Sister Wives

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.

5 responses to “Sister Wives

  1. Theresa Bacon-Wilson

    I truly hope this makes it to the entire Brown family. I recently caught the last 2 or 3 episodes of your Awsome “Coming Out” in New York. I was so deeply moved & it my personal belief that if this great nation of ours can accept bi-ratial, same sex marriages, then what is so outragous about what you have found. If anyone really acnowledge any number a great men in history, they would see that men like Moses & others from most all the Catholic and Christian bibles had multple wives. They also do say that God did say “Be fruitfull and multiply.” I don’t believe that the life all of you
    chose to lead is in any way wrong nor is it something ugly and unatual. You all really seam to make allthe life altering decisions taking into account everyone in your house. BRAVO !!!!! What is unatual Are the millions of people go into a church & stand next to the person they swear to be true unto only the other then goes out and has one affair after the other and has to keep that unholy lie because they what they did was unexceptable to the spouse that is being true.
    I honestly hope all the people come to see that even if they do not belive as you do that you are not entitled to live out yours, out in open,yes but not in fear about who’s going to find one of your children because I know for a fact that I would proctect my offspring. My heart & prayers are with you all.. go with strength and love.

    Theresa Bacon-Wilson
    if any of you really do get this want to keep me posted privately. I can be contacted by e-mail (or)
    face book
    I live in Mentor, Ohio

  2. Dear Theresa,

    I just can’t agree with polygamy; its history is tainted with abuse. This isn’t just in relation to Mormonism but also Islam. What’s the most devastating aspect, aside from the countless acts of child abuse and molestation associated with the practice, is the patriarchy and subjugation of women. People like Kody Brown view women as objects; everything I saw in the pilot episode coming from his mouth assumes the woman’s desires are secondary. Women have come a long way, overcoming numerous odds, and the ideologies associated with polygamy are a step backwards. I just can’t agree with this at all.

    Do I believe polygamists who don’t engage in deplorable acts should end up in prison? No, I don’t. Bigamy’s prohibition is directly related to religious groups influencing government, pushing their own dogmatic agendas into the public sphere – an act I don’t excuse. However, even if polygamy was legal I still wouldn’t condone it. Alcohol is legal and I have reservations about its availability, especially since alcohol leads to domestic abuse, vehicular deaths, and other acts of violence. What’s I’m getting at is just because something’s legal doesn’t mean I have to agree with it or defend it when it’s under scrutiny.

    Now, on the topic of your writing: I believe your grammar and syntax is severely lacking. If you’re going to make such an emotionally centered argument on my blog I’d appreciate proper grammar, spelling, and construction. I don’t feel I’m asking much. Spell check is a valuable commodity and one I use often; in fact, I thank spell check for my improved spelling over the years. Although my grandfather grilled me every day about my spelling, there are still words which had escaped my spelling abilities until seeing my errors over and over again; spell check has been a valuable tool and now I can spell words I had difficulty with for years. Thanks Microsoft!

    Also, there’s a portion of my small audience who really enjoy messing with people and putting your email up for them seems like a big mistake. Since you were dim enough to place your information on my blog I will keep it up; whatever repercussions you receive because of your blunder is your fault, not mine. I’m not encouraging my readers to harass and ridicule you but don’t be surprised when they do. In the future I’d suggest you wisely choose where and when you post your information for the internet surfing public to see.

    Have fun defending polygamy and its centuries of suppressing women, treating them with abjection.

  3. Also, anybody who names their children the following – Aspyn, Mykelti, Padeon, Ysabel, and Truely – doesn’t deserve children. It’s setting up those children for ridicule. They’re branded for life with names which are the result of inept spelling. Polygamist or not, this is asinine.

  4. To the Brown Family…

    I am from Canada and I come from a very religious Christian background and yet I can’t help but think that your lifestyle as polygamists is totally amazing!
    You get to share in the joys of watching all the children grow up. You share all the household chores…etc
    And best of all not “one” person is responsable for handling the entire family.
    I commend you for going public and speaking out. We have same sex why can’t we have this?
    It’s your personal preference. Not everyone would want to live that life but for you it works.
    It shows a commitment to making the family unit work and there does not seem to be any jealousy between the wives.
    I find it totally outragous that you now have to move because you are being prosecuted.
    Men have affairs all the time and have children outside of there marriages, they don’t get prosecuted. Why should you?

    You are happy with your family and are not hurting anyone by living the lifestyle you’ve chosen.

    I’d rather be in a family like this where everyone is aware of what is going on.
    You all look so happy. You have companionship with each other and share a common bond with Cody and the children. I think it takes a lot of respect for each other and self control to do this.

    It’s also great because the wives all have each other. Like living with your best friends.

    I think it’s great!!!

    Keep doing what you’re doing. The world could learn alot from you.

  5. Here’s another example of a reader addressing the Browns through my blog, as if they’re combing the internet looking for support on small blogs like mine. I love that this post is becoming a support forum for the Browns even though that wasn’t my intention. Once again, it’s a religious person putting in their two cents out there (this time anonymously, which isn’t such a bad idea since Theresa was an idiot and put her email out there for everybody) but doing it here. What?

    I’ll give my response towards polygamy and why I believe it should receive public scrutiny. I don’t believe it should be illegal but that doesn’t mean I condone it. There are countless examples of polygamists engaging in heinous acts (sexually abusing minors, physically abusing people, etc.) and even if Kody Brown isn’t abusing his wives or children the attitudes towards women inherent in the practice are deplorable. The practice of polygamy treats women as objects and subservient to men; it’s at the very core of it. A man with multiple wives demonstrates the belief structures associated with bigamy states men are superior to women. If that’s not true why aren’t there women with multiple husbands? Reducing women to a second-class status isn’t something I can agree with.

    You, whoever you are, are probably wondering why I’m addressing these people or these issues in this way. The answer is simple: this is my blog. If you don’t like it make your own; there’s no shortage of blog sites like WordPress or Blogspot out there and even though we’re supposedly running out of IP addresses I’m fairly certain these hosts won’t disappear anytime soon.

    In short, polygamy shouldn’t be illegal but it’s a male centered practice and reduces women to objects. No matter how kindly a man treats his wives, the practice in itself is inherently chauvinistic.

    Now let’s see if anybody else tries addressing the Browns through this insignificant little blog. =)

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