What am I going to do when Big Love ends next week? Where will I get my periodic Mormon polygamist fix? Enter Sister Wives, TLC’s latest reality series about a FLDS (Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint) polygamist family, the Browns, who live in or near Salt Lake City and have twelve children. The Brown’s patriarch, Kody, has three wives (Meri, Janelle, and Christine) and is a freelance advertising consultant (or something along those lines) who practices plural marriage in a large, yet dismally sparse prefabricated home. Where Big Love is intense, albeit sometimes overdramatic, Sister Wives resembles just about every other reality program on the air; the difference is its subject material.
I am fascinated by Mormon polygamists and have been prior to Big Love’s entrance into HBO’s premier line-up five or six years ago. After reading Jon Krakauer’s book Under the Banner of Heaven I couldn’t help finding their way on life intriguing, not because conversion is even a potentiality but because the mindset necessary is so distant from my own. I have no idea what it would be like having multiple partners at the same time, believing in any form of Mormonism, or living in Utah. It all sounds so unappealing. Beginning, Mormonism is such an odd religion; a newer faith and probably the only religion founded in America, aside from Scientology and various cults (Scientology isn’t a cult?). I personally find their formative story absurd but, like most religions, I’m willing to set aside my personal feelings and not insult a Mormon’s faith, at least to their face. However, where Catholicism, Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, or any other belief structure are unbelievable to me and seem a bit outlandish, Mormonism’s reached a new level of silly – only surpassed by Scientology or maybe some New Age religions. All these faiths place the individual, and their relationship with god, outside the context of the world they inhabit. The planet is secondary to humanity, especially in Western Christianity since the Enlightenment, and this is responsible for our current environmental woes.
Paul T. Brockelman’s 1990s book The Inside Story: A Narrative Approach to Religious Understanding discusses this concept best by exploring the term reification. According to Brockelman people are responsible for the formative religious stories which create our ideologies and tradition – then we forget we created them, assigning them a mythical status and allotting them validity. In essence, humans create the dogmas which shape civilizations and ignore their own authorship of these rules. Joseph Smith, the Mormons’ founding prophet, was arrested in New York State for false glass reading in connection to finding buried treasure. Glass reading, or seer stones, are used so people can supposedly read divine messages. Basically they’re magic glasses. Not only did Joseph Smith use these stones to falsely find buried riches but also in the “transcribing” of the Book of Mormon, another testament of Jesus. It seems the Mormons will, and have, taken certain information about their founder and his actions and suppressed or denied it – the very definition of reification.
Watching Big Love is an exercise in forgetting your disdain for polygamy for extended periods of time. Many FLDS, like those in Colorado City, formerly led by Warren Jeffs, are living on the dole (called “bleeding the beast” by FLDS who believe the U.S. government is their enemy) and are known for sexually engaging minors; the Henrickson’s on Big Love are different. They don’t recruit 13 year old girls as wives, don’t traffic young women across state lines for 60 year old men, and are financially independent. Bill (Bill Paxton), the Henrickson patriarch, provides financially, spiritually, and emotionally for his family and even though Bill’s a complex character whom I can hate one moment and like the next, I’ve never thought of him as a deadbeat pervert; I’m not certain I see Kody as an outright pervert either but he’s less charismatic than Paxton and seems like a used car salesman. It’s possible it’s the shows perspective providing this sentiment, since the show is biased towards these upper middle-class polygamists but in comparison to their antagonists, who live in dilapidated religious compounds outside of mainstream society, the Henrickson’s seem quite normal. It’s this juxtaposition, where a taboo lifestyle is integrated into the conventional, that makes Big Love so compelling. This aspect doesn’t work the same way on Sister Wives, even though it presents these polygamists against a backdrop of mainstream America.
For instance, the Browns’ aren’t shown very often outside of their house. The show reveals a bit about their interactions with society but ultimately it concentrates on the inner workings of the family. For me I find this a bit uninteresting. Big Love concentrates on not only the intimate happenings of the protagonists but also the sociopolitical ramification of plural marriage in contemporary America. While I’m not an advocate for polygamy and wouldn’t practice it myself (nor really condone it), Big Love makes it less scandalous than many would make it seem. This final season in particular is really demonstrating the religious implications at work regarding polygamy’s illegality, with LDS (Latter-Day Saints, or mainstream Mormons) politicians going after Bill. Of course it’s not just the Mormons who dislike polygamy; after all, Abraham Lincoln supposedly wanted to invade Utah and put a halt on Mormon activities but was interrupted by the Civil War. It’s a practice many religious groups despise. So far I haven’t seen how the Browns’ religious lifestyle choice has affected them on the outside world and that seems more fascinating than their domestic habits.
I’ve only seen the pilot episode (apparently they’re on their second season) and I know Kody adds a fourth wife to the fold, along with a few more children. Hopefully, as I progress through the first season and into the second, the legal and religious pressures will begin to mount and the trials polygamists face amidst a sea of scorn in the early 21st century will enter the show’s narrative. However, for the moment, we’re only witnessing a minor portion of their lives; a portion where they showcase polygamy as ordinary, where the children growing up in this household see the practice as normal, and where the outside world is absent. Since I’m not an advocate of polygamy I want blood – not literally of course, but I want some real drama that can lead to life altering consequences. I’m hoping their newfound celebrity will put the Browns on people’s radars and make them an object of scrutiny, forcing the parts of their lives they keep hidden from the cameras into the limelight. Maybe it’ll show polygamy as something we should all tolerate, that it isn’t as harmful as oppositional religious groups make it out to be. It’s also possible it’ll only reinforce the case against it, showing the damage it can do to children and the people involved in the marriage. As the show progresses and everybody involved gets richer, including the bottom-feeding Learning Channel, I’m sure the show will create a division in the debate; let’s just hope it doesn’t turn it into a circus instead of a real discussion.
Here is an interesting state document called The Primer: A Guidebook for Law Enforcement and Human Services Agencies who offer Assistance to Fundamentalist Mormon Families. It’s not brief but shows a view towards bigamy from an institutional perspective.
Here’s a trailer for the show’s first season.