I recently finished watching the AppleTV series Physical. In the series, Rose Byrne plays a self-loathing bulimic California woman in the early 80s who becomes captivated by the new aerobics movement. Her husband, a former college professor, is running for political office against a wealthy Mormon man who owns a successful business. The Mormon man and his family feature prominently into the storyline, and it was fascinating to see how Mormon life in early 80s California was written and portrayed. **LIGHT SPOILERS FOLLOW**
I’d like to go through the portrayal of these Mormon characters, and discuss whether these are an accurate reflection of Mormons in general or or early 80s Mormons in CA specifically.
When the “Mormon” family is first introduced, they are eating in a fast food restaurant. While sitting at the table with their burgers and fries, they pause to say a verbal prayer over the food. I have very seldom seen this kind of behavior from Mormons. I’m not going to say never, but it’s rare in my experience. I did recently see a table full of Mormon missionaries at a taco place who all said a verbal prayer as a group before digging into their meals. I raised an eyebrow at that because it’s just not been my own experience. Most people I know would just eat in a restaurant and save prayers for at home. A few might say a silent private prayer, then eat. Public verbal prayer in a restaurant has to be somewhere around 2% of the total Mormon population. Maybe it used to be a bigger thing, or maybe the writers are mixing up Mormons and Evangelicals.
How common is vocal restaurant praying among the Mormons you know? Was it more common in the early 80s? Does it matter what type of restaurant?
Bless This Mess
Several times, the Mormon wife says “blessed” (with two syllables). That sounds, to me anyway, like an Evangelical thing, particularly a Southern Evangelical thing, and not at all Mormon. In fact, many Southern Evangelicals moved to California in the 70s and 80s, which is why there’s such a large Evangelical population in California. This one just felt like lazy writing to me.
Do you hear Mormons saying “bless-ed”? Is it regional, if so? How common is it?
What Happens When We Die?
Later in the series, the Mormon wife is concerned that her husband is depressed over his father’s death from many years ago. She refers to the death as (I might get the exact wording wrong here) his dad “being called home to his father.” That also doesn’t sound like Mormon talk to me. It sounds maybe Evangelical. Then again, it’s not inconsistent with Saturday’s Warrior which was full of non-doctrinal bullcrap and was super popular at the time.
Do you hear Mormons say “being called home” in reference to what happens when we die? (I tend to think it’s usually more of what work they have to do on the other side, not a returning to a pre-earth state with God. No rest for the wicked, nor for the Mormons).
The Bishop Will See You Now
The Mormon wife sets up a “counseling” session with their bishop. This part is wild to me. So seldom do we get to see inside of a marital counseling session, but a Mormon one, as written by some Hollywood type? Yes, please! The couple sits down with a man who clearly has a “not professional clergy” vibe. He greets them, and the wife explains her concerns for her husband. The bishop then talks to the man about things, the man answers his questions, they both are kind of shrugging away the wife’s concerns about his increasingly erratic behavior, and then the bishop turns on the wife asking how their “marital relations” are going, and why don’t they have more kids, and maybe that’s what she should be focused on (!). Let’s be honest; that’s probably not something we are going to see in many bishop’s counseling sessions today, but in the early 80s? Not surprising, really. That was when the Church briefly flirted with being anti-birth control until 99% of the members basically told them to get stuffed.
How realistic does this counseling session sound to you? Turning the tables on the wife seemed completely plausible to me, but the “having kids” thing feels like an artifact of the past, potentially an accurate one.
Many Are Called
The other thing I noticed was that there was no mention of this wealthy, middle-class couple having callings which seemed completely unrealistic to me. Someone I asked about it elsewhere mentioned that they might have a do-nothing stake calling. That does seem possible, but still. They have a LOT of free / family time for Mormons. They should be a lot busier serving McDonalds orange drink in the park to broods of Mormons, IMHO, or playing ward basketball. I have no follow up question on this one, other than to say that I think in general outsiders do not realize how much time per week ward callings often take up for Mormons, particularly back in the 80s. It’s a lot.
