On September 26, 2010 TLC introduced the Brown family to the world on their show, Sister Wives. Sister Wives takes you inside a modern polygamist household, historically a very guarded front. In 1882 the Edmunds Act passed in the United States making polygamy a felony. In 1887 the Edmunds-Tucker Act forced wives to testify against their husbands (Ravits, “Sister Wives: Explained a Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy Primer.”)After these laws past most Fundamentalist Mormons practicing plural marriage went into hiding. Today Utah has especially strict laws against bigamy. The state of Utah forbids a married couple from living with another grown adult even if there is no request for an additional marriage license (“The Primer,” Utah Attorney General’s Office.) The Brown Family became public in attempts to nullify some of the harsh feelings towards polygamist families, and to bring those families out of hiding.
Although this show is not necessarily “casted” there are many distinct characters that are important to understand. Kody, the husband and father (to all of the kids except three of Robyn’s children), has four wives: Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn. The wives address each other as “sister wives,” thus the name of the series. At the beginning of the show there are 12 children but by the third season there are a total of 15. I think TLC chose to give the Brown family a show because all of the parents are fairly young (40 and under). They also probably chose this family because Kody has been married to three of his wives for a long time thus their relationships are fairly stable and established. The addition of the fourth wife Robyn adds some excitement to the show. Each wife acts to round out the family and each wife is in it for different reasons. The Brown family is also more open about their standing in the Fundamentalist Mormon Church than most polygamist families. Because of their lack of discretion they cannot be considered representative of the majority of the Fundamentalist Mormon Church.
Kody is the “head of the family.” He was raised in a non-polygamist sect of the Mormon Church. When he was 21, Kody’s father converted to the Fundamentalist Mormon Church, Kody soon followed. Shortly after doing so he got married to his first wife Meri (followed by Janelle, Christine, and Robyn). Throughout the show Kody represents and supports stereotypical male/female gender roles for him and his wives. It is made clear throughout the show that Kody believes he is the ultimate “decision maker” for this family. He makes all of the final decisions for the wives and even picks Robyn’s wedding dress.
Meri has been married to Kody for 20 years and is his first wife (and the only legally recognized marriage). She works part time and helps to take care of the children. She has one daughter Mariah. She is not able to have more children, which Kody continuously reminds her about. Meri was raised in polygamist family and says that it was always an expectation that she would enter into a plural marriage. She played a big role in getting Kody to take on other wives but also seems the least satisfied with their (her and Kody’s) relationship. Jealously plays a large role in these marital issues. I think Meri plays a significant role in the show by showing how polygamy can cause problems in the marriage. In one episode she goes as far as to say that the only reason she stays with him is because of her daughter and the rest of the family.
Janelle has been married to Kody for 17 years and is his second wife. Janelle was not raised in polygamy and converted when she met Kody. Janelle’s mother also converted to polygamy and is now married to Kody’s father (making them both man and wife and step siblings). She has six children but does not play a strong domestic role in the family. She works a full time job and relies on the other wives to help take care of her children. In return helps to support the whole family. She says that one of the main benefits of polygamy is being able to have a professional career and a large family. She breaks the traditional male/female gender roles by acting as one of the main breadwinners for the whole family.
Christine is Kody’s third wife and has been married to him for 16 years . She has six children and manages the household full time. She takes on most of the domestic roles for the family including cooking, childcare, and cleaning. She was raised in a polygamist family and has always wanted to lead a polygamist lifestyle. She says, “I wanted the family, I didn’t just want the man.” She places a high priority on her relationship with the sister wives and says that they make her dream of having a huge family possible.
Robyn married Kody during the first season of the show, making her his fourth wife. She has three children from a previous marriage and one child with Kody. She helps Christine with the domestic responsibilities of the family. Her courtship during the first season provided the show with a dramatic element with the jealousy of the other wives during the dating process. This courtship also surfaced many issues that plural marriages face.
Polygamy is a very controversial subject, especially in Utah. The Brown family says that they wanted to make the show to dispel some of the negative assumptions about polygamists. They also became public in attempts to get other polygamist families to be open about their way of life. They choose focus the show around the family rather than the religion itself. The show’s motto is “love should be multiplied not divided” and promotes large loving families. All of the Sister Wives are great mothers and put forth a strong argument for why they chose polygamy. On the surface the show is feel good family television, but when viewed critically reveals a number of serious foundational issues in the family. The show depicts multiple imbalanced male/female power relationships. The wives express their opinions to their husband but at the end of the day he makes all of the executive decisions for the whole family. During the second season a bigamy investigation is launched against the family. During this investigation Kody forces the family to move from Utah to Las Vegas against two of his wives (and almost all of the children’s) wishes. They only give the children three days notice of the move in which they are not allowed to tell their friends that they are moving. The show continues to point out moral dilemmas that the family faces when Meri asks Kody what he would think of her having a boyfriend or another husband. He told her that the idea was vulgar and made him physically ill. This hypocrisy is frequent throughout the show. These power relations promote stereotypical male/female gender roles and male dominant relationships. To counteract this I think the network chooses to highlight the wives internal conflicts about their way of life.
Even though this show is primarily feel good it also presents some really serious family issues. The viewer cannot help but feel sympathy for these women when you see the assertion of male dominance by their husband. You have to remind yourself frequently that they chose this life style and are not completely victims. The children, however, did not have a choice in the matter. One of the most emotional scenes on the show was the children finding out they would have to move Las Vegas (with only 3 days notice.) To produce sympathy for the wives and kids the show has been edited so that there is not an episode in which one of the wives doesn’t cry. While watching the show the viewer feels especially sympathetic to Meri because of her inability to have more children. Kody continuously reminds her of this and asks her about invitro fertilization even after she tells him she does not want to try again.
The show Sister Wives allows all of America to have a birds eye view on one polygamist household. Although the show is targeted at strong family values the message often gets lost in the power struggles of the parents. Regardless of the audience’s interpretation, Sister Wives is a large step towards the mainstream understanding the structure of polygamist families.
Ravits, Jessica. “”Sister Wives” Explained: A Fundamentalist Mormon Polygamy Primer.” CNN Belief Blog. Turner Broadcasting System, Inc., 25 Oct. 2010. Web. 20 Oct. 2012. <http://religion.blogs.cnn.com/2010/10/25/sister-wives-explained-a-fundamentalist-mormon-polygamy-primer/>.
“The Primer.” The Primer. Utah Attorney General’s Office, Jan. 2011. Web. 20 Oct. 2012. <http://attorneygeneral.utah.gov/cmsdocuments/The_Primer.pdf>.