Title: The Book of Mormon
Book, Music, & Lyrics By: Trey Parker, Robert Lopez, and Matt Stone
On Broadway: Yes
If you liked: South Park, Spamalot
I've been meaning to check out The Book of Mormon for awhile. I am the anti-thesis of a South Park fan, but I had heard such amazing things about it, and the interview with Jon Stewart peaked my interest. So when I discovered that the album was available on Spotify, I gave it a listen.
My feelings are… extremely mixed.
For the first few songs, I really loved it. But once the story moved to Uganda, I began feeling very uncomfortable. For one thing, it fails the Bechdel test pretty miserably. Nabulungi is the only named female character, and I didn't even realize she was an actual character until her love song with Elder Cunningham.
But what really bothered me was the structure of the plot itself. It's another example of the "white man saves brown man" narrative that has haunted Western literature for centuries now. Yes, the show is satire, and the creators poked fun both at the Mormons' complete unpreparedness for dealing with Ugandan issues and the villagers' ignorance regarding the treatment of AIDS. But while the two Mormon characters overcame their obstacles and eventually converted the village, the villagers simply exchanged one form of ignorance (raping a baby will cure my AIDS) for another (having sex with this frog will cure my AIDS).
The form of the villagers' ignorance troubled me. I am not well-read on the AIDS epidemic in Africa, but my understanding is part of the reason it's such a problem is a lack of understanding about treatment and prevention, and that myths such as having sex with a virgin will cure it (which the show took to the extreme "have sex with a baby since they're the only virgins left") do exist. However, this lack of understanding persists because of the lack of education. I know the United States usually says "I'll give you this money, so long as you teach abstinence eduction and not sexual education", which is pretty much the antithesis of helpful. Yet this aspect is not touched upon at all.
The troubles the Ugandan villagers face in general are part of why my feelings are mixed. I feel like they faced very stereotypical issues - wars & AIDS. I can't deny that those are legitimate and pressing problems, but for the last half of the soundtrack, I kept thinking about Chimamanda Adichie's speech at TED, The Danger of a Single Story.
If I had not grown up in Nigeria, and if all I knew about Africa were from popular images, I too would think that Africa was a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves, and waiting to be saved, by a kind, white foreigner.
The consequence of the single story is this: It robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.
My general ignorance on the issues facing African countries (and the fact that I am a middle-class white American feminist, which makes me part of a group that has a history of claiming to speak for other oppressed people and forcing them into silence) makes me hesitant to label the show offensive or even problematic. But listening to it made me deeply uncomfortable, and the more I think about it, the more uncomfortable I feel. I will probably continue listening to only a scant handful of the songs.
"Hello" – Price, Cunningham and Mormon Boys
I love this song. It's a cute, clever introduction and the wordplay is brilliant. Also, so catchy. Songs like this are why people love Broadway.
"Two by Two" – Price, Cunningham and Mormon Boys
Another incredibly catchy tune that makes me want to sing and dance along. This is the kind of satire I really love - extremely affectionate mockery. On top of everything else, it makes me smile. And oh man, the characters are so believably 19.
"You and Me (But Mostly Me)" – Price and Cunningham
The last song that I really love. It's styled like the really inspirational, moving Broadway tunes (it's actually very reminiscent of Wicked's "Defying Gravity") - but skewers Elder Price's selfishness and arrogance, without making him reprehensible. This is the kind of song that I would sing at the top of my lungs while driving down a highway.
At this point, I was pretty sure I was going to adore this show. Three great songs in a row? How could it lose?
"Has a Diga Eebowai" – Mafala, Price, Cunningham and Ugandans
This is when I started feeling a little uncomfortable. Just a little. I loved the idea of this joyful sounding song translating as "FUCK YOU GOD!" But this is also the song that first reminded me of Chimamanda Adichie's speech.
"Turn It Off" – McKinley and Missionaries
And we return to the super-catchy old school Broadway-style tunes. I love how the lightness of the tune contrasts with the darkness of the lyrics. Though the story about the dying sister and the iPhone I find inordinately painful, but I fully admit that's my personal issue. I also loved how it touched on the complexity of dealing with homosexual feelings in a religion that believes it's a sin. Some say it's fine to have the feelings, so long as you don't act on them, others believe that the feelings themselves are a sin and need to be purged.
"I Am Here for You" – Price and Cunningham
This song just kind of bored me.
