By Eden Consenstein
Kody Brown, a middle-aged man with an unruly mop of blond hair and a constant smile, is touring venues for his upcoming wedding. “Can you two share?” the party planner asks, handing two of the four women with Kody a copy of the venue’s information. “Oh, we’re used to sharing,” one woman responds, taking the pamphlet. “Yeah, you have no idea how much we share,” another chimes in. Knowing giggles ripple through the group. Three of the women touring venues have been “sharing” Kody, their husband, for the past sixteen years. The wedding they’re planning will welcome a fourth wife into their marriage.
Welcome to Sister Wives, The Learning Channel’s reality television blockbuster which follows Kody, his four wives and their seventeen children through the surprisingly familiar daily charms and challenges of polygamous life. For five seasons, the show’s creators have captured about two million viewers per episode, with close to two and a half million tuning in as each season draws to a close. The show is a huge success, but the sexualized intrigue of multiple wives that draws viewers isn’t what keeps them. Sister Wives attracts viewers by portraying the Browns as any other American family, struggling through familiar travails with extra spouses in tow. The Brown’s life away from the cameras, on the other hand, is anything but familiar to the average American.
Sister Wives’ half-hour pilot premiered in September 2010 with an opening scene from the Browns’ fourth wedding, where we meet the sprawling family. “I’m Kody Brown,” our patriarch announces over a smiling shot of himself dancing in tux, “and you’ve gotta meet my family. I’m a polygamist, but we’re not the polygamists you think you know.” The voiceover introduces us to each wife, Meri, Janelle, Christine and Robyn, the most recent. Kody dances effortlessly from woman to woman, taking each into his arms for a brief spin. In the background adults playfully scoop kids up into their arms and everyone jumps and smiles, exuding the comfortable physical intimacy of a close family.
“I like marriage, and I’m a repeat offender,” Kody chuckles later into the pilot. “I’ve adopted a faith that embraces that lifestyle. In fact, uh, it recommends it, and likes to reward good behavior, so if you’re good with one marriage they figure you’ll be good with two…” he trails off and smiles coyly. “I hope they think I’ll be good with four.” Polygamy is a titillating theme, no doubt drawing viewers who are looking for the lascivious image of one man surrounded by four fawning females. However, those who tune in for sex are surely and quickly disappointed. “We don’t go weird,” Meri announced in the pilot, assertively dismissing whatever we’ve imagined.
The Browns constantly emphasize that polygamous life is anything but debauched. For them it is about the joys of family time, an ethos of sharing and sacrifice, and going against the grain in pursuit of these noble convictions. Viewers looking for the cat fights and back stabbing characteristic of reality television will also be disappointed. All five adults constantly emphasize the importance of communication and compromise, resulting in a reality TV family that spends most of their on-screen time walking us through how they carry out uncontroversial, daily pursuits with twenty-two people in tow. “There is something, very, very, just, awesome about this lifestyle,” Robyn rambles effusively during the first season. “It rubs off all of your rough spots. It makes you become a better person. Kody is a better person now than when he married Christine.”
It rubs off all of your rough spots.
The Browns are depicted as unfalteringly earnest in their struggle to rub off the rough spots. Critics have consistently commended the show’s frankness, like Meri, Christine and Janelle’s candid admissions of jealously at the prospect of Kody taking a fourth wife. Moments like these show the Browns to be human and satisfyingly imperfect. Other than the family’s great size and Kody’s longer-than-average hair, Sister Wives goes to obvious lengths to prove that the Browns are an awful lot like their viewers. The clear effort to make the Browns sympathetic keeps their enduring off-screen controversies out of view, suggesting that viewers are not quite ready for an image of non-normative family life.
The Browns belong to the United Apostolic Brethren church, a fundamentalist off- shoot of the Church of Latter-Day Saints defined by their commitment to polygamy. Officially introduced into Mormon doctrine in 1843, shortly after the faith’s founding, polygamy has inspired controversy since it’s earliest moments. It was one cause of the widespread prejudice that marked early Mormon history, and provoked their famous westward trek. In Utah, which had yet to become a state, Mormons found privacy and distance from their detractors. Isolation allowed them to build a community dictated by their burgeoning faith.
Contemporary Mormons continue to tell the tale of how they “made the desert bloom,” successfully pioneering an orderly religious haven in remote, unwelcoming territory. In 1852 church leader Brigham Young proclaimed publicly that Mormons practiced polygamy, or “plural marriage,” and thrust his community into the forefront of the popular imagination and a years-long constitutional tussle. In 1862, Abraham Lincoln passed the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act, which banned polygamy in United States territories. Meant more as a statement of disapproval than anything else, the Morrill Act went untried for another sixteen years until it was tested by Reynolds v. The United States in 1878.
Mormon polygamist George Reynolds challenged the constitutionality of the Morrill Act by claiming it inhibited his right to free religious exercise. Reynolds was unsuccessful, and his case was defeated on the grounds that while religious belief is protected, the state has the right to limit questionable or dangerous religious practices. In the decision, polygamy was braided together with slavery as one of the “twin relics of barbarism” that the United States was in the throes of eradicating. Polygamy was a bold test to the constitution’s guarantees. For the early Mormon community, living in plural marriage meant that even when it came to the most basic trappings of daily life, they were beholden to the laws of heaven, not the laws of earth. Their legal defeat constituted an early measure of what our nation will and will not permit when it comes to religious practices that buck the moral norm.
