I fell in love, and then I fell in love again…and again…
‘Sister Wives,’ ’19th Wife’ and ‘Big Love’ usher in wave of polygamy programming
DAVID HINCKLEY © Copyright 2010 NYDailyNews.com.
Monday, September 13th 2010, 4:00 AM
Since television has developed a serial fascination with everything from cupcakes and hoarding to boorish people from New Jersey, it’s not surprising we’re now seeing multiple shows on polygamy.
What may be slightly surprising is this: Even when a show condemns the illegal practice of a man taking multiple wives, it acknowledges the appeal. And not just to men, who would seem to reap all the obvious benefits, but to some women as well.
Most of the estimated 20,000 pluralmarriage families in the U.S. call themselves fundamentalist Mormons, and while the mainstream Mormon church opposes polygamy, that wasn’t always true.
Revered 19th-century Mormon leader Brigham Young took many wives, and one, Ann Eliza Young, inspired “The 19th Wife,” a polygamy movie that airs Monday at 9 on Lifetime.
“The 19th Wife” portrays polygamy as a rigid, male-dictated system that offers comfort to some women and crushes the dreams of others.
A softer picture emerges in “Sister Wives,” a seven-part reality series starting Sept. 26 on TLC. It focuses on Kody Brown, a fundamentalist Mormon from Utah who co-habits with three women and has a fourth in the works.
Collectively they have 15 children, and the show suggests the Browns are challenged less by polygamy than by the same truism that challenges, say, the Gosselins: Caring for that many kids guarantees continuing dramas and crises.
Then there is HBO’s polygamist drama, “Big Love,” which like “The 19th Wife” portrays a community controlled by the Prophet, a man who is said to speak directly with God and who, in secular reality, can be dictatorial, greedy, self-serving and cynical.
“The 19th Wife” argues that because the Prophet makes a woman’s decisions for her, including whom she will marry, it turns her into property.
In real life, there have been charges that polygamist communities sanction underage marriage and incest. In “The 19th Wife,” the tipping point for community member Queenie (Chyler Leigh) comes when her friend BeckyLyn (Patricia Wettig) won’t defend herself against a false murder charge because it might offend the Prophet.
Yet “The 19th Wife,” based on a 2008 book, also suggests BeckyLyn and other women in plural marriages develop “sister wife” bonds that give them security and comfort. That interwife affection in “19th Wife” is overt. In “Sister Wives,” it feels more like mutual respect developed amid the common purpose of motherhood.
“We are raising children who have all of this exposure to these strong, awesome women,” says Janelle, one of Kody’s wives, “and I think you will see that they have turned out beautiful.”
One more non-surprise: Polygamists say they are simply misunderstood.
“Part of our reason for ‘coming out’ is it’s a story that needs to be told,” Kody Brown says. “By telling the story and not getting acceptance, necessarily, but lowering the prejudice, it helps all of society understand it.”
Polygamy family’s TV plan backfires
Salt Lake City – A family with four wives had hoped its participation on a reality TV show would shed light on polygamy.
But now that it is the target of a bigamy investigation by police in the state of Utah, one advocate worries that the probe will instil fear in other plural families about going public with their lives.
“If it really goes to a court situation, then our people are going to go right back into isolation,” said Anne Wilde, co-founder of Principle Voices, a non-profit that seeks to educate the public about polygamous families.
Over the past 10 years, Utah’s historically insular polygamist community has worked with state agencies to increase understanding of the unique aspects of polygamous culture, Wilde said. As a result, plural families are now less hesitant to seek help and services when needed, she said.
The Brown family’s decision to do the reality TV show was an extension of that education work, said Wilde, who knows the family well.
Sister Wives, which premiered on cable channel TLC on Sunday, chronicles the life of 41-year-old advertising salesperson Kody Brown, his four wives, 13 children and three stepchildren.
The Browns have said they hoped that the peek into their lives would help broaden the public’s understanding of plural families.
Lehi police are investigating whether the family is violating bigamy laws in plain view on cable TV. Brown is only legally married to Meri but also calls three other women his spouses: Janelle, Christine and Robyn.
“When we decided to do this show, we knew there would be risks,” the Brown family said in a statement released on Tuesday. “But for the sake of our family, and most importantly, our kids, we felt it was a risk worth taking.”
Most polygamist families practice in secret, but it has entered the national dialogue given its portrayal on the HBO scripted drama Big Love.
The modern Mormon Church excommunicates members found engaged in the practice, which was disavowed by the church in 1890 as part of a push for Utah’s statehood.
On a TLC ad for Sister Wives, one wife says: “I think we’re normal, and then I go out and then I’m like, ‘Oh yeah, I can’t tell anybody about my normal family’.”
Across Utah and parts of the western US, an estimated 38 000 self-described fundamentalist Mormons continue to believe and practice polygamy, believing it brings exaltation in heaven.
Although it is rarely prosecuted, bigamy is a third-degree felony in Utah, punishable by a prison term of up to five years.
Under the Utah law, a person can be found guilty of bigamy through cohabitation, not just legal marriage contracts.
Lehi police said the evidence gathered from the probe will be turned over to the Utah County Attorney’s Office for possible prosecution. A message left for Paul was not immediately returned on Tuesday.
Utah last prosecuted a polygamist for bigamy in 2001. Tom Green, who was married to five women and drew the attention of Utah authorities after promoting his lifestyle on national TV talk shows, was convicted on bigamy, criminal non-support and child rape charges. He spent six years in prison and was released in 2007.
The Utah Attorney General has investigated the state’s secretive polygamous communities, but focused efforts on cases involving allegations of abuse, sexual assault and fraud, not bigamy.
“It has been our office’s position not to pursue cases of bigamy between consenting adults,” the Attorney General’s spokesperson, Scott Troxel, said on Tuesday. “We want to use our resources wisely.”
Fundamentalist Mormons aren’t the only ones practicing polygyny (the correct term) nowadays. The Christian Polygyny movement amongst Evangelical and Messianic groups are growing, just in a more quiet way. However, their reasons for doing so differ widely from the Mormons. They simply believe that God never prohibited the practice and even regulated it. The Bible is full of faithful men of God who had polygynous families and God never judged or condemned them for it.