A good male friend recently asked me what percentage of the television shows I watch fit into the category of “Women Who for Some Reason Embrace the Patriarchy.” Avoiding the cop-out answer that “all popular culture reflects the patriarchy,” I realized that it’s a pretty large percentage. Anyone who has lived with me or spent any time in front a television with me knows that when I’m not watching The Wire or Ravens football, there’s a good chance that I’m watching TLC or MTV. I was into Jon & Kate plus 8 before Kate went blonde, I started watching the Duggars when they were at 13 Kids and Counting (now at 20, I think?), and I’m pretty sure my college roommate and I threw a watch party for the premiere of 16 and Pregnant (long before there were domestic violence awareness commercials at every break during Teen Mom).
Disregarding the fact that having articulated that list kind of makes me want to self-revoke my college and high school diplomas, I observe that all of these shows revolve around women reproducing, and either reproducing a lot or reproducing at a stigmatized age – both of which are categories of reproduction that I have neither experienced nor known anyone to experience. There are a lot of class observations to be made here (Kiera, I’m totally going write that post on dialectics and Teen Mom), but I want to focus this post more on the latest addition to my television line up (no, not Boardwalk Empire, though it is amazing): TLC’s Sister Wives.
Sister Wives documents the lives of Kody Brown, his three wives – (l-r) Janelle, Christine, and Meri -and their 13 children in Lehi, Utah. They lead relatively normal lives – all but one of the children attend public school, they wear conventional clothes, etc – except they all live in the same house with three separate apartments for each of the women, through which Kody rotates on a schedule, sleeping with a different woman each night. At first, it seems like Kody makes a real effort to spend equal time with each of the women (his meticulous schedule helps him – vomit). But as the show progresses, it’s clear that there is some serious inequality going on, all of which manifests in major jealousy among the wives. The show revolves around the major plot twist: 16 years since his last marriage (to Christine), Kody wants to add another wife to the family – Robyn (far right).
This show got over 2 million viewers for the premiere, and with such viewership comes, obviously, scrutiny. The scrutiny wasn’t limited to the Today Show, however: Utah police are looking into possibly prosecuting the Brown family for bigamy. Not really surprising given the huge media attention, and with this whole law school thing going on, I didn’t pay much attention to the progression of the story. That is, until my Torts professor announced that he would be representing the Brown family. My professor, a constitutional law scholar, explains his reasoning here.
So my fascination with the polygamist, patriarchy-embracing family took on a legal flavor. I hopped on my legal statute search engines and dug up the history of bigamy prosecutions in Utah. Turns out, there aren’t many. The ACLU gives a great summary here, but basically it comes down to this: “a person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.” In the case of the Browns, Kody is only legally married to Meri, his first wife, and he cohabits with the other three women, thereby falling under this statute. Historically, Utah courts have be hesitant to prosecute claims of bigamy unless there are allegations of other crimes in the relationship: rape, incest, child abuse, etc. (More on the definition of “crime” as construed under this statute in a bit.) The reason for turning a blind eye? The Fourteen Amendment and, ironically enough, the landmark civil rights case of Lawrence v. Texas (2003). In Lawrence v. Texas, a Texas law criminalizing sodomy was found to have violated the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, and the court said “absent injury to a person or abuse of an institution the law protects, consenting adults enjoy the freedom to define their private intimate relationships within ‘the confines of their homes and their own private lives.’” This same legal principle contributed to the relative freedoms women enjoy under Roe v. Wade.
Is this a matter of “Bigamy! From the people who brought you anal sex and abortions!”? As you would imagine, it’s not quite that simple. But the protection of privacy (and, in this case, the expression of religious beliefs) is what allows consenting adults to partake in polygamist marriages, absent any other crimes. As the ACLU points out, these other crimes can and should be prosecuted under other statutes.
However, by criminalizing private, consensual, adult relationships that are motivated by sincerely held religious beliefs, we fail to live up to the constitutional promise that consenting adults be free to maintain and define their personal relationships without fear of government interference.
