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“Sister Wives” and the Mormon Next Door

I've been asked a great deal lately about the so-called "Mormon Moment" -- which is admittedly more like the "Mormon Decade," though I keep hoping it will end soon. One thing that has become clear is that members of the general public seem surprised when they learn that Mormonism exists right in their own midst.

According to this local ABC news segment, there are more than 10,000 Mormons in the Cincinnati area where I live. What I liked about being part of this news story is that the reporter was eager to understand day-to-day Mormon life from actual Mormons, not from what other people said about Mormons. She didn't shy away from asking hard questions, but she also didn't dwell on arcane points that don't matter much to everyday people who are living this religion (Kolob, godhood, take your pick).

This week I've been preparing for a talk I'm giving tomorrow on Mormonism and popular culture, and for me that means not just writing the talk and putting the slides together but also indulging myself in extra TV and calling it work. (Don't let scholars tell you that writing about pop culture is just as difficult as writing about history or philosophy. If it is, they're doing it wrong.)

One of the shows I've started watching is Sister Wives, which I had discussed with my pop culture class in 2011 as an example of how members of a minority religion might turn the tables by seizing a popular culture medium to define themselves. In class we watched part of the Oprah episode where the Browns promoted their new show and discussed their lives. Then we dissected three important questions:

1) How is the Brown family using reality television to promote and normalize their lifestyle?

2) What are they saying -- or, more importantly, not saying -- about their religious beliefs? and

3) What do these three (now four) remarkable women see in a goofball like Kody?

The great irony of Sister Wives is that TLC put it on the air, and people started watching it, because of a puerile fascination with the sexual goings-on of a polygamous family. (Admit it. You're curious.) But the show has remained on the air because people started caring for the Browns as human beings. Very, very boring human beings.

Consider the opening sentence of this description of a season 2 episode promisingly titled "Wife #3 Hits Sin City":

Christine and her kids head to Las Vegas so they can spend time in her favorite vacation spot.

Sounds good, right? But the episode is actually more about this, as described in the second sentence:

At home, Meri takes the rest of the family bowling.

Bowling. Apparently they also go bowling in Season 3. I haven't seen that season, but a major family bowling sequence is up on the TLC website as a "highlight" of the season. That's about as exciting as things get.

Yeah, those polygamists sure are crazy. Crazy smart, that is. By showing America their dull brown lives, the Browns have shown themselves to be exceptional people -- they are no-nonsense parents, loving but firm; they put family first; and all of the wives have a great sense of humor. They've also shown their chosen lifestyle to be every bit as unexotic as they are, which is precisely their point.

The Browns aren't LDS, but their struggle for acceptance into the mainstream of American culture will be a familiar tale to any member of a religious minority. (And of course, their shared origin story with Mormons brings a special kind of "there but for the grace of the Manifesto go we" wonderment to contemporary Mormon viewers.)

I have no desire to be a polygamist, but their show has made me re-evaluate some of my own preconceived notions -- which is what members of a religious minority always hope will happen when they risk coming out of their enclaves and into the glaring light of day.




Topics: Culture, Entertainment & Pop Culture, Faith, Beliefs, Doctrine & Practice
Beliefs: Mormon


  1. Excellent point, Jana.  I was sorry when American Muslim got pushed off the air; I thought that show had a similar potential to inform Americans about Muslim life.

  2. Apparently this particular family (I have enver watched the show) is largely embedded in the larger monogamous (and otherwise) modern culture of the western US.  The examples of polygamy that have become abusive (forced marriage of young teenagers, exclusion of young males, centralized ownership of land, restrictions on contact with the rest of society) and thus have prompted abuse by government in return (the infamous raid on the FLDS in Texas and the insane separation of babies from their nursing mothers, all based on a fake phone call from a black woman in Colorado who is an emotionally disturbed polygamist “groupie”) are a bit more off-putting and don’t have any clear positive message for that variation of polygamy.  Because we don’t talk about the details of polygamy muich in the modern LDS Church, most people are not familiar with how it was actually practiced once it could be out in the open, and before the Federal government started putting husbands in jail while their wives struggled to support their children.  And then there is the whole panoply of polygamy among Muslims and others, like the current president of South Africa who just added wife #6.

  3. muslims, mormons or christians, all religions have the same problem there was no alhpabet during the time period they say they are from that had the symbols to produce any of their names or the names in their books.  we do not translate names the sound would stay the same. get an education and a job,  o come on, throw a temper tanturm to prove i am right.  by the time your in third grade you should have enough information to put all religions in the garbage were they belong.

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