Johnny Lingo! Johnny Lingo!

Illustrations by Sister Mary Lisa

Do you remember the first time you ever watched Johnny Lingo? I imagine if you’re typical of most of us that were raised Mormon from childhood, the memory of that first viewing has been lost, mercifully, in the bazillions of subsequent times you were subjected to it. Or perhaps it has gotten all runny in your memory and blended with bazillions of viewings of The First Vision, Our Heavenly Father’s Plan, Man’s Search for Happiness, all those old Tom Trails film strips (complete with beeping sounds when it’s time to move the filmstrip forward) and La camioneta de Jos in Spanish. Perhaps it’s all mutated in your subconscious into a bleating, chaotic, multi-lingual, audio-visual nightmare that surfaces to torment you in the lonely stretches of the night, long after the Spirit has put on his footie pajamas and trundled off to bed.

Not that that’s ever happened to me.

Because, unfortunately, I don’t have any such luck. I remember very precisely the first time I saw Johnny Lingo. That day represents a very clear line drawn in the sand of my young life. It was an unmistakable demarcation, a loud and obvious signpost announcing that Things Had Changed. Of course, I had to live out some of the changes in order to figure all that out. And, as often happens with these things, it wasn’t Johnny Lingo alone that marked an initiatory of sorts for me. Context is very important. So I’m going to give you some.

I was always a pretty curious kida questioner if you willfrom the time I was very small. I didn’t question authority really (that came considerably later); I just had lots of questions. About everything. Why is the sky blue? How do the people get inside the TV? Where do dead people go? How do they get there? Why are you bald? And so on.

Naturally, being pretty steeped in Mormonism, I also had a lot of questions about that. I never remember once during my early childhood being told not to ask those questions. I never got so much as a whiff of discomfort from anyone that I asked questions ofnary the tiniest hint of a frown or withdrawal or change in tone of voice that would indicate that my asking a question was in any way inappropriate.

In fact, the reaction was quite the opposite. First and foremost, my parents and the adults in my extended family always answered my questions with relaxed ease and openness. (OK, I take that back. My mom did give off a distinctly freaked-out vibe with the sex questions, when my brother and I were in second and first grades respectively. And she got mad when we laughed at her answers. But she did answer.) Not only that, but I got all kinds of positive reinforcement for thinking and asking questions, lots of praise and proud reactions. My father, in particular, liked to field my questionsespecially once I got up into fourth, fifth and sixth grades and my questions became rather more complex. He took me very seriously, spoke to me in a relatively adult way, and laid a lot of complicated and difficult ideas on me, with confidence that I’d be able to handle them. I didn’t always understand, but it always stretched the boundaries of what I knew.

In church, I sensed a little bit less confidence from teachers, but more because they didn’t seem to always have the answers to my questions. No one seemed threatened or angered by them, just kind of sorry they couldn’t always answer them. I grew up in a branch that was like a small village in some ways, with everyone taking an interest in everyone else’s kids. I felt a sort of quasi-parental pride coming from the adults at church when I would engage them in discussion and pepper them with questions.

In my last two years of Primary I had a very young teacher (though she seemed very old to me, she was probably only about 22) who was a stay-at-home mom with a couple of small children. She was my teacher for both the Merrie Miss years and I got to be quite close with her. She reacted to my many questions in much the way the other adults in my life did. When I graduated from Primary, she wrote me a long personal letterwhich I kept for yearstelling me that my desire to understand and my willingness to ask the “why” of things, was something that she deeply admired about me. She encouraged me to maintain that “fine attitude” for it would help me “go far in life.”

At this point, when I was at the threshold of moving from Primary to Young Womenfrom childhood into my teen yearsI was very invested in this vision of myself. A lot of my identity was tied up in it and I felt a lot of confidence in my ability to learn and figure things out. I had an itch to know “why” that I had never once felt guilty for scratching. In fact, my experience had been very positive and clearly this behavior had the stamp of adult approval. The culmination of that feeling for me came in that letter and when I received it and read it, I felt in some inchoate way that I really was poised and ready to move on with the important business of growing up, of discovering the world for myself.

Famous. Last. Words.

Little did I know I was about to step into an arena that would trigger in me a whole other level of questioning. And this time, I was not going to get patted on the head for it.

But meanwhile, like a tender lamb to slaughter, I was thrilled to move up into the wonderful and mysterious world of Mutual. Of course, to “welcome” you they have what are euphemistically known as “Standards Nights.” I’d never been to one before, of course, and I don’t recall hearing that term applied to the meeting we went to, but in the intervening years, I think I’ve figured out that that is more or less what it was.

