The End of 'Big Love,' the Rise of 'Sister Wives': Mormons, Gays and Reality TV

by Melissa Tapper Goldman

America loves TV about polygamy. After four years of the scintillating fiction of “Big Love,” we were ready for fact. Or, at least, the reality-TV version of it. TLC’s series “Sister Wives” finally arrived in 2010, and the second season has just begun, as “Big Love” concludes this weekend. Like an elephant with a friendly bird to eat flies off of its back, the two shows have formed a sort of symbiosis.

Fact and fiction intertwine: “Sister Wives” shows you the real-life versions of the characters. “Big Love” shows you what they might look like in bed. The excitement of “Big Love” relied on our faith in the characters’ realism, both in its writing and premise. Now, unlike the characters of both shows, we don’t need faith anymore. Instead, we find ourselves sunk in the uncanny valley between the real brood and the fake one. The two families even look shockingly alike. Kody Brown’s first wife, Meri, is a mirror of Jeanne Tripplehorne’s reserved face and emotive, scrunched mouth. His newest and youngest wife, Robin, shares Ginnifer Goodwin’s bone structure and girlish figure. It’s as though the Browns were made for TV — the attractive family next door that just happens to include four wives and 16 blond children.

Beyond the bedroom, the boldness possible in the fictional world of “Big Love” allows the show to tackle some political issues that “Sister Wives” will barely allude to. If gay marriage didn’t think it needed any more input from Mormons, the Browns are about to unload some heavy stuff on us, and it’s not in the form you might expect.

Sex In The Salt Flats
Religious polygamy makes for undeniable human drama. It’s a classic sexy story, full of taboo, betrayal and jealousy. It includes the love between men and women — and the love that women can only share with one another.

While Kody relies on a veneer of boyish charm, the wives are no nonsense. The Alpha Dog, the Career Woman and the Prim and Proper, they are strong voices in favor of polygamy, who nevertheless don’t sugarcoat the challenges. No robo-child-brides here. The addition of a fourth wife, Robyn, was disruptive to the entire family, a fact acknowledged by everyone except for Kody (who by now knows better than to open his mouth). The three wives coped with patience, humor and an enviable level of magnanimity — even if they needed to walk off camera to cry sometimes. Third wife Christine quipped, “I’m glad he’s getting a trophy wife. He’s a great guy. He deserves a cute girl.”

Of course we all want to hear about their sex lives. On this topic, they are uncharacteristically mum. When asked who has sex with whom, first wife Meri inelegantly deflects any suggestions of girl-on-girl action, “We don’t go weird.” Most disappointing is Kody’s willful ignorance about his wives’ experiences. Meri struggles to cope with jealousy. She and Kody discuss the issue over a romantic dinner for their 20th wedding anniversary. Meri is not proud of her emotions but wants to feel understood. She asks Kody to consider how he’d feel if she were with someone else. “Obviously, that’s just not something I am even comfortable imagining,” he said. “The vulgarity of you with another man or lover sickens me.” His response is jarring; their dynamic is apparently made possible only by Meri’s capacity to accommodate.

The Browns are caught between two worlds: the rules-loving realm of fundamental Mormonism, and the nonconformist domain of marital deviants. Teenage daughter Mariah struggles in her transition from a polygamist school into the local public school. She doesn’t want to hang out with freaks, but she’s a freak. A classic teenage predicament. Unfortunately, her parents don’t help her to make sense of the situation, and the tension runs beneath the surface. Will they encourage her to be accepting of others, as they in turn ask for the acceptance of the viewing public? Or are they themselves uncomfortable with their daughter hanging around with sailor-mouthed pot-smokers and other school outcasts?

Principles On Primetime
Many arguments against gay marriage have utilized the “logical conclusion” line of reasoning: if we accept marriage for the gays, next will come marriage to animals, family members, multiple partners. While gay marriage might appear tolerable, the other examples are meant to scare you. So it goes that all “alternative” family structures become melded into one tangled web of things that people are uncomfortable imagining in the privacy of their minds. It is somehow unsurprising that in Utah, the heart of the battlefield for the American family, attitudes about gay marriage and plural marriage have turned into an impossible morass of issues dating back long before the gay civil rights struggle, to the wildest west of all, the 19th-century Mormon frontier.

