Pray Tell: I Watch “Sister Wives” For The Daughters, Not The Wives

Pray Tell is The Frisky’s new biweekly column about the intersection of religion and women’s lives. 

The third season of the TLC series “Sister Wives” premiered this week. The show is about the Brown family — Kody, and his wives Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn. They have 17 kids, including three from Robyn’s previous marriage. The Browns are members of the Apostolic United Brethren (AUB), an offshoot of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (LDS, aka the Mormons). Since the mainstream LDS church agreed to outlaw polygamy in exchange for Utah being granted U.S. statehood, the members who wanted to keep on practicing plural marriage joined groups like AUB. While plural marriage has been around for thousands of years (Jacob marrying both Rachel and Leah, anybody?), the appeal of “Sister Wives” is seeing how the practice works in modern times. Think of it as a real-life version of “Big Love.”

Although the Browns live openly as polygamists (I mean, how closeted can you be when you have a reality show?), most of their children don’t seem too enamored of the lifestyle. The Browns send their kids to public schools and let them have friends who aren’t of the same faith. Though all the parents have said that they want their kids to practice polygamy as adults, most of the older kids have said “thanks, but no thanks.” The only one of the daughters who says she wants to be a plural wife is Mariah, whose mother Meri is the first and legal wife. Mariah is her mom’s only child, and she has had a pretty sweet life compared to her siblings, who grew up all sharing one or two large bedrooms. She and her mom lived in comparative luxury and got plenty of quality time during their scheduled nights with Dad.

As for the rest of the Brown girls, though, it looks like they’ve seen how polygamy has caused problems in their family and want nothing to do with it. Sixteen-year-old Madison, whose mom is second wife Janelle, has flat-out said she’d like to have a husband all to herself. It’s pretty likely that Madison’s decision was informed by her parents’ relationship — Janelle was forced to leave a job she loved in Utah because Kody decided it would be fun to move the whole family to Las Vegas, and her role has gone from primary breadwinner to yet another unfulfilled sister wife. Madison’s brothers Logan and Hunter, both also teenagers, have been stuck filling in as dads to their younger siblings because Kody isn’t with them every night of the week. Although the two boys could decide that polygamy is cool because they get to have sex with multiple chicks, they both seem interested in exploring other lifestyles. Logan, the oldest of the Brown brood, is heading off to college, where he’s sure to learn more about other kinds of families.

The Browns continue to insist, both on their show and in multiple TV interviews, that their lifestyle was something that they chose. If they really mean what they say, then they’ll let their children have the same choices. Although their faith teaches that plural marriage is the only way to get into heaven, it’s quite another thing for kids to see their moms get neglected, to witness family arguments about how money should be allocated among wives, and to feel like they don’t have a close relationship with the dad they only see one or two nights per week.

The Browns deserve credit for letting their kids explore the outside world and have other options, but how will they feel when only a few of their (so far) 17 kids choose polygamy? Will they realize that their own decisions were flawed, or will they view their monogamous children as apostates? Deep down, I suspect that some of the wives (Janelle and maybe Christine) regret their choice of husband or their choice of polygamy, but they believe too strongly in their faith to ever articulate it out loud. However, their daughters are reading those signals loud and clear. The show is a living, breathing example of feminism. Though none of the Brown girls have ever used that word to describe themselves, it’s precisely what they are: women who have seen the way the patriarchy works, and want to get as far away from it as they can.

Now, can someone pitch a TV show where Madison and Jinger Duggar of “19 Kids And Counting” run off to New York and become roommates? I’d watch the hell out of that.

Lilit Marcus is the blogger at Faith Goes Pop.