Johnny Lingo at Sunstone!

There were tons of amazing presentations at the Sunstone Symposium, but I think my favorite was Holly‘s analysis of Johnny Lingo. This one was controversial enough to have gotten covered by the Salt Lake Tribune in addition to inspiring many blog reactions:

Journy Gal’s title alone (A Man’s Right to Determine a Woman’s Worth) sums it up pretty well (but read the whole post anyway). Mr. FOB’s reaction (in Those Fascinating Mormon Women) was mixed. Evgenii explains (in Coming Up Next At Sunstone: A Critical Look At Cipher In The Snow) that Holly was overreacting. Chris counters with the Benefits of “Bashing”Johnny Lingo:

The point of [Holly]’s presentation was not to justify her haughty, elitist disdain for a popular film, as some seem to assume. The point was not really about the film at all. The film was a teaching tool in making a larger point: that there are implicit messages in our words and actions and artistic expressions that may alter the way we see the world.

The moral, as Kaimi explained at the banquet, was “Women are property — if you treat them as valuable property, they’ll be valuable property.” However, since the women-as-property theme was so overpowering, I think it overshadowed another important message that I wanted to discuss:

I hadn’t seen this film since I was a teenager, so I was listening with (almost) fresh ears when I heard Johnny Lingo explain why he bought Mahana for eight cows. (I’m paraphrasing since I don’t have a transcript.)

Johnny explains that the women of the village like to gossip about who was bought for the highest price, such as three or five cows. “And the woman who was bought for one or two cows — how does she feel?” he asks.

“Hmm, that’s a problem,” thought I.

“But that won’t be my wife!” he explains. (again, paraphrasing) “She’ll be happy because she knows she’s the most valuable woman on the island!”

“What the…? What the hell kind of solution is that???” thought I. So you’ve decided your wife will get to be number one at helping those one-or-two-cow wives feel inferior. How noble!

Now, I know the LDS critics are probably thinking that I need to just accept that there are some winners and some losers in life. Not in this case. In the case of what makes a good mate, there is no reason why mates should be linearly, numerically ordered (even if we ignore the sexism of the fact that the ordering is naturally assumed by the film to be applied only to women and decided only by men).

As I explained in Finding Love 101, we all — men and women — have a range of qualities we desire in a mate, and we place different priorities on the different qualities.
So my husband is far more desirable to me (for a range of wonderful qualities that I value) than he might be to many other people who have different priorities.

cinder_edna This is one of the points I love about the adorable kids’ book I discovered lately: Cinder Edna. Cinderella and Prince Randolph are the two most beautiful in the kingdom, and each is the other’s #1 choice as a mate. Cinder Edna, however, has no interest in Prince Randolph, and similarly the other prince, Prince Rupert, has no interest in Cinderella. Cinder Enda and Prince Rupert are both resourceful and love silly jokes — they fall in love based on various qualities they both value — and they live happily ever after. It gives a beautiful message both about self-worth and about relationships.

Even if you think the eggheads are protesting too much in complaining about poor Johnny Lingo, that’s no excuse for being lax in picking stories with the best morals for your kids. If they’re still little, pick up a copy of Cinder Edna!


C. L. Hanson is the friendly Swiss-French-American ExMormon atheist mom living in Switzerland! Follow me on mastadon at or see "letters from a broad" for further adventures!!

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31 Responses

  1. Wm Morris says:

    Of course, what the film doesn’t show is that Johnny Lingo’s brazen upending of the social order led to a complete breakdown in the cows for wife economy. The dude was a subversive radical.

  2. Great points, and thanks for the book recommend. If I ever have kids, I’ll have to remember that one.

  3. Saganist says:

    I’ve always thought this, too. I remember the first time I watched Johnny Lingo after joining the church. My reaction was pretty much the same. “What the heck? It’s okay that your wife is property as long as she’s the most valuable property on the island?” Since then, I’ve often sardonically used the phrase “ten-cow wife” when I want to point out the sexism of situations like this. You make a great point as well, that trading more cows for a wife actually makes the situation worse.

