Saturday, December 10, 2011
Sister Wives from a Feminist Perspective
Sister Wives from a Feminist Perspective
My thoughts on Sister Wives are complicated. I’m a sucker for feel-good stories about big families with cute kids, so my first reaction to the show was positive. Sure, I thought, polygamy is patriarchal—but so are a lot of things. I wrote on the feminist blog a few months ago,
For me, what it comes down to is that almost all women (and men, too) make decisions that are rooted in sexist or patriarchal ideals. For example, I refuse to leave my house without at least mascara and foundation on, I diet, and I wear high heels. I recognize that these norms stem from sexism, and are, perhaps, sexist in nature, but I'm only one person, and this is my life and my body. At the end of the day, I'm going to keep shaving my pits and watching my weight. I'm not going to fool myself into thinking that these things are empowering or that "I do them for myself", but there are only so many battles I can fight.
As feminists, it's definitely important that we recognize the patriarchy/misogyny inherent in and reinforced by our and other people's actions. But that doesn't mean judging people-- especially women-- on an individual level for the choices they make…The Sister Wives are simply choosing to live a certain lifestyle for themselves-- they're not actively pushing it on other people. Even though I would never make the decision to be in a polygamous marriage myself, and I definitely don't think it's empowering (in fact, it has a tradition of commodifying women), I'm hesitant to typecast the Sister Wives as brainwashed or stupid. Like wearing a hijab, dieting for aesthetic reasons (as opposed to for health), or shaving your pubes, being in a polygamous relationship is just another choice women make. It is what it is.
Who am I to call out other women for buying into sexist ideals and traditions? Am I so liberated? The Wives seem smart and aware, and I wasn’t arrogant enough to assume that I knew what was best for them. I grew more impressed with the Brown family in the recent episode in which they go to Boston for a panel discussion on polygamy. Their acceptance of the gay college student, George, was, frankly, heartwarming. I have immense respect for their ability to accept other “alternative” lifestyles.
All that being said, it would be absurd to analyze Sister Wives from a feminist perspective without pointing out some of the obvious flaws in their marital structure. First and foremost, the absurd double standard of Kody being able to marry multiple wives while the wives can only have one husband. As I wrote a few weeks ago,
What disturbs me…is the rhetoric of suffering with which Meri, Janelle, and Christine talk about polygamy. Meri, in particular, and to a lesser extent Janelle, consider the understandable jealousy they experience a sort of test of faith. As Janelle put it, "It makes us better people. We overcome ourselves." They express anger at Kody for playing favorites with his newest wife, Robyn, but temper it with a sort of "Well, I'll learn to get over it" attitude. They dismiss their jealousy as selfishness, a hurdle to conquer.
Suffering is a big part of many religions. From fasting during Yom Kippur to self-flagellation, denying oneself pleasure or inflicting pain on oneself is seen as an act of holiness. It is a testament to one's faith. Both men and women participate in these types of activities. But the type of suffering that comes with polygamy is reserved for women only. Ultimately, it is the wives, not Kody, who have to overcome themselves, suck it up, be happy.
The obvious difference between, say, self-flagellation and the Sister Wives' struggle is that the former is done with the explicit intention of hurting oneself, whereas jealousy and heartache are just bi-products of polygamy. And yet, these bi-products become in themselves a means of proving one's faith, such that discontent within a polygamous marriage (at least the Browns') is framed as simultaneously an undesirable outcome and, when conquered, a good thing. It makes the wives "better people." It is almost solely the wives' responsibility to do the conquering. To be a woman is to suffer.
Hearing Meri, Janelle, and talk about how they need to suck it up and get over their jealousy makes me sad. Life is so hard already. Why make it even harder? I'm not denouncing their lifestyle, but I reject the notion that people-- especially women-- need to suffer in order to perfect themselves. To be human is to suffer, yes. But why should this be any more so for women?
Unlike many of the commentators on this blog, I don’t think that only brainwashed women with low self-esteem would enter into a polygamous marriage. I do, however, concede that the amount of self-sacrifice it takes on the part of the wives to preserve the marriage is enormous and, yes, unfair.
Ultimately, Sister Wives has failed to convince me that polygamy is good for women. Sure, the wives aren’t underage girls living in compounds, but the demands placed on them are absurd. That being said, part of being a feminist, for me, is allowing women to make their own decisions—even if I don’t agree with them. Autonomy comes with a price, and I respect women enough to believe they can handle it.
Written by: Jacqueline