Choose your Friend wisely, or, Why I won’t let my children read church magazines

03.11.14 | feminism, post Mormon | 7 Comments

Last week I was missing the social aspects of belonging in church. I dropped Callie and Lucy off at school and Molly (3 1/2) called to me from the back of the minivan that “We never go to church again, Mommy.” I agreed, and asked her what she missed about church. Her friends, she said, and Sunbeams. Then she spent three hours begging to go to IKEA now that she’s big enough for Smaland.

I missed church. Tom told me that the word religion comes from the Latin religare “to bind.” And I missed feeling bound.

A few days later my mom sent us some things we left in Utah last month and a copy of The Friend and The New Era. I flipped through The Friend — I always used to joke to Tom about how easy a crier I am. I can sniffle for hours over the story of a Downs Syndrome child being included at a birthday party.

But as I flipped through the March 2014 Friend, I was struck by how sexist it is. I’ve now read it closely four times, and each time I am amazed anew by the explicit and implicit messages, overall, of what a boy can do and become and what a girl can do and become.

I started keeping track, and categorized each significant item as gender-neutral, gender-positive or gender-negative.

I used the label gender-neutral for any story or feature that, taken alone, was a straightforward retelling of actual events without overt gender cliches or sexism.

For example, the article about President Uchtdorf recounts his childhood hardship of being a refugee. This story I labelled gender-neutral because it’s just what happened, and President Uchtdorf’s eventual success as an adult implies nothing about a girl’s (in)ability to do the same.

I labelled as gender-positive those things that seemed to promote a non-traditional representation of gender roles. I’m not saying that The Friend should prioritize non-traditional representations, but the fact that they occasionally do seems significant, especially since these non-traditional gender representations also seem to have a high correlation with racial diversity in The Friend, and they are also usually included in a high-profile or self-aware (Matt & Mandy) manner. 

I considered the front cover gender-positive because there are three girls and three boys doing the same activity and the girls are portrayed wearing neutral clothing — including green overalls on a girl! This seems kind of thin now that I think of it.

Another gender-positive representation is the story of Katie attending church without her family. Although I don’t want my kids to attend, it is encouraging that they show a girl being brave and making her own choices about her spirituality.

There were only two really egregious gender-negative items. The first is the list of names on the publisher’s page. Although the managing editor is a woman, there are twenty-five men listed before her. On the writing and editing staff, there are four women and seven men. I don’t really count this though, because 1) men and women are equally capable of sexism and being champions of equality, and 2) this is not something my kids would ever notice without my pointing it out.

The other gender-negative feature is completely and utterly inexcusable. This. This is why I left. This is why I don’t want my children attending primary. This this this. On page three there is a Challenges in the Scriptures –Who am I? game. Five of the scripture heroes are male and one is female. And it’s not just this feature in isolation: It was my reaction to a similar feature in the January 2013 Primary Outline that led to my immediate release as a primary teacher.

The worst part is that this kind of thing would be so easy to fix. Eve, Mary (x3), Martha, Anna, Deborah, Sarah, the widow who fed Elijah, Abish, Emma: so many women in the scriptures to be role models for my daughters.

All told, I counted three gender-positive items, three gender-negative and approximately twenty-seven gender-neutral items. That sounds like a pretty fair balance, but then I started noticing the moral of each of the ostensibly gender-neutral stories. Here are the lessons one could easily learn from each and the page numbers they’re found on.

Gender-neutral stories in The Friend and their takeaways

A boy can overcome being a refugee to become the Silver Fox. (2)

A boy can fix bikes and forgive a little sister who plays pranks on him. (4-5)

A girl cannot challenge a male headstand-champion despite practicing. A boy can be headstand champion and win a gold medal for being the Pop Quiz Champion. (8-9)

A boy can be a Savior. (11)

A girl can be baptized (by a male missionary) and she can repent and receive the Atonement, an ordinance performed by another male. (12-13)

A boy can share his testimony in Zimbabwe and help his older sister with her schoolwork. (14-15)

A boy can learn to pray. (18-19)

A boy can be a Savior. (20-21)

A girl can have faith in a blessing given by male priesthood holders and can sing in church. (22)

If a boy practices he can become first chair clarinetist. If a girl doesn’t practice she can become second chair, and moreover, she can contribute, be happy and support her band best from that position. (26-27)

