I grew up, from fourth grade until I graduated high school, in a small town in Southeast Idaho, Pocatello. In grade school, I went to a public elementary, downtown, by the name of Bonneville. The majority of people who live in Pocatello are Mormon, or members of the LDS church.
In grade school, we often watched film strips. I am nostalgic for the film strips, with their accompanying tape deck soundtracks, which beeped when you needed to advance the film. But my concern today is a film, an actual film that was projected on a screen and came on reels. I think we watched it in both fifth and sixth grade, but I can’t be sure.
The film, “Johnny Lingo,” is the story of a Polynesian trader who comes to a small village to find a wife. The obtaining of a wife, in this culture, necessitates bargaining with the local currency: cows. Some of the older village women stand around and brag about how many cows their husbands gave for them. The woman this trader wants to marry, Mahana, is widely viewed as being ugly and worthless, that is, the trader won’t need very many cows in order obtain her hand in marriage. Her father, therefore, asks for three cows, just to insure that if he has to bargain down he will get at least one. When the trader shows up to bargain with the father he shocks everyone by offering eight cows for the woman. Eight cows! The village is astounded.
He is supposed to come with the cows the next day, and many villagers assume that he will simply not show up. But he does, and he gives the eight cows and receives a wife in trade. Capitalism at its finest! He then takes his wife off on a trading trip.
When he returns from the trip with his wife, everyone is surprised to see how beautiful she is. Her father says that maybe he should have gotten ten cows for her. He was tricked! Ha ha ha! She’s a ten cow woman. But only the wise trader knew that.
Now, let’s imagine how this movie might seem to a ten-year-old girl in Pocatello, Idaho who, for the record, is not Mormon and, honestly, does not fully understand Mormonism. I was a Presbyterian. My grandfather was, at the time, a Reformed Presbyterian preacher. The RPs don’t believe in cards, or music (they sing their hymns unaccompanied), they do believe in fire and brimstone, and, if memory serves, kindness. We went to the United Presbyterian church, a more liberal, less rigid version of the same faith. My father may have stopped going to church by this time, but my mother still took me and my sisters to church on Sundays. I liked church well enough. I even helped out in the nursery.
I was somewhat of a tom boy; I had short hair and I often word corduroy pants. I was sometimes mistaken for a boy. I liked to hike in the hills behind our houses with my friend Annette. I did gymnastics sometimes and played tennis. I liked swimming. I liked to read and I sometimes typed stories on my dad’s typewriter. In fifth grade, I refused to learn the multiplication tables on the grounds that I would never need to use them. I was sent to the euphemistically named “resource room” until I learned them, which took me approximately two days. I was, for all purposes, a pretty normal non-Mormon girl.
It doesn’t seem plausible now, but I didn’t know the movie was a Mormon movie. When I looked it up (and found it on The Mormon Channel of YouTube), the credits it clearly states it was produced by Brigham Young University. Maybe in fifth grade I had no idea what BYU was. But that’s not the point. The point is, what was I doing watching a Mormon movie in a public elementary school?
To my mind, the moral of this movie is: you should try to find a man who will pay eight cows in order to marry you, for then you will know your true value (eight cows), and then you will feel worthy of eight cows (which, translated, means, what, about $15,000 per cow in 1960s dollars, so $120,000 or a literal fortune?). Once you feel worthy you will become outwardly beautiful. Therefore, if you feel ugly or are ugly, it is because you don’t value yourself enough or because no man has paid eight cows for you. Because, if a man had paid eight cows for you, you would instantly become beautiful. To which, I ask, where is the man with eight cows?
Some may accuse me of being intentionally obtuse. But let’s imagine a ten-year-old girl and try to give her a sense of “building the self-worth of others” (the sub-title of the film). How is it done? Through stating, “Hey, Mahana, I noticed that you are really good at sorting shells. Good job!” or observing, “Mahana, you are very nice to others. Way to be a friend!”?
Self-worth, in this narrative, is obtained through others placing an external, concrete monetary value on you. And not just on you, but on your role as a wife.
