By Elizabeth Tenety
‘Sister Wives,’ a reality show starring Utah advertising salesman Kody Brown and his three (soon to be four) wives, premiered Sunday night on TLC.
One part domestic drudgery, another part sensationalism, ‘Sister Wives’ relies on a familiar reality TV recipe. After all, this is the network that brought America the Duggars (two parents, 19 children) and Jon and Kate (two parents, eight kids, two pregnancies).
The Browns are polygamists, and for the record, the family consists of one husband (Kody), three ‘sister wives’ (Meri, Janelle and Christine) and 13 children.
Is it legal? (UPDATE: Utah police are investigating the family for felony bigamy.) Is it moral? (You decide) Will you watch it?
“We’re a fundamentalist Mormon family (FLDS),” Kody explained early in the premiere episode. The family patriarch added that their faith is not part of the mainstream Mormon church, a clarification important to Mormon leaders who distance themselves from the FLDS.
Mormons “quit practicing [plural marriage] 120 years ago. Big difference from us and them, similar to Catholics and Protestants,” Kody said.
If you miss the faith element in the show, you miss the point. Sunday’s episode showed the Browns blessing their dinner and conducting an evening family prayer. Kody and his wives shared their religious backgrounds –some were raised in polygamist homes, others came to the FLDS from mainstream Mormonism. Even the show’s title ‘Sister Wives,’ relates to a theological principle that in FLDS plural marriage, the women not only marry their husband but are eternally united to one another.
Kody’s wives and daughters don’t wear prairie dresses. His wives insist they’re not interested in marrying off their minor daughters into plural marriage. In fact, they’re as close as could be imagined to a real life episode of Big Love, right down to the family’s commitment to ‘coming out‘ of the polygamy closet.
As Hank Stuever wrote, somewhere between the mundane chores of domestic life and the voyeurism of watching Kody slip between his brides, “one is struck by how common-sense the polygamist family make it sound, if just for a fleeting moment.”
USA TODAY’s Donna Freydkin says ‘Sister Wives’ is part of a larger trend: the television drama Lone Star, premiering on Fox, profiles a character ‘on the verge of polygamy,’ Big Love returns to HBO in January and actress Katherine Heigl (who grew up in a Latter-day Saint family) is “developing a movie based on the life of Carolyn Jessop,” an FLDS woman who escaped polygamy.
What’s behind the renewed interest in polygamy? Does interest in plural marriage have anything to do with debates about the definition of marriage? What do you think about ‘Sister Wives’?