A boy can be director of the space shuttle program. (28)

A girl can grow fruits and vegetables. (32-35)

A boy can pray for and comfort his grandmother. (36-37)

A girl can be healed by a male Savior. (42)

A boy can serve hurricane survivors either when he’s grown or by helping his family when his father goes to serve them. (46-47)

A girl can serve breakfast to her family. (47)

A boy can be president of the church, travel “two million miles while serving the church” and oversee the dedication of 70 temples. A tree he plants as a young boy can become the pulpit in the Conference Center. (49)

Again, any one or two or five of these stories would be fine. But tallied up, it’s kind of depressing, isn’t it?

Perhaps it is unfair to include all the examples of a male Savior (because that’s just how things are?), but they and stories of a girl being baptized or healed, etc show girls and women always in a passive role, and that irritates me.

One aspect that particularly troubled me because of my girls’ ages was the three separate stories that celebrate a male for being superior in an academic setting (pages 8-9, 14-15, and 26-27). The least annoying of these is the Zimbabwe feature (14-15) where Tendai says “When I’m finished with my homework, I help my older sister with her lessons. She has some challenges that make it hard for her to learn.” Of course it’s wonderful that he helps his sister and that rather than teasing other kids with challenges he helps them as well.

But this story is preceded by Pop Quiz Champion (8-9) in which a boy resists the urge to join a (female) friend practicing handstands to instead do the assigned reading. There is a quiz and he is sure he has failed. Instead, he gets full credit and concludes “Not only was he the class handstand champion, but by being an example, he was a pop quiz champion too!”

The most insidiously damaging of these three stories is The Not-So-Perfect Clarinetist, which purports to teach the valuable lesson that one can only do one’s best when one practices, but the story doesn’t end with a resolve on the part of the newly-second-chair female clarinetist to practice and try harder next time, but rather with her realizating that she can contribute best to her band by being happy for her male first chair and by being a good supporting team player. She is put in her place (second to a male) and taught that it is for the best, for her, and for the group as a whole.

Another juxtaposition that is so blatantly bad it’s funny is the Hurricane Helpers feature, in which a boy isn’t quite old enough to go help with the hurricane himself and his mom has broken her foot. There’s some fascinating gender-role-in-the-family stuff going on, when the son asks his mother if he’ll be in charge when dad goes to help with the hurricane. Mom says she’ll be in charge, but the son will be “head helper.” She goes on:

“If it’s too much, Dad can stay home. I told him I thought you could handle it, but we wanted to ask you first. It would be your way of doing hurricane help, because if you help here, you’ll make it so he can help there.”

Now it was Scott’s turn to be serious. “Mom,” he said. “I can totally do this. You can count on me!”

There’s a big photo of the boy wearing a BYU shirt. And it’s awesome that he’s shown preparing food and helping with his siblings. He even gets them all together for prayers.

Then there’s a tiny inset of a girl who writes:

“One day I decided I wanted to serve breakfast to my family because I love them. Even though I couldn’t give them much, I remembered that I was good at cooking. I made a cup of my famous hot cocoa for everyone.”

They’re both, male and female, basically doing the same thing, helping in their families, but look at how it’s framed!

Boy is a HURRICANE HELPER. Girl makes hot cocoa.

And that’s why.

I have made this as impersonal as I can, but I think it’s almost impossible to criticize something that someone holds dear without it feeling like an attack on them personally. Please do not take this that way. I believe in the good intentions of Mormons generally and the Friend staff specifically. I regret that my critique is automatically suspect because I have outed myself as non-believing.

I’m starting to get used to that reaction, though.

When I was seventeen and president of the Laurel class, I remember reciting the Young Women’s theme as “We are daughters of our Heavenly Parents who love us and we love them.” This was indulged as a personal eccentricity. When I was thirty-six and standing with my thirteen year-old daughter at New Beginnings, I realized that the theme actually says “Heavenly Father.” My disappointment in that realization was taken as a nit-picky, typically-cynical criticism.

Perhaps what I miss most about belonging in church is the idealistic belief I had as a teenager that when I said “Heavenly Parents” it made a difference: to me, and to anyone who heard me recite it that way, in simultaneous solidarity and civil disobedience.