Self-worth, in this scenario, is found in obtaining the love of a man, a wealthy man (who else would have eight cows??), and having him decide that you are worthy. Then, through some magic of alchemy, he pays eight cows for you, and you then become an eight cow woman (that is, beautiful and therefore worth eight cows).
Before anyone claims that we can’t expect a movie made in 1969 to reflect contemporary theories of female self-esteem, let’s remember that The Second Sex was published in 1949 and The Feminine Mystique was published in 1963. Also, I don’t discount the idea that we should perhaps not look to the Mormon Church for progressive ideas about gender.
Maybe adulthood consists of a series of reminisces whereby we imagine the world different than it was, better somehow, with clearer signals pointing the way we should have gone. Maybe building the self-worth of others should be as easy as eight cows. And maybe “Johnny Lingo” contributed to my burgeoning feminism.
In retrospect, I can correlate my first insight on the arbitrary nature of sign and signifier with my first viewing of “Johnny Lingo.” For what is the establishment of Mahana as an eight cow woman but a tautology of the purest nature? Johnny Lingo pays eight cows for Mahana, therefore she is an eight cow woman. If I say the word “beautiful” and then point to something, anything, a fish perhaps or a cow, then I can link the two in the arbitrary chain of meaning that, I, as speaker create. If anything, “Johnny Lingo” reaffirms the right of the male to decide meanings, worth, signifiers and signified.
Within Mormon theology (as I understand it), each man, upon death, will enter into his own kingdom of Heaven. It is up to him to call his wife by a secret name she is given when they are sealed in the Temple. The children they produce during their lives will also join them in this heaven, which explains (partly) the emphasis on having many children. (More children = more heavenly creatures). Of course, I don’t understand how the male children (who get their own heaven) and the female children (who would be in their husbands’ kingdoms) end up with their parents, but that is neither here nor there. The important point is that Mormon theology is built upon the idea that each individual man can be the patriarch who decides value and meaning within his own realm.
It makes sense, then, that a trader named Johnny Lingo could decide Mahana is an eight cow woman. His deciding makes it so.
I suppose, as a ten-year-old girl, I could have taken this movie as a sign that I was in control of my own destiny. I wouldn’t let anyone tell me I was a three or a one cow woman! I would say, “I’m an eight cow woman!” and it would be so.
Instead, I poked endless fun of the fact that cows were the currency of choice. I had seen cows on my great uncle’s farm. There were cows on the outskirts of Pocatello. But to say someone was an eight cow woman in 1978 would be essentially saying that she would make a good farm wife. Better to say she was a Mercedes-Benz woman, or one worthy of eight pairs of Jordache jeans.
But, wouldn’t it have been a much better moral (and frankly, a more interesting movie), if when Johnny Lingo appeared with eight cows to purchase her, Mahana instead rejected the entire transaction? She should throw off her wrap, revealing a warrior uniform of her own design, yell some insults in her native language (the equivalent of “Fuck you, mothafuckas!”) and run off into the trees. When we next see her, she would be dirty, and perhaps uglier (by cow standards) than in the earlier scenes. She would be hunched over a fire, cooking some fish she caught with her bare hands. She would look up from the fire and smile, before ripping the fish apart and devouring it.
This, then, is what it would mean to be a worthy woman. To recognize the external value system as arbitrary and capricious, and then to replace it with another system of meaning that is equally arbitrary and capricious (as they all are), but one whose terms are set by those within the system.
I could not have articulated my objections to the film when I was ten-years-old, but I objected to the film all the same. I was walking around in a system that valued blonde haired, blue-eyed Mormon girls. That valued those who accepted the system rather than those who questioned it.
This film taught me that I should seek, above all, to be an eight cow woman. I didn’t even like cows. At the time, I didn’t like fish either. But I did learn something from the film. I learned to recognize that a system wherein commodities were exchanged for women was a flawed and inferior system. And, I did reject it. I would be a thousand-thoughts woman. I would be a hundreds of books woman. I would be a million-word woman. And I would decide what those words were worth.