sister wives*

This show is incredibly boring.  The kids go to school, the parents go to work.  They cook breakfast, they cook dinner.  They go on vacation.  Most of the time there is just nothing going on that keeps me glued to the screen.  And I think that’s the point.

It’s pretty clear that the show, for the Brown family, is a vehicle for them to demonstrate how Very Normal** they are.  It’s part of their strategy for going public about polygamy.

They announced their status as polygamists on the Today show in conjunction with the airing of the first season of the show.  One way to interpret this is that once the show aired, the cat would be out of the bag anyway — but I think it’s more likely that it’s the other way around; rather than going public because of the show, I think they did the show to allow them to go public.  Polygamy is illegal, and by announcing their situation they were inviting an investigation.  But if they are able to convince the general public that they are a Normal, God-Fearing, American Family, then there is a possibility that any investigation would shy away from prosecution for fear of a public outcry.  I suspect they ultimately see this as a civil rights issue and are hoping to get the laws changed.

In the era of the Duggars and Nadja Suleman,*** it may be that people in the Browns’ community are starting to think that the time is right for broad social acceptance of a polygamist family, particularly when the family lives a middle-class lifestyle with lots of adorable, well-adjusted children.  I would also argue that the growing acceptance of gay marriage and parenting**** is another factor, as a nontraditional family structure that more and more people are realizing is just fine.  If tolerance is a big tent (and I think it has to be), then the acceptance of single moms, single dads, blended families, gay families, foster families, and other family structures should certainly include families with more than two adults who love each other.

But.

The problems with polygamy aren’t about lots of loving adults and what they do or don’t do in the bedroom.  There are some truly dreadful things that go on, particularly in very isolated communities.  Coercion.  Child brides.  Welfare fraud.  Expulsion of some young men from communities.  Sexual abuse of underage girls.

The Browns are trying very hard to show that their family, and by extension lots of modern polygamist families, is not like the Warren Jeffs image most of us have in our minds.  And really, what they’re trying to say is that all of the problems are not a necessary result of polygamy as such.  Should we judge any community based on the behavior of its worst members?*****

But.

Although the adult Browns all seem to have chosen their marriages freely, there is something about their dynamic that gets my feminist hackles up.  The wives defer to their husband in everything; they all acknowledge him as the “leader” of the family; they don’t really have a say when he decides to add a fourth wife to the family.  They all accept each other, and they make the best of the situation, but it’s clear that Kody is the one who makes the decisions.  And the fact is that polygamy goes only one way.  Kody says on camera that the idea of one of his wives with another man is sickening to him.  What’s good for the goose is definitely not good for the gander.

The wives’ choices aren’t getting them a life that I would call feminist.  They are not on equal footing with their husband.  But just because I’m a feminist, does that mean everyone has to be?  Women participate in their own oppression all the time, and just because the Browns’ family exists on a continuum that includes Warren Jeffs and others like him, does that mean their choices are any worse than anyone else’s?  The wives are making choices that work for them — and I would hope that if ever those choices stopped working for them, they would be free to choose to leave the family.  And the biggest choice they’re all making, to go public with their situation, may in fact be extremely liberating for an entire community if they are able to convince people that what they’re doing shouldn’t be a crime.  And, and and and, you don’t have to have sister wives to be expected to defer to your husband.

And that’s what it comes down to.  Four intelligent women deferring to a guy who comes off as a big kid makes me feel icky, but my personal ick factor is not and never should be a test for legality.

I am partway through season 2 of this series on Netflix, and I just don’t know what to think.  Obviously welfare fraud, statutory rape, underage marriage, etc., are already illegal and will continue to be investigated — so really all we’re talking about with specific laws against polygamy is the kind of polygamy that seems to be practiced by the Browns.  Consenting adults.

Tolerance should definitely extend to nontraditional family structures, and if a family chooses to compose itself in this way, they should have the right to do so; but can we legalize polygamy without endorsing inequality?

It seems to me that when I say “choice means all choices,” I need to be including the Browns’ reproductive choices in that statement.  Just as I have a right to try to found a family with my husband despite what barriers biology might throw up in front of us, don’t the Browns (all of them) have the right to found their family as they see fit?

What do you think?  I just can’t seem to figure this one out.

*I don’t actually spend all my time watching reality TV.  Honest. 

**In a white-bread, middle-America, standard-issue-soccer-mom-minivan kind of way, which of course doesn’t line up with anyone I know.  But as always we’re not talking about me.

***I will not call her the dehumanizing name that everyone calls her.  She is a person with a name.

****Yay for growing acceptance; now where’s the analogous reality show with the extremely sympathetic portrait of the gay family?

