When I saw The Book of Mormon, all I knew was that everybody loved it – from Oprah Winfrey to Jon Stewart. One of the most successful musicals of all time, the show has won nine Tony Awards and grossed over $500 million. It is also incredibly racist. Yes I know the Mormons aren’t a race. I’m talking about the Ugandans.
I had no idea the story was even set in Uganda, or I probably would have thought twice before buying a ticket. Instead I spent $100 to feel horrendously uncomfortable in a theatre full of white people laughing uproariously as one racist trope was rolled out after another. Although my urge was to leave at the interval, I went back in hoping the musical would somehow cleverly undermine the stereotypes it had set up.
The most self-aware moment is when the two white missionaries gleefully claim to be as African as Bono during a song called ‘I am Africa’. They go on to list a complete range of African stereotypes: “Zulu spear”, “running barefoot”, “primitive”, endowed” etc. The problem is, the narrative does not critique these caricatures but serves only to reinforce them.
When I emerged two hours later and went home to google “Book of Mormon racist”, I trawled through the rave reviews and found next to nothing. Since almost everyone I know has seen this musical, I asked others whether they felt the same. Here were the most common responses.
“What do you mean, racist?”
The events take place in Uganda but they could be anywhere in the continent. Africa is shorthand for an undeveloped and backwards place, as represented by mud huts and semi-naked villagers. The show lazily relies on repeated jokes: the most common being a female character who sends text messages on a typewriter. Cue audience laughter. Every. Single. Time.
This character is the only Ugandan we care about but I have no idea what her name is because the Mormons refer to her as things like “Nicotine” and “Nutella”. The audience roars with laughter because isn’t it funny how unpronounceable foreign names are? She is highly fetishized, particularly through a baptism scene with a Mormon missionary that is layered with sexual innuendo.
At least she is a sympathetic character. The other Ugandans are non-descript fools who are all riddled with AIDS (the audience shrieks with laughter!) and believe that raping babies will rid them of it. When the missionaries convince them to have sex with frogs instead, the audience hoots. Another running gag is a character’s ongoing complaint that he has maggots in his scrotum. Fetch the doctor? He IS the doctor! Because African medicine LOL.
“But it makes fun of Mormons!”
Everybody has been so busy analysing whether or not the show is offensive to Mormons that the conversation about Ugandans has been non-existent. While the narrative certainly pokes fun at Mormon beliefs, its characterisation of the missionaries is wholly affectionate.
More than this, the Mormons are the clear heroes of the story in a classic white saviour ending whereby the Americans save the village from the neighbouring warlord General Butt-F***ing Naked (hilarity at each mention of his name) who is trying to circumcise all the local women. Indeed, the villagers create a new religion around the missionaries themselves, who have lifted them out of their state of godlessness and un-enlightenment. Thank God for colonialism – in this case literally.
The Mormons themselves have actually done rather well out of the musical, reportedly standing outside theatres with flyers and benefiting from a spike in conversions. So the answer to this is… not really.
“Well yeah, haven’t you seen South Park?”
Because I’ve never watched the TV show, I don’t know what so-called “equal opportunity offensiveness” looks like. However, I have been appalled by people who consider themselves progressive and yet are defending jokes about Africans (because Uganda is interchangeable with anywhere else) being rapists, AIDS-ridden, savage, simple, and in need of saving by white Americans.
Perhaps it’s too much to expect a musical by the creators of South Park to accurately assess the impact of the Mormon missionary movement and other religious evangelism in non-Western countries. But why did it have to be set in Uganda at all?
I can not understand why the argument “it’s their style of humour, of course it’s irreverent” is able to wash in 2018 – especially while in the rest of the entertainment industry there has been a (rightful) push for greater inclusion of diverse voices to combat racial stereotypes.
The caricatures in The Book of Mormon look exactly the same as those that have been perpetuated for centuries. They are not only careless, they are dangerous – and yet they have done nothing to stop the juggernaut success of this show. I can only imagine how it would make an African audience member feel. Unsurprisingly, there didn’t seem to be any.