TLC Premieres Polygamy Reality Show “Sister Wives”

Joanna Brooks

The biggest surprise about last night’s series premiere of Sister Wives, TLC’s new reality series about fundamentalist Mormon polygamist Kody Brown and his three—wait, now, four?!!—wives was that it got rave reviews from critics.

The following is reprinted with permission from Religion Dispatches. You can sign up for their free daily newsletter here.

After watching last night’s series premiere of Sister Wives, TLC’s new reality series about fundamentalist Mormon polygamist Kody Brown and his three—wait, now, four?!!—wives and thirteen—wait, now, sixteen?!!—children, what I find most remarkable is not the series itself but the rave reviews it’s getting from the critics.

The Vancouver Sun calls Sister Wives “a fascinating, surprising eyeopener.” (Never mind that British Columbia is home to one of the larger Mormon polygamous communities on the continent.) Us Magazine calls it “provocative” and “utterly fascinating” and gives it four stars. And over at the Los Angeles Times a reviewer crows: “I’ve seen the feminist revolution and it is . . . polygamy?” (Really? You’ve never seen women do collective childcare without being married to the same man?)

The show opens with shots of goatee-sporting blonde Kody Brown wearing his best pin-striped suit and sitting at the wheel of his white Lexus convertible, then cuts to shots of Kody Brown bopping around under a big white tent at a wedding reception, encircled by a passel of blonde wives and blonde kids, as Brown’s voice-over intones:

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

“My name is Kody Brown, and you’ve gotta meet my family. I like marriage. . . . And I’m a repeat offender.”

What follows is an hour of breakfast, burnt toast, yardwork, and family meetings. Arriving home from work, Brown, who has the vacant energy of a pep squad leader, greets each of his blonde wives with a passionless kiss, reserving his most serious affection for wife Christine’s pregnant belly. And a powerful dose of intrigue is provided by the appearance at episode’s end of a prospective fourth wife: this one, a brunette.

I finish the show finding myself just about as interested in the Brown family as I was in Jon and Kate Plus 8. (Same series producers, by the way.) Or the Duggars. Or any other reality-tv-icons of conspicuous reproduction.

Which is to say: I’m not interested at all.

Perhaps I’m not so impressed because as a Mormon woman, I’ve lived in close quarters with the idea of polygamy since I was a wee girl. True: the mainstream LDS Church has not officially sanctioned polygamy since 1890 or so, but even among mainstream Mormons, the question of polygamy in the afterlife remains theologically wide open, and to this day Mormon men may be “sealed” for eternity to more than one wife in an LDS temple.

As a writer, I’ve also been invited into the homes of polygamist families from two of the seven or eight major distinct fundamentalist Mormon communities—one Apostolic United Brethren family living in Utah Valley, and members of the Centennial Park group near Colorado City, Arizona.

I guess you might say I’m used to the idea that polygamists are humans.

An idea, apparently, that is supposed to be news to the show’s viewers and reviewers.

Polygamists! “Bright and generous!” blares the LA Times. “Unexpectedly tight knit and loving!” brag the show’s producers. Wow! They share stuff! The older kids scramble eggs for the younger ones! Some wives work outside the home, while other wives watch the kids! They don’t have weird sex! They have granite kitchen countertops like we do! The parents want their kids to grow up and be happy, productive members of society! And they all have a great “work ethic!” Eye-opening! Unbelievable!

Yawn.

Instead, I find myself asking the following questions:

Why am I being taken on a tour of computer-generated graphic rendition of the Brown’s three-level suburban home?

Why am I peeking into these windowless bedrooms at middle-aged, middle-class blondes in fuzzy slippers and sweats?

Why am I spending an hour of my life watching a middle-aged advertising salesman in suburban Utah standing there in the predawn hours in his sweats explaining where he keeps his clothes?

And perhaps because I’m tuned in on assignment as a religion columnist I’m disappointed by the near absence of religion in the episode. Early in the show, Brown tries to set the record straight: mainstream LDS folks don’t practice polygamy, he says. He also claims that mainstream LDS Mormons and fundamentalist Mormons have about as much in common as Catholics and Protestants—a statement which is, well, untrue and screens out a whole world of social history and nuance. But I know, I know—it’s only TLC.

Most telling, though, is the fact that Kody Brown has been carefully coached to call polygamy “the lifestyle” rather than “the principle,” the latter being the economic phrase commonly used by fundamentalist Mormons to describe both the practice of polygamy and its theological underpinnings. All throughout Sister Wives it’s “the lifestyle,” “lifestyle,” “lifestyle”: only once does Brown slip and call it “the principle.”

Take the theology out of polygamy, and what you have is a rather uptight and domesticated form of man-centric polyamory. It’s Father Knows Best on steroids and with a Costco executive-level membership.

Which is about as interesting to me as Kate Gosselin’s latest makeover.

