Book of Mormon and Other Bullshit We Excuse Using the Heading “Funny.”

Last night I sphoto(1)aw Book of Mormon at the Broward County Preforming Arts Center. We bought the tickets months ago and I was really looking forward to it because I’ve heard only good things, which is surprising because I don’t have a whole lot of good things to say. What I do have to say is this: Book of Mormon is painfully racist and not really all that funny.

If you haven’t seen it, let me summarize: Two 19-year-old Mormon missionaries go to Uganda, Africa on a mission to recruit and baptize new Mormons. There is lunacy that ensues, which is the basic plot of the play but who could even focus on that when the “African” reality represented is so stereotypical, derogatory and embarrassingly prejudicial. In the context of this play there are two versions of Africa – the “lion king” version, which harkens to ideas of the noble savage, glorious nature, dancing, singing and marching around with spears and the “AIDS, MURDER and FEMALE CIRCUMCISION ” version, which is presented as the ‘legitimate’ spoof of Africa’s reality. In other words, the “lion king” version is what the missionaries think Africa will be like, and the “AIDS, MURDER and FEMALE CIRCUMCISION ” version is what Africa is “really” like when they arrive.

I am not going to deny the fact that Africa – a continent three times the size of the United States – has its share of problems and that included in those problems are war, female genital mutilation (FGM), AIDS, rape and other complicated and destructive forces. And it’s true that these are the aspects of Africa that the news likes to focus on. Arguably, because maintaining a racist understanding of Africa makes it that much easier for Western cultures to pillage the continent for natural resources like titanium and diamonds without a whole lot of outcry.  Despite all this, in reality Africa is a spectacular place of innovation and culture, which has given us amazing men and women, including the likes of Chinua Achebe, Leymah Gbowee, Wangari Maathai  and  Nelson Mandela – who died today.  Here’s a youtube video that looks at these stereotypes:

Book of Mormon took the stereotypical understanding of Africa as an untamable, contaminated place – an understanding that is linked to a history of racism but usually based on ignorance and quickly alleviated/dispelled with even a smidge of exposure – to an extreme, which showed no consideration or respect for African people and affirmed a colonialist history of racism.

For example, in the Ugandan town that the Mormon Missionaries were sent to many of the people have AIDS – not HIV, AIDS. One of the African men believes that if he has sex with a virgin he will cure his AIDS. None of the adult women in the town are virgins – because clearly Africans are promiscuous (sarcasm) – so this man attempts to rape a baby. This attempted rape is repeatedly noted as a punch line in the song lyrics and scenes. This scenario is racist on so many levels – the assumed promiscuity of the African people, the horrifying ignorance of a man who would believe that raping a baby could cure disease, the prevalence of AIDS etc. There are other instances that are equally absurd as well as little prickles like the two African men who steal the missionaries’ bags as soon as they arrive, and local woman who warns the missionaries to shut their windows at night to keep out the murderers. It’s appalling.

photoIt’s worth noting that the play also clearly critiques Mormonism by highlighting the need for good Mormons to “just believe” the dubious roots of the Mormon religion and strangely the entire playbill was filled with ads for learning more about the Mormon faith. This is painfully ironic considering this is a play that actively attempts to render the Mormon faith inane and ludicrous.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that lately, it’s not just Book of Mormon that has offended me. Go ahead call me a party pooper or a grouchy bitch, I’m okay with that because these ideas, images, representation lack a basic sense of respect for the people they are portraying. It’s not funny when people make jokes about rape, bodies, races, nationalities, genders, etc. These kinds of jokes are lazy. They rely of human cruelty and hate. And to be honest, I’m not sure why we think they’re funny. How does it even make sense that we find ways to laugh at rape? What is up with that?

3 responses

  1. Just had a family member tell me how wonderful this play was. I really appreciate having your perspective on it. I haven’t seen it but what you’ve pointed out is very troubling. The more I hear of attempted, completed, pretended sexual assault from students the less I am interested in making light of such a serious issue; and it also doesn’t do anyone any good to “other” rape in this way. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I had heard so many good things about this play I was definitely interested in seeing it. You have a perspective I hadn’t heard yet. Interesting that what you have noticed has so often gone unnoticed. I wonder what’s behind that invisibility. Our own racism? But I’ll have to say that I think it was smart of the Mormon church to use the play as an advertising vehicle instead of denouncing it–given the unflattering light they’re put in. When you are given lemons make lemonade.

  3. When I first saw the South Park episodes that inspired the musical, I was uncomfortable about how it presented Mormons too, but it actually wound up making a really good point:

    “Look, maybe us Mormons do believe in crazy stories that make absolutely no sense. And maybe Joseph Smith did make it all up. But I have a great life and a great family and I have the Book of Mormon to thank for that. The truth is, I don’t care if Joseph Smith made it all up. Because what the church teaches now is loving your family, being nice and helping people. And even though people in this town might think that’s stupid, I still choose to believe in it. All I ever did was try to be your friend, Stan, but you’re so high and mighty you couldn’t look past my religion and just be my friend back. You’ve got a lot of growing up to do, buddy.”

    I think all religions have a tendency to be a little silly at times, and that’s okay if you are still a good person while following it….It’s a shame that didn’t come across better in the musical, especially in regard to its portrayal of the African community they visited.

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