The term eight-cow wife comes from a 1969 short film entitled “Johnny Lingo.”
In the story, Johnny Lingo is a shrewd, honest, and well-liked Polynesian trader who has come home to bargain for Mahana to become his wife. To her father, Moki, and others in the neighborhood, she is of little value. Her father often yells at her unkindly, “Mahana, you ugly!” When Johnny comes to bargain with her father for her hand in marriage, the other wives in the village brag about how many cows their husbands paid for each of them. They comment that Mahana’s father will be lucky to be offered one cow for her.
In the negotiation, Moki asks for three cows, which causes the gathered islanders to break into laughter. Johnny Lingo answers, “Three cows are many . . . but not enough for Mahana!” He then offers the unheard-of price of eight cows.
After the bargaining, Johnny visits Mr. Harris, an American shopkeeper on the island, to offer him a valuable shell in exchange for a mirror. In their conversation, Mr. Harris is convinced that Johnny only paid so much to look good and be remembered. After many months, Mr. Harris delivers the mirror to Johnny and he sees that Mahana is beautiful and happy. Johnny tells him that he paid eight cows for Mahana to make her happy and for her to be an eight-cow woman. “Many things can happen to make a woman beautiful, but the thing that matters most is what she thinks of herself.” He also said, “She now knows, she is worth more than any other woman on the island.”
As is common, the movie is now viewed through the lens of modern-day sensibilities and is judged as sexist. However, most members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who saw it in Seminary or Sunday School remember the movie as a message of seeing the inner beauty in women, and treating them with kindness, love, and respect.
Although not said as frequently now as it was in the 1970s, a woman described as an eight-cow wife or woman is one with many qualities that deserve a closer look.