*****That was a rhetorical question.

That’s entirely too many footnotes.

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6 responses to “sister wives*

  1. Living in Utah, being raised Mormon, working (well, not anymore) in hospitals and hearing horror stories from coworkers,etc. has really shaped my views on this.

    First, I have NO PROBLEM with polyamorous relationships. Hanging around the queer and kinky lifestyles has given me plenty of exposure to “non-traditional” relationships which are truly entered into as consenting adults. (The question of if/how to legalize these relationships is, to me, more one of practicality–who gets the final say in medical decisions if there’s no advanced directive and more than one living spouse? How to split assets in divorce so that no one gets screwed over? Things like that.)

    BUT. The FLDS polygamy is, to me, an entirely different ballgame. As you’ve mentioned, the child exploitation is rampant. Less so in the families who live in the suburbs, but it wouldn’t surprise me if some of those wives were “placed” well before they officially moved in. And…ok, I know home-schooling is a very touchy issue. But, when you are home-schooled, only friends with other poly children, forbidden from reading ‘unapproved’ books, newspapers, etc…when your religion teaches you that the ONLY way for women to get into heaven is to have their HUSBAND call their name (including girl children…this is why Mormons and FLDS alike not only do “baptisms for the dead” but also do marriages/”sealings” for the dead), when you may or may not have a CHOICE in who you marry (on the compounds, even married couples can be “reassigned”), when you are raised to believe that men are the priesthood holders (and therefor “know best”, because they have a sanctioned relationship with god) and women are the childbearers (that is referred to as your “divine nature”)…it gets very complicated. Even if at 18 you “consent” to marry, I have to say, I question just how informed that consent is.

    Which, I realize, is patronizing. Which is where it gets messy. It’s not so much that ‘no woman in her right mind would choose this’ as it is ‘no woman who was essentially brainwashed should be making this sort of choice without a deconditioning time’. Very judgey on my part.

    • Thanks for your comment; you’ve articulated what is really bothering me about this. I feel very judgey not just automatically being OK with their relationship(s), but the fact is that I’m not. I’m watching them all just do whatever Kody says — and thinking about how it impacts the sixteen children in the family. Not only the girls, who are learning that their opinions won’t matter, but the boys also, who are learning how to behave from their father. But again, I keep coming back to the fact that I can hate what they’re doing — but does that really mean it shouldn’t be legal? The issues of consent and free choice are so murky.

  2. I don’t think I can say much without looking narrow minded. You propose a good challenge to me here. I could not bear to watch the show. I filed it as feminism but perhaps I am just a judgmental mother fucker. I bet the last option is most likely. The guys just turns my stomach.

  3. Yeah…I admire your efforts to avoid judgment and hypocrisy. Cases like this certainly put one’s principles to the test…I haven’t seen it but I’m sure I’d find it deeply icky, probably downright offensive for the reasons you and others articulate. So it is very fortunate that I am not in charge.

  4. Port of Indecision

    Ooh ooh ohh, good post! First, I have to plus the book “Under the Banner of Heaven” by Jon Krakauer for a good solid look into the history of Mormonism and Mormon fundamentalist polygamy (polygamy amongst many other topics). The part about “bleeding the beast” – ie getting as many plural wives pregnant with as many babies as possible since they are legally single parents who qualify for welfare, and as such take up an UNGODLY portion of welfare recipients in AZ and UT – will make you see red.

    Also read “Escape” by Carolyn Jessop, a woman who fled the FLDS sect.

    The thing is, polygamy isn’t legal. It isn’t legal in the sense that the law will not permit it in the first place – not that it is criminalized. One can only be married to one other person, legally. So there’s nothing to criminalize as far as “just” polygamy anyway, since it can’t be done. The parts of it that are criminalized are the underage coerced marriage parts.

    The bottom line is, these people who are trying so desperately to look normal do NOT represent the vast majority of polygamous relationships. Yes, there are open relationships, there are people into all sorts of relationships, sex arrangements, and family arrangements for whatever reasons, and you have a great point there. But when the reasons are religious, polygamy is almost always sinister and abusive. It’s completely different than having an open marriage or something like that. Now, does that mean it should be criminalized? Good damn question.

    • I read Under the Banner of Heaven several years ago….I guess I wasn’t paying attention though, because I don’t remember “bleeding the beast.” Thanks for the clarification about the legality of polygamy as such. I was wondering if that was the case — in which case, it seems that as long as the family doesn’t break any existing laws (statutory rape, welfare fraud), they shouldn’t have any legal troubles at all. In that case — what, exactly, are the Browns worried about? Are the police just fucking with them because of the social taboo against polygamy? I find that a little hard to swallow — so it makes me wonder what is really going on?

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