Beauty and the Beard

7.1.07 | | 20 comments

Facial hair as a barometer for evil as typified in The Work and the Glory series.

This post will examine all three of The Work and the Glory films. For the sake of clarification, only the first, Russell Holt’s The Work and the Glory, will be referenced by that title. The two sequels, both directed by Sterling Van Wagenen, will be referred to by their subtitles – American Zion and A House Divided, respectively. It should also be noted that while a few comparisons will be made between the films and the books by Gerald Lund, this criticism focuses uniquely on the films.

With the publishing of The Work and the Glory: A Pillar of Light in 1990, Gerald Lund began what has become the best-selling series of LDS historical fiction to date. The nine book series has sold over two million copies and the book on tape has reportedly also sold exceptionally well. But the series received what seems to have become the ultimate validation in this day and age when Larry H. Miller announced in 2003 that it would be adapted into a feature film. “With this much of a following,” Miller stated,” and with the significance of the events the series examines, it’s time to make this historical story into a quality feature film.”

The magnitude of the undertaking was underlined by the involvement of Deseret Books’ own president and CEO Sheri L. Dew, who personally represented the interests of both author and publisher. Even then, Lund was brought on board as a script consultant. “We don’t underestimate the magnitude of this film project,” said producer Scott Swofford. “We are properly funded, have a book that flows easily into a screenplay, and have collected the most qualified talent to produce what we believe will be a film of excellence. This story requires that.” Added Dew, “The Work and the Glory series is one-of-a-kind. As the publisher of this series, we have complete confidence in the integrity of those producing this movie and that the integrity of the books will be maintained while crafting an artistic and first-rate movie. Everyone involved with this production epitomizes excellence and quality. This movie is going to touch many lives.”

The purpose of this critique is to examine the story thematics in light of the need to tailor a written work to the demands of the visual consumer, which the films do largely by reducing or replacing outright depictions of evil with the presence of facial hair.

In the audio commentary for The Work and the Glory, Holt laments giving actor John Woodhouse (playing the part of Will Murdock) a beard, calling the decision both “unconscious,” and “stereotypical.” It is this statement, particularly this idea of the stereotypical “evil beard” which necessitates an closer look not only at Holt’s work within the series, by Van Wagenen’s as well.

Much like the white hat/black hat myth of the Western (a stereotype that derived not from actual practice but from a children’s poll), the “evil beard” has no firm roots in American iconography. Hitler’s square mustache now lives in infamy, even though it was preceded and popularized by the likes of harmless funny-men such as Oliver Hardy and Charlie Chaplin. Joseph Stalin’s handlebar did nothing to stymy the sex appeal and good guy marketability of Tom Selleck or Burt Reynolds. Vaudeville comedian Groucho Marx’s grease paint mustache (combined with his eyebrows and glasses) has become entrenched as a joke shop novelty. Cinema’s first major sex symbol of the sound era was pencil-thin mustachioed Clark Gable, he of Gone With The Wind and It Happened One Night immortality.

Furthermore, an appeal to some of the most iconic of American films offers contradicting evidence to Holt’s claim that the beard is stereotypical of evil. In George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, the beard is symbolic of Obi-Wan Kenobi’s ascension from ego to super ego as a benevolent Jedi, while the Emperor remains clean-shaven throughout. Indiana Jones frequently battled immaculately shorn villains with a rustic growth of his own. In both cases, beards were symbolic of a certain natural earthiness – a healthy progression in the case of Obi-Wan and the mark of a survivor in the case of Indy. Even feature animation, that bastion of moral values so eagerly consumed by Mormon culture, produces no clear stereotype. For every Captain Hook, Jafar, and Bowler Hat Guy, there’s equally a Gaston, Frollo, and Syndrome. What’s more, the righteous Prince Charmings, Aladdins, and Tarzans are balanced by the Gepettos, Merlins, and six out of seven dwarves.

