Mormons, Masks, and Mommy Blogs

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.

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9 Responses to Mormons, Masks, and Mommy Blogs

  1. Wm Morris says:

    Really, I think what the Salon piece shows more is that the author is a) not very good at close reading and b) being very selective in which Mormon mommy blogs she reads. It is, what it always is, a fitting of Mormon cultural production in to pre-set models of how Mormons should be written about. Slate does the same thing. It’s basically the reverse phenomenon of Angels of America.

    As to the whole showing the real thing — I think that argument may have made sense twenty years ago. I don’t think holds much water anymore. The whole range of the Mormon experience is at one’s fingertips and the vast majority of the Mormon mommy blogs are much more interesting and complicated and real than you (or the Salon writer) are giving them credit for.

  2. Annette says:

    I have to agree with Wm here. The author of the article must be reading those blogs with some serious rose-colored glasses. I’ve read most of the blogs referenced in it, and they most definitely aren’t all koombayah, It’s a Small World, life is perfect. Far from it.

    In fact, two of the blogs mentioned started out as a place for a Mormon woman to deal with her infertility–and then they both had babies, and voila! They’re suddenly Mormon Mommy bloggers. (One is very NEWLY a mom–her baby isn’t even crawling yet.) Neither makes life look like a bed of roses. CJane in particular is known for talking pretty opening about hard stuff (like her first marriage and subsequent divorce, her lifelong struggle with body issues, and so much more).

    I think the real curiosity about Mormon Mommy bloggers comes because we as a people live life, deal with it, AND KEEP GOING. We try to stay married. In spite of how hard parenthood is, we moms try to find the sunny moments. Overall, we try to focus on the good parts of life. We try to smile through the storms.

    But we aren’t pretending the storms don’t exist.

    Not to say we don’t wear masks at time–oh, we do, we do, and we’re so good at it. (For that matter, my last novel has a character with that very issue, and she even describes it as “wearing masks”.) But I don’t think that’s the issue here.

    • Katya says:

      CJane in particular is known for talking pretty openly about hard stuff . . .

      Not to mention Stephanie Nielson, whose “picture-perfect catalog life” includes scars on over 80% of her body and the chance to look forward to a lifetime of surgeries. (I get what you’re saying, Josh, and I think it’s a real problem, but the Salon article is poorly thought through, at best.)

  3. Josh Allen says:

    Good points Wm and Annette. I’ll concede that the Salon author is certainly not reading closely. She is, as I mentioned, eager to participate in fantasy, and I think this colors her reading experience.

    I don’t believe, however, that the argument here is no longer relevant. While honest Mormon blogs exist, I still believe Mormons are particularly good mask wearers (and family blogs sometimes provide examples of that).

    The job to remove masks is no less important to the Mormon writer today than it was 20 years ago, and it’s no less a part of the serious Mormon writer’s experience. I think Baxter is right–Mormon or not, writers strive to unmask truth and bring hidden realities to the surface. That’s not just the Mormon writer’s job. It’s every writer’s job.

    Wm’s right that we’ve come a long way in 20 years, but I still think there’s plenty of work left to do. Are there interesting and complicated Mormon mommy blogs out there? You bet. Are there blogs that are little more than collections of happy family gatherings that offer the world to us through rose-colored lenses? Definitely. Mask-wearing hasn’t vanished from the Mormon experience. It likely never will, which is one reason serious Mormon writers are so very necessary.

  4. C. M. Malm says:

    I have to admit that I don’t read “Mormon Mommy” blogs, so I don’t whether those bloggers are wearing masks or not, or whether Matchar is reading with rose-colored glasses as others have suggested. But my take on her article was a little different than anything that’s been mentioned so far.

    The chief impression I got was that Matchar (and other non-Mormon feminist readers of these blogs) are intrigued by a world in which traditional female work is *actually valued*; a world in which the permanency of marriage relationships is *expected*; a world in which having and raising children is *a given*, not an earth-shattering, career-wrecking, lifestyle-destroying choice. And we are accepted and admired by our own culture for our efforts to live in that way. Even (as Annette pointed out) when the potholes of life make it difficult to keep trying.

