There can be no doubt that America is fascinated with polygamy-at least as it is portrayed on television. First came Big Love, HBO's much-hailed series about a Fundamentalist Mormon store owner and his three wives. Now we have Sister Wives, a reality show about a Fundamentalist Mormon ad salesman with four wives that premiered to huge numbers when it returned to TLC for its second season on March 13. However, where Big Love had the benefit of being fictional to suggest that polygamous men are motivated by something deeper than lust, convenience, and ego gratification, Sister Wives has to deal with the reality of hipster narcissist Kody Brown.
TLC works overtime to present the Browns as an ordinary, happy family. As opposed to a more revealing format of recording their day-to-day activities without commentary, 90 percent of Sister Wives consists of confessionals. Kody and his wives sit on a couch and tell the camera why they're healthy and normal. One of the wives stands in the kitchen and tells the camera why she's healthy and normal. Two other wives work in the yard with their children while telling the camera why they're healthy and normal. In the rare instances when we glimpse something unflatteringly impromptu, we're immediately whisked back to the couch so moms and dad can explain it away. This has to be one of the most tightly controlled reality shows ever broadcast.
But no amount of editing can disguise the fact that the head of the Brown clan (whose wives all work to help support the family, by the way) looks like nothing more serious or complicated than a man-boy having a very good time. At 41, sporting shoulder-length feathered hair and a goatee, Kody boasts of his rotating sleeping arrangement and puffs up visibly when his 5-year-old son encourages him to pursue his fourth wife with "Go get 'em, tiger!" He displays no more intimacy with his wives than a flirtatious man might have with a well-liked waitress, and his entire relationship with his children seems to consist of some hair ruffling and wrestling about now and then. He offers only the most cursory acknowledgment of his wives' hurt feelings over his latest marriage before speeding off in his Lexus two-seater sports car for a long weekend of wining, dining, and reveling in the flush of new infatuation with "fiancée," Robyn.
And what of the sister-wives? Much is made by them about the benefits of having co-wives for such things as babysitting and major cleaning projects (apparently none of the women ever considered that a standard-issue friend could fill the same bill). But when they're not chirping about how much they need each other, jealousy and grief bubble over in various ways.
Meri, Cody's first and only legal wife, in particular, moves through her day with the air of the walking wounded. The pain on her face when she admits how much it hurts to make room for the newest woman in Kody's life should make every wife of one husband fall to her knees in gratitude for the love and care God showed women when He decreed that only two should become one flesh.
Glaringly absent is an in-depth explanation of their beliefs. Meri sounds like any postmodern relativist when she asserts, "I hope our kids do what they want to do, whether it's live our lifestyle or have no religion at all so long as they're not following someone else." These are hardly the words of someone practicing a serious tenet of a serious faith.
But the most significant thing about Sister Wives is how closely its language mirrors that of gay-marriage proponents. The Browns decry prejudice against their lifestyle and argue for the legitimacy of their union on the basis of tolerance and civil rights. In this light, Sister Wives could prompt gay-marriage supporters of the feminist variety to confront where the road they've been clamoring for actually leads. Certainly there is no escaping that this kind of hyper-patriarchal union that sentences women to half-lives and fractional marriages is an all but guaranteed by-product of a culture that fails to protect the institution that has, throughout history, provided women their best chance at safety, prosperity, and equality.