We lived in a district at the time (we were made a stake when I was 15) and there were probably fewer than ten other girls in the whole district that were my agenone of them in our branch. So my mom and I traveled to what is now the stake center for this welcome meeting for all the new Beehives in the district. (Oy. Merrie Miss. Beehives. Why can’t they update those names? Please, won’t someone think of the CHILDREN!!!)

The woman giving the presentation was from our branch. Her oldest daughter was a year younger than me, so still in Primary. This woman was a good friend of my mom and we gave her a ride to the meeting. It all felt very grown-up to merollin’ with the ladies. Although I would get very cynical about Mutual fairly quickly, at that point I was extremely excited, enthusiastic and wide-eyed about the whole thing.

Everybody was all dressed up. There would be elegant refreshments afterward (or my mom promised me elegance anyway. As it turned outnot so much.) We were going to have a “talk” about serious stuff and this was not going to be some little baby, Primary thing involving songs with hand motions. It was going to be the real deal, and I couldn’t wait to start digging into it!

We met in the Relief Society room. There were maybe three, four other girls therenone of whom I knewwith their moms. My mom and I sat down on the first row and watched as my mom’s friend–we’ll call her, oh, Sister The Speaker–got set up on a small table in front of us. Somebody from the district YW presidency sat down by us on the front row and everybody else sat huddled together a row or two back from us (my first small brush with the cliqueishness in our stakeoh, there were all kinds of omens happening that day).

We sang a real hymn for the opening song (none of this “In the Leafy Tree-tops” business). Had the prayer and some kind of welcome speech from the district mutual presidency. Then she turned the time over Sister The Speaker who would be giving the program.

This womanfriend of my mother, mother of my friendwas and is incredibly intelligent, talented, and capable. She should have been President of the United States. Instead she got married, stayed home, and had twelve children (only seven of whom had made their appearance at that point in time). She introduced herself and her topic and let us know that she wanted this to be a discussion as much as a talk by her. If we had questions we should just raise our hands and she would try to address them. Oh, this was just getting better and better!

We pause here in our narrative for another dose of context. This was 1973, and second-wave feminism was in full swing. The Vietnam War had ended only a few months previously. Protests and counterculture and “bra-burning” were the then-current btes noirs of good, conservative Mormons. My folks were moderate Republicans (what today are called Democrats) but of an independent mind. They didn’t bother to do any concerted indoctrinating with us on most political issues. So I picked up what I knew about feminism from the zeitgeistat least that part of it that a 12-year old might tune in toand the essential rightness of it seemed self-evident to me.

Of course, one of my big questions had always been “why can’t girls have the priesthood?” I got any number of the standard, unsatisfying answers to that question. I won’t bore you; you’ve heard them all too. When I protested that this wasn’t fair, I was assured that it was fair, I just didn’t understand. Did Heavenly Father like girls better? Of course not. He loves them just as much as boys and they are equal to boys. And being a trusting sort at that age, I accepted that it was all fine and that I just didn’t understand it, but that I would some day. I bought that rationale because they were sure right about one part of it: I didn’t get it and, as it turned out, when I finally did, my conclusion was different than I had expected in those early days. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

As I said, I trusted the authority figures in my life when they assured me that I was as loved and valuable as any boy. I took it on faithagainst all the evidence that I had perceived up to that pointthat the whole system was actually fair and equal and that my status within it was as good as any male’s. After all, I was just a kid and didn’t get it yet. Our church wasn’t unfair to women. Our church didn’t treat men and women unequally. And as I grew and learned and matured, I would understand that all these things I sawthings that were glaringly apparent to me from the time I was four or five years oldwere not evidence of inequality and injustice and lower status. They were actually evidence of the opposite! And when I was grown up and had a testimony of my own, I would know why.

So when I heard things about “women’s lib” I could feel a little smug, because I knew we were on their side. They were on our side. They wanted fairness, equality, justice for women. Well, hey, sistahs! So do we! In fact, we’ve GOT that in our church! Isn’t that COOL? I couldn’t exactly explain how what we had was fair and equal and just, but it was. Those men (and the women they presided over) told me so. And the men in our church weren’t “male chauvinist pigs.” Didn’t every one of them from the prophet to the branch president to my dad insist that women were equal to men in the eyes of God and of his church? In fact, they thought MORE of women than the World did. Didn’t they give men the priesthood just to make them equal to the vastly superior women?

