“Creepy, wrong, and fascinating.” So went a friend’s description of TLC’s new reality show, “Sister Wives.” Its episodes follow Kody Brown, a polygamist who adheres to a small, fundamentalist strain of Mormonism. Though normally keeping to the shadows (polygamy is, for the time being, still illegal), Brown and his merry band of spouses agreed to a program that films their nearly every move.
The show presents a now common theme in family-centered reality shows. The family you watch will contain many of the same qualities of a “normal” family. The spouses will fight; the children will be alternately fussy, cute, bratty, and adorable; vacations will form epics of disaster. Yet at the same time, the family you watch is nothing like you. Their normalcy is contrasted by their utter abnormality. Whether it be the sheer number of children (“John and Kate Plus Eight, now merely “Kate Plus Eight,” “19 Kids and Counting”), or the physical limitations of the family (“Little People, Big World,” “The Little Chocolatiers”), the mixing of normal family life with the abnormalities of their particular situation forms the tension that drives these shows.
Here, of course, the abnormality rests in the spouse count. We watch the crowded house, the plethora of half-siblings, and the different wives interacting and forming their own space or authority. Interspersed between the madness of a house with so many children—and spouses—come the reality-show obligatory couch confessionals. For those not familiar with the format, the show’s main characters will sit together or separately and comment on the events caught by the cameras or analyze themselves for the audience to see. In these confessionals we hear emotional defenses of polygamy as well as admonitions of difficulties with such a lifestyle. Jealousy, turf-wars, among other problems are seen by the wives as burdens to be overcome, not the likely results of misguided and wrongful practice.
But getting to the substance: we watch the show because…well…why do we watch? On one hand, my friend watches it largely because of its shock value. How can these women, in the 21st century no-less, subject themselves to polygamy? Recall that the original platform of the Republican Party (1856) swore opposition to the “twin relics of barbarism”: slavery and polygamy. The former gone in the United States, we can now watch the latter up close and personal.
The view brings up numerous situations at which to be disturbed. During the first season, Brown marries his fourth wife. Yes, you read right, his fourth. To make matters more exciting, he nearly misses the birth of one of his children—of course to one of the old spouses—while away courting the new bride-to-be. We are meant, it seems, to look in horror at how such a situation could happen, how these women could struggle through it. In fact, when one daughter of the Browns’ states that she will not engage in polygamy when she marries, we feel as though a tiny flower of sanity has sprung up.
On the other hand, the shows’ very sympathetic portrayal also seems to be a call for some form of tolerance. We see the love between the family members. We see them raising children, going shopping, laughing, crying, and hugging. We begin to cringe at the prospect that Kody could be punished for the crime of, as he says, “loving four women.” If that is what makes them all happy, after all, what’s so wrong with such a relationship?
In considering these two possible viewpoints of the show, two questions arise. First, how good is it for families, especially of a polygamist variety, to have their lives broadcast on national television? This problem extends beyond the Brown family. Seeing what happened to “Jon and Kate Plus Eight” should give any family reason for pause. However, in the specific instance of the Browns we seem to fall into watching for some sort of creepy thrill. This reasoning seems unloving and unhelpful to interacting on the issue of polygamy. In fact, is the reality-show format conducive to how issues such as polygamy can be best understood, discussed, and debated? Or does it blend entertainment and documentary too much to be truly useful? Are we really just using this family (whether they want to be used does not change the point)?
Second, how exactly do we as Christians argue against polygamy today in the United States? How do we articulate the beauty of Biblical marriage in a time so individualized and bent on subjective views of personal fulfillment? How do we get past the current conception that Christian opposition to something is usually connected to a lack of knowledge or experience around those who do the opposed thing? For in making the argument, even against polygamy, we risk the accusation of being narrow-minded, intolerant, and old-fashioned. The answer is intentional relationships. However, television shows do not present a format to do so. Their built-in distance is no help.
Utah authorities currently are considering prosecuting Kody Brown for polygamy. Such a move would end the show and the near future for similar programs. However, the questions remain. “Sister Wives” asks us to confront real questions about the limits of reality-television and how we can articulate Christianity in our own times.