Whenever I see Mormons portrayed on TV shows, I always evaluate how “accurate” I think it is, whether the tone is right, the lingo, the motives, etc. In this case, I would still give it a 7 out of 10, despite these minor quibbles. Usually, shows only have a character on briefly who is Mormon, and it’s not a main character, so it’s either unimportant to develop the character, or it’s a caricature. The absolute worst portrayal of a Mormon character on a TV show was on Homeland (IIRC) in which a young FBI recruit, a female BYU grad, is told to strip down to her underwear (black bra and panties, hmmm) and told that as an undercover agent, she will have to do sexual things to stay in character, possibly even girl-on-girl, and was she OK with that. She “professionally” without batting an eye said, “Yes, absolutely sir. No problem.” LOL! As if! Also, let’s get real. I find it implausible that this is routine FBI procedure for day one with new recruits. Instead, I suspect it’s routine Hollywood horndog writer room wish fulfillment. I did an actual spit take. It kind of ruined the show for me, the fact that they were so lazy about writing this one throwaway character.
- What Mormon TV portrayals have you seen?
- How accurate were they?
I feel like TV/movie portrayals of Mormons often just use stereotypical Evangelical cultural tropes. It bugs me.
You know the one that bugs me is Tony Kushner’s Angels in America. I’ve seen three versions, and each time when Harper breaks down and her mother-in-law tends to her, she is not wearing garments. Surely that would be remarked upon by MIL? And the husband’s garments are made into such a big deal. Anyone else notice that? (I like the play overall, but I think Kushner didn’t research Mormon women’s experience)
When I attended USU I are out with a group of friends mostly from various parts of Utah. They prayed over the food in the restaurant three or four times until someone commented about it being a bit like Pharisees praying on the street corners. I think it was just one person in the group that has been suggesting the prayer.
Bless-Ed pronunciation is definitely something I’ve heard in Mormon circles, but not the majority of the time.
The lack of callings sounds like the most unrealistic part to me.
Hollywood shows frequently hire consultants to tell them when they are getting science wrong, and the same may apply to cultural and religious issues. I understand as a general rule they take the consultants advice unless it gets in the way of the story. In this sense, to me it makes sense that they show a family praying in a restaurant to demonstrate their religious devotion with a free second snippet, and to ignore callings that would be a distraction.
Sorry for the typos and swypos. Predictive text and autocorrect do not eliminate the need to proofread.
On Amazon Prime there’s the Expanse, a sci-fi show 300 years or so in the future. A subplot is that the Mormons have built a huge space ship, the Nauvoo, complete with a large Angel Moroni. From the first few seasons, the depictions of members is brief and infrequent, but not too far off the mark and not disrespectful. There’s a scene where a nonmember character goes into a church and it looks like a pretty typical sealing room you would see in Church publications. An article from long ago says that the writers got the idea to use the Church from seeing an article about the City Creek project. Don’t know how the series continued the depiction.
The modern entertainment industry has an open and stated agenda of promoting substance abuse and wanton sexuality. Part of this agenda includes an attempt to destroy traditional notions of religion as a positive good in society. Quite often, this involves portraying members of the Church as buffoons.
Modern Hollywood portrays religion as a burdensome institution to be scorned and ridiculed. Indeed, Hollywood treats religion as something to be avoided at all costs.
Unfortunately, an impressionable public has begun to imitate what is shown on television and movies. As a result, the rates of illegitimacy and disease are skyrocketing.
The irrefutable fact is that wanton, uncontrolled sexuality does have harmful effects for both the individual and society. Shame on those who seek to impose this harm.
The modern social media industry has a secret and hidden agenda of promoting violence and willful ignorance. Part of this agenda includes an attempt to destroy traditional notions of civility as a positive requirement for society. Quite often, this involves providing a platform for members of the Church to portray themselves as buffoons.
Modern Church members portray Christian religion as burdensome, and they scorn and ridicule those they see as different from themselves. Indeed, Church members treat charity for the Man on the wayside as something to be avoided because of the great cost in taxes or personal freedoms.
Fortunately, an un-impressionable younger generation has begun to shun what they see on television and social media. As a result, rates of inactivity and apostasy are skyrocketing.
The irrefutable fact is that willful, selfish ignorance does have harmful effects for both the individual and society. Shame on those who seek to impose this harm.
Does Hollywood typically offer an oddball stereotype image when it portrays Mormons? Yes. Does the Church offer a more accurate depiction of early Mormons in The Saints? No.
1. I agree with E in the first comment. It’s common and irritating.
2. …flirted with being anti-birth control? That was even before the Church flirted with the idea of NOT being anti-birth control. As I see it, the Church is still anti-birth control in the same way it is pro-vax–“This is our position, but we aren’t going to enforce it.” (And the 99 percent thing in the early 80s was about the oral sex ban, not birth control.)