In short, I had quite a positive view of feminism at that point and felt a lot of solidarity with it. (Well, the bra-burning thing did give my Victorian grandmother quite a serious case of the vapors, so I couldn’t exactly approve of itbut I secretly thought it was kind of funny, in much the same way I did when my mom tried to explain where babies came from.)

So I was somewhat confused when it became apparent that the evening’s presentation was going to be about feminism and that feminism wasahemnot so good. The message wasn’t subtle, as you shall see.

My first clue came when Sister The Speakerfriend of my mother, mother of my friendput up a pair of carefully drawn and colored, home-made posters on two small table easels. Using my descriptions, written from memory, our own Sister Mary Lisa has kindly re-created them for us here:

I am not making this up.

Naturally, the images stick with me most clearly, but while I don’t remember much of the exact wording of her talk (it’s been more than three decades, after all), I can give you the basic jist.

You see, feminine is a very wonderful thing to be. It’s lovely, beautiful, kind, tender, compassionate, selfless and sweet. When you’re feminine you act like a girl, think like a girl, dress like a girl. You do things that are appropriate for girls. You know who you are and what your destiny is. You love your Heavenly Father and so you do what he made you to do. You don’t need or want to do the things boys do. You have your own special role.

Feminist, on the other hand, is something very different. Feminists try to make being female an ugly thing. They are strident and shrill and selfish and slovenly. They try to act like men, think like men, dress like men. They want to BE men. They don’t understand Heavenly Father’s plan for them. They don’t realize or they reject who they really are. They want to do everything the boys do. They want to abandon their true roles. Feminism is a wile of the Adversary to try and lead women down a path to destruction. It is his counterfeit of true femininity.

This is just a summary of course and there was quite a bit more to it, including a generous sprinkling of wise and somber quotes from venerable old men. However, the most vivid thing I recall about listening to this sweetly-delivered screed is of feeling growing confusion and alarm. I felt more and more agitated inside. I did not understand. Finally, right in the middle of one of her sentences, I raised my hand. Well, she did say we could ask questions! She stopped and aimed a saccharine smile at me that I should have recognized as a warning.

“Yes?” she said.

“I don’t get it. Don’t feminists just want equality for women? Don’t they just want equal pay for equal work and stuff like that?” She conceded that this was more or less what feminism was about. Or so they said. (Although as an adult, I will now concede in turn, that “stuff like that” covers an awful lot of diverse ground. Give me a break. I was twelve.)

“Well, don’t we believe that women are equal to men? Don’t we agree with them? What’s wrong with all of that?”

Yes, she assured me, of course we believe that women are equal to men. Heavenly Father loves and values his daughters every bit as much as he values his sons. But he has different roles for his sons and his daughters. They are both important roles. Men’s role is to lead, provide and protect. Women’s role is to support and nurture. Both things are equally important and we mustn’t do anything to erase those differences.

“But why does that make what feminists say wrong? They just want men and women to be equal and things to be fair. I don’t see why–”

At this point my mother, sitting beside me, leaned over and grabbed my knee (a little bit harder than she needed to, I might add).

“Shush,” she said, very sweetly.

“But I just–” I began.

“Shhh,” she repeated, a little more forcefully. “Let Sister The Speaker finish her talk.” And then I clearly saw her and Sister The Speaker exchange a smilea bit embarrassed and apologetic on my mom’s side, understanding and condescendingly amused on Sister The Speaker’s. But there was also something so knowing in the looks they gave each other that it froze me where I sat. Something was going on, something strange had happenedsomething beyond a simple case of a young adolescent talking out of turn. There was some sort of coded understanding between them that I was unable to decipher. The words Sister The Speaker spoke seemed to have meanings behind them that were completely unfamiliar to me. Yet clearly my mother understood what she was saying very well. And because I had not understood the meaning behind the meaning, it was obvious I had committed some kind of faux pas, the nature of which was completely mysterious to me.

About then, I happened to glance behind me and I swear all those other girls and their mothers were glaring daggers at me. There was a hostile, scandalized energy coming from them that was utterly unmistakable and that I actually felt wham into my stomach. I whipped my gaze back to the front, feeling the blood rush into my face. I slumped down in my chair and my mother leaned over and hissed at me to sit. up.

