A skit has been pulled from a Brigham Young University comedy troupe’s lineup after Pacific Islander activists accused the organization of brownface, according to the Salt Lake Tribune. The skit, created by Divine Comedy and titled “Moana You Ugly”, was a mashup of last year’s Disney hit, “Moana”, and the 1969 LDS-produced film “Johnny Lingo”.
The skit in question was named after one of the quotes from “Johnny Lingo”, said by the father of Mahana, one of the main characters:
The tagline “she is an eight cow woman” is a reference to how much main character Johnny Lingo paid for Mahana and how it tied into her self-worth.
Members of Divine Comedy troupe had passed out flyers with the image of the sketch around BYU’s Provo campus last week, but after the group’s FaceBook page was bombarded with complaints of cultural appropriation, brownface, and racism, the skit was cancelled and the flyers trashed.
“The students are beside themselves with the backlash,” said George Nelson, theater professor at LDS-owned university BYU and faculty adviser to Divine Comedy. “They didn’t know the extent to which that would offend that population.”
“Johnny Lingo” is a familiar movie to older members of the LDS (Mormon) faith; set in the South Pacific, the story follows a young man named Johnny Lingo, whose trading acumen is known throughout the islands. The movie opens on Lingo arriving at a particular island with the intent of marrying a young woman named Mahana, the village pariah known for being ugly, unkempt, and unmarriageable. Due to the tradition on this island, Lingo must sit with Mahana’s father and barter for her with cows. It is soon apparent that the cow-for-wife system is a status symbol among the women of the island — the more cows a man forks over for a wife, the higher value she is amongst her peers. A four-cow woman and a five-cow woman can be heard gossiping about Mahana’s potential worth, joking that Lingo will only pay her father four hooves and a tail for the “worthless” woman.
Mahana’s father, who could be seen berating Mahana and calling her ugly just moments before the highly anticipated barter, asked Lingo for three cows in exchange for his daughter. This caused the crowd to roar with laughter, as they believed this was far too expensive for the young woman. Lingo responded by saying that three cows wasn’t enough for Mahana, and instead offered eight cows for her hand in marriage. The islanders were flabbergasted, her shocked father agreed, and the two lovebirds were married, setting sail for warmer sands on their honeymoon.
Upon their return some time later, the residents of the island were floored to see Mahana, as the ugly, homely young woman they once knew had become radiant and captivating. When asked how this had come to pass, Lingo said that he purposefully paid an exorbitant fee for his childhood friend-turned-wife, Mahana, so that she could feel good about herself. He took her away from an environment that had once called her ugly and instead treated her like a goddess, worthy of being called an eight-cow wife. Eventually, she started believing she was worth it, and her self-esteem blossomed. Lingo’s act of kindness for Mahana became an inspirational message to Mormons — uplift those around you so that they may see the good in themselves, and soon enough, they’ll believe in their own worth.
The movie seems appallingly racist by today’s standards, but “Johnny Lingo” was made back in 1969 — a time when interracial marriage had been legalized only two years prior, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 passing five years before, and only nine years since Ruby Bridges became an activist icon by attending a previously all-White school. The film, woefully out-of-date and tone-deaf, was once cherished by members of the LDS church for its wholesome message; now, it’s passed over for other, more politically correct movies.
Many activists feel it’s best to keep “Johnny Lingo” and any references to it in the past. “With the political climate now, it’s not a good time to make a show to make light of what years of activism, years of civil rights have done,” said Heilala Potesio, activist of Tongan heritage and Utah Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Coalition member.
Divine Comedy’s performance is scheduled for October 13 – 14. The offending skit will not be part of the lineup.