Does everybody remember that episode of The Simpsons in which Homer and Flanders go to Vegas, get completely devastated, and wake up married to a couple of vulgar, gold-digging floozies? And then Flanders actually tries to live with his new “Vegas wife,” only to have her give up on her find-a-sugar-daddy scheme and run away because she just can’t take any more of his saccharine piousness? (The second part may have been a separate episode… I don’t remember for certain anymore.) As I recall, Flanders’ Vegas wife flees in the middle of the night, Amityville Horror style, yelling back over her shoulder something to effect of, “Just stop being so goody-goody all the time!” Does that ring a bell?
Yeah, that’s how I feel a lot of the time living in Utah. I mean, honestly, is there any other place in the known universe — or at least a place that doesn’t have a minaret in the middle of town — where this outfit would be considered immodest?
The young lady in the photo is Brittany Molina, a 21-year-old student at Brigham Young University, who experienced a moment of Internet fame last week because this unremarkable ensemble of a sweater, dress, leggings, and knee-high boots evidently proved too provocative for the tender sensibilities of some anonymous bluenose. As recounted on the Salt Lake Tribune‘s Movie Cricket blog, Brittany was on the BYU campus, minding her own business, when a young man she didn’t know walked up, handed her a note, and then scuttled off before she could read it. She thought at first it may have been a Valentine from a shy admirer, but it turned out to be something very different. The note read:
“You may want to consider that what you’re wearing has a negative effect
on men (and women) around you. Many people come to this university
because they feel safe, morally as well as physically, here. They expect
others to abide by the Honor Code that we all agreed on. Please
consider your commitment to the Honor Code (which you agreed to) when
dressing each day. Thank you.”
Now, I should probably explain for some of my Loyal Readers that BYU, which is owned by the Mormon Church, expects its students to follow a rigid set of rules — the aforementioned Honor Code — which regulates everything from attire and grooming to where students are allowed to live (BYU has to approve off-campus housing) to sexual behavior. Especially sexual behavior, which not-too-surprisingly seems to be the pitfall that trips up most Code violators, at least in the cases that come to the public’s attention. So just how strict are these rules? Well, believe it or not, they were a major factor in determining which local college I would attend following high school. Yes, yours truly applied to the Y back in my college-application days. And lest you think that seems, well, odd, I’ll be honest and admit that I was incredibly naive, knew little about the place, and chose to apply there largely because it was close to home and I wasn’t interested in going too far away for school. I even got accepted, on a provisional basis pending submission of a letter from my Mormon bishop or other ecclesiastical leader (this was a bit of a problem for me, given that I’ve been indifferent to religion since I was a small boy; I briefly considered writing my own letter and signing it “Master Yoda of Dagobah”) and, of course, my signature on a document promising I would obey this precious Honor Code of theirs. A handy rule book accompanied the acceptance letter so I could familiarize myself with the Code. I dutifully read through it, becoming more and more convinced with each new line of text that somebody, somewhere, was putting me on. It all seemed so… unnecessary.
Two items stand out in my memory as particularly insufferable: men were required to be clean-shaven (mustaches were allowed, although the Code’s phrasing on this point made it sound like they were grudgingly accepted at best, but beards and stubble were absolutely verboten), and you had to wear socks with your shoes. Leaving aside the fact that this was 1987 and I was still occasionally emulating Don Johnson’s Miami Vice look at the time, I couldn’t understand why a university, an institution of higher learning, a place whose mission is to educate and whose informal role is to help you learn how to be an independent adult, ought to have the slightest concern over whether I was wearing socks. I admittedly have something of a knee-jerk anti-authoritarian streak — I reflexively resent being told what to do, especially when I think I’m being told to do something stupid — but this was nothing short of insane micromanaging, as far as I was concerned. I was utterly repelled. However, I can thank my brush with the Honor Code for one thing, at least. It made a big life decision very simple for me. A week later, I was enrolled at BYU’s crosstown rival (and complete cosmological opposite), the University of Utah.