I sat up ramrod straight and started to feel myself drift loose from my body. Sister The Speaker was going on to explain that feminists wanted to pull women out of their homes and away from their families into the workplace. They wanted to be the SAME as men, not just equal to them. They wanted to leave their own roles and usurp those of men. (How my mother, who had worked full-time almost my whole life, sat through this with a straight face, I do not know.) Men and women weren’t the same. They were equal but very different and belonged in different places in life. God had made them that way. But feminists wanted to be just like men, were dissatisfied with the place God had made for them and wanted to be in the place that God had assigned men. That was the difference. Still confused, but now thoroughly chastened, I assiduously hung on her every word, nodding and listening to myself make little murmurs of assent and understanding as if it were someone else doing it. “Ohhh, mm-hm, uh-huh, OK, ahhh, I see now. Separate, but equal. OOOOkaaaaaayyy”

So, I had been appropriately silenced. Sister The Speaker went on and finished with The Speaking in Somebody Else’s voice. My mother sat beside me and smilingly listened to her life and accomplishments in the professional world be shat upon and demonized by her friend in front of her young daughter. And all the cliquey girls and their cliquey moms eased back into their cloud of comfort. The planets were aligned, the initiates had been prepared and all was in perfect readiness.

Thenand only thendid we watch Johnny Lingo.

Johnny Lingo Part 1

Johnny Lingo Part 2

Johnny Lingo Part 3

25 thoughts on “Johnny Lingo! Johnny Lingo!

  1. Very well written! I thoroughly enjoyed this post. It’s always nice to peek into how women were treated in Mormonism.

  2. Fantastic story!!!

    I also had to deal with the weird conflictedness of being a Mormon girl from that generation. My mom was vocally anti-ERA yet quite feminist in spirit, so I internalized all sorts of conflicting ideas about feminism, as I described in girlhood dreams:

    This was back in the distant era of the 1970s — also known as they Polyester Age — and “Women’s Lib” was all about crazy stuff like burning your bra (irresponsibly immodest and a fire hazard!) and forcing boys and girls to use the same bathroom by promoting something called the ERA. And who could be in favor of such obviously misguided foolishness? So like all good and reasonable Mormon families of the time, we were opposed to “Women’s Lib.”

    On the other hand, the fact that girls should be encouraged to aspire to be anything they want to be — just like boys — was a fact that was so self-evident that it certainly didn’t require a name, such as “feminism.”

  3. Excellent story. Very well written.

    Somehow I managed to avoid seeing Johnny Lingo until my mission. I didn’t see Saturday’s Warrior until pretty late, too. Somehow I was spared, though I do remember those filmstrips. “Then Jesus showed himself to the inhabitants of America. DOOOOOOT!”

  4. This story is so awesomely good and well-written and Lisa’s drawings are like the superb icing on the cake. I love you both!!

  5. Isn’t it funny, Chanson, that bathrooms in Mormon chapels are unisex since the nineties? The brethren were just too greedy to provide wheelchair accessible bathrooms separately for men and women.

  6. Isnt it funny, Chanson, that bathrooms in Mormon chapels are unisex since the nineties?

    I didn’t know that — that is too funny!! The possibility of unisex bathrooms was seriously given as an argument against the Equal Rights Amendment…

  7. I”m not LDS so I never saw that film.

    I”m not sure I get the point. Where’s his motivation for choosing her? Why was he so motivated that broke his own character as a skilled trader to go completely over the top?

    I can understand that her life improved and she responded when she was valued but how did she create any of those circumstances? What lesson could a woman take from that that she could practice? Doesn’t it just reinforce the message that you value is what everyone else defines it as? That you are powerless to create your own image?

    Let’s face it, it’s a fairy tale based on the reverse of “The Taming of the Shrew” but it depends entirely on manipulated givens and would collapse in the real world where no one would pay 8 cows for what could be had for 1.

    I don’t get why anyone would buy into this…

  8. Johnny Lingo = Women are passive receptacles for the values of men, kind of like what Rolf tells Liesl in The Sound of Music.

    You wait, little girl, on an empty stage
    For fate to turn the light on
    Your life, little girl, is an empty page
    That men will want to write on

  9. Goodness! It’s no wonder you remember your first viewing of Johhny Lingo – so traumatic! Lovely writing and SML’s drawings are great. Thank you for sharing!

  10. Thanks everybody. I’m glad you all enjoyed it.

    Chanson–it was never specifically mentioned, but looking back, I can see why we got that speech instead of the licked cupcake/plucked rose/chewed gum show that is more familiar standards night fare. (For those who haven’t been LDS–that’s the one where they tell you if you let a boy touch you, you are ruined forever and no one will ever want you. Cuz who wants a licked cupcake/plucked rose/chewed-up gum?) The ERA was, like Putin over Alaska, starting to really look over the shoulder of the church about that time.