  4. chanson says:

    Wm — I assume you’re joking, but that’s an interesting point (which was among the many things that crossed my mind while watching the film). If this were a real culture, his action may well have caused massive inflation of the bride market, destabilizing it and perhaps leading to its elimination. That probably wasn’t his intention, though.

    Christopher — yes, do! It’s cool!

  5. chanson says:

    Saganist — exactly, he’s actively encouraging her to look down on the one-and-two-cow wives. This doesn’t help (unless Wm Morris’s idea works 😉 ).

  6. Ziff says:

    Good point, chanson. I hadn’t thought about the story in any depth (and I missed that session) and hadn’t gotten past the “women as property” point that so easily overshadows the others. But you make a good case that there’s more to be concerned about in the movie than the assigning women worth as property.

  7. I wish I’d made it to the Johny Lingo presentation. My first reaction when I saw that on the program was that it seemed like an easy target–akin to devoting an entire panel to saying that “Little Black Sambo” is racist–but based on your report and what Green Mormon Architect told me, it sounds like it went beyond the obvious to make some interesting and relevant arguments.

  8. chanson says:

    Ziff — Thanks!

    Ben — The funny thing is that I was thinking about the same thing before going, like you’d hardly need a whole presentation to explain something as “no duh” as the sexism of Johnny Lingo. But it was unexpectedly interesting.

  9. Hellmut says:

    The sentimentalists are voting the report of the Trib down. Please, take a minute and cast your vote here.

  10. Hellmut says:

    The commenters at the Trib are funny. One guy demands that My Fair Lady be condemned by the same logic as Johny Lingo. After all, the poster observes correctly, Dr. Higgins treats Eliza Doolittle as the object of his ambition and reshapes her accordingly.

    Obviously, the gentleman needs to watch the play again. It makes precisely this point.

  11. aerin says:

    chanson – thanks – I’m not sure everyone agrees Johnny Lingo is/was sexist – or that everyone knows what being “sexist” means. And I will have to check out Cinder Edna – we read a great story about princesses and the pizza the other day (also highly recommended).

    #7 – Little Black sambo is an interesting point. Finding a copy of little black sambo was (at one point) incredibly difficult. I think it was re-released to take out some of the more blatant racism (so that copy is easier to find)…but Johnny Lingo has never been censored (or removed from LDS culture) from what I can tell in any way.

    I would have been interested to hear Holly’s statements about Fascinating Womanhood as well.

  12. chanson says:

    Hellmut — yeah, Holly mentioned those comments at the symposium, in particular the one saying “My Fair Lady” should be condemned by the same logic. In fact, she discussed “My Fair Lady” in her paper on “Johnny Lingo”.

    Aerin — I didn’t mean that everyone is agrees that Johnny Lingo is sexist. Obviously they don’t, given that there was a recent remake of it, making the subject current again. I just thought that for those people who are aware of sexism, it would be so simple that there wouldn’t be much to say about it. But, in fact, there were some interesting points to be made.

    The audio for all of the talks (including Holly’s discussion of “Fascinating Womanhood” from the “Twilight” panel) should be available soon.

  13. Sabayon says:

    After being introduced to Johnny Lingo one Youth Conference, my old bishop, who was native Hawaiian, started calling his wife a two golf club woman as this was apparently the only thing he ever gave his father in law. She was not amused. He also told us that Pacific islanders don’t traditionally ranch cattle, oops.
    I’m not sure if a Twilight panel sounds interesting or terrifying.

  14. chanson says:

    Sabayon — too funny!! Often people defend the film by saying “that’s just their culture.” Except that it isn’t.

    I’m sorry I missed the Twilight panel — from what I heard about it, it was a real hoot, and one of the highlights of the symposium. I’m looking forward to hearing the recording of it!

