What if you were a polygamist? But, like, a really modern polygamist who wore jeans instead of pioneer-style dresses and didn’t even live on a compound? And then TLC decided to film the ups and downs of your daily life of polygamy?
As reality television shows go, “Sister Wives” is exceptionally educational. The entire premise is the following: the Brown family is polygamist. Patriarch Kody Brown, with his Jesus-length blond hair, is “married” to four women: dour-and-frowny Meri, practical-and-smart Janelle, giggly-and-nurturing Christine, and pretty-and-young Robyn. I say “married” because technically, plural marriage is illegal in the United States. The Browns live in a cluster of four houses in Las Vegas, and Kody rotates among his wives’ houses.
The show’s aim, I think, is to show that polygamy is not only all the terrible things we hear about it, fraught with prophet Warren Jeffs, unwilling child brides, and oppression of women. (The term “polygamy” actually refers to any marriage arrangement with multiple spouses; the Browns happen to practice polygyny, which refers to one man married to multiple women. When the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints renounced polygamy in the early 1900s, some have kept up the practice, and the Browns are members of such a group.)
The show succeeds in its mission of redefining plural marriage. The Browns are a spiritual, blissful quintet, five people who go pumpkin-picking with their sixteen collective offspring, five people who cook enormous and greasy meals (except for Janelle, who’s dieting and smashes her scale with a hammer in a recent dramatic episode), and five people who attend parent-teacher conferences.
Having four wives means that Kody is always left good-naturedly in trouble with any one of them at a given time. But minor spats never get in the way of Kody’s love for his wives, who often jokingly gang up on him and bemoan to the cameras his classic male hopelessness. And the sister wives, though sometimes frustrated and jealous of the others, always come together in support of one another when times get tough, as they are bound to do each episode, because this is a reality show after all.
Anyway, “Sister Wives” began in 2010, and since then it’s convinced me that being a sister wife—granted, a consenting sister wife—would not be terrible at all. Aside from the possibility of enduring the long, tearful speech about safeguarding one’s purity that Robyn gives the young Brown women, I could totally see the appeal of being in a plural marriage. Leave the religion out of it, and it’s a pretty ideal situation: a modern-day marriage commune limited to about seven people, living mostly in harmony, with shared responsibilities and plenty of independence and deflected attention.
And thus, my polygamist alter ego Grace Ann was born.
Grace Ann is a young Mormon in the town of Eureka, Utah. She lives in the early 1900s, and she doesn’t have to write essays or study for exams, because she doesn’t go to school. Instead, she, her husband, her four sister wives, and their 20 children work on a ranch. There are cowboys and everything. Grace Ann and her sister wives work mostly in the kitchen, making apple butter—like Felicity’s family, from the American Girl series, is wont to do—and spinning wool. Grace Ann’s life is the perfect escape.
Fast forward to this summer, when The Supreme Court found the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA), which had previously prevented the federal government from awarding program benefits to legally married same-sex couples, to be unconstitutional. After the ruling, Texas Republican Representative Louie Gohmert presented the infamous slippery slope argument to the House of Representatives.
“Once you move marriage beyond the scope of a man and a woman, you really don’t end up with a good place to put a limit,” said Gohmert, according to The Huffington Post. “I think polygamy is wrong…and it’s a crime in many places—but how will that be justifiable now that the court has removed this [DOMA]?”
It got personal. You mess with Grace Ann, and you’re messing with me.
I’ve never understood why people like Louie Gohmert care whether other people marry other people—as long as it’s consensual and all parties are over 16 or so. I’m not particularly interested in the fact that Gohmert believes polygamy or same-sex marriage to be wrong for himself; I’m interested in the reason that he takes it upon himself to decide that it’s wrong for other people.
Take the Browns of “Sister Wives,” for instance: as they state in the show’s opening, each person in the group of five has chosen plural marriage intentionally and thoughtfully. Christine doesn’t want just a man; she wants a family complete with sister wives. Robyn thinks that polygamy is her destiny; she and her sister wives “shoulda” all been together from day one. Kody is of the opinion that love should be multiplied, not divided.
The Browns shouldn’t need to explain themselves to anybody, and they certainly don’t owe us an explanation. They have nothing to prove, really, though I think it’s admirable that they’re passionate about debunking polygamy stereotypes (and facing those stereotypes head on; a recent episode has the family’s oldest children volunteering with survivors of abusive polygamist relationships). It is not the Browns’ responsibility to show us that polygamy can be wonderful, and it’s not the Browns’ responsibility to show us that they’re normal.
In fact, the Browns’ hell-bent focus on asserting their normalcy—they agreed to be on a reality show that shows them arguing about Christmas caramels, for heaven’s sake—is actually pretty sad.
“They’re just like us,” we might murmur, and then feel all warm and cuddly about our own tolerance of them.
But what’s so great about being just like us?
Davis is a member of the class of 2017.
The online version of this article was updated on November 22 to correct the following inaccuracy: the group from which the Brown family’s sect split was the Church of Jesus Christ of Ladder-Day Saints rather than the Fundamentalist Church of Ladder-Day Saints.