Praying before a meal in “Under the Banner of Heaven.” (Photo/Courtesy FX)
Praying before a meal in “Under the Banner of Heaven.” (Photo/Courtesy FX)

Mormonism and Judaism are dominating television. Is that good for representation?

Not long ago, religion, along with sex and politics, was considered a topic best avoided in polite company.

But when Netflix dropped “Unorthodox” in the spring of 2020, it was an immediate hit — and the beginning of a trend of shows about Haredi communities. It was followed by the third season of “Shtisel,” which resurrected the show after it had gone off the air years before. And then “My Unorthodox Life” dropped, following fashion designer Julia Haart’s journey leaving her Orthodox roots.

Now, it seems, it’s the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints’ turn on the small screen.

In late April, Hulu released “Under the Banner of Heaven,” a scripted true crime series following a pair of murders committed by Mormons. “Keep Sweet: Pray and Obey,” a Netflix docuseries about the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) sect held a spot in the streaming service’s top 10 for weeks. Now, “Mormon No More,” a documentary following ex-Mormons, has just dropped on Hulu.

These are all big-budget shows on major networks, not fringe films or indie shows. And they focus on big, well-known religions. “Unorthodox” and “Shtisel” may focus on Haredi communities, but for many Americans who have never met a Jew, they can easily represent the religion at large. “Banner” follows murders committed by extremist Mormons, but the majority of the screen time goes to mainstream members of the faith.

People have always been curious about practices outside the norm, but before now, most of the fascination has centered on cults. There’s something different about the recent surge of religious content — and more of them are on the way.

Why now?

“There’s been such an explosion of streaming services that there’s a need for content,” said Diane Winston, a professor of religion and media at USC.

Platforms are reaching for more controversial content than before because they are scraping the barrel in search of fresh fodder to keep their viewers from going to another platform, she noted.

Simultaneously, the platforms don’t have to be as careful with what they show because viewers choose what to watch; there’s no pressure to appeal to whoever turns on the TV. And because the viewer chooses, platforms are protected from fallout and attacks that might have previously plagued a network taking on controversial topics such as religion.

“They’re going for niche audiences because you don’t need 40 million viewers to tune in,” Winston said. “A lot of these shows may fly under the radar for most people, so they don’t bother criticizing them or getting angry or upset.”

That’s not to say people encountering Jewish life and Mormon beliefs for more or less the first time don’t want to comment. The TikTok comment sections for Mormon and ex-Mormon influencers are full of questions (and presumptions) inspired by what users have seen on TV.

“Keep Sweet” has even minted new TikTok influencers thanks to the surge in curiosity about the teen girls who fled the fundamentalist sect depicted in the documentary. The now-secular girls make videos explaining how to do their hair in the teased sweeps and braids that mark the sect, and talk about their education and families, each getting dozens of comments.

Authentic, or too authentic?

What happens when so many viewers are exposed, through a TV show, to religions, cultures or stories they wouldn’t have otherwise encountered?

While critics have responded positively to most of this content, viewers’ responses have been more mixed.

The scripted shows — “Unorthodox,” “Shtisel” and “Under the Banner of Heaven” — spent exceptional amounts of time and research on accurately recreating the worlds they were portraying.

“There’s a lived-in attention to detail that rings true, down to the way certain characters speak,” wrote Nadine Smith, an ex-Mormon, of “Banner.”

But while some Jews and Mormons have applauded the shows for giving an accurate window into their cultures, some members of the communities depicted have bristled at the portrayal of their lives and practices. They accuse Netflix and Hulu of casting already unfamiliar religions in a dark light to satisfy the public’s curiosity. Even the Forward has been bombarded by complaints about the unrealistic or overly critical depictions of Orthodox communities as seen on TV.

Playing to stereotypes

Similarly, numerous members of the LDS church have complained about how “Keep Sweet” and “Banner” skew their beliefs.

McKay Coppins, a practicing Mormon and staff writer at the Atlantic, wrote that Hulu’s presentation of the religion operated to “serve a stereotype, to exoticize a people and flatten their faith tradition.”

Authenticity can contribute to the danger of these shows. “Is Netflix good for the Jews?” pondered critic Joseph Bernstein, noting that previous stereotyped portrayals of Jews was campy shtick that didn’t purport to be authentic.