But the b-o-r-i-n-g world of Kody Brown and family may in fact be a tremendous blessing to the broader community of 40,000 plus Mormon fundamentalist polygamists, most of whom have been struggling to get out from under PR havoc wreaked by the exploits of monomaniacal FLDS leader Warren Jeffs and his now infamous exploits in underage arranged marriage and wardrobe control. (Jeffs was the leader of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints; the Brown family belongs to the Apostolic United Brethren, a very different Mormon fundamentalist sect.)

“We’re not the polygamists you think you know,” Kody Brown tells the camera as he sits at the wheel of his white Lexus.

Which is to say “we’re not child-marriage-arranging-lost-boy-exiling-prairie-dress-wearing people-who-allegedly-deserve-to have-their-children-taken-from-them-by-the-state-of-Texas.”

That’s what Sister Wives and its ad-salesman-protagonist are trying to sell: utter normalcy.

Roundups Law and Policy

Gavel Drop: Anita Hill’s Story Re-Emerges at Exactly the Perfect Time

Jessica Mason Pieklo & Imani Gandy

The story of the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings and the re-emergence of Anita Hill in the public eye is a reminder of both how much, and how little, has changed in gender politics.

Welcome to Gavel Drop, our roundup of legal news, headlines, and head-shaking moments in the courts.

Anita Hill: badass for the ages. Her story of publicly fighting back against workplace sexual harassment during the U.S. Supreme Court confirmation hearings of Justice Clarence Thomas has resurfaced in an HBO movie, bringing with it a renewed platform for Hill to remind the country of how far we have yet to go for true gender justice.

The Texas attorney general who is still investigating Planned Parenthood has just been sued by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for securities fraud.

North Dakota lawmakers put taxpayers on the hook for $245,000, paid to the lawyers representing the only abortion clinic in the state in the fight over the “heartbeat ban” that would have banned abortion as early as six weeks.

Attorneys for the state of Arkansas urged a federal judge not to expand a lawsuit challenging efforts to kick Planned Parenthood out of the Medicaid program to all Medicaid recipients in the state. Instead, they want individual women to bring their own lawsuits challenging denials of reproductive health-care services.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

An Alabama minister’s lawsuit challenging the state’s sex-offender registry can move forward. The minister claims the law that makes it illegal to house two or more offenders within 300 feet of each other violates his First Amendment religious rights to minister to his flock.

Senate Republicans can’t seem to hold hearings to confirm an exceptionally qualified Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland, on the grounds that doing so just wouldn’t be good for democracy. But they can apparently confirm lower-court appointments.

A federal appeals court has tossed out a challenge to Utah’s polygamy ban; the lawsuit was brought by the family featured on the reality TV show Sister Wives. Jonathan Turley, the attorney-pundit who represents the polygamists, said his clients were considering appealing the decision, possibly to the Roberts Court.

Thousands of day cares in this country are run by religious organizations with little to no government oversight. The results are as horrific as you might imagine.

A North Carolina judge ordered this woman to cover up while breastfeeding during a court appearance, calling the woman “ridiculous” for thinking she could feed her child in public.

Commentary Religion

Ray Rice’s Domestic Violence Has Nothing to Do With Islam

Nashwa Khan

In the wake of domestic abuse reports from the NFL, social media outlets were flooded with Islamophobic stereotypes about misogyny and violence.

Read more about intimate partner violence and the Ray Rice case here.

Over the last two weeks, reactions have continued to surface in response to former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice beating his then fiancé unconscious in an elevator. Amid calls for National Football League Commissioner Roger Goodell’s resignation and demands for the league to revamp its policy on domestic violence, one particularly problematic narrative also emerged: conflations of Rice’s violence with Islamophobic perceptions of the Muslim faith.

Ray Rice is not Muslim. Even so, many people on Twitter and other social media outlets found bigoted ways to link his actions to Islam. For instance, comedian and former Fox News contributor Steven Crowder joked in a YouTube video with more than 57,000 views that when it comes to wife-beating, Rice should “step aside,” because he has “entire nations in front of [him]”—the insinuation being that domestic violence is normalized in Middle Eastern Muslim countries. Some Twitter users suggested that Rice should just move to those nations altogether, because there, “he could do what he pleases.” Still others opined that the media was paying too much attention to Rice’s individual reprehensible acts, given that “violence occurs against women in Muslim countries daily.” In fact, a few egregiously argued that had Rice been a Muslim, he could have defended his abuse by claiming his actions were protected under religious freedom.

The same kinds of conversations continued as more incidents of domestic abuse by athletes came to light. When news of Minnesota running back Adrian Peterson using a switch to beat his son appeared across media platforms, so, too, did other Islamophobic posts about how Peterson might be Muslim or should consider converting.

Like This Story?

Your $10 tax-deductible contribution helps support our research, reporting, and analysis.

Donate Now

This hateful rhetoric is not confined to a few scattered tweets, however, or even to the anti-Islam think-pieces trotted out by right-wing websites in the wake of the reports. Rather, it is simply the latest example of popular culture’s monolithic portrayal of Muslim men as misogynistic, militant, and vicious.

In a post-9/11 world, the beliefs espoused by countless television shows, movies, and news media have created tropes that predetermine a grossly villainous reputation for all Muslim men, as well as a universally victimized one for Muslim women. And these stereotypes have, in turn, bloomed into Islamophobic government policies in the West. Far too often, Muslim men are presumed guilty without a crime.