    My mom also was more feminist in how she lived her life in the trenches; but what she transmitted to us rhetorically was utterly sexist and patriarchal. She writhed with guilt over working and projected that onto us as kids–like she was sure we were holding it against her–and was constantly telling us how bad she was for not being a stay-at-home mom.

    aerin–I heard the military draft threat, the unisex bathroom threat, the “women will be FORCED to put their children in daycare and get jobs” threat, and numerous other scaaary things that probably never happened that I don’t remember now.

    visitor–you make some very excellent salient points. I think the point right at that moment was to reinforce subservience to men and the powerlessness of women (though not the consciously articulated point). Yes, it’s absolutely sexist on its face. I remember both laughing at it and somewhere in there, squirming at it. And looking back, I think there was this struggle going on in me to find a place to put i in my head that somehow wouldn’t just rip me to shreds.

    Pants–looking back it was kind of traumatic and it was definitely a line-in-the-sand moment for me; however, when I first actually told this story to somebody (SML, as it happens) it just suddenly struck me as incredibly absurd and funny. I mean really. Those posters? Give. me. a. break. That is Unintentional Comedy Gold.

    Wry–love you back, baby!

    Now that I’ve sort of flung it out there as text and given it a shape, what really jumps out at me is the role of adult women in perpetrating this on girls–in fact, not just any girls, but their own daughters. You can blame the patriarchy–but in this sense, the patriarchy is just as much women as it is men. I know, I know, they were indoctrinated too. But for some reason, part of me is just not buying that. I don’t know why, but I just can’t let them off the hook that easily.

  11. Now that Ive sort of flung it out there as text and given it a shape, what really jumps out at me is the role of adult women in perpetrating this on girlsin fact, not just any girls, but their own daughters. You can blame the patriarchybut in this sense, the patriarchy is just as much women as it is men. I know, I know, they were indoctrinated too. But for some reason, part of me is just not buying that. I dont know why, but I just cant let them off the hook that easily.

    Twisty says that no woman should be blamed for doing what she needs to do for herself to survive in the patriarchy. In the face of such an intractable enemy, capitulation is no disgrace.

    The phrase “Stockholm syndrome” comes to mind.

    Maybe it’s also like medical residents needing to work insane hours, even though it’s not safe and it’s unnecessary. The establishment had to do it; it was good for them, and it’s good for the youngsters, too.

  12. Twisty says that no woman should be blamed for doing what she needs to do for herself to survive in the patriarchy.

    This is a valid point, and yet I feel like the question is more complex than “should we blame them?” or “should we let them off the hook?”

    Overall, people will develop strategies to get by. Obviously the patriarchy cultivates a slave mentality: “If I do as I’m told, someone will always take care of me.” For many, that is a successful strategy, so naturally they pass it along to their daughters.

    In every generation, a few will refuse to have their spirit broken and capitulate. Occasionally that strategy works better.

  13. Those pictures have just been linked to my blog. If you click on them, it gets you here. They are priceless. Thanks.

  14. I recently read Snow Flower and the Secret Fan by Lisa See, which describes foot binding in Chinese culture from a first-person point of view. I couldn’t help but think of what you wrote here, Bel, as I read that book. The mothers bound the feet of the daughters, passing along the pain and the suffering they KNEW, ignoring the risk (one out of every ten girls actually died from the binding), pushing it as a GOOD thing for their daughters because the patriarchy valued small feet. The insidious ramifications of patriarchy are so disturbing to face and so very difficult to make sense of.

    Wry, love you back, madly. :)

    Madam Curie, I’m flattered you posted the posters I illustrated on your blog.

    Belaja, I’m also honored that you let me draw the posters for your amazing writing. Let’s do this again sometime soon!

  15. Wow….that was great…I remember the ERA issue in the church…I didn’t really get it, maybe I was too young or maybe just as I did with every other inconsistency in my life I just ignored it, or just let it be…as many of us (questioners)know…
    My experience of getting the message of how the Mormon church felt about ERA was when my mom would comment on Sesame Street characters that were going to work or leaving their children at day care…not a super clear memory, but as I grew older and my mom just told me that she didn’t like Sesame Street or Electric Company because of the Equal Rights agenda I got it.
    I really am/was…still am?…an ostrich ….. just burring my head in the sand….it will all be ok..work out, or I’ll just adapt..now that I think of that….we could just call that Mormon evolution…oops I forgot no evolution…hmmm…now what?
    Thanks for sharing….

  16. Great story and great illustrations! I am a little younger (about 12 years), but I also had a mormon mother that played dual roles. Feminist in the world & quite happy with the roles at church. Strange…

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