My feminist obsession with “Sister Wives”

A few months ago, my cousin’s baby mama, who I shall now call my sistercousin, told me that she was hooked on TLC’s reality TV show, Sister Wives. I was down to check out any show that peers into the sex lives of religious conservatives and can be instantly streamed on netflix. Hello! The show follows the adventures of four saucy wives, their shared husband, and their 17 children. Though a lot of fan attention has been paid to Kody—the family’s dorky patriarch—many episodes center more on the wives’ relationships with one another. One wife takes charge, recruits new wives, and keeps the peace (Meri); one loves her career and excuses herself from childcare and domestic work (Janelle); another is the wisecracking stay-at-home mom of everyone’s kids (Christine); and the fourth and newest wife is weepy with gratitude to have three wives and a husband after having been an overwhelmed single mom (Robyn).

Unlike its fictional counterpart Big Love, Sister Wives is a self-conscious show in which members of the Brown family reflect on the impact that “going public”—i.e. not only coming out as polygamists, but also becoming television characters—has had on their relationships, their children, their financial resources and their now tremendous capital as public figures. The show also functions as a platform from which to improve the image of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints (FLDS) and oppose the criminalization of plural marriage. The political nature of the show was especially amplified in season two, as Kody, who will henceforth be referred to only as the dorky patriarch, faced arrest for having multiple wives in the state of Utah, a situation that forced the family to move to the promised land of sexual freedom… Las Vegas!

As my sistercousin pointed out, the Brown family borrows heavily from LGBT movement discourse. They tell their dramatic coming out stories (“when I first told so-and-so I was polygamous….”) and they demand that the government should respect their “lifestyle.” At the same time, the Browns go to great lengths to establish the heteronormativity of their plural marriage. When asked about how sex works in their family, they explain that the dorky patriarch rotates among Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn, always going to bed with just one wife at a time, because, as the Browns say, “we don’t do weird.”

Fine. I don’t begrudge them any of this; all subjugated groups borrow from the social justice discourses available to them, and it’s really ok—though less interesting—that they are heterosexual. Far more disappointing, though, is the way they attempt to normalize what is so rare, so desirable, and even so feminist about their lives. Namely, they have figured out a way to actually achieve intimate communal living, collective coparenting and housework, shared financial resources, expanded career opportunities for women who have children, lifelong women’s friendships, nonposssessive partnerships, and deprivatized domestic life. When one woman marries the dorky patriarch, her wives present her with their own wife-to-wife ring, symbolizing their commitment to one another. When one woman loves her career and doesn’t want to spend her days caring for her children, her wife lovingly provides this labor. This same career-loving woman also surrenders her money to the collective, and lovingly buys her wife new bedroom furniture or supports her wife’s ugly quilt-making hobby whether she appreciates the quilts or not. When one woman cannot get pregnant, one of her wives offers to carry her child. When one woman is having marriage trouble, her wife—who knows far more about the limitations of the dorky patriarch than any therapist ever could—counsels her. When one woman’s teenage daughter finds her mother unbearable, her wife takes the daughter in, which means her daughter now lives just down the hall, with a sistermom (or across the street, as is the case of the Browns’ arrangement in Las Vegas). When one woman, an acquaintance, is divorced and lonely, another woman proposes to the dorky patriarch that he consider inviting her to join the family. When one woman has a crisis, whatever it may be, at least one of her wives drops everything to attend to her. And ultimately, when a woman’s husband dies, her living wives remain her married companions until their own deaths.  Talk about the lesbian continuum!

I want this level of closeness and commitment with the women I love, my beloved best friends and sisterwives. These women do not live near me, and we all have jobs, partners, and preferences that we have prioritized. But they are—in addition to Kat (my husbi-wife) and Yarrow (my kiddy-kid)—my home. I have longed for communal, live-in, intimate, feminist life with them for years. I have tried to sister-marry them. I have told them not to leave me. But over the years, I have left them, and they have left me. And though I have no interest whatsoever in a patriarch, or a sexist/heteronormative double standard (where’s my show about the femme matriarch and her four genderqueer husbands??), or a religious ideology, or even nonmonogamy (I’ve tried it… did. not. work.), I envy the Brown family—and any group of folks who figure out how to actually manifest the depth of collective intimacy I long for.

In my very scientific observations of the very serious show Sister Wives, I have come to the conclusion that two things make communal life possible for the Browns and others who accomplish it. The first is obvious: an ideology so important to the people involved that it trumps their individual preferences and personal ambitions. For the Brown family, fundamentalist Mormonism is this ideology. Their commitment to it is so great that they agree to burn through jealousy and the other inevitable difficulties that come with their unconventional lives. As for me, the ideological component is a big hurdle. In the actual practice of my life, queer/feminist collectivism never wins the day. Instead, financial and emotional autonomy/ambition and partner-centeredness have ruled my life. On my death bed, I won’t be surprised if this ends up being a fairly sizable regret. The second element is infrastructure. Because the Brown family is embedded in a religious community that values plural marriage, they know the people who can help them make communal life actually happen—like architects who specialize in building homes for polygamous families, for instance. The Brown family home was built by an architect in the FLDS church, and as a result, it was built so that each wife has her own wing, allowing for some private space while also being connected to the commune. Super dreamy. Though in my fantasy, my sisterwives and I all have cottages, with a central house for meals and family yoga, movies, and what have you.

So here’s the question?

Why have queers and feminists ceded collective domesticity to the religious? Where are the queer architects who are building the communes that intervene in homonormativity and that facilitate collective caretaking? As I have argued elsewhere (http://feministpigs.blogspot.com/2011/09/its-not-that-it-gets-better-its-that.html), straight people have a lot to learn from queers about how to live, but perhaps queers also have a few things we could learn from some of the very same folks who funded the anti gay-marriage campaigns—those fundamentalist Mormons who know how to make communal life work.

In sum, I’d like to say—to Rachel, Melissa, Margaux, and Layla—should you ever read this: Will you marry me?

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5 Responses to My feminist obsession with “Sister Wives”

  1. Rachel Noel says:

    This was so satisfying on all fronts!
    This is slightly off topic, but I remember one episode in which dorky patriarch’s first wife says, “Well how would you feel if I had several husbands?” And dorky patriarch screws up his face like she just said, “Well, how would you feel if I ate some of your children?”
    In that moment, I thought, you know, this just can’t be done unless the people involved are willing to eat shit on a daily basis, and have an unwavering faith in the ideal of it all.
    But I think something even better can be done, like what you’ve imagined here.

  2. Cimmerians says:

    If there is a niche for a wife who dispenses pet care, grumpiness, porn and cake, I will gladly fill that fucking thing to the brim.

  3. Jessica says:

    Fantastic points. Why has the queer community ceded collective domesticity? Maybe it hasn’t entirely. I have examples from my own childhood of my parents living in a large queer commune of sorts, Vietnam era. But it’s dissipated long ago…

  4. Danyel says:

    Put me on the list.

  5. Mary Pat Kuppig says:

    The attraction to me is watching the women dealing with each other based on the personal transformation their extended family situation puts them in the position to undertake. Seems to me that in human terms, the women get the most personal growth out of it! Their strong faith is key!
    As for “raising a revolution,” I’m all for that! Keep up the good work! You have many more supporters than you know!
    Your commitment to doing whatever it takes to create a happy family composed of capable and actualized human beings is exceptionally praiseworthy! It will make your deathbed a most enjoyable place to launch your next adventure!

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