It’s probably also relevant to note that BYU is located in Provo, Utah, the seat of Utah County, which comprises the geographical area called Utah Valley. (It’s the Utah-iest place in all of Utah! In more ways than one, actually…) Utah Valley lies directly south of the Salt Lake Valley (and Salt Lake County), which is where I live. Things are different down there. Seriously, almost mind-bogglingly different. Non-Utahns tend to think of Salt Lake City as repressed, uptight, and highly conservative, but SLC is practically San Francisco’s Castro District compared to the UC. I actually try to avoid going down there, as my beard and ponytail instantly brand me as an outsider, and I’m not exaggerating when I say people do stare. Honest to god, I sometimes feel so out of place there, I expect a bunch of the locals to surround me and start up with the Body Snatcher scream. Even some of my Mormon friends report feeling less than worthy when they’re visiting Provo.
Anyway, given my complete alienation from the BYU/Provo mindset, I have a hard time grasping what’s so terrible about Ms. Milano’s outfit. The consensus among my friends seems to be that her dress is too short to meet the Honor Code’s standard, as it falls well above her knees, and I suppose that makes sense. But still… this is offensive to someone? Really? I mean, it’s not as if she’s dressed like one of the girls in a ZZ Top video, or like Julia Roberts in the beginning of Pretty Woman (not, just between you and me, that I have a problem with either of those looks; I guess I lack the gene that codes for moral outrage as generated by displays of feminine anatomy).
A couple of people have pointed out that it doesn’t matter whether I, personally, see anything wrong with her outfit or not, she was in violation of the rules she agreed to follow. I suppose there’s no arguing that. Brittany presumably got a chance to read the rule book same as I did, and she had her chance to make a run for it, the same way I did. But instead she willingly entered into a contract with the Y to follow their wretched Code, and she’s got to face the consequences if she doesn’t live up to her obligation. And really I know this whole story is just a tempest in a teapot, probably already forgotten by everyone who read about it last week. Nevertheless, it sticks in my craw because, regardless of whether she actually did anything wrong under whatever standard you want to apply, this incident encapsulates so much of what I really, truly hate about my home state. The pervasive, heavy-handed moralizing; the sanctimony and intolerance for anyone who strays too far off program; the nosy preoccupation with what your neighbors are doing and how “cleanly” they’re living, along with the misguided belief that you have the right to say anything about it; the casual misogyny that blames a young woman’s clothing for a young man’s sinful feelings; and, of course, the passive-aggressive behavior. Good lord, this place must surely be the passive-aggressive capital of the world. People who grow up here have it pounded into their heads from an early age to always be polite and agreeable, so few willingly engage in a direct confrontation if they can avoid it. (I’ll admit I’m guilty of it, too, for what that’s worth.) Instead, they find other, less direct — and less honorable, in my opinion — ways to attack: sarcastic jibes that are excused as good-natured humor, or intense competitiveness in sports and other social activities, or talking about people behind their backs. Or handing someone an anonymous note and running away before they can read it. Frickin’ coward. I have to say Ms. Molina apparently handled this situation with far more aplomb than I could’ve managed. I would’ve chased the punk down, pinned him to a wall, and told him that if he’s got a problem, he’d better tell me to my face. And then I would’ve impressed upon him how much better it would be for him to mind his own damn business…
(Ed. Note: For the record, I am not accusing every Utahn, or even every Utah Mormon, of behaving like this. Nor do I want to hear the usual defense made whenever a non-Mormon starts griping about how things are here, i.e., “if you don’t like it, leave.” This is my home, too, guys, and I have no intention of moving away. Nevertheless, there some aspects of life here that are… difficult… if you don’t happen to belong to the majority faith. And Provo is just plain weird, no matter how you slice it; it’s the world as designed by Ned Flanders, and that’s no bull. If I had to live down there, I think I probably would end up fleeing in the middle of the night, Amityville Horror style.)