3. There were reasonable depictions of Mormons in the Expanse, but the scene of a long-haired companionless missionary at work was preposterous.
4. My favorite Mormon character was Dr. Jeffrey Cole on House. He was auditioning for a spot on House’s staff, but when House insulted Joseph Smith, Cole punched him out. He actually won points with House for that, but didn’t make the final cut.
“Big Love” was pretty accurate…I do remember the family holding hands while the food was blessed which seemed wrong but maybe it was accurate for the time?
I’ve never blessed my food in restaurants. By contrast, my Christian and Catholics co-workers do (but silently). But after our YM activity last week playing BB at the park, the Bishopric asked us to close with a prayer (gag).
In my neck of the woods, we don’t say blessed.
Yes, I have very much heard people being called home when they die. Like, every funeral.
I have no idea what Bishop counselling sessions look like as I’ve never been involved in something like that.
If Mormons are being portrayed more like Evangelicals, maybe that’s because we act more like Evangelicals with each passing day. We vote like Evangelicals. We reject science like Evangelicals. We are running away from our Mormon theology to be more like Evangelicals.
My experience is that Mormons are used in televisions shows as comedy relief only anyway.
And Josh h wins the comments. I felt like *I* was Meeting the Mormons for the first time as well in Meet the Mormons, as this also didn’t seem to portray the average Mormon experience either.
Watching off, lazy, or awkward portrayals of the Mormon community has helped me to understand why I personally don’t have knowledge to speak on behalf of a community that isn’t my identity and of which I don’t have lived experience. I need to listen and I need to trust and follow the lead of people who hold those identities and lived experiences. It’s just so easy to tell when I’m in conversations with people about the church (people without lived experiences of Mormonism) that they have it just partially right. Maybe, they read a NY Times article or watched a documentary, but there is so much more to the experience. So much that it really can only be had by immersion. There are unspoken expectations and there are words and phrases that mean entirely different things than what they mean to the general public (modesty=cover your shoulders and faith=full knowledge). There are traditions that continue even though they clearly don’t align with what is claimed to be the doctrine. There is power, politics, and privilege. It’s complicated and tough to understand.
I’ve seen “Physical”, and I grew up in California in the 80s. I thought their portrayal of Mormon characters was a bit exaggerated, but pretty much every character in that show is exaggerated in their own weird way.
My family prayed over every dinner at home, but never in public at a restaurant, and I’m not aware of any other LDS family around me that did that. I can understand the Mormon characters in “Physical” not having visible callings because they are not the central focus of the show. Also, I’m not old enough to know what bishop’s interviews of married couples were like in those days, but based on the stories my mom tells, the version that happened in the show is plausible; leadership roulette was just as much a thing then as it is now, perhaps more so because the leadership training was less correlated then. Also, Mormons in those days were more distrustful of secular therapists (thanks to BRM and Mormon Doctrine) so it was more common for faithful couples to seek “counseling” from their bishop when the need arose. There was also opposition to birth control and cultural conditioning for married couples to have larger families. And I don’t remember over-the-top Mormon-speak like “bless-ed” or “called home” (as a euphemism for death) being common things at all. These characters, it seems, are often more Evangelical than Mormon, and are portrayed as crude stereotypes of hyper-religious people. But then again, I actually did encounter Mormons like this when I visited Utah for the first time as a young adult. It was weird to see, but through less mature eyes it made me wonder if I had been “doing it wrong” my whole life. Now, when I see fictional portrayals of Mormons on TV I mostly just laugh.
One thing I take exception to about the Mormon characters in that show–the Successful Mormon Businessman™ trope wasn’t really a thing yet in the early 80s, at least not in California. Covey’s “7 Habits”, which was largely responsible for launching the whole Mormon MBA culture, wasn’t published until 1989. Most Mormon adults I grew up around were not wealthy or well-connected, and if they were, they didn’t show it. They were mostly hard-working humble people who didn’t run for public office and didn’t make waves in the community. I find a Mormon being a ruthless real estate mogul with a high public profile in early-80s Southern California to be a bit of a stretch. The only “rich” Mormons I knew of in the 80s were the ones who were caught in pyramid schemes, and they either lost everything or went to jail (happened to a bishop of a neighboring ward when I was a kid, who was also found to be embezzling tithing funds to prop up his fraudulent investments).
Just as Roman Catholics have to bear seeing priests and nuns in clerical garb in all sorts of fictional TV shows written by irreligious and sometimes disrespectful Hollywood writers, I suppose Latter-day Saints need to get used to depictions of us in fictional TV shows.