Thankfully, the TLC network has perfected the business of pat, voyeuristic reality television to help us begin the conversation. For the last decade, TLC has made its bread and butter from reality shows about families that seem different, but upon further inspection are just like you and me. The TLC lineup is stacked with “little people,” fundamentalist Christians who flout birth control, sextuplets and women who didn’t realize they were pregnant until they gave birth. Part freak show, part humanizing documentary, these series address two related components of our human nature: gossip and a drive toward compassion. It’d odd to remember that TLC was once known as The Learning Channel. The network is now an acronym without a referent, merely “TLC”: learning lite.

Although TLC has featured a shocking lack of gay characters on its extensive and diverse docket of reality shows, its recent developments just might help America come to terms with alternative families, in spite of ourselves. Kody is a salesman by profession, and he makes us feel like we’re buying into an ice-cream-social-loving, cuss-word-abstaining All-American. Our hearts are softened by his puppy-dog earnestness. And yet this guy is not hamstrung by American sexual Puritanism. This guy has four wives. And this guy is a devout, fundamentalist Mormon.

Regular Mormons follow the dominant church in Utah, the Latter-Day Saints. They don’t like being confused with their polygamist counterparts, who are sometimes called fundamentalist Mormons. The LDS church abolished polygamy (in the corporeal world) after a 50-year battle with the federal government. In exchange for Utah’s 1896 statehood and under enormous pressure, the Mormons gave up polygamy. Some fundamentalist Mormons have continued earlier practices — such as polygamy and denying the priesthood to black people (which the LDS Church ceased in 1978) — in an underground fashion. The Browns of “Sister Wives” are polygamists because of a religious principle, but you wouldn’t know it from the show, which focuses on plural marriage’s pragmatic merits in terms of labor sharing and child rearing. In all of its reality series, TLC is careful to downplay the aspects of its characters’ lives that risk making them less relatable.

On Religion Dispatches, Joanna Brooks writes:

Kody Brown has been carefully coached to call polygamy ‘the lifestyle’ rather than ‘the principle,’ the latter being the economic phrase commonly used by fundamentalist Mormons to describe both the practice of polygamy and its theological underpinnings. All throughout “Sister Wives” it’s ‘the lifestyle,’ ‘lifestyle,’ ‘lifestyle’: only once does Brown slip and call it ‘the principle.’ Take the theology out of polygamy, and what you have is a rather uptight and domesticated form of man-centric polyamory.

Unlike Jon, Kate and their eight, the Browns are clear about why they signed up to do a reality show. They wanted to show that polygamists are “normal” people, and they didn’t want their kids to live in fear and shame any longer. They seek acceptance in the public mind — but make no statements about changing the law.

Bill Henrickson of “Big Love,” on the other hand, is more bold. In this final season, he becomes a state senator in order to bring polygamy into the public eye. Bear in mind that bigamy is a felony in both real Utah and the show’s fictional Utah. Henrickson wants to air the dirty laundry of polygamy: making it public to reduce corruption and exploitation in the underground communities. He also wants to further the theology to which he subscribes, demonstrating proudly The Principle. Bill Henrickson calls it The Principle freely on national television. He can do that because he’s not real.

The timeline of the two shows’ interplay is frankly bizarre. The plot lines of “Big Love” focused on the human drama over the first four seasons, not beginning to take a political turn until its fifth (and final) season. Then “Sister Wives” came along. The first season of “Sister Wives” was as plain Jane as you can imagine, dodging any whiff of politics. But in between “Sister Wives”’ first and second seasons (November 2010-March 2011), all that changed, in real life and in fiction. “Big Love” aired each Sunday night in the interim, and Bill Henrickson took his pro-transparency polygamy agenda to state politics, with devastating repercussions that dominate the entire season. Meanwhile, “Sister Wives” also shifted toward the political. While the state of Utah’s policy has been not to prosecute bigamy except when investigating another associated crime, the Browns were just too bold. During the show’s hiatus, the state of Utah started investigating the Browns for felony bigamy, which was terrifying for the Browns but terrific for ratings. Everything has changed in fact and fiction, and the Browns are back this season with a political purpose.