Even outside of Hollywood, bearded heroes exist in iconography ranging from Jesus and the ancient prophets to Santa Claus. LDS artwork from Arnold Freiberg and others (which, despite one’s opinion for or against, is undeniably prevalent in LDS houses of worship), has given us bearded Nephis, Almas, Abinadis, Helamans, and Captain Moronis.

To what, therefore, could Holt be referring when he claims that giving Woodhouse a beard was an “unconscious” and “stereotypical” choice? The answer is almost certainly Mormon culture. Somewhere along the line, Mormonism began to identify facial hair as evil on an “unconscious” and “stereotypical” level, at least cinematically. Surely, every Mormon can reference a benevolent mustachioed role model from their own Mormon life, but can they do so from Mormon cinema?

To be fair, The Work and the Glory series is not the first to implement the “evil beard.” In Kevin Reynolds’ The Count of Monte Cristo (2002), facial hair is openly symbolic of evil, but only in terms of the main character. At the beginning of the film, Edmond Dantes enjoys the innocence of his fortunate youth while completely beardless. But after betrayal at the hands of his supposed friends lands him in prison for several years, he grows an understandably great length of beard. After his escape from the Chateau d’If and discovery of the treasure of Monte Cristo, Dantes returns to Paris with a groomed beard that serves two functions. First, it disguises him from all of his former associates. Second, and more importantly, it allows him to perform acts of heartless revenge. How can this be traced to his beard? Simple. After revenging himself upon two of his adversaries, Dantes reveals himself to the third and most dastardly, Fernand Mondego, sans beard. Without his beard, not only is he suddenly recognized as the spectral Dantes, but his thirst for vengeance is sated and he’s able to extend forgiveness to his most despicable rival. Without the beard to render him evil, Dantes now becomes the defender to Fernand’s aggressor in the climactic battle. The film transforms author Alexandre Dumas’ story from one of revenge to one of redemption and achieving the American Dream, as evidenced by the tale of Edmond Dante’s beard.

But unlike The Count of Monte Cristo, wherein the symbol only applies to one character, the beard-as-evil iconography exists throughout the entire framework of The Work and the Glory series.

In the beginning, Benjamin Steed (Sam Hennings) and his two oldest sons, Joshua and Nathan (Eric Johnson and Alexander Carroll, respectively), are all clean-shaven, respectably-groomed adult males, despite their provincial lifestyle. With the exception of the first scene (in which Benjamin buys a farm in Palmyra from a bearded land agent), the first real appearance of a beard comes from Caleb Jackson (Marcus Hester) when Joshua goes into town to essentially see his love interest, Lydia McBride (Tiffany Dupont). Drunks and lechers – mostly bearded men – roam the docks, an area firmly established as disreputable, and this scene marks Joshua’s initial flirtation with the evil that will later consume him (i.e., lead him to grow a beard). While Joshua comes across early on as an incarnation of Laman and Lemuel of old because of his murmuring attitude, it is nevertheless significant that the first person we actually see influencing him down a dark path is the bearded Caleb.

Of course, the most significant introduction to evil facial hair comes courtesy of the Murdocks – Will and David (Phillip DeVona) – and Mark Cooper (Jonathan Quint). After harrassing Joseph Smith (Jonathan Scarfe) on a trip into town, they entice Joshua into drinking in a darkened setting and plotting about getting their hands on “Ol’ Joe’s gold bible.” While this may seem sufficient enough to indicate their nefariousness, they also share another common bond: the beard. Later, along with several other bearded men, they accost Emma Smith (Sarah Darling) in the street, but the beardless Nathan defends her.

At this point, the argument for coincidence is just. However, as soon as Joshua is kicked out of his father’s house, the uncanniness of the phenomenon only grows as Joshua begins to grow a beard. The conscious decision to have Jonathan grow a beard in accordance to his descent into darkness not only calls attention to his beard, but necessarily the beard of every other character in the film, and eventually, the series. Furthermore, the measure of Joshua’s evil correlates exactly with the size of his beard.