How common is vocal restaurant praying among the Mormons you know? Was it more common in the early 80s? Does it matter what type of restaurant?
My family does this, or we did pre-covid when we dined in restaurants. If covid weren’t a thing I’m sure we’d still be doing it. It’s not my thing, prayers aren’t my thing, but it’s a family practice that has enough momentum to where I don’t try to make waves.
Do you hear Mormons saying “bless-ed”? Is it regional, if so? How common is it?
I live in the southeast and hear bless-ed all the time but I don’t think I’ve ever heard a Mormon say bless-ed.
Do you hear Mormons say “being called home” in reference to what happens when we die?
It’s usually “return to Heavenly Father”. Also, I think the majority of the time Mormons would say “Heavenly Father” and not leave it at just “Father.” It’s got to be “Heavenly Father.” Another phrase I hear is “needed on the other side of the veil.”
How realistic does this counseling session sound to you?
I don’t see a Bishop asking about “marital relations” but I could see them counseling a couple to have more children.
“ How realistic does this counseling session sound to you?
I don’t see a Bishop asking about “marital relations”
A family member told me recently that when they were recently being interviewed by the SP? or Bishop? they were asked whether they have oral sex. Their reply was “our married life is just fine, thank you.”
Here in the UK, so far from California , in my family we do the pray before eating thing in public, but quietly and discreetly.
Bless-ed here is generally used as a term of exasperation or frustration . as in “..that blessed…” whatever it might be that’s driving us nuts…
I recall seeing any portrayals in visual media, though Mormon missionaries did get a brief comment by a character in one of Alexander McCall Smith’s recent novels..
When I cited “Big Love” I should have added that I know it was based on a family which was part of LDS sect that practiced plural marriage. So in that it wasn’t an accurate representation of a typical Mormon family.
Not TV, but in the video game Assassins’ Creed, they had several quotes from the Pearl of Great Price *in context* and worked it into the game’s huge story arc/conspiracy theory. They put us in cahoots with the Illuminati bad guys but I was still super impressed.
My wife and I were trying for a third child with a few years since our second when we moved into a new ward in New York when our elderly bishop told us we need more kids. Completely plausible. Also bishops ignoring or discounting the wife point of view is very plausible.
I’ve known a couple of families who bless food publicly in restaurants, including in instance not long ago when we were invited by friends out to dinner and they blessed the food, surprising us but we joined in.
Most of the other examples seem to be lifted from Evangelical practices.
As far as TV or media portrayals of Mormons. Ocean’s Eleven had two goofy, criminal Mormon brothers portrayed as being from a large family. Of course Book of Mormon the musical, I found myself giving several co-workers evaluations about how accurate that was. (Really enjoyed the musical btw). One that I’ll add, and which might not be appreciated but applicable given the last paragraph of the OP, is that there is a genre of pornography that features Mormons in garments and temple clothing.
My recollection is that our family prayed verbally at restaurants, including fast food restaurants, when I was growing up. We didn’t eat out much though.
I never heard people use bless-ed until we moved to the South, and it still is rare among the LDS people I know except those that grew up here. I am pretty sure that counseling about number of kids was a pretty common bishop thing to do in the 80s in Utah Valley. Being called home to Heavenly Father doesn’t strike me as at all an odd phrase for the era, but being called home to father without the heavenly does. Probably could just run through some obits from the era to find out for sure how common that phrase was used.
Angels In America HBO miniseries is the gold standard of Mormon fictional portrayal – Joe Pitt, gay Mormon lawyer, and Harper, his benzodiazepine addicted Mormon wife. Kushner hit all the high notes without, I suspect, understanding how right-on he actually was. A modern masterpiece.
Absolutely, p. So glad you thought of Angels in America!
Kushner was as prophetic and on-the-nose with the political right as he was with Mormon culture. What’s more, the play is as current and impactful now as it was 30 years ago.
It truly is a modern masterpiece.
I remember being embarrassed to go out to dinner with the other families in our ward because most other families did the public prayer thing. This was California in the 80s.
I know I’ve had vocal meal blessings in restaurants with family, I just can’t recall specific times. It wasn’t common, but I know we did that a few times, and though we would’ve been discreet, there’s some performative holiness involved.
The only time Mormons pronounce ‘blessed’ with two syllables is when reciting the Beatitudes or singing English choral music.
