I’M NORMAL!

I (mostly) enjoyed the now-defunct show Invader Zim. The show was funny for its surreal take on consumer culture and the utter incompetence of its protagonist, who was an alien invader attempting to conquer the Earth. Zim was never truly able to blend in as a normal human boy. He covered his bug eyes with contact lenses and donned a wig, but failed to notice that his green skin might stand out. He disguises his robot as a dog, but also gives the “dog” green skin, floppy eyes, and a prominent zipper up the front. He grasps the essentials of normality, but tries too hard where he need not and misses important subtle details. Despite his shoddy disguises, his fellow students believe he is human, although he is universally branded “the weird kid” and is shunned. When his peers notice that he hasn’t got any friends, they think he’s even weirder, so he makes a desperate and bizarre attempt to have friends so he can appear to be more normal. Yet his constant declaration of “I’M NORMAL!” is what makes everyone notice that he is most certainly not normal.

Sound familiar?

The new PR campaign to re-brand Mormons as everyday folks is getting a similar reaction. Marketing ain’t what it used to be, thanks to an Internet which allows us to eviscerate and analyse media with our cynical digital scalpels. Reactions to the Mormon ad campaign have largely been: this is insincere and is guilty of “results not typical”, this is an attempt to grease the wheels for Romney, this has been nicked from the Scientologists, this is an attempt to make us like them after what they did during Prop 8, fodder for satire, or just plain old WTF.

The commercials are pretty self-explanatory. The Church cherry-picked attractive, interesting people with unusual careers to show off as examples of how NORMAL Mormons are. Today I noticed the @ldsofficial robot ordering asking Mormons to create profiles for the new mormon.org website. So let’s go have a look at how we find NORMAL Mormons online, shall we?

This little box is now conveniently located on many pages to help you “Discover Mormons who share your personal experience.”

Gender choices? Male or Female. No surprise here. The LDS Church refers to homosexuality as “so-called same gender attraction.” With a binary view of male and female, it’s no surprise there isn’t space for intersex people.

Age? 18-24, 25-34, 35-49, 50-64, and 65+. Pretty logical groupings.

Ethnicity? Oh, dear. Your choices are “Asian”, “Black or African-American” (oh, that’s darling), “Caucasian or White”, “Hispanic or Latino”, “Native-American” (I have never before seen this term hyphenated), and “Pacific Islander”. This is just . . . a horrible idea. Ethnicity is an insanely complicated subject, and one that isn’t even worth delving into for a project like this. Acting as if there are only six ethnicities in the world (ethnicities, I might add, that are using explicitly American words to describe them) is beyond stupid for a religion that is international enough to know better. “Black or African-American”? Really? Given the LDS Church’s sticky history on the topic of race, you’d think they’d have thought this through a little better. The term “Black or African-American” does not address the myriad of ways people of African descent describe themselves. Dear white American cisgender males writing the code for mormon.org: please just remove this section. I understand what you were trying to do, but believe me it does not aid you in your goal. Perhaps try grouping people by geographical region, not the colour of their skin.

Oh, you do have that? But it’s buried on the advanced options page? Ah, I see. You should scrap the advanced options page and just leave a few options in that widget that appears everywhere else. Keep age and geographical region. Gender is probably fine too, as at least it serves advanced notice that Mormonism has strict gender roles. But toss the ethnicity and the “previous religion” options. “Select Previous Religion” as a drop-down menu is a subtle way of saying “read why these Mormons discovered that their previous religion was an abomination full of false teachings.” Just don’t go there. It’s a tacky marketing ploy used by telecoms who want to convince mobile phone users to switch carriers.

The good of this campaign? Diverse faces will now be in front of visitors to mormon.org, not the same old white men in their boring dark suits with their boring red or blue ties. The bad? Stories are filtered, sanitised, and Correlated. It’s assumed that the personal experience of a mormon.org visitor will be identical to someone who is the same gender or race, demonstrating that the proprietors of mormon.org don’t see a problem with labelling people. Even worse, the labels are limiting. They’re biased toward a middle-American view, not a global view, of ethnicity. There isn’t even a category for mixed race. I suppose we no longer threaten to kill people for “mixing blood” but we certainly don’t make them feel included.

This tool is useful, but it would be vastly improved by dropping the assumption that a person with the same gender or ethnicity as you will share your “personal experience.” The age limitation makes more sense. Mormons under 18 are not featured, wisely avoiding marketing religion to people who are underage in the majority of countries. It makes more sense to me that people would have life experiences in common based on their age group, not their race or their gender. This is race and gender essentialism at its most blundering and reflects the awkward truth that Mormons do treat people differently based on their race and gender. (Women don’t have priesthood, Native Americans and Blacks are dark because their ancestors displeased God.)

If Invader Zim taught me anything, it’s that running down the street shouting “I’M NORMAL!” is a very good way to get people to pay attention to how strange you are. The new mormon.org is very pretty, but it smacks of trying too hard, which is just going to make people notice how bloody peculiar those religious nutters are after all.