By Stephanie Cole
In September 2010, TLC unveiled a new domestic reality show called “Sister Wives.” TLC seems to have hit on an exploitive niche. The network is the most consistent source of reality shows that showcase families or people whose domestic lives are hardly very interesting beyond their defining quirk. “Sister Wives” is no different.
The network has previously irked us feminists with its popular “Toddlers and Tiaras.” Now TLC has crossed the line again. “Sister Wives,” which begins its second season this month, follows a Fundamentalist Mormon family that practices polygamy. Husband Kody Brown, started the first season with three wives and ended it with four. The legal implications of the show are fuzzy, as he is only legally married to one of the women. (The Utah Attorney General maintains that it does not have the resources to investigate polygamists who are not suspected of rape or abuse.)
The legal implications of “Sister Wives” aside, the show is most offensive for its refusal to criticise a practice as obviously sexist as polygamy. The Brown family works hard to present plural marriage as something good, and TLC goes along with it. The website describes the show as showing how the Browns “attempt to navigate life as a normal family in a society that shuns their polygamist lifestyle.” The network fails to emphasize that the Browns are not members of the LDS Mormon Church, misrepresenting the religion’s official condemnation of plural marriage. It also fails to address that fundamentalist polygamy has been a breeding ground for rape, child marriage, and domestic abuse. Even if these things do not occur in the Brown home, the show still normalises a practice that unquestionably objectifies women and denies their personhood.
Or course, TLC would not air such a show if they didn’t think it would be a hit. The problem with reality TV is that we as the viewers often enjoy observing behaviour that we know is wrong. Networks know this, and they seek out such behaviours, which in turn encourages them. Polygamy may continue to occur without the help of TLC, but it is a misogynist practice that needs no positive public relations. Though past evidence suggests they don’t possess feelings, TLC should be ashamed.