A few weeks ago, The New York Times Magazine published an article about the animation program at BYU, which has been gaining a positive national reputation for both the films it produces and the quality of its graduates. If you haven’t read it, click here, and then come back for the discussion. Compared to other similar articles I’ve read, I thought the author did a pretty good job of exploring the unique culture of BYU from an outside perspective that seeks to understand rather than to ridicule. Early in the article, the author notes that when trying to describe their goals and aspirations, many of the students used terms that seemed to have some kind of deeper meaning that he, as an outsider, just couldn’t quite grasp. These terms were described as ‘shibboleths’, and as I have read and written about Mormon arts, I have noticed the use of these particular shibboleths to try and define what ‘good’ art is and what ‘real’ Mormon artists are like. In this post, I wanted to explore three of these particular terms that I often hear used and share some of my own personal thoughts about them.
First of all, is the phrase ‘family friendly’. I’ve never understood that one, personally. Right now I have three kids, ranging in age from nearly 10 to 3. My 3-year-old has the attention span of a gnat, and frankly there aren’t any movies she will enjoy very much. I also like putting my kids to bed and watching or reading something with mature themes and complex ideas that only an adult would appreciate. I have a hard time getting behind the idea that all media should be accessible to all people at all times. I don’t necessarily think that media for adults needs to include excessive amounts of crude language, explicit sexuality, or excessive violence. I have seen a number of thoughtful, mature, movies that were certainly not family-friendly and that would have bored my kids to tears at this point in their life, but someday I hope they will be able to appreciate them once they have gained the intellectual maturity to do so.
A second, and closely related, term that is commonly used is ‘uplifiting’. Many of the students for example, talked about wanting to make films that would leave the viewer feeling happy or better about the world after watching them. I think this is a noble goal, but sometimes the focus on creating ‘uplifting’ entertainment can create discomfort with the more complex and difficult emotions of life. The author of the article includes an anecdote about student who created a personal, complex film that had a lot of negative emotion in it as well as an ambiguous ending. Some of the other students weren’t sure how to respond to the piece and were clearly uncomfortable with the level of emotion it contained, especially since there was no happy ending. As another example, I appreciate a movie like Brokeback Mountain that explores difficult, and very real, issues. It is not a happy movie, and probably not ‘uplifiting’ in the way that most people think of the word, but I and many others who have been in similar relationships welcome the fact that our life has been reflected on screen. Life is not always happy and uplifting, and I don’t think there’s a problem with sometimes making media that reflects that side of life. Life is full of paradoxes and we cannot appreciate the sweet without the bitter.
Last is the seemingly innocuous word ‘clean’. This one gets used a lot when it comes to the arts, especially books and movies. From Primary on up, children are taught that appearances and behavior matter a lot. How many lessons about modesty, treating others well, keeping the Word of Wisdom, obeying the law of chastity, using good language, listening to appropriate music, watching and reading appropriate media, and avoiding pornography do we have by the time we reach adulthood? Keeping yourself ‘clean’ serves a dual purpose—increasing your own personal spirituality while also affirming your difference from ‘the world’. Focusing on ‘clean’ media is a way for Church members to affirm their relationship with God and his commandments, while also differentiating themselves from other groups. I’m still trying to negotiate my own feelings about the idea of ‘clean’ media; for the record, I certainly don’t want my children engaging in premarital sex or smoking. But, I worry that too much focus on outward appearances and behaviors can create an environment of rigid rule-keeping and can shift the focus away from becoming and from true, inward change. Also, such an emphasis often creates a false dichotomy between ‘the church’ and ‘the world’, with the assumption that those who are behaving a certain way are ‘real’ members of the church and are good and those who aren’t must be evil. It is this kind of thinking that fuels the impulse to erase a cigarette from a movie character’s hand and replace it with a pretzel—the assumption that Mormons would not want to even be in the presence of someone indulging in such behavior lest someone mistakenly believe they are in the wrong group.
Perhaps in writing this post I have revealed that I am but a lowly Ephraimite, unable to speak the right language and fit into the group. However, I do think that this is an overly simplistic description of the issue and that Mormon culture can, and does, accommodate a wider variety of viewpoints about media and the arts. I think that if the author of this article were to dig a little deeper with these students, he might find that some of those terms they were using as shibboleths were maybe not so universal in meaning either. What do you think?