These shows “may feature accurate details and stories based in reality, but they only represent a sliver of Haredi life,” he wrote. “In turn, this sliver comes to represent the whole of Haredi Judaism in the algorithmically driven classificatory imagination.” And for those who don’t encounter Jews of any stripe in their regular life, that sliver likely represents the whole of Judaism.

A holiday dinner in “Unorthodox.” (Photo/Courtesy Netflix)
A holiday dinner in “Unorthodox.” (Photo/Courtesy Netflix)

The same can be said of the fundamentalist Mormons in most of the shows and documentaries about the LDS church. And even the portrayals of mainstream Mormons in “Banner” and “Mormon No More” highlight the strangest or most difficult parts of their faith, such as temple garments, gendered roles and homophobia. It’s easy to walk away from the shows wondering why anyone would believe in or follow such outlandish practices.

“Unorthodox” and “Banner” are both based on true stories, meaning they feel like rigorous and credible representations. “My Unorthodox Life,” “Mormon No More” and “Keep Sweet” are all documentaries. Yet even taken together, they give only limited — and enticingly scandalous — insight into these communities.

What’s missing?

Connor Martini, a doctoral candidate studying religion and media at Columbia University, wants us to focus not on what the shows present, but rather what’s left unsaid. “What is not being portrayed?” he asked. “What is the implicit understanding of religion that they’re working with?”

Moreover, good ol’ American Protestantism is never the focus of a show. Sometimes a sex scandal or embezzling church leader will merit attention, but Protestantism itself is rarely the subject — it’s too normal and boring.

Each unfamiliar religion in these shows is portrayed as, at best, unfamiliar and uncomfortable, such as in “Shtisel,” where Akiva’s artistry is discouraged and he grates against his community, or in “Mormon No More,” which follows two formerly devout women who liked Mormonism but left because their queerness was not accepted. At worst, the shows paint Judaism/Mormonism as full of harmful and dangerous beliefs.

The male temple garb in “Under the Banner of Heaven.” (Photo/Courtesy FX)
The male temple garb in “Under the Banner of Heaven.” (Photo/Courtesy FX)

And if these religions are aberrant, what’s left?

“The unspoken part is what the show thinks is good religion,” Martini said. “That good religion always looks like individualized, liberal Protestantism. It looks like going to church on Sunday and that’s it. It continues a really really long history, particularly in the United States, of always, always, always defining religion based off of the archetype of Protestantism.”

It’s unlikely that the creators of these shows set out to reinforce this norm.

The showrunner of “Unorthodox,” for example, has made it clear that she found the story compelling and worked hard to represent the Satmar community sensitively and accurately.

Yet when each new show about religion concentrates on a tradition’s strangeness, dangers, repressions and cruelty — and especially when they highlight people fleeing their tradition — it’s hard not to draw the conclusion that whatever the default mainstream life is must be better, more reasonable and safer.

Even “Shtisel,” widely recognized for its nuanced portrayal of Haredi life, highlighted the difficulties of that world.

Behind the scenes in “Unorthodox” during the wedding shoot. (Photo/Courtesy Netflix)
Behind the scenes in “Unorthodox” during the wedding shoot. (Photo/Courtesy Netflix)

Paying attention to other, unfamiliar religions also allows viewers to avoid turning a critical eye toward the discomforts or repressive practices in their own, more mainstream religions. The more distant that other religion feels, the more justified their own practice appears.

“We as an audience can watch this presentation and say, ‘Oh well I’m not like that; I’m not religious like that,’” Martini said.

It’s more difficult to turn the lens on mainstream practices — any bad actor is viewed as an anomaly, a deviation from the default that doesn’t represent the whole. Shows about Christianity have often focused on an individual corrupt leader or church, emphasizing how they break with tradition.

But with the minority groups portrayed in these shows, even the most unique story is generalized.

Representation, it turns out, is not so simple.

Personally, I’d love to watch a show about a nice, normal American church’s theological tensions. After all, I’ve never been, so it seems pretty exotic to me.

This article first appeared in the Forward.

Mira Fox
Mira Fox

Mira Fox is a reporter at the Forward. Get in touch at [email protected] or on Twitter @miraefox.


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