Here’s what’s behind the fascination with the ‘Mormon mom TikTok’ blowup

People outside the culture see characters ‘in a little universe of their own,’ one observer says.

(Illustration by Christopher Cherrington | The Salt Lake Tribune)

Insulated Stanley water cups, viral dances, provocative pop songs, and well-coordinated hip-hugging athletic leisure clothing — all have become familiar items in the social media phenomenon of Mormon mom TikTok.

The videos and backstage intrigue of a group of Utah content creators — led by Taylor Frankie Paul, who started a commotion with a series of TikTok videos and Instagram posts (many of them since deleted, but preserved on Reddit boards) that hinted at open relationships among her circle of influencers, all of them reportedly members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, who branded themselves as #MormTok.

The capper was a livestream in which Paul, 28, claimed she and others in her group participated in so-called soft swinging — vaguely defined as having intimate physical contact with other people’s spouses, but not engaging in actual intercourse. That admission reportedly has led to denials from other group members, and Paul posting that she and her husband were getting divorced.

The online scandal caught the attention not only of Paul’s 3.6 million followers, but of the fickle focus of the Internet at large. It inspired deep dives via Reddit threads and content recap series from other TikTok creators. One comment on one of Paul’s TikTok’s post-reveal called her “the most hated woman alive.”

People who study the effects of social media on the culture note that, outside Utah, there’s a cultural fascination with all things connected to the Latter-day Saint faith.

“The Mormon mom is a different character in a little universe of their own,” said Taylor Lorenz, multimedia tech reporter for The Washington Post. Paul, Lorenz said, is “very attractive and well dressed and has this seemingly perfect life, [and] that is out of touch for a lot of people.”

Kate Davis, a doctoral candidate in the religion program at Claremont Graduate University outside of Los Angeles, said that “so much of Mormtok is appealing to outsiders [because] it’s a peek into a sort of idealized lifestyle where houses are beautiful, clean and put together. Children never have schmutz on their face. … It’s like if you are doing it right, your life can look like this too.”

Latter-day Saint moms, before TikTok

Davis — whose research is in religion in North America, specifically focusing on Mormonism and evangelicalism on social media, through the lens of feminist history — said Paul and others like her are the latest iteration of Latter-day Saint women influencers on social media.

“There’s actually a really long tradition of proto influencers: pre-internet Mormon women who were writing books, newspaper columns or similar public writing projects that had a similar effect of reinforcing gendered Mormonism,” Davis said. “There’s a strong tradition within Mormonism of reflective writing, maintaining some sort of written record that starts pretty young for women.”

As new platforms opened — from blogs to Facebook groups to Instagram and now to TikTok — women have carved out a niche on them, Davis said. Those niches, she added, gave them the ability to create intriguing content, combining religious and modern cultural identity in surprising ways.

Another tradition that allows for such content creation is one that predates social media, Davis said: Lay preaching and ministry in the Latter-day Saint faith.

“There’s already this expectation that you’re going to be living your life as a witness to God or as a way of evangelizing those around you,” she said.

The videos created on TikTok by Paul and other moms in the group, Davis said, demonstrate a “long-lived theology” in how they use “the church as an aspect of their personal brand.”

What’s interesting with this MormTok group, Davis said, is that their content is “somewhat controversial and subversive. … Winking, performance, dancing, the provocative [nature]. Using secular music in these ways while maintaining this peaceful identity and also shaping the conversation of what it means to be a Mormon woman.”

One of the most controversial videos, which has since been deleted, showed Paul and her mom friends dancing to a song with the lyrics “I wanna ride” — and the onscreen text reading “when he holds the priesthood,” referring to the Latter-day Saint doctrine that only men can carry the leadership role of the priesthood.

Davis said that video weaves together “a very traditional female role and a very sexualized song.”

Another video teases the idea of #Sisterwives — using audio from the cheerleader roll call from the movie “Bring It On.” And still another shows the mom group lined up, dancing with their super-sized water cups (to the song “Thinkin’ with My D---” by Kevin Gates, featuring Juicy J), with the onscreen text “Why do Mormons have so many kids?”

Platforms like TikTok, Davis said, are giving women access to new channels to express themselves — and their faith — outside of traditional channels that often are closed to them.

“Women have a hand on the ball to shape what that public perception of Mormon femininity is,” she said.

These platforms also can be a means of “direct communication,” Davis said, bridging the gap between who these content creators are and who they can be.

“For younger people, this is an incredibly important tool to be able to even access people who think about the world in the same way you do, but that’s different from your local ward if you want to explore,” Davis said. “Your identity and your theology feels a little bit safer in a way.”

The MormTok group has been able to successfully create a brand — before the scandal broke — knowing that they found a particular audience to relate to their content, Davis said.

Trolls and ‘Real Housewives’

Part of that brand, for Paul and other TikTok influencers, is being a “troll,” said The Washington Post’s Lorenz.

Lorenz said she has been keeping up-to-date with the MormTok scandal, and said that Mormon mom influencers have a “chokehold” on the internet.

“I think part of the reason [Paul] went so viral and was so popular is because she was able to kind of poke fun at herself and her world,” Lorenz said. “You never quite knew when she was serious, and the fact that people took her trolling seriously made it even funnier.”

Many TikTok creators, like Paul, sustain their brand and have people continue to tune into their videos by rehashing the same topics or jokes. In her case, it’s content driven by Latter-day Saint culture, as well as washing her long hair in a bathtub after delayed periods of time, and how her son looks like Stefan Salvatore (a character from “The Vampire Diaries”).

Lorenz said TikTok is the “new reality TV.” Utah may have recently landed “The Real Housewives of Salt Lake City,” she said, but TikTok has the advantage that it allows people to get content like that 24 hours a day.

The #Mormtok content, Lorenz said, points to the evolution of TikTok, which launched in 2017 and pivoted from the app Musical.ly — which had many of the same features TikTok has today: Hashtags, trending sounds and short, concise videos.

“It was never just an app to have fun on,” Lorenz said. “It was perceived that way by people that never spent time on it.”

Today, Lorenz said, “TikTok has a bigger and bigger hold on society. It’s a platform [that] can be used for anything.”

Life after the scandal

Paul seems to have been shunned from her group of friends after speaking out, if her post-scandal videos are to be trusted. That could be short-lived, as both Davis and Lorenz said her impressive platform might recover with ease.

“When you’re a content creator, so much of that is highly performative,” Davis said. With the downfall of MormTok, and particularly of Paul, “we’re seeing the person behind the curtain.”

Lorenz pointed to the evolution of influencer culture over the past 20 years, the “democratization of celebrity” and this “notion of fame becoming incredibly distributed and niche.”

“If she plays it right,” Lorenz said of Paul, “She could end up even bigger.”

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