At first, as Joshua begins to mingle with the Murdocks, it is nothing more than a shadow of indolent scruff. However, as plans begin to take shape to assault Joseph and steal his “golden bible,” Jonathan’s beard grows along with his stake in the plot. His evil initiative and facial hair evolve proportionately. This is not true of the Murdocks and their static facial hair, who begin following Joshua’s orders once his beard is longer than Will’s , i.e., his evil is greater. After fleeing Palmyra and becoming a wanted man, Joshua is next seen with a massive beard, helped along surely by the addition of modernly frowned-upon vices such as gambling and smoking.

But what of the other beards in the film? Martin Harris is the prime example of the “venerable beard.” In his case, it probably exists more for historical accuracy than anything, just as Joseph Smith was historically beardless. Historical accuracy will generally trump visual motif in a film by church member, for church members, about church members. Hence the evil beard is rendered moot not because Martin Harris is unshakably righteous, but because to the Mormon eye, Martin Harris is not Martin Harris unless he has his chin beard. It must be conceded, however, that there are a few other venerable beards placed here and there throughout the film, largely among the elderly, or in some cases, the friendly non-Mormons. In the modern LDS parlance, theirs are mostly beards of omission, being too groomed and presentable to be outright evil, but nonetheless still too bearded to be Mormon.

Before examining the remaining films, a generic observation must be made concerning “beards in the crowd.” Most viewers, upon watching the films, will notice that there are certainly beards in the Mormon crowd as well as clean-shaven faces in the mobs. However, they never speak. They are strictly extras. Only clean-shaven faces speak for Mormonism in the films, while only bearded faces lead the mobs.

The practice continues throughout American Zion. At the beginning of the film, a trimmed Joshua returns to Palmyra to extend an olive branch of sorts to Lydia (now played by Sera Bastian). But, rebuffed and repudiated, Joshua slinks back to Missouri with a once-again large beard for his proposal to Jesse (Emily Podleski), after which they are married (outside of Mormonism) by a bearded minister with a mutton-chopped witness. Later on, when Jesse fails him in his attempt to further acts of evil, he pursues her into the street in anger. While the films feature a number of more glaring departures from the books, this understated sequence is particularly telling. Whereas in the books Joshua beats Jesse so severly that the evidence of it is still visible weeks later when she’s seen by Nathan, the movie opts to have Jesse escape. In keeping with the motif of the series, the audience doesn’t need to see Joshua beat Jesse as he does in the books because, visually speaking, his beard compensates. It is evil enough for the viewer to spare the necessity of visual violence. While the integrity of the choice can be debated from many sides, it would nevertheless seem to call into question Swofford’s assertion that the book “flows easily into a screenplay.”

The manifestation of the evil beard extends beyond Joshua, however. In more than one scene, Joseph is accosted or beaten by bearded and unshaven men. Melissa Steed’s courter, Carl Rogers, lacks facial hair, thus making him an acceptable enough candidate for marriage that after one viewing, he’s never shown again – only referenced, and indirectly at that. Jessica is also later on protected in Missouri by a beardless guardian, the opposite of her husband not only in form, but feature.

But what truly makes the “evil beard” stand out in American Zion is not, however, in its use within Joshua’s storyline. Remember that because Joshua’s beard is an obvious choice by the production, it calls every other beard – or lack thereof – into question. If the “evil beard” truly exists, then it must do so with every character. Therefore, an examination of Benjamin and Nathan is equally appropriate. It is not coincidence that Nathan has remained clean cut throughout the first film and into the second as it evidences his good nature and firm testimony. And Benjamin, who becomes the narrator of both American Zion and A House Divided, meanwhile, remains a viable protagonist and candidate for conversion precisely because he remains culturally ideal, i.e., beardless. But the introduction of facial hair into their lives underscores their respective conflicts.