For the first few comments, I thought “called home to my father” meant the character’s grandpa. “Called home” is fairly common funeral parlance, but the Mormon context is about the entire family of ancestors. The mention of the deceased guys father was weird. I wondered if it signified a singular bond with grandpa to the exclusion of the rest of the progenitors. Then I saw the other context, which seemed even more weird, as in aspirational blasphemy. The One who was called home to his Father is Christ, and Mormons wouldn’t go there. Except maybe referring to Joseph Smith.
The bishop’s advice reads like case reports from so many mofem blogs and/or tweets, that I can totally see the writers at their conference table googling “ Mormon married couple bishop’s interview.” Except this was the 80s… … And of course, #notallbishops. But enough that it’s a trope.
I can only recall a few portrayals of Mormon folk in TV and film, “Paint Your Wagon” was fiction, That episode of “South Park” — SP is so far beyond fiction that not getting it right wouldn’t count. The BoM musical is so accurate that we all inwardly cringed while laughing. But my favorite was “New York Doll” which isn’t fiction, and gets it right. Big Love was so meh, I only saw a couple of episodes.
An enthusiastic seconding of “New York Doll” for getting it right.
MDearest: It’s possible the wife meant “called home to his father” in that way. I was confused when she said it what she meant. She said it to the bishop who literally had nothing to say to her and quickly turned the conversation back to between two men again, and when she tried to interject again, he put her in her place by saying she should have more kids (although not as bluntly as that). It was gross, but again, this was early Reagan era America, so I was thinking about middle school dances, not really aware of the water I was swimming in yet.
I’ve heard God referred to as “Father” without the “Heavenly” part mainly in two places in the church:
First, the temple. (Mormons do, of course, talk slightly differently in the temple than we do in the chapel)
Second, my patriarchal blessing. It’s full of references to simply Father. I don’t know if that’s just the way my patriarch talked, or if it was him subconsciously trying to make the Blessing more temple-esque.
I imagine screenwriters often have to do a fair amount of research for what they’re writing, especially for a period piece, unless they’re drawing from personal experience. My hunch is the writers of the show either had some personal experience with an idiosyncratic Mormon family in the 80s who said “bless-ed” and prayed over restaurant food, or they talked to someone who did.
Maybe I’m not one to talk since I don’t watch a lot of TV or movies. But I do remember in Oceans 11 how in the script there were two tech guys from Utah portrayed as having come from a large family and being really weird. But the script says nothing about their religious beliefs. My sense is that the impressions that secular or urban Americans have of Mormons is that they are kind of like evangelicals and that they have big families. My non-Utahn friends are often blown away when they come to Utah. It doesn’t match their earlier impressions of Mormons and Utah at all. A unique island in the US that is not well understood, in large part to portrayals of Mormons being such a sensitive topic. Mormons are very sensitive about how they are portrayed, quick to cry victim. And the movie-making world has long been sensitive about how they portray minorities. Plus, they don’t understand Mormons. The Mormons that are successful participants in the filmmaking world are either believers who don’t want to bash their community, or former believers who don’t want to get attacked for negative portrayals of Mormons. Neutral ground is hard to find.
Personally I would like to see more writers incorporate Mormon characters into their scripts. US Mormons are comparable in size to the Jewish community. And cinema regularly portrays Jewish characters and Jewish tradition.
It will be interesting to observe how Mormons are portrayed in the future, given the internal divide many now see and feel.
Reactions to ever more extreme politics, and pandemic responses seem to exacerbate differences. Those are in addition to the already growing discontent with increased church history information, recognition that homosexuality is part of the human condition, science acceptance, increasing racism, etc.
When those who are grounded don’t feel connected….
I was watching the BBC Mystery “Endevour” and they were investigating a local cult. One of the cops says “I hate these Jesus-wants-me-for-a-sunbeam types”. I nearly feel off the coach laughing. Some writer on the show HAD to be a Mormon.
@Lily Love Endeavor! However, “Jesus want me for a sunbeam” is widely sung in Christian denominations. Its not LDS in origins, so I don’t think the writers probably had Mormons in mind.
I did not know that!
I will vouch for 10ac that ‘Jesus Was Me for a Sunbeam” most definitely was not written as a Mormon song. We share it with many others.
I second the Expanse mention. Also i believe the latest James Bond has a reference to a Mormon character, who is a big smiley, superficial dude that turns out to be a bad guy. Bond refers to him as an F-ing Mormon.