We learn through the wives’ commentaries that polygamy is both common in their community and met with severe prejudice, both from the mainstream LDS community and the law. The Browns also want to air the dirty laundry of polygamy, to subject the practice to public transparency. When asked about potential legal repercussions of the family’s big reveal, third wife Christine is clear, “Raising children in a closed society could cause a lot more damage than any kind of legal trouble.”

Bigamy: Meet Gay Marriage
Kody Brown’s use of “lifestyle” may make him sound more relatable, the word is also rhetorically loaded. “Lifestyle” points to an element of choice, and that works in the Browns’ favor. They want to emphasize choice as a counter to the public image of polygamy: brainwashed child brides held against their will.

By contrast, for the LGBT community, the term “lifestyle” has been political poison. In the somehow still-ongoing debate about the role of choice in sexual orientation, “lifestyle” has become the preferred euphemism for critics of gay rights. Because when being gay is a choice, then why don’t you just not make that choice — and stop making people uncomfortable? With “lifestyle” comes a string of questions about agency and freedom.

The gay parallel doesn’t stop there. Kody often describes “Sister Wives” as part of his process of “coming out” as a polygamist. Now he will cope with the opinions of his coworkers and neighbors. Like Bill Henrickson on “Big Love,” Kody hopes for acceptance (or at least not to be prosecuted by authorities). His wives have shared the burden of years spent lying and self-censoring. Robyn sees the purpose of going on the show in political terms: “I don’t want my kids and my grandkids growing up oppressed.” Mainstream America already has a name for revealing something essential and taboo about yourself. Most Americans already understand that the “coming out” process is difficult but necessary, and that it’s important for all involved to be accepting and supportive. Gay people around the country have done hard work over the past 30 years to make the public comfortable with coming out. Now, Kody Brown would like America to extend that comfort to him.

Kody may use the term “coming out” every three minutes, but TLC never lets us hear how he, a devoutly religious man, feels about actual gay people. We barely see the Browns’ religion at all. Instead, we learn all about how Christine is the children’s favorite cook because she makes lots of unhealthy comfort food. Christine is the traditional one, the Chloe Sevigny look-alike. One episode follows her into a mammoth pantry that looks stocked for the apocalypse (or one week with a family of 21). She is cooking fish stick tacos, which she has craved “fortnightly” during her pregnancy, for the platoon of children in her kitchen. In confessional, she seems upset that the older children have expressed reservations about becoming polygamists in their adult lives. Both she and another wife, Meri, grew up in polygamist households, but went through a questioning period as teenagers. All the wives insist that each child will need to make this choice privately, that arranged marriages are not OK, and that marrying for love is essential. But a little more information about their religion slips in. Christine’s is not just disappointment that the children might not be attracted to her “lifestyle.” Leaving polygamy would mean leaving the faith. This is an impossibly harsh choice. In the kind of gender imbalanced polygamy that they practice, the numbers simply don’t add up. There aren’t enough girls to go around. I can only hope, for their own sake, that most of their boy children are gay. What are the odds that they hope that, too?

In an episode of CBS’s “48 Hours,” which aired in 2008, two years before “Sister Wives,” Christine shares her insights on polygamy in a panel of well-manicured suburban polygamist wives. Outside the lens and restrictions of TLC, she’s not so hesitant to talk about the religious underpinnings of her practice, “It’s just the way that Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob lived in the Bible.”

Perhaps the Browns do not oppose gay rights? Outside the show, Robyn almost addresses the issue directly in a rare press interview. “My best friend is gay; we are open to that,” she said. “I teach my children that we are open to that… We teach our children what we believe, but we give them the opportunity and the openness to choose for themselves.” It may be the editors’ choice and not the Browns’ choice to keep implicit the parallel between the struggle of LGBT Americans for civil rights and the right of the Browns to live their private lives without prosecution. Like all reality stars, the Browns have little control over how their story is crafted. In the interest of diversity, our culture’s greatest asset, I’m glad that the Browns have offered themselves as spokespeople for choosing a life outside the norm. I recognize the importance of not confusing an institution with some of its examples.