Needless to say, these assumptions—that all Muslim men are supposedly more violent—are in stark contrast to the Islamic teachings espoused by those with whom I grew up.

My own father, for example, is a man whose practice of Islam encompasses his respect and honor of women. Yet when some people hear my father’s Muslim name and see his brown complexion, they automatically conclude that he must be barbaric and oppressive. As hard as my father tries to smile at strangers (something integrated into our Muslim faith) and as much as he attempted as a child to assimilate in Canada, a range of people—including strangers, neighbors, and even my previous teachers—have held loaded preconceived notions of him.

When I look at my father, I see a man who is soft, gentle, and kind to his core. I see a man who could not hold me without a pillow underneath for months after I was born, for fear of accidentally hurting me. I see a man who questions and challenges anyone who tells me that because of my age, I should consider getting married soon and stop focusing on school. In fact, my father is my biggest fighter in this regard, championing my autonomy to receive an education and make my own decisions for my future.

But despite the fact that my father has worked tirelessly to give the women in his life everything, I also see a man who has been pigeonholed falsely as a “wife-beater” and “honor killer”—along with my uncles, cousins, and brothers in faith.

Such stereotypes go beyond vilifying my father and the other men in my life. They falsely portray my existence and the existence of other Muslim women as deserving of pity. While attending university, for example, I worked as a peer counselor; in training sessions, I found myself having to disrupt group “educators” as they misinterpreted Islam as a reason for potential abuse. Today, I still must regularly dismantle the narrative that Muslim women are in need of saving from the savage men in their lives.

This automatic equation of Muslim men with domestic abuse, and vice versa, obscures the fact that the crime is not isolated to any region or group. As seen in the reactions to the Rice and Peterson cases, individual members of the public often ignorantly assume that all Muslims are citizens of Islamic countries. Thus, by suggesting that the NFL athletes are Muslim—or should be—these detractors take a twisted security in viewing domestic abusers as a part of the “other” and not American. In doing so, they effectively attempt to expunge responsibility for violence to foreign countries. Of course, domestic violence is a very real problem in the United States, where the Department of Justice has reported nearly 25 percent of women face domestic violence.

Such intentional distancing occurs on a wider scale, as well. When non-Muslim men commit grisly crimes, news media platforms frequently cite situational factors, such as mental health, to explain their actions as an anomaly. By contrast, when a perpetrator of violence does happen to be Muslim, his faith is always mentioned, therefore implying that it somehow played a part in his violence.

For example, a June 2014 headline in the Daily Mail identified a man who had stabbed a sex worker as Muslim in addition to drawing attention to the fact that he had done so “near a mosque.” By contrast, a non-Muslim man last Thursday had, according to media outlets, “no motive” for ruthlessly killing himself, his daughter, and six grandchildren. This was despite the fact that “law enforcement had been called to the residence in the past.” For that matter, it was not the first time he had harmed his family with a firearm. And his religion has yet to be mentioned with any sort of prominence.

The underlying message of this trend, of course, is that for Muslims, domestic violence is an inevitability; for non-Muslims, it is a shocking, tragic aberration.

Again, this attitude erases the fact that domestic violence is rampant and committed by a variety of people. It is also reminiscent of the discussions that take place when men of color attack women. When Chris Brown assaulted Rihanna, for instance, similar discourses arose, suggesting that “black and brown men do this, and white men would not do this.” Many Muslim men, too, are men of color, including my father; this intersection is often used to vilify them further, with voices in popular culture arguing that they are bound to be bad husbands, fathers, and brothers. They are people, in short, to be feared.

Islam is a religion with more than 1.6 billion followers worldwide, all of whom practice their faith differently. It gives women many rights, including honor and respect. Yet bigots paint all Muslims with the same brush, based on the actions of a few. This hurtful rhetoric is very specific to the Muslim community; cases of violence committed by Christian men, for instance, have never tainted all of Christianity in the same light.

For example, the media continuously regards the behavior of those in the radical Mormon sect Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints (FLDS) as an oddity and not representative of all Christians, or even all Mormons. In 2011, when FLDS leader Warren Jeffs stood trial for allegedly raping a 12-year-old girl, his violence appeared to be religiously charged: He was caught on tape ordering her to feel “the spirit of God.” Jeffs’ nephew also reported being raped at age 5. Afterwards, he claimed that Jeffs told him, “This is between me, you and God.” However, as with most non-Muslim cases, the media finds ways to view groups like this as a cult or sect, using non-condemnatory language like “alleged polygamists” and emphasizing the isolation of such incidents. Meanwhile, where Islam is concerned, Western society routinely refuses to differentiate among tenets of the faith and some of its followers.

When discussing the best ways to address and combat domestic violence, we must push for unbiased coverage that focuses on the individual rather than using their crime to propagate racist and bigoted tropes. My community, devout in its faith, is blatantly different than the false allegations we face. When Muslim men are violent, it is not, and should not be, a reflection of Islam as a whole.