Feminist Polygamy Comes to Reality TV



Feminist polygamists? Why not? There's a strain of feminism that doesn't trust women to make their own (however atypical) relationship choices. I am not one of those feminists, and neither are the sister wives of the Williams family. But they are explicitly feminist—all five women, along with family patriarch Brady Williams, eagerly identified with the label in an interview with writer Natalie Dicou.

Why does this matter? Because the Williams family are the newest polygamous unit to grace reality television. My Five Wives debuted on TLC March 9, featuring Brady, his five wives, and their combined 24 children.

The family, based outside of Salt Lake City, are former members of a fundamentalist Mormon sect that believes polygamy is necessary to get into heaven. "The church's male-dominated doctrines didn't sit right with the evolving Williams parents who, over time, concluded they didn't want their kids to feel compelled to rack up spouses to please God," Dicou notes.

The Williamses teach their children that gender doesn't determine a person's value, that girls can be anything boys can be, and that it's okay to be gay — or even have "multiple husbands," Nonie noted — if that's your jam.

"Whatever form marriage and family comes in, as long as it's about love and commitment, that's okay," Brady said. "Where no one's a victim. Where no one's being compelled to be in it. Consenting adults who love each other should be able to express that in a family setting."

Where no one's a victim. It's a telling sentence, and an important one. Polygamous women are perpetually portrayed as victims, by both Christian conservatives and state feminists alike.

TLC's previous polygamy series, Sister Wives, and HBO's Big Love have somewhat changed the face of polygamy in pop culture, but many people still associate the practice with sexism, spousal abuse, child abuse, and fanaticism. And it's this unsavory image of polygamy that gets used to justify its ban in the United States, much in the same way that tales of homosexuals' depravity were long used to deny them priveleges reserved for monogomous, heterosexual, Christianity-abiding U.S. citizens.

Not to put too much faith in reality TV programming, but showing America that polygamists can be culturally progressive, egalitarian, and otherwise normal-ish could be a good step in overcoming social skepticism toward the practice. A practice that, as Brady says, really comes down to "consenting adults who love each other."