The tensions between fundamentalist religion and a need for tolerance sit awkwardly under the surface of the entire first season of “Sister Wives.” Neither the Browns (nor TLC) express any explicit support for marriage equality — or any kind of change at all. As willing as Kody Brown is to ride the wave of general support for “alternative” “lifestyles,” nobody is taking a stand on anything. Kody is surely not going to stand up on the issue of alternative families to the LDS Church, which, as most of us know, was the largest funder of the opposition to gay marriage in California and is largely credited with funding Proposition 8, the referendum to amend California’s state constitution to ban gay and plural marriage (the amendment has since been ruled unconstitutional). The LDS Church is the most rich, powerful and organized opponent to marriage rights in the nation. Kody Brown is also persecuted by the church’s policies, but he practices a fundamentally similar faith.

For a confluence of reasons, during the show’s second season, the Brown family moved out of Utah. The season opened explosively, with the Browns’ national “coming out” on “The Today Show.” In the show’s confessional, Kody mused, “Kids are being taught tolerance at school now. I remember growing up in school and being taught the value of civil rights and the value of tolerance. It’s not just taught now; it’s a morality.” Second wife Janelle chimed in, “I’m grateful for that.” Kody answered, “I am, too.”

The Politics Of Reality
Perhaps the popularity of “Sister Wives” also comes from the polygamous life sounding controversial but also pretty appealing. It’s the anti-lonely dialectic to “Desperate Housewives.” While TLC’s shows themselves are mostly content-free, the underlying message is clear. You’ll like people if you just get to know them. It’s a message of tolerance. It’s strange, then, that TLC will show everyone but gay people. What I read in between its lineups is that hardcore Christians who have 19 children merit tolerance, but gay people do not. Surely Americans are just as curious about gay families as they are about hoarders and extreme cake bakers? Perhaps gay people already have all the tolerance they need? Well, no. Even a campaign as universal as anti-bullying has been polarized by elected officials, like Michele Bachmann, who insist that being against bullying furthers the homosexual agenda of tolerance.

So what can we say about the power of reality television? Is the medium a message, does it have some influence in spite of its apolitical content? The impact of reality TV is a hot topic, newly analyzed in Jennifer Pozner’s book Reality Bites Back. Reality television can make people relatable. It can also make them into caricatures. It can make teen pregnancy seem normal, but also like an extreme bummer. Does that encourage or discourage teen pregnancy? Reality TV requires patience and intelligence to take its “realism” with a grain of salt (concentration that we don’t often have while watching so-called “guilty pleasure” TV). Reality TV can make things seem normal, even things like polygamy. That means that it can change what is normal, and it can change our sense of tolerance. It’s up to the viewing public whether we decide to extend that compassion into real life.

One of the best advantages of reality TV is the rare occasion when people slip in some unscripted honesty. Like the rare wardrobe malfunction on live TV, flashing a boob against all odds, sometimes a reality character says a bit more than she’s supposed to, opening a window into her true feelings. On “Sister Wives,” Christine has come the closest to addressing the parallel between her family situation and gay marriage. In one episode, giddy in her newly “out” state, she fills in the emergency contact form on her children’s school paperwork for the first time with true answers. She stops to contemplate what it’s meant for her to be open about her family situation. It’s clear that an enormous burden of secrecy has been lifted from her, although the path ahead is dangerous and the footing shaky. She can’t seem to make the right words come out of her mouth. She’s sure she’s done something very good by being brave and open. She feels solidarity with those living underground around the country, she just doesn’t want to use the word homosexual: “And all the other families, not just polygamous families, but there’s probably a lot of other families that feel like they have to be secretive, about, whatever. This is extremely liberating.”

Beyond saving money on scriptwriters, what is the boom of reality TV really about? Are we a society of over-sharers with no boundaries? I don’t believe it’s a question of exhibitionism. If everyone’s human drama is such old news, why is TV voyeurism so alive and well in the forms of “Big Love” and “Sister Wives”? Personally, I will reserve my positive judgment of the medium until TLC manages to show one gay character, hopefully one who is married. You think ratings are decent when you show polygamists? Try a show watched by every gay family in America, and every gay person’s parents as well. The fight for equal rights under the law is happening right now — in high human drama, full of love, violence and heroism. Sometimes it’s even on TV.

Melissa Tapper Goldman does all kinds of things, mostly in New York City, but also elsewhere. The documentary that she made is called Subjectified: Nine Young Women Talk about Sex