In American Zion, Ben first indulges in the shadow of a beard when Martin Harris berates him for his stubborness and lack of commitment. While Ben’s clean shaven face doesn’t return in accordance with his baptism, it does however correlate to his support of Joseph. Later on, as Zion’s Camp marches forth, it is Nathan who begins to meddle with facial hair, sporting a few days’ growth in conjunction with giving voice to his sudden doubts about Joseph. He is gently rebuked by his father, who also grows some scruff to flirt with his new foray into evil… whether or not to kill Joshua in the film’s climax for whipping Nathan. This is not insignificant as it is the only time in the trilogy that both Nathan and Benjamin dally in true damnation (Benjamin withholds forgiveness much of the film, but remains an upstanding person). Could it be coincidence? Surely the rigors of Zion’s Camp merited a few days’ repreive from shaving? This explanation could easily satisfy except that Joseph Smith, Parley Pratt, and Brigham Young remain perfectly clean shaven… an outward symbol of their inward fortitude. Their grooming, as their testimonies, remains unyielding. With Nathan and Benjamin, as with Joshua, the beard therefore remains symbolic of evil.

A House Divided begins where American Zion left off. Joshua has left Missouri to turn over a new leaf as witnessed by his stately pony-tail, groomed whiskers, and clean chin. This dramatic change in appearance suddenly grants him a slew of new abilities, such as politeness, erect posture, educated speech, and polished manners. However, Joshua’s return to Missouri and the evils of old is accompanied by ungathered hair and facial scruff. Joshua is later made a captain in the Missouri militia by mutton-chopped Governor Boggs (another example of the evil beard giving way to historical detail). Joshua is joined in his new post by several bearded others, including the primary face of his antagonism, Bobby Johnson (Michael Bowen). On one occasion, clean-shaven Mormons even defy him, which leads to tar-and-feathering.

In the film’s (and trilogy’s) climax, Joshua rides out to stop the mob from descending upon his encamped family. After diffusing the situation, Joshua turns his back on Bobby, giving the latter an opening to attack. Unable to save himself in time, Joshua is rescued by Nathan, who shoots and kills Bobby. The facial hair motif in play throughout the series underscores the dynamic of good and evil perfectly in this scene. Being bearded himself, Joshua is unable to save himself by killing Bobby. Had he done so, his beard would have translated it into an act of evil. But Nathan, righteous by virtue of beardlessness saves him. Joshua conquers Bobby through the proxy of clean-shaven Nathan, thus saving himself from shedding blood while bearded.

The “evil beard” features just as prominently in the film’s other subplots. Bearded and mustachioed detractors torment Joseph after the collapse of the Kirtland Safety Society Bank, including his brother William and golden plate witness David Whitmer. Note the return of the venerable beard as well, this time exempted for its Rabbinic significance during an attack on Joseph’s house as it is more conventionally symbolic of the bearer’s faith, not his failings. On the other hand, Ben and Nathan return to their clean-shaven ways, their previous temptations now behind them, culminating in Ben’s baptism.

One final scene is critical to the examination. As a group of weary pioneers (including Jesse) trek back into Missouri, they are met by a band of bearded men on horseback. The tension is palpable in the faces of the pioneers as the band approaches even though the only really dubious aspect about them is their facial hair. A great sigh of relief goes up when it’s revealed that the band is actually a Mormon delegation sent to welcome and assist the beleaguered immigrants. In this case, facial hair is not symbolic of evil personified, but rather, evil perceived. The filmmakers use their own convention to manipulate audience expectation.

Ultimately, the question is “why?” Is the “evil beard” a stereotype as Holt intimates? Specifically, why is this a stereotype, and if so, why is it being perpetuated, consciously or otherwise? How does a religious audience reconcile the prevalence of the evil beard within a major motion picture when that religion’s own deities are universally depicted as being bearded? At the very least, one can argue that the filmmakers simply made the choice to create a visual motif to underline certain thematics at work within the film. The problem with this argument is that in many instances within the films, facial hair didn’t merely underline depictions of evil, it replaced them. More troubling still is the notion that it did so as part of a stereotype in action.