Reynolds v. United States resulted in the Edmunds Act of 1882, which extended the Morrill Act to outlaw “polygamous co-habitation,” making any living arrangement involving one man and two or more women illegal. This act was imposed only in Utah and Arizona, where Mormons were a large percentage of the population.
In 1890, the Mormon church sacrificed polygamy for Utah statehood. After continued tension between the Latter-Day Saints and congress, church president Woodruff Wilson officially disavowed polygamy in what is known as “The Manifesto.” It had become amply clear that as long as plural marriage remained a part of Mormon doctrine, Utah would never become a state. Shortly after this doctrinal revision, Utah was inducted into the Union. This theological shift caused a religious schism, resulting in the creation of sects still committed to living in plural marriage. This split endures today, with fundamentalist congregations like the Browns’ holding fast to their polygamous tradition and the mainstream, centralized Mormon church opposing it vocally. Within this context Sister Wives is a lot more interesting than it appears. The Browns are participating in an ardent normalization of a practice that has historically tested the limits of what is socialysocially and religiously acceptable.
According to the “Polygamy Primer,” a sixty-eight-page guidebook for law enforcement and social service providers created by the Brown’s church, approximately thirty-seven thousand individuals in Utah and Arizona identify as Mormon fundamentalists, meaning that they are in some way dedicated to maintaining the practice of plural marriage. “Big difference between us and them,” Kody explains, appropriately disassociating himself from the LDS, “similar to uh, Protestants and Catholics.” This is a clunky comparison at best, and the closest we get to theology throughout the show.
Before heading to New York to appear on The Today Show in season two, Kody explains his family’s larger motivation for going public while living in a state where polygamy remains illegal: “The fundamentalist Mormon community and the polygamists have become secretive in such a way as to threaten the rest of America, even if it’s in their minds. And so to be transparent I believe makes us more safe to them.” However inarticulate, this is one of Kody’s first admissions that Sister Wives is only one part of a larger project to make a historically maligned religious tenant acceptable to the mainstream. That this project and it’s legacy exist largely off-screen is indicative of what it takes to make minority life appealing to the American TV viewership.
Sister Wives is only one part of a larger project to make a historically maligned religious tenant acceptable to the mainstream
Immediately after “coming out” on The Today Show, their principled convictions earn them legal scrutiny, which comes in the form of an investigation that spooks the entire family. Ultimately the Browns must flee their home state of Utah for Nevada, where they are safe from proscriptions of the Edmunds Act.
In one scene we find Meri in her craft room, a nook cluttered with red, white and blue baubles, sewing seventeen sets of pajamas for Christmas gifts. A police car slows down under her window and she panics. “I immediately got on the phone to Kody, I started shaking.”
The tension between Meri’s charming task and the muscle of the state is stark. Later all four wives lament their growing mistrust of authority. “This isn’t the America I learned about in school,” Robyn weeps stoically. Mariah, one of the Brown’s oldest children says, “We’re not stealing or murdering and they think that they need to go after us because… why? They have no reason.”
The Brown’s flight from Utah turns out to be no moral defeat but a resounding success for polygamy. In Utah courts and away from cameras, the family challenges the standing Utah law that placed their lives under scrutiny. In season five, as the Browns are celebrating the purchase of four adjacent homes on a cul- de-sac in their new state, Utah strikes down crucial language in the Edmunds Act, thus making plural marriage virtually un-punishable.
In Brown v. Buhman, Kody and his wives, represented by constitutional law scholar John Turley, argue that banning “polygamous cohabitation” and “purported marriages” is unconstitutional. Unlike George Reynolds before them, the Browns won their case, and anti-polygamy legislation was weakened profoundly. In his ninety-one-page decision, Judge Clark Waddoups ruled that, unlike the backdrop against which Reynolds was ruled, “the Supreme Court has over decades assumed a general posture that is less inclined to allow majoritarian coercion of unpopular or disliked minority groups.” After five seasons of watching the Browns roll down grassy hills, tear up at high school graduations and shop at the mall, it ihas hard to imagine them as an “unpopular or disliked minority group,” and yet the legal realities that shape their story prove that they are, away from the cameras, just that.
Viewers who came for raunch or tension stay for the Sister Wives’ classic Americana, a wholesome, loving family oppressed by the powers of the state.
Viewers who came for raunch or tension stay for the Sister Wives’ classic Americana, a wholesome, loving family oppressed by the powers of the state. The Browns turn out to be lovable underdogs whose bucolic world holds their nation to its promise of religious freedom. Their wholesome on-screen life acts as an argument for the unconventional marital practice they champion ini their real lives. Sister Wives is the story of an uncommon family claiming their share of the American dream, a claim they stake not only in the “reality” created within the show, but also in the success they have had in altering state law. Despite the Brown’s legal success, The Learning Channel’s heavy-handed efforts to make the Browns appear unexceptional provokes questions about just how acceptable different lifestyles have become. In order for the Browns to be palatable within the world of reality television, the show must locate them squarely at the center of the American norm. Their off-screen lives, however, situates them along a lineage of Americans who have vociferously challenged that same normativity.
Eden Consenstein was born and raised in New York City and is currently a Master’s student in the Religious Studies program at New York University. Her interests include religious diversity and new religious movements in the United States. Before starting at NYU Eden studied religion at the University of Toronto and interned at the Interfaith Center of New York.