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?
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 clichéd. Anyone who has ever tried to defend realism in Mormon literature has already expressed them in one way or another.
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!
(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. )