Financeers, producers, and publishers all promised a film of utmost quality. And it’s very possible that the professional look and diagetic content of the finished product have merited that distinction. However, while those considerations may outweigh the perpetuation of the “evil beard,” they do not disguise it. It seems significant that The Work and the Glory series has created a symbol of evil not based in Mormon doctrine, but Mormon culture, specifically, Mormon missionary culture. It is not the purpose of this criticism to postulate whether this is good or bad, but rather, to simply point out that it is. And that it is leads to this final question: Why would the translation of the most beloved fiction of the LDS faith to an audio/visual medium require that its portrayal of evil be reinforced or replaced by a cultural steretype, especially when that translation was intended for the exact same audience?

20 comments: “Beauty and the Beard

  1. R.W. Rasband

    The “evil beard” paradigm probably makes these films seem faintly ridiculous and parochial to others. I’m afraid the attitudes of the church’s member population are never going to get over the 1960′s. And the first LDS president to be clean-shaven after Joseph Smith was
    David O. McKay, after a run of bearded presidents that lasted over 100 years, if I’m not mistaken. (He wrote, while stroking his beard…)

  2. William Morris

    Interesting. It makes me wonder what dress and grooming cues (visual shorthand) are found in other works of LDS film.

    I also wonder to what extent audience members, esp. those audience members who enjoyed the films, accepted the imagery. I seem to recall hearing comments that the beard thing was a little over the top and obvious, but the rest of the film as very well done.

  3. Eric

    Imagery such as beards and white shirts / ties is part of gospel doctrine… didn’t you know that? If one wants to be righteous, one must shave and wear a suit. That’s what God wears, a dark suit with a white shirt (made in Malaysia) and a conservative tie.
    Unfortunately for Jesus, he didn’t understand this important gospel principle. Adhering to the grooming practices of his day, he failed to lead the apostles into the future of goodness by inventing the suit.
    A prophet has declared that we must shave and dress as though we were at a board meeting for an MNC. If he says it, it’s true. No general authority wears otherwise, or grows his evil facial hair.
    I’ll not be the first to transgress this holy revelation!

  4. Doc

    Of course,
    everyone need realize that this paradigm actually originated with the original Star Trek episode featuring the Evil Mr. Spock, identical in every way, except with a goatee.
    Bwa ha ha ha ha

  5. Nick Literski

    I was an extra for the film, “Joseph Smith the Prophet,” currently being shown in LDS visitors’ centers. The film was produced and released to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Joseph’s birth. The film was produced by the LDS church.

    The scene which I was recruited for involved Joseph being taken prisoner by militia/mobbers in Missouri. We were filming near New Salem, Illinois. I was cast as a member of the mob. In the course of the two days’ filming, I noticed something interesting about the extras. Literally every overweight extra was cast as a member of the mob.

    My observation was confirmed when, a few months later, the film crew came to Nauvoo, where I lived at the time. These scenes were only to include Mormons–no “bad guys.” Once again, the producers called for extras, all of which would be cast as 1840s Mormons. This time, however, they were specific. Clothing sizes were listed for men and women, with the instruction that only those who wore those sizes could be cast. By doing so, the producers eliminated any overweight persons from applying to appear in the film as Mormons. Evidently there were no overweight Mormons in the 1840s, notwithstanding the fact that apostle Willard Richards was known to weigh nearly 400 pounds.

    It became rather clear, from the “mob vs. Mormons” dichotomy, that this was image management.

  6. scott bronson

    When an audition notice for “The Book of Mormon Movie” began circulating on the Internet, I was quite amused to note that the wording of it very specifically–and in full caps if I remember correctly–required all auditioners to be ATTRACTIVE.

    Obviously, I did not apply.

  7. Norbert

    In Chaplin’s silent movies, the antagonist almost always has an enourmous beard and very bushy eyebrows.

