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Gendering Mormon Temple Architecture

3 Apr

Michael Haycock, who has his own blog here, joins us again with this insightful piece.

In recent research for a term paper on Mormonism and native Hawaiian culture for my history course on the American West, I came across Frank Salamone’s essay on “The Polynesian Cultural Center and the Mormon Image of Body.” Salamone discusses the alterations made in traditional Polynesian dress made at the Center to accommodate LDS conceptions of modesty, gender differentials in bodily coverage, and subversions of modesty through manner of dance and personal comportment.

While I will save for another day his analysis that greater male bareness at the Polynesian Cultural Center is reflective of Mormon gender ideology, I would like to focus here on another observation he makes, taking a cue from another researcher: “As Knowlton mentions, Mormons are surrounded by phallic symbols in their religious imagery, including the architecture of their temples.”

My immediate reaction was a sort of revulsion; how could one relate the ethereal heaven-reaching spires to something so base?  Furthermore, I felt that this analysis reflected a sort of Freudian phallomania. Could temple spires truly be conceived as symbols of such dramatic masculinity? I do not think it is anywhere near that simple.

Here is the church house, here is the steeple...

Even as Salamone qualifies that “American Mormons are a bit more subtle and shy about these images [than Pacific Islanders],” I think that cultural context must be considered when judging Mormon architecture. First, it arose in the American Northeast and West, were the country church reigned supreme: a rectangular structure, roof pitched to the sides, and a steeple housing a bell by whose ringing the community might measure time in the absence of clocks. This, in turn, was influenced by hundreds of years of European church-building, wherein the spired bell tower was literally the pinnacle of community achievement and served as a significant civic and ecclesiastical landmark. The dramatic Catholic cathedral, roughened and simplified by frontier Protestantism, has had an enormous impact on Mormon designs. The Kirtland and Nauvoo temples, save for the interior arrangement of their assembly halls and other ordinance-specific designs, had more to do with the neighborhood church with its amalgamation of folk architectural vocabularies than the Mormon theology reflected in incidental surface details (sunstones and moonstones, for example). If the spire is a phallus, it’s a democratized European one. (Were Tocqueville an architect, he’d have written a book on this.)

Moreover, sometimes Mormon architects tend to do strange things. There’s a reason that the Washington DC and San Diegotemples are likened to fantasy castles: they articulate architectural movements of their times in ways that are mostly unparalleled in the modern world. People don’t quite know what to make of them.

You should see it with a Hollywood marquee. Yup.

(Humorously, the South Park creators knew exactly what to do: they based the stage frame for the Book of Mormon musical on the San Diego Temple itself, and play on the peculiarity of its design by shifting its lighting throughout the production.)

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Mercedes White French Macarons, Nov. 18-19, Bijou Market, Provo

16 Nov

My lovely friend Mercedes makes the most delicious macarons! Not only is she a professional baker, but she’s also a Columbia grad. Watch out, non-Ivy-League macaron-makers. She studies ritualized violence against women in the Middle East, and she’s going to post for Scholaristas if I can get my act together. Anyhow, she will be at Bijou Market in Provo this weekend and you should go check her macarons out!

Oh, and here’s an adorable video of Mercedes sharing her macaron-making wisdom with some other bloggers.

Mercedes White Macarons- Blogger night from Collin Kartchner on Vimeo.

Rape on a University Campus

29 Aug

A few days ago, the University of Michigan sent an e-mail to its students, faculty, and staff updating them on the police investigation of the recent rise of sexual attacks near campus.  The women involved were attacked in stairwells, parking structures, and on the street.  Although some of the attacks happened at night, at least one occurred in the afternoon as a woman went to a parking structure to get her car.  Initially, the university’s response seemed inadequate and almost laughable.  It urged young women to be careful and to never walk by themselves.  It was as though most women were already worried about being attacked, and that it was up to us to make sure that we weren’t attacked.   One of my friends, angered by the university’s response, posted the following guide to men on how to avoid sexually assaulting women.  It began simply, “If you see a woman walking alone, don’t follow her.  If she is wearing clothing you think are revealing, do not think that she deserves whatever she gets.  And, no matter what happens, don’t rape her.”

As time passed, however, the university’s response got better.  Officials at the university agreed to meet with one of my friends who was particularly concerned about what the campus’ response was going to be.  She had been assaulted once in New York and was determined that the university should do everything in its power to prevent other young women from being assaulted after the reports initially began to circulate.  The university has also sent out multiple e-mails about the investigation and was supportive of a Take Back the Night Rally.

I applaud the university’s response to the rapes, but I think we need to expand the way that we think about rape and the way in which we respond to it.  Although the university’s efforts have been commendable, most rapes do not occur in parking lots, elevators, or staircases.  They occur in apartments, bedrooms, and at parties.  Most women are raped by men that they know, not by strangers.  I would like to see campuses like the University of Michigan become more involved in preventing these everyday, more frequent types of rape.  There needs to be education and activism to stop sexual violence within relationships and by acquaintances.  Focusing too much on one type of rape without being equally vocal about the others spreads the misperception that the danger of being raped is one that exists primarily in the streets and not within the walls of your home and those of your friends.

Picturing the Female Body, Part II: A Historical View

27 Aug

Last week, I went to the exhibition “Books and Babies: Communicating Reproduction” at the University of Cambridge Library.  The exhibition is a collection of prints, anatomical drawings, comic books, novels, and science texts from the medieval period to the present that attempt to understand human reproduction.  Looking at them is a marvelous reminder that the way that we think about the body has changed over time. Continue reading

Picturing Female Body Parts

25 Aug

One of the things that is unavoidable in London is the Evening Standard, a free newspaper hawked by dozens of men and women standing in tube stations.  Walk past King’s Cross, Tottenham Court Road, or Euston at any time during the day and someone is going to try to hand you a copy.  Today on the train to Cambridge I grabbed a copy so that I had something to read on the approximately hour long journey. One of the articles was a fun yet nuanced look at the popularity of art depicting vaginas.  Although I get squeamish even writing the word, I appreciated the artwork that was showcased.  Continue reading

From the Archives: Sex Scandals, Feminism, and Touring the States

13 Aug

For the last couple of weeks, I have been doing research at Girton, the first women’s college in Britain.  Located just outside of Cambridge and surrounded by acres of grass, trees, and gardens, the college was founded in the 1860s by Emily Davies, Barbara Bodichon, and a host of other Victorian feminists who were dedicated to the education of girls.  The buildings are made of red brick and are a bit drafty, even in the midst of the British summer.   The other day I found in the papers of Bessie Rayner Parkes a bit of information related to Mormonism.  Parkes and her father were discussing a sex scandal involving one of their friends Emily Faithfull.  Faithfull had been forced to take the stand in a divorce trial, in which she was accused of having improper relations with both the husband and the wife.  Perhaps the oddest story to come from the trial was that the husband had crawled into bed with Faithfull and tried to have sex with her, while his wife was sleeping just inches away in the same bed. Continue reading

What Men Want

18 Sep

I just read “Why Standards Night is Substandard,” written by Kathryn Lynard Soper and posted at It’s a good article. But her experience did not resonate with mine at all. Although I may have fancied myself physically attractive from time to time, I think I have consistently underestimated the power that my attractiveness might have over men. Continue reading