  15. Holly says:

    Hi Chanson–thanks for the praise and publicity! I covered the JL paper today in my own blog, linking it to this horrific story of “bride price” in Uganda, in which women are bought and sold for “a list of demands for money, animals or clothing made by fathers and older brothers, who might want to throw in requests for new shoes or school fees. The mother gets nothing because she was more or less purchased herself, and the sisters are ignored too as they are all set to be exchanged for commodities when they reach 12 or 13.”

    Mormonism treats the whole concept as if it’s CUTE, but really it has devastating consequences for women: “Girls are being removed from school to be married off as young as possible so the families can get a few cows or sacks of rice the younger the bride, the higher the bride price paid.”

    This is a good deal of what I wanted to argue: that this fable or fairy tale is not some abstract ideal–it’s a real practice with real consequences, and those consequences do NOT empower or affirm women.

    One clarification: I didn’t compare JL to “My Fair Lady,” I compared it to “Pygmalion,” the play on which MFL is based. This is important, because in “Pygmalion,” Eliza marries Freddy–not Henry Higgins.

  16. Holly says:

    p.s. I wouldn’t condemn “Pygmalion,” because I think in the play Shaw is critiquing the practice of buying and selling women, not advocating it. I used it to critique JL, to show that other writers have been able to see the whole problem of treating women as commodities in ways that Mormon culture fails to do.

  17. aerin says:

    It must be too obvious to think that MFL (or “Pygmalion”) were also about class differences, right?

    I don’t know what to say about the women in Uganda, but that the situation makes me sad.

    And I did see some of the sl trib’s comments, and I think it speaks volumes when the messenger is criticized rather than the message. It must be too scary to think that a culture still treats its women like objects. Glorified objects, but still objects.

  18. Holly says:

    It must be too obvious to think that MFL (or Pygmalion) were also about class differences, right?

    absolutely. Who can forget Eliza’s famous statement that “at the corner of Tottenham Court Road…I sold flowers. I didnt sell myself. Now that youve made a lady of me Im not fit to sell anything else. I wish youd left me where you found me.”

  19. As chance would have it, my wife recently made me clean out a box of books from my childhood. Among these was a copy of Little Black Sambo. About the only racially sensitive material that I can find are the names—Jumbo, Mumbo, and Sambo (a racial slur in some places)—and from the original illustrations which have been changed in my copy. Other than that, there’s not much to object to in the story.

    There’s a bit of a misunderstanding about the race involved, by the way. Sambo is from India, not Africa.

  20. aerin says:

    #19 – I was thinking of Langston Hughes’ criticism – described in the wikipedia article here.

    #18 – Holly – I think I was heavily influenced by the partial (amateur) production of MFL I saw in the former soviet union. GB Shaw was pretty popular over there.

    I think some of the gender issues did get lost in the translations, however.

  21. Hellmut says:

    Just to be clear, Higgins used Eliza Doolittle and got slammed for it in the last act of the drama.

  22. I confess my ignorance of the basis of Hughes’ criticism which the Wikipedia article and the article that Wikipedia cites fail to elucidate.

    However, that article confirmed my stated impression that the only objectionable part of the story were the names and the original illustrations. From the words of the story alone, the family is articulate and intelligent, if unfortunately named.

  23. mermaid says:

    I think the story of Johnny Lingo buying the wife for 8 cows not only reduces the wife to a commodity, but also shows Johnny wants the prestige of having a high priced wife. It has little if anything to do about the happiness of the bride, and more to do with the prestige of the purchaser. “Look what I can afford – aren’t I the big man?”

  24. KMB says:

    I’m a little confused by the criticism. If *you* were Johnny Lingo, what would *you* do in that situation?

    The society where women are commodities isn’t the *point* of the movie, it’s just the *setting*. Johnny Lingo (the person) didn’t create this culture, nor is there really evidence he agrees with it. But it’s the *setting*–the society he lives in and has to deal with.

    So…what would *you* do? There’s a girl you want to marry and (according to the culture you both live in) she must first be ‘bought’ from her father.