    In short, Mormon women have something that I think mainstream feminism has never really achieved: respect for women *as women.* Out there in “the world,” a woman’s value is measured largely by how well she can imitate and compete with men (and with other women who are trying to do the same thing). And I’m sure that there are plenty of Mormon feminists who feel that women aren’t valued enough within our culture (although perhaps they are measuring “value” by the world’s standards). Undoubtedly there are still men within our culture who look down on women (despite the perpetual messages to the contrary in Priesthood Session). But our culture, as a whole, values women who are intelligent and educated *and* wives and mothers. When it comes right down to it, that’s pretty unique. And I don’t find it surprising that women who are caught up in the world’s version of “a woman’s value” would find our lifestyle intriguing, even if they don’t want to participate in it themselves.

  5. Scott Parkin says:

    It would be interesting to delve a bit deeper into this idea of wearing masks, because I’m not sure mask-wearing is necessarily either dishonest or generically bad. Specifically, I’m not sure the job of the fiction writer is to remove masks so much as to explore them from inside, outside, and off to the side.

    We all put on faces, and we do so for a variety of purposes—sometimes in opposition to the realities we experience (hiding/despairing), sometimes as a symbol of our commitment to becoming the people we want to be but haven’t quite managed yet (hoping/aspiring), and sometimes as a reflection of what we’ve (nearly) achieved (bragging/evangelizing).

    Just as often we wear masks as a matter of convenience—and as an intentional and harmless concession to convention. The fact is that as a Democrat in central Utah I have to wear a mask and choose to show less of my true self than I might want to at both church and in the workplace. I do that not out of desperation or fear, but as a matter of pragmatic community—my true feelings and face are not relevant to the vast majority of conversations I have in those places, so I choose (betimes) to obfuscate as a matter of simple politeness or because community is more important to me than perfect revelation.

    In other words, my mask is an invitation to others to remove theirs. If I receive a similar invitation to remove mine I will do so happily.

    I guess my point is that I’m not sure the job of the fiction writer is *exclusively* to remove masks—one of many kinds of stories to be told, but not the only worthy one. Sometimes we write to explore potential or possibility rather that reveal current state. Sometimes we write to point at a far distant hope and map a path to get there. And sometimes we write simply to revel in the unreal or the impossible.

    It’s one of the long-term burrs under my saddle; a healthy literature supports a wide variety of story types, from the journalistic or revelatory, to the hopeful journey, to the utopian (or dystopian) overstatement—all of which help us to gain greater insight into both masks and the people behind them.

    In other words, stories of journey or contentment are just as real and deserve just as much serious consideration as stories of discontentment or failure. Each of us has our own literary bent and should both evangelize and explore our particular passion at the same time that we accept that stories we find irrelevant may have deep relevance to good and honest people outside our particular area of interest.

    Not that you claimed exclusivity—as far as I can tell you didn’t—but to generically point out the value of both removing masks *and* of exploring their useful or constructive purposes with equal fervor, each author according to whatever passion drives them.

  6. Th. says:

    .

    This is just me, whistling Billy Joel’s “The Stranger”.

  7. H. Brinkerhoff says:

    The original post is valid, and the comments/differing views also valid, while usually oposing one point or another. I enjoyed reading the thoughts of all, agreeing with many.
    But none of the comments mentioned the summing up of the original writer…

    The last 6 lines of the original blog post are well said. I find them true, and absolutely beautiful.

  8. Lanne says:

    This feels like a criticism not only of the Salon article but also of mormon blogs who are viewed as “happy” or “positive.” And what’s wrong with that? I’m not a mormon myself but my childhood best friend is, and what I’ve learned from her and her upbringing is that life doesn’t have meaning only when you suffer. Everybody suffers. Everyone has hidden hurts. And no one should be judged as being fake or wearing a mask just because you choose to look at the brighter side of things, or to present only this side of the story. When I read mormon mom blogs, they feel personal, like they’re talking to a close friend, or family. And maybe that was the ppoint of their blogs at first, to connect with families and friends. So why would they post problems and difficulties? To spread worry to their parents? The only responsibility writers have is to be true to their writing and if they choose to show only what they see as good, then there is no need to say they are wearing masks.

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