screen gems

So, ever hear the story about the manacled Mormon sex scandal?

Troy Williams in ‘Tabloid’

Welcome to Screen Gems, our weekend dive into queer and queer-adjacent titles of the past that deserve a watch or a re-watch.

The Scandalous: Tabloid

Oscar-winning director Errol Morris contributed one of his best–and strangest–movies to the zeitgeist in 2010 with Tabloid, based on a scandal that swept headlines in the 1970s. Dubbed “The Manacled Mormon Case,” the story involved Kirk Anderson, a young Mormon missionary allegedly kidnapped and assaulted by a beauty queen turned dominatrix named Joyce McKinney. The film, told through extensive interviews with the woman herself, chronicles how she met the “All-American boy” Anderson and how, in her estimation, the Mormon church plotted to keep the pair apart.

But wait, it gets weirder.

By McKinney’s own admission, she tracked Anderson halfway around the world to the UK where the church had stationed him as a missionary. She then proceeded to spirit him away to a cottage and keep him chained to a bed to “cure” him of his “brainwashing.” In her telling, the BDSM element of their relationship could help Anderson overcome any lingering sexual shame.

After several days of sex, Anderson proposed to McKinney. She later let him leave to assure his family he was unharmed, but he went to the police instead. Law enforcement then arrested McKinney, charging her with kidnapping and sexual indecency. The ensuing court case captured the attention of the world thanks to its unique blend of kink, religion, and McKinney’s oversized personality…not to mention her good looks.

But wait a sec. What does any of this have to do with queerness, you wonder? In addition to candid interviews with McKinney, Morris also employs the testimony of several of her accomplices, as well as gay, ex-Mormon activist Troy Williams. Williams, who knows a thing or two about the sexual shame associated with Mormonism, offers his own perspective on the Anderson/McKinney he said-she said. For him, some of McKinney’s claims that Anderson willingly participated in their slave/master sexual exorcism are probably true.

Williams’ observations about the fluid nature of truth get to the essence of Tabloid. How much of our truths (not facts, which are incontrovertible) rely on our own point of view? Can truths shift: could Anderson have gone with McKinney willingly only for his fellow Mormons to guilt him into alleging crime? Could she have kidnapped and seduced him into consensual sex only to have him feel ashamed later? And what about McKinney’s other “slaves,” who also participated in the crime? Could her obsession–which the film documents to have lasted years beyond its original cause célèbre–stem from true love? Or is she just a dominatrix with a bruised ego?

Tabloid uses the story of McKinney to examine the converging forces that create a tabloid sensation, and why they so fascinate the public. The film also raises questions about gender dynamics and sexual power: prosecutors in the UK never charged McKinney with rape since, at least at the time, lawmakers didn’t believe a woman could rape a man.

A documentary that deals with kidnapping, rape, brainwashing and general insanity shouldn’t be this funny, or this entertaining. An extended epilogue that features McKinney cloning her beloved dog only adds an additional level of strangeness to an already bizarre story. Whatever the truth of the Manacled Mormon case, Tabloid hypnotizes us with sick fascination. Much like Kirk Anderson, Joyce McKinney and her story have us chained to the screen.

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