‘Sister Wives’: polygamy ‘comes out’ on TLC

By Elizabeth Tenety ‘Sister Wives,’ a reality show starring Utah advertising salesman Kody Brown and his three (soon to be … Continued

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’?

Elizabeth Tenety
Written by

  • rentianxiang

    I have no issue with polygamy as long as everyone involved is a consenting adult, and as long as women are allowed to have multiple husbands. Equal rights.

  • marlendale

    Carstonio has it right. Polgamy is the general term for more than one spouse. Polygyny is the term for more than one wife. I do not believe that anyone who supports gay marriage rights can honestly oppose any form of polygamy. A major premise for gay marriage is that it should be considered a civil right, not subject to the whims of either government or religion. What any two or more adults want to do, in terms of marriage, would also be a civil right. That, ultimately, is the can of worms that is being opened today.

  • Carstonio

    Polygamy, if practiced widely, leaves a large cohort of unattached young males. That group is dissatisfied, disaffected and potential trouble for those societies.While the former could result in the latter, the likelihood of either form of polygamy being “practiced widely” in today’s society seems remote. One reason that polygyny was much more common in the past may have been that men held all the power. If both kinds were legalized today, one might see a number of polyandry marriages as well as a number of group marriages.

  • Secular

    I think government should completely get out of the marriage business all together. I personally think the idea of getting marriage license etc, is too intrusive in the personal life. It is also tantamount to the government entering our bedrooms. I was quite surprised when I learnt that one needs to get a marriage license before getting married. Where I come from you get married to whomever you want. The government has no compelling interest in it. I had to register the marriage itself really for no other reason than for my spouse to join me here. Even registering is optional.We should have the same here. And allow people to register their marriages. As someone has already commented I don’t believe there will be a runaway problem any more than today with the sex fiends from LDS or for that matter anyone else. Especially when Polyandry is also allowed. As KoK1 has pointed having multiple girlfriends or boyfriends simultaneously is not an uncommon thing.

  • SunnyInUtah

    Hey, please leave my underwear out of this! lol! I am a convert, I am in no way sheltered or feel that I live under a glass dome. HOWEVER there are ALOT of Mormons that do, these are families that I have spoken to and have worked with in the past, and they are honestly just like you and me. I say free agency. If that is the way they want to practice there faith and NO ONE is getting hurt in the process go for it. Not for me, but then again I dont want alot of people to see me in my Magical Underwear, let alone Three other women! lol!

  • WmarkW

    I would like to hear the argument for gay marriage that wouldn’t apply to polygamy.

  • areyousaying

    “Mormons “quit practicing [plural marriage] 120 years ago.”Not exactly true. Even though their Prophet had a convenient “vision” to end polygamy then to prevent an invasion by Federal troops, polygamy continued in Utah throughout the 1960’s and maybe later.Growing up in Ogden then, there was a woman with four kids who lived down the street. The father would visit about once a month and the children told me he had three other families. It was not uncommon to see two or three houses in a row exactly the same where the different families of polygamists lived side-by- side. In Southwestern Wyoming, polygamy was very common then and, no doubt, still goes on.One wife was worth the hassle, barely. I can’t imagine the torture of more than one. But, then again, Mormon women were very subservient and quiet back then.

  • JPDG

    Considering we’re heading in the direction of defining marriage as whatever-the-heck we want, this doesn’t surprise me in the slightest.And for all of those out there who said pushing gay marriage wouldn’t advocate polygamy… congratulations, you’re wrong.

  • lepidopteryx

    As long as all spouses are consenting adults, I have no issue with polygamy (one husband, multiple wives) OR polyandry (one wife, multiple husbands).

  • SecretUnderpants

    I’m going to drink lots of wine and watch this show religiously… Not Mormonly religious, but you know what I mean.

  • abrahamhab1

    I can find many objections to polygamy not the least of which is the demeaning of women. I would maybe feel differently if women are also allowed to marry more than one man at a time. A number of societies whose religion allows polygamy are banning it. Tunis and Turkey are examples. Even in the societies that legalize polygamy we find that it is more prevalent among the lower classes that can least afford it. Many of their social ills seem to stem from this practice. The historical trend has been from the many to the few to the one wife.

  • Secular

    I am with lepidopteryx, lets allow Polyandry along with polygamy. i would like to see how many of the LDS members would be willing to enjoin that. Other than some stupid moronic theological reason it is a non-issue. Again and attempt to conflate the more pressing issue of civil rights to the LGBT communities with the proclivities of decrypt vile oppressive sex feinds, who believe in magic underwear and the rest of the kook stuff.

  • Carstonio

    One shouldn’t read too much into the reality-show interest in polygamy. Just like the Duggars and Gosselins, the Browns are being treated by TLC as a freak show.I see nothing intrinsically immoral about adult consensual polygamy, whether it’s polygyny or polyandry. I agree with Lepidopteryx about the legal problems – one option may be making the polygamous marriage contract resemble a membership agreement. But I think the larger concern is why so many examples of polygyny involve slavery and statutory rape.

  • Kingofkings1

    Polygamy, i.e man a 2 or more wives, should not be any more offensive than a man and 2 or more girlfriends, or a man with wife and 1 or more girlfriends. Polygamy would actually make the offspings more protected in a relationship where man has women with more than one woman.

  • Kingofkings1


  • lepidopteryx

    Carstonio, thanks for correcting my misuse of “polygamy” when I should have usd “polygyny.”