There I was, sitting in the Hauser Hall basement, typing a seminar paper, minding my own business, when “Josh” burst into the computer lab. Josh was a single, LDS 1st-year law student, and I was a married LDS third-year, so we didn’t really know each other that well. But we did have some friends in common, and would see each other periodically at LDSSA meetings, so he recognized me when he walked in the door. He seemed strangely agitated, like he was in possession of some juicy piece of gossip he needed to get off his chest. He saw me, and promptly approached my cubicle.
“Oh my gosh, something so funny just happened!” he exclaimed. “I have to share it with someone!”
“What?” I replied.
Only minutes before, Josh had been sitting at his desk in his dorm room, mindlessly surfing the internet. For some reason, he happened upon a “full-service” Mormon website. Not a blog (this was the year 2000), but a site put up by faithful Mormons who aspired to provide useful content and links to LDS churchmembers of every sex and age. So, for example, the links page contained a section designated specifically for men. It also contained a section catering to the interests of women. Then there were the “young men” and the “young women” categories. Also, a section for kids. As Josh perused the entries on the link page, he learned much about the differing interests of the sexes. Apparently, women and girls are into, well, you know …. girlie things: Quilting, sewing, baking, fashion, cosmetics. Anything and everything a righteous LDS woman could possibly care about was conveniently linked. Meanwhile, LDS young men could also pursue interests appropriate to their sex: Fishing, camping, auto repair, Popular Mechanics. It was as if the links were tailor-made for every right-thinking Mormon boy you’ve ever known.
Josh found himself annoyed. Yes, there are more vexing problems in the world, but why did the creators of this website think that the interests of Mormon men and women were so easily separated and categorized in this gender-specific way? Josh decided to react. He quickly composed an email to the webmaster, in which he expressed his dismay at the sexist links page. Intuitively, he realized a gripe from a single LDS guy wouldn’t carry the weight of a gripe from a disgruntled LDS Father with teenage daughters. So he posed as the latter. His email got right to the point: “I am an LDS churchmember, and I am enormously concerned about the messages my daughter receives from media, particularly LDS media. The links on your webpage are sending a clear message to my daughter that she should feel limited in her interests by popular gender stereotypes. But if she happens to like Popular Mechanics, why can’t she read Popular Mechanics?!” On and on he went. Once his rant was over, Josh pushed “send.” He admitted to me that he was only “half-irritated, and half-just joking around” when he sent the email, but he thought a small gesture of protest was warranted, and he felt good about it.
“That’s funny,” I said, half-heartedly and a little bored. And then, out of politeness more than anything else, I asked Josh, “Show me this website.”
Josh gave me the web address. I typed in the URL, and then clicked on the links page. Sure enough, there were lots of links to all sorts of wholesome activities, but strangely, there were no sex-specific categories or divisions that I could see. Hmmmmm.
“Oh my gosh! I swear there were separate men and women’s sections on this page like 5 minutes ago! I don’t know what happened!” Josh exclaimed. He seemed concerned I would think he had made up the story. “Let me show you my email!”
Josh pulled up to the adjacent computer and opened his account. He was about to open his “sent items” file, when he noticed a new email in his inbox. He opened it, and both our jaws dropped. Right in front of us was a reply from the very webmaster (a woman) Josh had emailed less than 10 minutes previously. She happened to be sitting at her computer right when Josh emailed her. Her apology was profuse, verbose, almost ridiculous in its earnestness. “I am so very, very sorry to have offended you,” she proclaimed. She assured Josh that she and everyone else at the site had the very best of intentions, that they only wanted to do right by the young LDS men and women who frequented the site, and that the last thing they’d ever dream of doing is offending the parents of their youthful readers. She went on to say that she had immediately altered the site to make it less offensive, less stereotyping of gender roles.
Josh and I were both very taken aback. Never in his wildest dreams did Josh imagine his little email would have such an immediate and profound effect. I also found it a little hard to believe. Was this really all it took to overturn this woman’s presumed attachment to certain rigid conceptions of gender?
I figured this was a good story. But not content with merely observing the story — and feeling the need to make myself a part of the story — I decided that I too would email the webmaster. I too would pretend to be an irate Father-in-Zion, except that my anger would come from a slightly different place. My email (which I regret I didn’t save), started off with the typical “shocked and appalled” boilerplate you might find in a letter to the Daily Universe. I claimed — totally implausibly — to have noticed that within the last 15 minutes, the links page on the website had been changed from its former sex-segregated state, to its current sexually ambiguous one. I acknowledged that the intention behind the decision to alter the links page may have been benign, but I warned that even minor flouting of God’s laws — even casual flirtations with worldly, feminist ideologies of gender equality — would send us all down a slippery slope to Hell. A vivid parade of horribles followed, all guaranteed to ensue if the gender norms originally manifest on the site were not rigidly respected. By the end of my rant, I became completely unhinged, predicting the imminent, widespread onset of “rampant lesbianism” among LDS girls, as well as “unisex bathrooms.”
I pushed “send” and then waited. And waited. And waited. In truth, I didn’t really expect a response. My email was so deliciously over-the-top that I knew the webmaster would understand it was a joke. And of course, no response ever came. But almost immediately, it occurred to me that if the webmaster had half a brain in her head, the format and timing of my email would make her realize that Josh’s email was also a joke. Perhaps she wouldn’t find this funny. Perhaps she’d feel that she’d been made a fool of. And so Josh and I were both left wondering what would happen next. Would the webmaster restore the original links page, having realized she’d been manipulated by a phony father and his inauthentic ire? Or had Josh’s point about gender stereotyping really been taken to heart, my juvenile antics notwithstanding? Would the revised links page continue to live on in its altered, androgynous state?
A couple weeks later, I checked the links page to see if it had been changed back. It hadn’t. :)