  8. Matt Evans

    Very thorough critique, Eric. The point where I disagree most is your contention that beard-as-evil is a uniquely Mormon stereotype. Mormons have simply followed American attitudes toward facial hair. Abraham Lincoln was the first major presidential candidate with facial hair, John Dewey was the last in 1948, and those are the same periods the Mormon prophet had facial hair (late Brightam Young through George Albert Smith). When directors of children’s movies aren’t using beards to indicate professor or mad scientist, it’s to convey a character’s roughness, whether for good or evil. Not having seen the movies myself, it could be that the directors, or even Mormon culture generally, were using “roughness” as proxy for unrighteousness.

    I’d also guess conventions of social appearance are positively correlated with socially-acceptable behaviors. People with prominent tatoos more likely than people without tatoos to curse, fight, use illegal drugs, etc.

    Nick and Scott’s stories of church movie casting is very interesting. And to my mind, damnable.

  9. pooka

    Actually, I remember reading at the time that Captain Phoebus was to be Disney’s first bearded “hero” (quotes in that he wasn’t really the principal hero, but he was the love interest of the prettiest girl.) As for the villains with facial hair, we have:
    Captain Hook
    Jafar
    Governor Ratcliffe
    Shan Yu
    Clayton.

    How many Disney villains are there that are male that have no beard?

    Hades
    Frollo (though religious hypocrisy is integral to Hunchback, so it’s no surprise the “hero” has a beard)
    Gaston (though I’d argue the Beast appears to have a beard)

    It’s hard to tell in the various animal movies like The Lion King and Robin Hood. There are a number of recent movies that may buck the trend, which I have not seen. There could be a connection there. The burning question on my mind is how does Tarzan come to be clean-shaven?

  10. BC

    First, having seen the first two films, I don’t know how you could suffer through the third. The second WatG film is so indecisive and meandering in its narrative as to give one headaches.

    As for the facial hair as evil dichotomy – the depiction of such in these films makes me chuckle. However, the reflection contained within these films as to what the stereotype means within Mormon culture disturbs me.

    I have a beard. I look better with a well groomed beard. EVERYONE agrees – my father, my siblings, my friends, and the best litmus test of all, my mother. Yet, current church policy is that if you serve as Bishop, for example, you are expected to be clean shaven.

    Now, I understand why. You represent the Lord and His Church as a judge in Israel. But that’s the stereotype. Would a beard limit revelation, or righteous stewardship? Would a beard prevent wise counsel or appropriate management of church funds?

    It seems to me that the Church is far too image conscious. While we profess impartiality and love towards all men, we do expect, mostly unconsciously I believe, a certain visual vindication of obedience, righteousness, and conformity that declares “Mormon in goods standing.” What troubles me most is that I fall into the trap from time to time. When you have to consciously work at not openly perceiving visual cues as a reflection of the inward person, something is out of line with the Savior’s teachings regarding true devotion and sainthood. Essentially, we are too attracted to the idea of whited sepulchers.

    I remember reading a post on another message board, and it was profound enough to me that I wrote it down. Here’s the statement:

    “What would happen if we started to live inside our religion the way we were intended to live? What if we were allowed to be completely visible? What if we were allowed to admit our sins and shortcomings? What if we started to tell the truth about ourselves at all of our meetings? What if we let love and truth be the motto of our religion instead of secrets, guilt, lies, and looking good?”

  11. Eric Thompson Post author

    Wonderful comments, all. In response to Matt’s comment, however, I find myself disagreeing. Abraham Lincoln was advised to grow a beard because it was strongly believed that he was too ugly without one to win the presidential election. Even then, I think there’s a difference in our parameters. A broader look at our American heroes reveals facial hair on the likes of Mark Twain, Martin Luther King, John D. Rockefeller, Walt Whitman, Walt Disney, Albert Einstein, Frederick Douglass, and others. I also believe that the beard in cartoons goes far beyond “professor” and “mad scientist.” Pooka is correct in that love interests often forsake the beards, but father-figures, benevolent kings, and kindly wizards don’t. Additionally, I think it’s a stretch to compare beardedness with something like tattoos. Although it may not surprise us to see a beard on a tattooed individual, tattoos have rarely (if ever) been treated with the same neutrality that beards have. And good call, Doc, on the evil Spock. I can’t believe I didn’t remember that one.

