The XX Factor

How The TLC Show “Sister Wives” Makes Polygamy Seem Appealing

News broke this week that police in Lehi, Utah, are looking into prosecuting the Brown family , stars of TLC’s new reality show Sister Wives , for being bigamists. According to the Salt Lake Tribune , Utah code “defines bigamy through cohabitation, not just through legal marriage contracts.” As Sister Wives portrays the happily polygamist relationship of the aggressively cheerful Kody Brown and his wives Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn, it’s not surprising that local cops don’t appreciate the show-it not only celebrates an illegal relationship taking place in their town; it’s also been receiving positive publicity from national publications.

And the program does show this polygamist family in a pretty glowing-and mesmerizing-way. Sister Wives is edited to make a four-wife household seem not only normal and relatable, but the wives also use the language of choice to make clear that their lifestyle is a conscious, wise decision-they’re not being coerced into sharing one man.

In terms of how they normalize their unusual family structure, anyone who has watched other reality shows about large families ( Kate Plus 8 ; 19 and Counting ) will recognize the domestic scenes in Sister Wives : Watch them cook breakfast-just like you do, but supersized, with obligatory shots of enormous condiment containers! Watch them do yard work as a merry, laughing team! Listen to them talk about the nitty-gritty details of their family arrangement in a way that is familiar and appealing!

On this last point, I was especially struck by Janelle’s narrative. Janelle is the second wife, and the only one who did not grow up in a polygamist family. (She grew up Mormon-the show is careful in distinguishing Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints, who practice polygamy, from mainstream Mormons.) She works long hours outside the home, and she loves her job. “I get to be the mom but I don’t have to do the cooking or the chauffeuring,” Janelle explains-she has five kids of her own, out of 13 total, and while she is away, the third wife, Christine, takes care of them. Kody and the first wife, Meri, also work outside the home, and Christine looks after Meri’s teenage daughter as needed.

Their arrangement sounded blissful, and dare I say, almost strangely wonderful in a bizarro fantasy world kind of way. It is the sort of situation that Sandra Tsing-Loh described in a New York Times op-ed from January, in which she said she wanted a wife: “A loyal helpmeet who keeps the home fires burning and offers uncritical emotional support when I, the gladiator, return exhausted from the arena.” Maybe what Sandra really needs is not a wife; it’s a sister-wife.

But back to actual life, in which I am a critically thinking person who realizes that reality shows are not real and that sharing one’s husband is not tenable or desirable. (Watch the sister wives describe how they negotiate sex in the below clip.) It’s worth noting that two out of the three wives featured in the first episode (Kody Brown tells his family he is bringing on the fourth wife at the end of that episode) were raised by polygamists. The editors go out of their way to show that the decision to be in this union was a conscious, thought-out, even empowered choice by all the wives-they were not forced into it. However, one has to wonder how much of a “choice” it was for the women raised in polyg families, who have never known any other sort of relationship.

The well-oiled machine of the Brown household is thrown into some turmoil when Kody decides to take on a fourth wife. Meri and Janelle are accepting-but the third wife, Christine, is clearly pissed about it. “[The fourth wife] just has to be absolutely amazing, or it might be a little difficult,” Christine says while screwing up her face. Though two of the wives say they are fine with the new addition, they’re not happy about the time Kody has been taking away from the family to court her. Robyn, the soon-to-be fourth, lives four hours away, and Kody is shown taking her on dates. “Jealousy is something I can overcome,” Meri says, stoically. Of course, you don’t hear much from Kody about the difficulty of changing his life to accommodate a new wife and three new step-kids. He merely says, “Love should be multiplied, not divided.” Even though the wives say they entered into the polygamist lifestyle by their own volition, it seems like many other major decisions aren’t theirs to make.

Sister Wives promotional shot courtesy of TLC/Bryant Livingston