    Do you be stubborn and refuse to participate–saying you should be able to marry Mahana without paying anything, since a woman’s worth is not related to price?

    (This will certainly end with you NOT having a wife, and someone else paying half a cow for Mahana instead. Does this make Mahana feel better about herself? You’d probably just be dismissed as ‘cheap’)

    Do you pay one cow or part of a cow–basically take what the expected market price dictates–and then try to convince Mahana on your own time that her worth is not related to the price paid (contrary to the *setting* and culture of the movie, which teaches her it is…)

    Do you pay two or three cows–a price that’s ‘above market’ and makes a small statement, yet is within the ‘normal’ bounds set by the culture so as not to rock the boat and disrupt the system?

    Or do you pay eight cows–a super-exaggerated price that simultaneously conforms to and undercuts the entire marriage system the culture is based on?

    I see people criticizing the setting of the movie, not the content, which doesn’t make sense. If you were Johnny *in that setting* what would you do?

    I think the subtext of the movie is clear as to whether Johnny agrees with the system, or is really a ‘subversive radical’-type as above. In my view, he appears to have made the one choice that (1) let’s him marry the woman he loves, and (2) undercuts and helps dissolve the sexist system they live in at the same time. Any better suggestions for what he should have done?

  25. Hellmut says:

    Good to meet you, KMB. I agree with you that criticizing Johnny Lingo the character does not make much sense. Short of eloping, he does not have many options, does he.

    The point is rather to criticize the movie and the movie makers who confuse an alien concept of womanhood for cute.

    The story is entirely a product of someone’s imagination. The fact that so many Mormons confuse this story as a liberation narrative tells us a lot about the values that undergird our own culture, doesn’t it?

  26. chanson says:

    KMB — I’m not objecting to the actions of the fictional character Johnny Lingo, I’m objecting to the actions of the filmmakers.

    This film is explicitly didactic: it is intended to teach people how men should treat women. They invented this specific island culture (see comment #13) for the purpose of teaching people in our culture some (highly questionable) lessons about male/female relations.

    Since there do exist cultures where brides are bought, it might have been interesting to see a realistic story about people in such cultures grapple with the list of questions you’ve raised: What should I do if I want to get married and have a family but don’t want to buy into the idea that some of my family members are owned as livestock by other members of my family? How do I stay true to my family and traditions while working to change the parts that are rotten? That’s not the film we got here, though. The LDS-church-sponsored filmmakers felt that this situation presented a great example to teach ideal husband-wife relationships to our youth.

    I say that we as parents and as a society can choose more positive and uplifting stories for our children (see my last paragraph).

  27. Holly says:

    Hellmut, you do a great job of summarizing a primary goal I had in my paper: “to criticize the movie and the movie makers who confuse an alien concept of womanhood for cute.” Thanks.

    KMB: I had no trouble coming up with a significantly better way for Johnny to have treated Mahana and helped her become a happier, healthier human being. The fact is, there is significant reason to criticize Johnny’s behavior towards Mahana before the bargaining. This is not to say that he is a bad husband; I actually argue that he is a kind and tender husband. But as a suitor–well, he leaves a lot to be desired.

    I’m not going to lay my analysis out here, however, because the paper is 8000 words long, and because I want people to support the organizations that have given me a venue for it. If you want to know what’s wrong with Johnny’s behavior as a suitor, what he could have done different and BETTER to help Mahana be happy, you’ll either have to think of it yourself (it’s actually pretty obvious) or else buy a cd or download the session from Sunstone. Or, you can hope that Dialogue decides to publish the paper–I’ve already been given word that they’re considering it very seriously.

  28. aerin says:

    This is a response to Jonathan (#22) about “Little Black Sambo”. Jonathan, I’d be happy to discuss this with you outside of this post – my address is aerin64 at hotmail . Sorry it’s taken me so long to respond.

    another article about racist caricatures and little black sambo

    Quote from the article:
    The illustrations were racially offensive, and so was the name Sambo. At the time that the book was originally published Sambo was an established anti-Black epithet, a generic degrading reference. It symbolized the lazy, grinning, docile, childlike, good-for-little servant. (end quote).