    The debate isn’t whether or not American and Mormon culture finds beardlessness good-looking. It’s whether or not it finds it “good.”

  12. Larry Ogan

    If you read Tarzan of the Apes you will find that when the young Tarzan discovers he is not an ape he decides that he should not look like one so he uses his knife to shave.

  13. William Morris

    Larry:

    You know, I haven’t read Tarzan of the Apes. But I remember reading one of the Mars books when I was a kid and just found a few free e-book downloads so soon I’ll be much more Burroughs savvy.

  14. Jonovitch

    My father-in-law is a bishop, for the second time, in his ward in Germany. He had a beard the first time, and apparently it didn’t stop him from being called a second time.

    When I went to the temple for the first time in Chicago, I saw a large man walk in in front of me, with a nice, grey beard and a beautiful long, grey braid going down his back. I thought it was pretty cool then. Now I also think it’s nice that there’s nothing about appearance in the temple recommend interview.

    Not like the BYU “Honor” Code. I hated, hated, hated the beard policy. After studying the issue, I realized it was a reactionary rule, put in place to contrast the hippies at Berkley in the ’60s. You’d think we’d be past that by now — but of course that old holdover from the ’70s, the moustache, is still perfectly valid (yikes!).

    I had to shave every single day at BYU, whereas some roommates could go a week without so much as a whisker. I once got turned away from the Testing Center, aka, the Honor Code Police. Nobody’s checking girls’ legs or armpits for hair, why my facial foliage? The rule ought to read: “If beards are to be worn, they should be well-trimmed” and be done with it! No more tip-toeing around the issue with moustaches and sideburns. It’s reinforcing in one student class after another that absurd and illogical notion that Beards are Bad.

    I hated having to sign my name on a document I knew I disagreed with (on more fundamental levels than this, too). I’m glad to be out of there, so I longer have to lie to myself any more. It was really damaging.

    In some cultures around the world, beards are a sign of dignity, wisdom, and respect. I find it really unfortunate that Muslim students, or those with skin problems, get nasty looks every day at BYU from thoughtless (literally) students. Gandalf, Dumbledore, Santa Claus all have long, flowing, out of control beards, and they’re the epitome of the good guys!

    Honestly! If God put hair on my face, who am I to deny it! For full disclosure, I look pretty darn good with a well-trimmed beard. My wife agrees (imagine that!), and I’ve gotten plenty of comments from others (at church!) that my winter look is rather dashing.

    If I’m ever called to be a bishop (oh no!), and it happens to be November, I might just tell them they’ll have to wait until spring.

    Jon

  15. Chino Blanco

    Cool post. Some of the comments brought to mind the scene in Peter Goldsworthy’s Wish where the she-ape, having mastered sign language well enough to communicate emotionally with her human love interest, shaves her body in a pathetic attempt to ape what she imagines must be her lover’s ideal of physical beauty.

    Silly ape, to shave is human, but to wear a white shirt is divine.

  16. Anneke Majors

    Fascinating. I find myself slightly tempted to play devil’s advocate, and perhaps should do a little research before I try.

    I personally see the silliness in the BYU honor code and portrayals in cinema, but I wonder if any of us are indignant about the missionary grooming standards? I’m trying to analyze my own motives, but I find myself very supportive of them. Were elders to walk around in beards, no matter how well-trimmed, I think the church would lose credibility. It’s probably a product of corporate culture more than anything else… the same mores that tell me I have to wear nylons to work every day proscribe that honest, trustworthy men are professionals and that professionals have to wake up a little bit early and shave and put on a starched shirt. They’re the same kind of people who will be ten minutes early to your appointment and cross all their Ts.

