"sister-wives" a review

My last year of college I wrote a rather lengthy thesis, where after many interviews and  much reading,  I came to believe  a rather simple idea:  many women who practice patriarchal forms of a variety of religions, understand their practice in terms of particularity within  universality. The women see their practice as incumbent only upon them, either as a personal preference, or a manifestation of God’s calling the them – and not universally applicable to either women in general, or even to other women of faith, who may be called to practice differently.  This is significant because it undermines a widely held understanding of fundamentalist practice, as by its very definition,  encroaching upon us either in fact ( anti-gay marriage crusade) or in spirit (unsaved/unfaithful/unpracticing are going to hell).  In other words, why tolerate people who either want to change the law to match their religious texts or just deep down inside believe that we are damned?

What if, at least for some of the believers, these assumptions do not apply?

The new TLC show “Sister Wives” is a fabulous conformation of the radical power of particularity within university.  Sister Wives is about a polygamous step-family with four wives, one husband and sixteen children in total. The wives are able to embrace polygamy as a “faith” practice as they explain on the NBC interview, while maintaining openness to alternatives for their children, and thus for us all. On the show, the language embraced by the sister wives is “lifestyle.”

There is magic in members of the Fundamentalist Mormon Church calling their faith based choices a “lifestyle.”  A lifestyle is optional and personal, the opposite of forced religious practice, the opposite of conventional thinking on fundamentalism.

This show, amongst many things is a coming out party in ways large and small and I never miss a good coming out party. When Christina, the stay home wife, goes to the hospital to have her sixth baby, the family is exuberant.  The other babies in this family were all born at home, because the family feared the treatment they would receive at the hospital.  Here they tell the doctor right away. The doctor, a young woman, replies “I have never done a delivery with a polygamist before – I have a lot of polygamist ancestors.” This is exactly what an awkward guest would say at a coming out party, a version of the classic “I have a gay cousin.”

After the birth, the entire family stomps to the hospital. Janelle, the working wife, says while the audience watches her hold the new baby, Truely, “I guess all the children are sort of like my children, it is like me expecting another child without the work.” In relation to Christina’s baby, she has the subject position of a “man.” She gets a baby without the “work.” Does she mean the work of childbirth, or does she mean the daily grind of taking care of a baby? If she means the second, the meaning, is enhanced, because as a mother who works long hours, arguably she is not the primary caretaker of her biological children either.  In a previous segment the wives mention that the children think of Jenella as the fun mom – she is the one who takes them to the movies and lets them eat ice cream for dinner. This role is also traditionally occupied by the father (in a soft patriarchy), who is the fun parent and not the disciplinarian.  Plural marriage is indeed providing Jenella with an “alternative lifestyle,” to the one enjoyed by man-woman couples, where the woman serves as the primary caretaker. Janelle is my favorite.  If was a polygamist, I would be her.

Stay home wife, Christine is my second favorite.  As a little girl she dreamed of being a third wife!  She wanted the other wives and not the husband. As a young woman she only wanted to date married men.   Is her platonic love for women hiding queerness stirring beneath the surface?

I don’t know.

I cannot imagine living with other women or men so intimately, raising their babies, sharing their meals and not wanting to share their beds; but that is me and my predilections.  The women in this show are asking us to see them as making a credible choice for the love  of God, for the love of each other, for the love of their children, perhaps even for the love of Kody, their surfer-haired husband.  In return they are giving us a paradigm for universalist religion that is rich and deep, dripping with tolerance (if not welcoming) of the other, while living a life saturated with meaning that comes from the practice of faith every moment of your day and not just on insert-your-day-of-rest-here.

Sadly the same cannot be said for Kody who says the following, when Meri, the baron wife (also the radical one), asks him to acknowledge her feelings of  jealousy, by considering how it might feel if she took a another lover.  Kody says “it is not something I am comfortable imaging. The vulgarity of you with another man sickens me.  It is against man and nature.”  Here I was, about to ask him to sign my legalize group marriage petition!  (I harbor the hope that the sister wives would sign it)

I am not sure what to do with this absolutely unmovable double standard – besides to point out that Meri was willing to move it, even if just a millimeter, by requiring him to imagine a different (aka egalitarian) world.  Meri (perhaps radical because she is baron), is also the radical one – not only does she question the double standard, but she also questions “where the lines in who we can love,” when discussing her relationship to the other children.  Like Janelle, Meri is also living a deeper sort of alternative lifestyle. She wanted to have eight children, and she got 16, and birthed only one of them.

Cross posted from: Sotah

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