‘Sister Wives,’ ’19th Wife’ and ‘Big Love’ usher in wave of polygamy programming
© 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.”