TLC's Sister Wives: A Closer Look
I returned home from my cousin’s wedding Sunday night, happy and exhausted with barely enough energy to flop onto the couch and turn on the TV. That is how I found myself watching the two new episodes of TLC’s Sister Wives, a reality TV show about a modern polygamous family. I think the expected feminist response to a show about polygamy is a negative one, summed in this post on Jezebel: “Sister Wives Talk Like Soul-Sucking Stepford Zombies.” It’s easy to condemn the show, and “the lifestyle” (as they call it) but after watching the first few episodes, I found myself pondering polygamy and its presence in our history as Jews. After all, my biblical namesake was a sister wife.
When it comes to bible study, I am only familiar with the basics. But even I know that polygamy features prominently in the stories of our patriarchs and matriarchs. The story I know best is that of Jacob, who married both Leah and Rachel. (This story is expanded in the midrash told by Anita Diamant’s The Red Tent.) Rachel, the woman Jacob married for love, gave birth to Joseph and eventually died in childbirth with her second child, Benjamin. Thanks to polygamy, Jacob was able to father the 12 sons (and one daughter) who would go on to father the 12 Tribes of Israel with his wife Leah and their hand servants, Bilhah and Zilpah. It’s hard to ignore the centrality of polygamy, or “plural marriage,” in our own cultural heritage.
This is not to say that I condone polygamy, especially in its biblical form. The Torah is also full of incest (Leah and Rachel were Jacob’s first cousins), slavery, and other things we now understand to be wrong. Judaism’s strength is that it grows and adapts with the times, although we too have fundamentalist communities that oppress women through rigid adherence to traditional gender divisions and roles.
The fundamentalist fringe of Mormonism that is spotlighted on TLC’s Sister Wives is of a similar vein. And by embracing polygamy in a form that mirrors the biblical tradition, in which one man marries and fathers children by multiple wives, the “Polyg lifestyle” is fraught with anti-feminist land mines. Jezebel writes:
It's too bad the Today show host didn't ask Kody or his wives to discuss their beliefs. Because if you're not familiar with what Kody vaguely calls "his faith" — that is, religious fundamentalism — then you might think, wow, these people are so edgy! So open-minded! It's just a big happy family! You might not realize how the extreme, patriarchal belief system belittles and oppresses women.
But after watching Sister Wives, it’s hard to hate or even snark at these people. From what we see, anyway, these people – the four wives, one husband, and 15 children – are genuine and intelligent people. For religious fundamentalists, they seem pretty normal; they live modern lives, integrate into the secular world, and are happy to give their children the freedom to make their own choices about faith and marriage when they grow up. Despite Jezebel’s categorization as “Stepford Wives,” the women are open about their feelings, their insecurities, and their personal struggles with polygamy. They readily admit jealousy and doubt, but also discuss the support, love and fulfillment that they gain from the arrangement. If anything, they are complex characters who made a choice, and like the rest of us, understand that bettering ourselves and working on our relationships is a lifelong process.
Watching Sister Wives, I started to realize that the benefits of polygamy that the show highlights are real, but they are not exclusive to polygamous lifestyles. The benefits are the same ones you would find from any type of communal living where multiple adults contribute incomes to a larger family unit and multiple adults parent the community’s children as a group. (Think: hippie commune, Walden Two.) I would also argue that there is nothing inherently anti-feminist about rejecting monogamy. The idea that men are allowed to have multiple partners but women are not is sexist. You can also argue that the institution of marriage, which traditionally made women the property of their husbands, is sexist. But polyamory, often dubbed "ethical nonmonogamy," is a great example of a very feminist-friendly model in which men and women can both have meaningful and/or sexual relationships with multiple partners. The poly community is, in fact, a place where you are likely to find some of the most progressive, liberal, and feminist people out there.
I think it’s important to take the time to think about Sister Wives before we condemn it outright. While polygamy in this form is illegal, and Kody Brown is now being investigated by the police, it is possible to gain some insights from this peek into “the lifestyle.” For one, it made me think about the benefits of communal living among extended families or friends. By examining certain similarities to the modern polyamorous community, I was reminded that some alternatives to monogamy can be feminist and progressive. I came to realize that my problem with Sister Wives is not a problem with the family itself (they are actually quite likeable people), nor is it a problem with alternate polyamorous lifestyles. What I do have a problem with is religious fundamentalism and its adherence to biblical notions of marriage and paternalism. And that applies to Jewish fundamentalists as well.