Thursday, September 1, 2011

Do We Need to Keep Talking about the Roach?

Recently I’ve been thinking a lot about this classic Mormonad.  It’s a variation on a common message about the dangers of inappropriate content in media.  Whoever came up with the image was a genius.  As bugs go, I can handle a fly or an ant in my ice cream.  Heck, I might even eat it for the glory of being able to say that I have.  But a roach is another thing.  They gross me out.  I’d rather shake hands with a praying mantis than eat a roach.

And praying mantises freak the crap out of me.

Genius aside, though, I’m not entirely persuaded by the ad’s argument.  I mean, logically, I know that the roach isn't big enough to contaminate all of the ice cream.  If I was on a desert island, and the roach-infested ice cream was the only thing around that could keep me alive, I wouldn't hesitate to flick the roach away and eat the ice cream.  Doing otherwise would be wasting a whole lot of ice cream.

Of course, I realize that I’m missing the point. The ad is trying to say that even a little offensive content spoils the media and should be enough to make you want to steer clear of it. It's a simple, effective visual argument.  But at the same time, I can’t help reading the ad a different way.  What happens if you focus on the good stuff (i.e. the ice cream) rather than the bad stuff (i.e. the roach)?  Couldn’t the image also suggest that you shouldn’t let a little bug ruin a otherwise good dessert?

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I know. I know. This is a tired issue. Nothing I’ve said in the previous four paragraphs is original or revolutionary.  In fact, as opinions go on this issue, those expressed above are rather clich├ęd.  Anyone who has ever tried to defend realism in Mormon literature has already expressed them in one way or another.  

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Sadly, the appropriateness of content is one of those topics that will be forever discussed among Mormon artists.  A few years ago, when I first started writing papers about Mormon literature, I too got caught in the snare of the content debate—mostly because it has been had so many times at conferences and symposiums on Mormon lit. Everyone—from Richard Cracroft to Bruce Jorgensen to Orson Scott Card to Gideon Burton—seems to have written an essay on the issue.  So, when I started work on my master’s thesis on Mormon historical fiction, I thought that I needed to write about it as well—even though it had nothing to do with what I wanted to say about Mormon historical fiction.

I ended up wasting a lot of time.

Admittedly, as an undergraduate English major who was somewhat squeamish about realistic content in art, I appreciated these essays because they helped me learn how to be a Mormon reader of contemporary literature.  But the time I wasted trying to contribute to the debate led me to realize that I have very little interest in writing an essay about defining offensive content. I’ve found my own way through the issue, and I’d hate to presume that my way applies to someone else. 

As I see it, discussions over what is or is not appropriate content do little more than distract readers from more important literary discussions. As a critic, I want to examine aspects of the text that will open it up, not shut it down.  My experience is that conversations about the appropriate use of four-letter words, violence, or sex keep more insightful conversations from happening.  Ultimately, for Mormon criticism to be useful to Mormon literature, it will need to stop obsessing about whether or not the stupid roach belongs in the ice cream. 

It’s there or it's not!

Get over it!

Talk about the whipped cream FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!  


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(For the record, I’ve always preferred the “poop brownies” analogy to the “bug in the ice-cream” scenario. It’s much less ambiguous—and probably more helpful in the long run for conversations about content in media. )

7 comments:

  1. I totally agree- the cockroach is gross but there's so much more ice cream than there is bug. And the poop in the brownie story does seem to do a much better job at relating how bad content can ruin the entire thing.

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  2. Sadly, the thing is, speaking in real terms, if you find a bug in your ice cream, you're not going to be talking about the ice cream. The bug is what's going to interest people, or cause unnecessary outrage, or whatever.

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  3. The whole discourse of contamination thing seems questionable to me. Applied to life, I think it has the danger of making people think that the sins they commit are more important than their efforts to accomplish good. It makes sin and evil more potent than good.

    It's also questionable on a doctrinal level. I mean, God is obviously completely aware of all the evil in the universe. And yet we don't think he's been corrupted by that exposure. Clearly, then, the notion of avoiding exposure to evil is a developmental issue--staying away from experiences we lack the spiritual maturity to handle properly--and not a matter of a priori principles. Which isn't to say it's not important--all of us, I think, need to learn to do a better job of respecting our own personal limits--but I think it means that the question needs to be framed a different way.

    All that aside, here's a link to my own realistic-Mormon-fiction essay: http://www.langfordwriter.com/blog/?p=37

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  4. I must admit that I love the idea of the post -- that we need to stop focusing on "appropriateness" as the issue and move on to other ideas.

    But, I can't help but mention that the problem with the "roach in the ice cream" is that the roach doesn't belong there and is almost never found there. But in media you must be realistic, and the portrayals therefore include the roaches that ARE there.

    Having got that off my chest, I will claim that I have (mostly) moved on to other issues, except to rail against the puritan tendencies of LDS bookstores.

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  5. Jonathan: well put, as usual. I've have a personal anecdote to back up your point about spiritual maturity and personal limits, but I don't really have time or space to write it up. (On a side note, isn't that [i.e. spiritual maturity/personal limites] something you address in "No Going Back"?) Basically, I learned that what is harmless to one person can be spiritually detrimental to another. It's one of the reasons why I never press books on people.

    (At least people who aren't my students. That's another matter altogether. )

    Kent: I think what this post has brought out it that it is really easy to fall into the appropriateness trap. Everyone has an opinion on it, and everyone wants to argue it because--let's admit it--it can be really fun and insightful. (Already I'm thinking about the roach issue in new and exciting ways.)

    But like I say in the post, whenever we argue about appropriateness, we aren't arguing about the weightier matters of Mormon literature.

    And since there are not that many conversations going on about Mormon lit in the first place, are not mostly shooting ourselves in the feet?

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  6. This is an excellent blog post, but I am going to take Mr. Scott to task for something that seems somewhat trivial.

    I'm going against my better judgement here -- the one that stifles the nitpicker in me -- and correct an amazingly bad grammar mistake. It's amazingly bad if only because, as a literary wielding a degree, Mr. Scott should know the difference between critic and critique.

    Unless, of course, he meant to write -- in the fourth to the last paragraph -- I, critic, as in Scott, like Asimov's android, has just becoming aware of his existence. I have my doubts, evidence by this amusing and smart post.

    Suffice it to say, the author probably meant to say, As I critique but your spell-check may have changed it. I don't know. All I know is that if you want to make it as a literary critic, you should be sure that you're critiquing and not criticing -- to keep your arguments from being easily discredited by blue-nosed professors who would rather see you lost to drinking rum in the gutter than to lose their tenure.

    That is all.

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