    Who can say when something is racist or not racist? And if something is deemed racist (or sexist for that matter), can that label by challenged? I think it’s good to continue to have these types of discussions.

    I do think it is worthwhile to study and understand the images/characters in our society and what messages (overt and hidden) that they send. The messages may be different for different people (which is something the linked article suggests). That doesn’t mean that just because a racial slur for Eastern Europeans wasn’t really hurtful at the time.

    It’s when the larger perceptions and stereotypes lead (led) to discrimination based on those stereotypes. Where an employer or admissions officer would choose one person over another based on race or ethnicity (or gender, for that matter).

    And yes, there was discrimination against people with Eastern European descent, and famously, even people with Irish descent. And women, Africans, Hispanics, etc. Some of this discrimination still happens.

    So I think it’s worthwhile to continue to discuss these issues and where we’ve been. I also think it’s worthwhile to look at our popular culture, books, media, film, tv, etc – as this can be very influential. Another good example of this would be the weight of fashion models, who are (I think) around 2% of the population of women. Yet many women believe that this standard of weight is attractive, and strive to get there (despite unhealthy consequences). It can work for men as well, which isn’t as common, but men might feel they had to have a certain body type or muscles in order to be considered attractive. It may not be even conscious, but it is present within American culture/society. When you look outside of American culture, there are definitely different attitudes about what is attractive and what a normal weight is.

  29. visitor says:

    re #11 “Little Black sambo is an interesting point. Finding a copy of little black sambo was (at one point) incredibly difficult. I think it was re-released to take out some of the more blatant racism (so that copy is easier to find)but Johnny Lingo has never been censored (or removed from LDS culture) from what I can tell in any way.

    You’re mistaken. I grew up with Little Black Sambo and I can well remember the Little Golden Book I had in the 50s before the charge of racism was leveled against it and the book disappeared.

    In fact, there was nothing racist about the book. It just happened to have an African child who was imperiled by a tiger as the protagonist. The child survives based on his wits and patience. He triumphs over real danger because of them. Hardly a negative stereotype. But the fact that he was African and, I guess, wearing European style clothing was reason enough for people to overreact in the late 60s and early 70s. Perhaps the names e.g, Black Sambo, Black Mambo, were stereotypical too. Still, they don’t reduce the impressive, well-earned victory of a calm and rational child over a powerful, predatory animal.

    IF you are able to find a contemporary telling of the story it has not been sanitized, merely re-released with less hysteria and perhaps different illustrations and more dignified names.

    How this relates to Johnny Lingo or if it does at all, I’ll leave to you. I just thought it was worth correcting a faulty premise.

  30. Holly says:

    I was looking for something I wanted to link to in a recent post and somehow stumbled across this conversation from so very long ago.

    KMB asked what I thought Johnny Lingo should have done and I declined to provide the answer in my essay because it was not yet in print. But it is now, so I’ll tell KMB what this fictional character should have done in this fictional situation:

    ‘I must wonder why Johnny, who claims to have loved Mahana since they were children, waits until she is a despised, scorned spinster before demonstrating his regard for her. If, when she was seven, Johnny had told her, “I like you, Mahana. You’re special. Others might not see it, but I do;” if he had found ways, perhaps by giving her gifts she could show her materialistic father, of letting those around her see how he valued her, could she have become an “eight cow woman” long before reaching age “19 or maybe even 20″? Given that, as Mr. Harris notes, “In her father’s hut, Mahana believed she was worth nothing,” why would a man who had loved her all along not do what he could to spare her years and years of misery and suffering?’

    If you are so inclined, you can read more here:

  1. January 15, 2011

    […] (For some related older older discussion from MSP, don’t forget Fascinating Womanhood, Johnny Lingo, and the fact that my g-g-g-g aunt was one of the wives of that guy who famously compared his […]

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