Academic journal article Gender Forum

Affirming Plural Marriage: Sister Wives with Benefits

Academic journal article Gender Forum

Affirming Plural Marriage: Sister Wives with Benefits

Article excerpt

Social ideals of the family have been rapidly changing over the last decade, with more diverse representations of family structures focused on single parents, queer parents, cohabitating parents and non-traditional gender roles being portrayed on television. However, these representations still by and large reinforce monogamy as the ideal. Big Love broke new ground when it debuted in 2006 by being the first television series to focus on a polygamist family. It was met with widespread acclaim amongst critics and audiences alike and was praised in the academic literature surrounding the show; "the point and the poignancy of the show is to depict a 'real-life' family. Bill Hendrickson and his three wives struggle with all of the daily trials of contemporary family life: parenting, finances, intimacy, and sex. The sympathetic portrayal of their family is as culturally real, although it suffers by virtue of its nonlegal recognition" (Cossman 167).

The 'real-life' aspects of polygamy in television flooded into the mainstream in 2010 with the debut of TLC's Sister Wives. Now in its eighth season1, Sister Wives documents the daily life of the Browns, a Fundamentalist Mormon polygamist family.2 The show has consistently high ratings and the premiere of season 7 was the highest-rated season premiere with women ages 25-54 since December 2013 and was TLC's highest-rated telecast of 2016, driving the network to be #1 on Sunday nights amongst the demographic.3 As the title makes clear, the series is as interested in the relationships between the wives as it is the relationship between husband and wife in a polygamist family. The show's popularity amongst women is significant as it reflects the show's emphasis on the women's' perspectives as opposed to portraying events from husband Kody's point of view. The show is unscripted and the format switches between capturing the daily lives of the family and talking head style interviews that address issues raised on the show. The wives all have the opportunity to express their point of view on different aspects of their family life in these extended interviews; there are similarities and significant differences between their perspectives that highlight the diverse ways they experience polygamy.

Polygamy, the union of one person to multiple people, is synonymous with plural marriage. Polygamy comes in the form of polygyny, when a man takes multiple female spouses, and polyandry, when a woman takes multiple male spouses. Polygamy presents itself almost universally in the form of polygyny and therefore is often used to refer to polygyny specifically. Polyamory, the practice of having intimate partnerships with multiple people, is a distinct arrangement that is often at odds with how plural marriage is presented in media and is practiced.

When plural marriage appears in the media it often takes the form of uncovering abuses in polygamist communities.4 Data that gives insight into the lived experiences of women in plural marriage is limited, largely due to the legal prohibitions against polygamy. In Angela Campbell's research into women's agency in plural marriage she found, "polygamy's severe legal implications generate a great deal of resistance among women to share their experiences as plural wives or as members of plural marriage communities. As such, polygamous women's experiential knowledge is not widely disseminated, and this is an important impediment to understanding their encounters in this practice" (Campbell 50). The women on the show face many legal consequences as a result of appearing in the series and provide a wealth of experiential knowledge to the uninformed public. The mainstream visibility of the Brown family on TLC's Sister Wives provides a rare glimpse into how women experience plural marriage. The family also makes appearances on other shows including Good Morning America, Oprah and Ellen and wrote a book together Becoming Sister Wives: The Story of an Unconventional Marriage, providing more access into their private lives. …

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