Joanna Brooks is a national voice on Mormon life and politics and an award-winning scholar of religion and American culture. She is the author of The Book of Mormon Girl: A Memoir of an American Faith and the recipient of the 2012 Eve Award from the Mormon Women’s Forum. As a senior correspondent for the on-line magazine ReligionDispatches.org, she has been named one of 50 Politicos to Watch by Politico.com and one of 13 Religious Women to Watch by the Center for American Progress. Brooks has also received awards from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Woodrow Wilson Foundation, and the American Philosophical Society for her scholarship on religion and American culture. She writes a regular column at her blog Askmormongirl.com.
TCJWW: In your book you reminisce about the influence that Marie Osmond’s Guide to Beauty, Health & Style had on your adolescence, as well as the meanings you extrapolated from its messages. What book do you feel young Mormon girls are gravitating towards these days and what sort of messages are they being taught?
Brooks: Twilight. No doubt! Stephenie Meyer’s Twilight series has been hugely popular among young Mormon girls–and young girls in particular. I confess I’ve never read Twilight. But what I know–about sparkly vampires and seduction plots and Bella’s passivity–pains me.
TCJWW: What has the reception been from the Mormon community over your book and the subsequent media coverage? How has the community felt, as a whole, with the outside world now paying closer attention to the religion and having more eyes prying into their privacy?
Brooks: I’ve gotten very positive and sweet mail from Mormon readers across the orthodoxy spectrum, as well as some rather mean-spirited responses in major Mormon media. 2012 was a very nervous year for Mormon people–we are so sensitive to how we are portrayed in the media, and most of us generally feel misunderstood. Additionally, many observant Mormons prefer that official LDS Church spokespeople be in charge of telling the Mormon story. My book says that we all have a part of the story to tell.
TCJWW: Aside from the traditions and the holidays, how do you explain the fundamental stories of God to your children in a dual-religious household?
Brooks: We are raising them to be bilingual. They understand that there are Jewish views of God and Mormon views of God, and places where these different versions and visions touch, and places where they do not, but the most important view of God happens through applied faith and ethics–how we treat others. And we have a pretty consistent view of how to treat others in our household. Regardless of religion.
TCJWW: Wear Pants to Church Day occurred on December 16, 2012. You called it “the largest concerted Mormon feminist effort in history.” What conversations has this event welcomed and where do Mormon feminists go from here?
Brooks: It’s such an important time of renewed conversation in Mormon families, households, and communities. Conversation and education are to my mind crucial next steps. Personally, I’m committed to developing more resources for the education of young Mormon feminists, and I’ll launch a new book project to that end in the next few months.
TCJWW: If Mormon doctrine doesn’t strictly prohibit a break from traditional gender roles, like women wearing pants to church, why is it so difficult for the Church to have a conversation addressing gender? What would it threaten?
Brooks: Gender has played a specific and unique role in Mormon theology. At the same time, feminism has been unnecessarily stigmatized and constructed as a threat to the faith, despite a strong history of Mormon feminism. Separating out the real role of gender in Mormon theology from the stigmas attached to feminism takes careful thinking–careful separation of the doctrinal from the customary and social. That’s the conversation we are just beginning to have.
TCJWW: What is your response to fellow members of the Church who claim that your efforts are misguided
Brooks: They are certainly free to have their views!
TCJWW: You have very fond memories about growing up LDS. Have your adult perceptions and revelations about the Church changed the way you reminisce about your childhood?
Brooks: Of course. That’s why The Book of Mormon Girl reaches more readers than just Mormons–it’s about that very human, very common experience of growing up and stepping into the complexity of adulthood, drawing strength and comfort from childhood memories but also gaining a newly necessary critical eye.
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