    I agree that it’s American culture and it’s American business culture at that.

    I can’t get myself to take the Work and the Glory movies seriously enough in the first place to decide if it’s an unfortunate artistic decision or merely a silly slip into culturally cocooned stereotyping.

    But something I would like to know is why all the good guys in Lord of the Rings have blue eyes. Now that’s just racist.

  17. Eric Thompson Post author

    As I wrote this piece, I tried to be very conscious about drawing a line between Mormon culture (as defined by Mormons) and Mormon practice (as defined by Church Leaders). I have made a covenant to never speak ill of those men and women, and even if I did disagree with them about any of our practices (which I don’t), I love them too much to murmur against them.

    I wake up every Sunday morning and shave. I do it for the same reason that I wear a suit (even in triple digit temperatures). I consider it a personal necessity to present my very best self whenever I enter the Lord’s house. The Lord deserves that, I believe. And as with all my service and worship within the kingdom, my choice is predicated not on what I perceive to be fair, but simply on whether or not I love the Lord enough to show Him. As for BYU, I never really considered going (even though there were offers) in part because I knew I didn’t want to live by the strict honor code. However, I sustain the church’s right to set standards.

    This piece was largely about the “universal” representation of the evil beard within the Work and the Glory films and what that might reveal about us as a religious culture. I wish to make it very clear that not only is this NOT an indictment of the church, but that I sustain the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve with my whole soul.

  18. pooka

    There is something I’ve been trying to put my finger on, about our Mormon culture ever since I didn’t get hired at the Maryland Food Bank. I don’t know if it was because I was Mormon. I thought I overheard a whisper now and then. But the odd fact is we are the only church that doesn’t do business with the food bank. Sure we have our own program, and it’s a good program, but it isn’t for hungry people in general. It’s for folks working with an ecclesiastical leader toward self-reliance.

    I also worry about folks I see who are interested in the church but feel they can never live up to our standards. The standards are to bring us closer to God, not to divide us from our brothers and sisters. Well.

    My husband has a beard sometimes. I like it because he had it when we first met, and I think it’s attractive, but he did a turn in the military which is very against beards. I think that could be the primary cultural influence that causes this to persist. I think even in the Civil War, you could have hair on every part of your face except the chin. I wonder if it has to do with fire hazards and canons.

  19. mikey A

    This discussion about facial hair is very interesting to me.

    I have a beard. I’ve had it since my oldest daughter cast her fishing line into my chin and up into my nose, making it hard to shave. I taught 2 years at BYU with a beard card before moving to New Mexico.

    Appearence is very important to the Church. I have had many experiences with facial hair and the church but I’ll admit to 2.

    While in LA before moving to California in the early 90′s, I was called to an Elders Quorum presidency. At the time I only had a mustache. The calling was withdrawn when the counselor in the Stake Presidency asked me how I felt about shaving the mustache. Without saying I would or wouldn’t, I told him that making physical appearence important taught the Saints all the wrong lessons.

    Later in Utah, I was called to be an Elders Quorum President. I asked the counselor in the Stake Presidency, “what about the beard?” He responded that he didn’t care. I kept the calling and the beard.

    Different strokes.

    One last story (sorry). When I was directing seminary films for the Church in the early 90′s, I was always asking actors to shave their beards (even though I had one) because it was church policy that all male authority figures in church films had to be clean shaven, whether their characters where religious or secular ( I assume this applied to women but it never came up). I received one compromise when they allowed an actor playing a gardener to keep his mustache.

    I was asked to play an Old Testament prophet once (generic prophet, it was just one shot) only because the director needed a temple recommend holder with a beard. Yes, and anyone playing a prophet has to have a temple recommend, just because they keep getting burned with their Joseph Smith actors.

    So this discussion about facial hair has a personal resonance for me.

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