make in coming to terms with suffering, the daily choices they face in continuing to serve God despite their doubts and crises of faith, the submissiveness they show in accepting the broken lives and bodies God has given them.
Perhaps there’s a time and place for mask-wearing. Perhaps there’s a time and place for fantasy and escapism. I participate in plenty of these things myself. And who knows? Perhaps the place for mask-wearing really is a lifestyle blog. But if Mormons want the world to see how beautiful we are, we must remove our masks. We must let the world see our faults—our anger and rage and doubts and agonies—because only within the midst of these faults do our choices have meaning. It’s in the midst of our suffering that faith becomes difficult, and it’s in the midst of our sorrow that faith becomes redemptive. And, ultimately, I think it’s in the midst of our ugliness that faith becomes beautiful.