Pop Culture

'Sister Wives' defy criticism to open up on TV

To begin to understand a polygamist family is to take one to Starbucks.

The short walk with Kody Brown and his four wives between the TODAY show studios and the Starbucks in the mezzanine of 30 Rock was not unlike a stroll with a herd of likeable cats. The Browns, who are the family featured on TLC’s “Sister Wives,” all walk at different paces, take interest in different things and veer off toward those things along the way.

Once we all arrived at the Starbucks counter, thankfully just after the morning rush, things were no more cohesive. Robyn, the newest wife, held up the line searching for a non-caffeinated menu item; Christine, the third wife, took her time waffling over an intricate order, and then Kody confidently announced that he’d like a venti Frappuccino with three extra shots of espresso.

And with that, parts became a whole as a chorus of “NO!” rose from the ranks.

One might argue that a man with four wives and a collective 16 children might need some extra caffeine to get through the day, but the majority ruled. Or at least compromised — Kody would get one extra shot.

The Browns at Starbucks are very much the same family you see on “Sister Wives,” which premieres Sunday. At times running in different directions, but always able to come together to make decisions. But the decision to control the caffeine intake of one family member and to put on display the lives of every family member, all of whom are part of a lifestyle that’s technically illegal, are two very different things.

Robyn, who was still courting Kody when the show was filmed, said that they considered the state of the family and how the show would change them before signing on. “It really depends on who you were before the show even starts,” she said “I think reality shows have a tendency to magnify what your weaknesses are. But we’re already doing that anyway, with the lifestyle.”

“We’ve taken it as an opportunity to open up our communications, make sure we’re being real with each other all the time ... to kind of protect against some pitfalls,” said Janelle, who was the second to marry Kody, and who said that the show actually helps them to work through issues.

“We had a small meltdown on the set recently, and Janelle’s comment to me was, ‘We just saved 20 years of burying those emotions under the table.’” Kody said. “So the fact that we’re actually in front of the camera, it’s very cathartic and we’re actually having to express ourselves very openly, and look at each other and say, ‘I forgive you and I love you, and we’re moving forward as a family,’”

Before the show, keeping a secret
TLC’s press materials describe the show as one that “captures the intense dynamics surrounding a man juggling three wives while attempting to keep it a secret from the outside world.” The cat’s certainly out of the bag now. But it raises the question: just how secret was the Brown’s lifestyle before?

“For a lot of years we needed to (keep it secret),” said Christine, who has been married to Kody for 16 years. “Because you know, it’s not a very well — accepted — lifestyle.”

To call polygamy a lifestyle that just isn’t well accepted might in fact be an understatement, as it’s technically an illegal lifestyle. In the eyes of the law, Kody is only married to his first wife, Meri. The other marriages are done within their church and are considered common law marriages. The personal risks the Browns are taking in doing the show notwithstanding, they are not taking a legal risk; the attorney general of Utah has stated that he would not go after polygamists unless there is child abuse, spousal abuse, or fraud.

“And it’s not just the illegality of it,” Robyn said of the choice to keep their lives secret for so long. “There’s also a stereotype involved. You say the word polygamist and all this imagery pops into your head.”

The stereotypes Robyn and the family want to fight are those that are on display in HBO’s “Big Love,” or what you might have seen watching coverage of the April 2008 raid on the Yearning for Zion Ranch in Texas.

“There’s three main stereotypes,” Kody said. “One is child brides. Number two is there are incestual relationships. And number three is that this a patriarchal, controlled society where you kind of do what the prophet says.”

“And that we’re repressed women,” Janelle added.

Getting acceptance in the community
The decision to do “Sister Wives” might go a long way in disputing perceived stereotypes, but Kody and the wives say they aren’t necessarily doing this for the greater good of the polygamist community. “We’re just talking about this family,” Kody said. “I would love to see the community open itself up, but all we represent is this family.”

The kids in the family are benefiting from being part of the show.

“It’s liberating for us and it’s liberating for other people,” said Christine. “We all went to the school — the kids are in public school now — and we went all together which helped the kids, and we met with the principal and everything. They were appreciative that we were open.”

“When we open ourselves up, those stereotypes people have, for whatever reason, those stereotypes suddenly change when you meet us,” said Kody. “My daughter came out of the closet [about the polygamy lifestyle], so to speak, to a friend and one of the questions she asked was, ‘Are you going to have to get married to your uncle now when you turn 16?’”

“It’s really about doing something for our children,” said Janelle. “We want to give our children more choices and more freedom.”

That kind of freedom is something Christine certainly didn’t grow up with.

“I had a great childhood, but it was also one surrounded by fear. My siblings could never say who their dad was — and this is my generation,” said Christine, who is 38. “Fear of the public knowing about my life, fear about my dad being put in jail, because his parents were put in jail. My parents did the best they could, but when we went out in public we had to say my brothers and sisters were cousins.”

Choosing polygamy, living with downsidesKody and all the wives, with the exception of Janelle, grew up in the polygamist culture. All five, who consider themselves fundamentalist Mormons (which is not the same as the LDS Church) agree that it was a “faith-based decision.”

“It’s an option of marriage in our faith,” explained Janelle. “You can still be married monogamously in our faith. If you choose to live this way, it’s acceptable too.”

For the Browns, their lifestyle affords a certain degree of freedom — each wife, for example, is doing exactly what they want thanks to their built-in support system. Meri is going back to school to study psychology; Janelle works full time; Christine is a stay-at-home mom, which is what she’s always wanted to be; and Robyn is taking some time to figure out what she wants to do.

But through it all, there’s one massive downside: jealousy.

“When they’re jealous, I want to slit my wrists,” Kody joked. “It’s very hard when they’re jealous because it’s back to, ‘No, baby, I love you, you’re special.’ It’s reinforcement, but it’s required reinforcement.”

“But jealousy for us, is an opportunity to grow,” said Janelle. “Jealousy for me is about insecurity. I’ve had to grow up and say ‘I have a lot to offer, I’m an equal partner here.’”

Meri, who was Kody’s first wife, admitted that she is “still learning” how to handle sharing her husband, being with him only every fourth night.

“I would love more time with all of them,” Kody conceded. “And then you have to look at the monetary aspect — we have a lot of children. But as soon as we bring up the downside, I see the benefit on the other side. Like, sure we’re stretched financially but we always have a mother at home.”

All of that said, bringing another wife into the family is not off the table. As Kody points out, they weren’t looking for Robyn, but once they found her unexpectedly, they knew she should be part of the family. “We went 16 years without someone else coming into the family, and we met Robyn, and it was almost immediate — within two months the five of us were absolutely sure,” he said.

Christine, who is something of a spokesperson for the wives, added, “We don’t know what the future holds.”