“Satire is traditionally the weapon of the powerless against the powerful. I only aim at the powerful. When satire is aimed at the powerless, it is not only cruel—it’s vulgar.” (Texan journalist and feminist Molly Ivins)
Last week, I gussied myself up and headed out to Chicago’s Bank of America Theater to see The Book of Mormon. Now, I was expecting the jabs at religion — in fact, that was a major selling point for this organized-religion skeptic. But my mouth literally dropped open at, oh, about minute twenty, when the protagonists, two white Mormon missionaries travel to Uganda to meet their new ‘flock’ and join in a song called “Hasa Diga Eebowai.” The song’s English meaning, “Fuck God,” was not a source of discomfort in the least. The ability of this setting, which is besieged by AIDS and gender-based violence, to challenge the Midwestern Mormon blind faith in ‘Heavenly Father’s goodness is a fantastic plot point . . . in principle. Rather, I was letting the flies in because the way in which the Ugandan culture and its problems were presented was Westernized in conception and simplified to the utmost extreme.
And eighty percent of us have AIDS (Hasa Diga Eebowai!)
When the young ones here get circumcised
Their clits get cut right off (Way oh!)
Basically, in The Book of Mormon, Africa is a homogenous country rather than a continent made up of diverse cultures (not kidding — they call it a country un-ironically and in defiance of grammar school geography class), a baddie militant general (with a silly side! He dances, he sings, his name is General Butt-Fucking Naked!) is the source of all genital mutilation, and AIDS is basically an African identity.
The facts about Uganda — notice how I didn’t say Africa — are that genital mutilation was outlawed four years ago, but it continues to be practiced in rural areas not by some imposing military coup leader as a method of imposing his power but largely by elderly females who have been performing the surgery as a cultural initiation for decades. In fact, genital mutilation of girls in most African countries (see, used it appropriately there) is often carried out due to a complicated mix of social, cultural, and religious mandates by these local practitioners, who also preside over other important rites of passage in the village — births, for example.
In Book of Mormon, the clumsy and under-achieving missionary Elder Cunningham knows just the remedy for this social ill — make up stories that explicitly forbid mutilation and pretend they are written in The Book of Mormon . . . problem solved. And because these ‘Africans’ are stereotypically portrayed as eager sponges willing to soak up anything and everything presented to them, not only do they forgo mutilation but they also stop “raping babies.” Yup, raping babies. Remember the very real and present danger that exists for virgins in some African societies where it is believed that having sex with a virgin can cure one of AIDS? Well, to get a hearty laugh, Book of Mormon throws in a line about there being no virgins left except babies. Hence, the need to rape babies, hence a running joke about raping babies. And if you were wondering, yes, that ‘joke’ got laughs every time.
Ahh, this is bullshit! The story that I have been told is that the way to cure AIDS is by sleeping with a virgin! I’m going to go and rape a baby!
WHAT!?!! OH MY – NO! You can’t do that! NO!!!!
Because that is DEFINITELY against God’s will!
Says who!? Where in that book of yours does it say anything about sleeping with a baby, huh?! Nowhere!
Uh, behold, the Lord said to the Mormon prophet Joseph Smith, ‘You shall not have sex with that infant..!’ LO! Joseph said, ‘Why not Lord? Huh? Why not?’ And the Lord said, ‘If you lay with that infant you shall…Pghwwwww!…burn in the fiery pits of Mordor.
Eventually, the ‘Africans,’ led by the non-character of Nabulungi (the product of another running joke in which Elder Cunningham simply just can’t get her name right; I mean really who doesn’t find the blatant disregard for another culture hilarious?) put on a pageant for visiting Mormon dignitaries that reveals their misconceptions about the religion’s history. The pageant marks the pinnacle of the racial and cultural stereotyping that Book of Mormon leans upon for laughs — like children, the villagers are innocent in their mistakes and unintentionally, inappropriately, sexual in their expression (an echo of the “Baptism” number in which Nabulungi is baptized by Elder Cunningham in a pantomime of a sexual de-virginization). Horrified, the visiting elders must speak to their fellow Mormons separately (because the children can’t hear daddy yelling!) and as they leave, Nabulungi, in her manufactured innocence, proclaims, “I think they liked it!”
Finally, instructed in the deception that has been played upon them, the Ugandan villagers come to the realization that even if these stories that commanded them not to rape babies and not to commit FGM if they wished to please a greater power are fabricated, Elder Cunningham had given them what they had really been missing — hope. And . . . white savior trope complete.
Ultimately, while the audience is indeed encouraged to laugh at the bumbling and naive Mormon missionaries, they are equally if not more so led to laugh at what amounts to an egregiously stereotypical portrayal of a culture that is struggling to keep its head above water. As of 2010, there were 14.1 million Mormons worldwide, and that number is growing exponentially. The Church of Latter-Day Saints can take a bit of ribbing on what are largely factual representations of their beliefs and practices. But when 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM (which can include recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections, cysts, infertility, an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths, and the need for later surgeries), the humor is lost on me — especially when Book of Mormon so conveniently solves this problem by scaring off the FGM-inducing General with threats of his being afflicted with lesbianism from ‘Heavenly Father’ should he continue his behavior. Tee-hee, lesbianism as a curse from God. You know what would make that even funnier? If Uganda had criminal punishments for homosexuality and had passed a so-called “Kill the Gays” bill in 2009 which allows for extradition back to Uganda for same-sex acts committed by citizens outside its borders. Now that would be hilarious.
The Book of Mormon has won three Tony awards and numerous other prestigious honors (Drama Circle, Grammy, etc.). Its Chicago production was so booked that it had to extend its run by two weeks. When I was there, and I’m sure at most if not all of the performances, it received a standing ovation. This feminist can take a joke, but this time she has to wonder what exactly it is audiences are laughing at.