"All American Prophet" – Price, Cunningham, Joseph Smith, Angel Moroni and Company
This is a fun, catchy tune. I am a happy agnostic, but after hearing this? I contemplated pure atheism.
"Sal Tlay Ka Siti" – Nabulungi
And Chimamanda Adichie's speech came back to me with this song. As pretty as this song is, Nabulungi is saying: "Uganda sucks. I want to escape to America with the white boys."
"Man Up" – Cunningham, Nabulungi, Price and Company
My extreme dislike of this song is not entirely fair. I hate the phrase "man up" with a burning passion, with its implication that being strong and mature is an inherently masculine quality. This entire song is filled with sexist language, including that wonderful old standby, "scream like a girl". But it is the kind of language that the character would use. Where do you draw the line between "problematic but realistic for that character" and "okay, fuck you, I'm offended"?
And, of course, Nabulungi and the other villagers are in the background, singing about how they'll be saved by the fat white boy. I don't even really like the tune - it's rock, which is not unheard of in Broadway (why hello there, Rent), but it doesn't have the infectiousness of the other Broadway-style tunes. So yeah, for me this song has no redeeming value.
"Making Things Up Again" – Cunningham, Cunningham’s Dad, Joseph Smith, Mormon, Moroni, Hobbits and Ugandans
This could have been amazing - I love the idea of making things up to save people and the crisis on conscience that results. But while Arnold's conscience is yelling at him for making things up about the Bible, the real problem is that he's lying about health issues. In trying to keep a villager from raping a baby, he tells him that raping a frog will cure his AIDS.
And yes, this is realistic for the character. Arnold is extremely ignorant in matters of scripture and so presumably more academic issues like sexual health, but creative and nerdy and desperate to do good. But the lies he tells to do good do active harm and at no point is that ever addressed. I would be fine with it if later it became a learning moment for him, but it never does. And that is not okay with me.
"Spooky Mormon Hell Dream" – Price and Company
I don't love this song, but it's kind of fun. It doesn't remind me of any other Broadway tunes; it actually reminds me of Nightwish. It has a kind of Gothic sound and melodramatic chorus.
"I Believe" – Price
I've been reading too much Skepchick - this is supposed to be a wry but touching song, but the celebration of ignorance just irks me. Especially since I do believe (har har, pun unintended) that it is entirely possible to be religious and intelligent.
I did laugh at "And I believe that in 1978 God changed his mind about black people".
"Baptize Me" – Cunningham and Nabulungi
I can't even listen to this song, though I admit it's not because it's offensive. The sexual undertones of this song about a baptism just squick me really badly. Part of it is my personal dislike of sex outside of certain contexts, and part of it is the fact that I am a former Catholic. Despite my many issues with the Church and my lack of faith in God (I am open to the possibility that there is one, but I personally believe there is not), there are rituals that I still hold a certain reverence for, and baptism is one of them.
"I Am Africa" – McKinley and Missionaries
Ugh. Can we say "appropriation"? There's something that really grosses me out about a bunch of white American men saying "We are Africa". The imagery they use is all very stereotypical (see again Adichie's speech) and really unpleasant.
If this song is supposed to poke fun at white Americans who claim to be allies by saying "I am Africa", it would be one thing, but I'm certainly not hearing it. Maybe the line "Africans are African, but we are Africa"? That's really not enough.
"Joseph Smith American Moses" – Nabulungi, Mafala and Ugandans
See everything I wrote about "Making Things Up Again".
"Tomorrow Is a Latter Day" – Price, Cunningham, McKinley, Nabulungi and Company
See if you recognize this story.
Person A and Person B are thrown together for some reason. Person A doesn't like Person B, but Person B adores Person A. Shenanigans, and then Person A learns to like/love Person B and they end up either best friends or lovers, depending.
So fucking sick of that story. Once, JUST ONCE (okay much more than once but still), I'd like it to go: Person A doesn't like Person B, but Person B adores Person A. Shenanigans, and then Person B realizes what a shithead Person A has been. Fortunately, Person A does too and ends up apologizing. They don't become best friends/lovers because they are fundamentally different people who were just never meant to be close, but Person A has learned to treat people with respect and Person B has learned to value their own person and not require outside validation to such an extent.
So yeah. That's strike one.
The fact that they succeed in converting the Ugandan villagers, and that they never learn that no, fucking frogs will NOT cure AIDS really bothers me. It's a catchy finale that successfully weaves together the songs from the beginning that I love so much, but yeah. I just can't.
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