So that explains why my professor is representing them. However, this is the same professor who spent the first two weeks of law school talking about Hegel, Critical Legal Studies, Queer Legal Theory, and Feminist Legal Theory. So how does feminism fit into all of this? I believe it all comes down to whether or not something as nebulous as patriarchy can be criminalized (answer: it can’t…who writes and enforces the laws to begin with??). But should patriarchal exploitation be criminalized in relationships between (or in this case, among) “consenting adults”? It is clear that there’s some major inequality going on in this family. I think a lot of what I’ve observed is pretty easily surmised, so I’ll just include two select stories that epitomize the relationship.
On their twentieth wedding anniversary, Meri and Kody discuss some of the jealousy problems that arose when Robyn was added to the family. Meri asks Kody the question that I had been wondering throughout the series: “How would you feel about me taking on another husband, or having another male lover?” Kody’s answer: “The thought of you with another guy sickens me and seems wrong to me. I feel like you want me to admit that what I’m doing is unfair – and that’s just not an emotion I’m willing to address.” Wrong on so many levels, all of which come down to patriarchy.
The most disturbing quotation from that same scene came when Kody and Meri discussed having another child. Meri and Kody have one child together, a teenage daughter, and though Meri used to want to have more children, fertility issues have prevented that, and now she has decided she doesn’t want to try for more children any more. She tells Kody that she doesn’t want to do in vitro fertilization, at which point Kody smiles and turns to the camera and says, “I haven’t been told ‘no’ in a strong enough fashion for it to mean ‘no’ yet.” I think that pretty much epitomizes the problems encompassing the entire show. Consent in this relationship, it seems, is a one-time deal. All of these women did choose freely to enter into this relationship, knowing that they would take on more wives, etc. But when it comes time to add the new wife, there really isn’t any negotiation – it’s the Kody Show. And this type of inequality, writ large, is the Patriarchy Show. And guess what? It’s not limited to polygamist marriages.
I’ll leave the analysis on deconstructing patriarchy within heterosexual relationships to another time (or perhaps another person), but it is essential to recognize that inequality pervades all relationships if you don’t actively resist it. This doesn’t mean we should stop having partnerships, but it does mean we all need to work incredibly hard to live up to the name we give our interactions and truly act as partners. The clear problem in Sister Wives is not the polygamy, it’s the patriarchy. There is no negotiation, no consent-seeking, and, therefore, no equality. And that’s incredibly oppressive and detrimental to women.
But should the state be intervening to prevent exploitative, patriarchal relationships? I’m sure you could find some feminist legal scholars out there who would argue for the criminalization of polygamy on these grounds, but then how many monogamous relationships would crumble under similar examination? While it pains me to watch the jealousy that plagues these women in this incredibly unequal relationship, I can think of other reality shows that portray similar levels of misogyny within supposedly “normal” marriages – rife with cheating, deceitful husbands and crying women left at home wondering what she did wrong. And I can think of millions of monogamous, “real-life” relationships that lack communication and equality.
The answer, then, is not to try to criminalize inequality in marriages. From a constitutional perspective, it’s a complete invasion of privacy. From a practical standpoint, it’s impossible. And from a feminist standpoint, it’s just not the right route. We need to strive towards demanding equality in our relationships. This comes from empowering both men and women to seek and desire consent in every iteration of the word, and to desire equality in their relationships. Partnerships can come in many forms, and it’s not my role to judge someone else’s choice, how many partners they want to have, or whether they want to have any all. It is my role, however, to be concerned with the lack of consenting partnerships. A partnership is a grounds for constant renegotiation of boundaries. What one initially consents to should not be binding. What breaks my heart about this show, then, is not that these women are in a polygamist relationship, but that they are stuck, like so many other women, in relationships that no longer make them comfortable and no longer fulfill them. The way to rectify this situation is not to criminalize their partnership, but rather to empower women and men to strive for a world in which no one exists in a oppressive partnership, for at that point, it ceases to become a partnership at all.