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TV Review: Sister Wives – “Honeymoon Special”

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Many TV-watching Americans (and others, I’m sure) have now seen
Sister Wives on TLC, a coming-out-of-the-closet reality show about life in a fundamentalist Mormon/Latter Day Saints polygamist sect. It seems to be unusually honest, the revelation of a way of life so different from that of conventional married life that it is, I am sure, difficult for many viewers even to imagine living in this way.

Though my life has been very little like that of the Brown family, I have a somewhat different perspective on multiple relationship.

I’ve lived in the world(s) of polygamy and polyandry in two different communities: one a place of openness, choice, and freedom, the other a quasi-Manson-like situation of the late Sixties in which women were possessions, playthings, and servants.  I have never lived in any version of Mormonism as the Browns of Sister Wives do, but all the same I can relate to the concept of “sister wives”—both the happiness and the pain of sharing one’s lover and one’s whole life with other women. In this situation, one can become very close to one’s sister wives (In some cases, one is close with the “other woman” before the shared man comes along). Even today I miss my friends who were also “sister wives”—some of whom are still close friends, though there were surely times when I’d have been delighted never to have to see some of them again!

Joseph Smith's Fourth Wife, Mary Josephine Allen

The women of the Brown family seem to find themselves caught up in very similar feelings. With characteristic honesty and an openness that makes this show worth watching, the three older wives express their feelings. They both wish to include the fourth wife and resent her at the same time, not without reason.

Kody Brown, the husband, and Robyn, his fourth wife, have just been married—not only for time but, as Latter-Day Saints believe, for eternity. In this special episode—produced after the series concluded for the season, evidently in response to the curiosity of monogamists about those who live what they call “The Principle”—the two go on an 11-day honeymoon. Robyn is young, dark-haired, and attractive despite being the mother of three by an earlier marriage, and it is clear that Kody is in love with her and as excited as a teenage boy about being alone with his present love.

She seems to understand how the other women feel, but is not really willing to alter her experience of love and marriage in order to placate them. She does, however, urge Kody to call home and to love his other wives.

They go surfing, rent a honeymoon apartment, swim, and look happy and carefree as the other three wives, Meri, Janelle, and Christine watch the children and talk about their fears and resentments as well as their desire to accept Robyn. They want to create a whole entity out of the various elements of the extended family. One has to admire the three older women, who pull no punches about their feelings. Each has been married to Kody for many years, and it is clear that they feel hurt, jealous, and abandoned. They talk about the brief honeymoons they had, and the simplicity of their weddings.

While they do deeply believe that the inclusion of other women is a way to make the love they feel for one another and their husband greater and open the doors of heaven to them all, they are clearly upset and jealous in an earthly sense. Second wife Janelle puts it bluntly. “I perceive any time he spends with her as cutting into our time. It’s the fact that he’s focused somewhere else for 11 days, and on one particular person for 11 days. That’s frustrating me.” Janelle, a strong-looking, earthy woman, makes it clear that her relationship with Kody has never been “romantic,” but more a relationship of friends. (Still, they have many children, including a newborn!) And yet, an 11-day honeymoon is taking too much away from the family, she feels.

Meri, Janelle, and Christine, it seems, never had as much time alone with Kody as Robyn. I remember well the sense that a period of ten or eleven days made a relationship seem like a singular and special one. In one communal situation in which I lived, the “Ten-Day Marriage” was popular for a time—a way of getting to have a sort of mini-monogamy with someone to whom one was deeply attracted. By spending ten or so nights together, it was possible to more deeply explore the quality and potential of the relationship—or conversely, to become tired of the person with whom one had so desired those ten days. Though this wasn’t always the case by any means, sometimes it was thought a way to “run out,” get over, a particular relationship.

Something similar seems to be at work among the sister wives, but there is also, or so it seems to me, a fear that 11 days together will lead to a desire to be together more and more. I wondered if Kody had asked each of his other wives how she felt about Robyn and him taking so many days together and leaving them to care for the kids and everything else (so far in this series, the issue of livelihood and how the group supports itself is still somewhat unclear, at least to me).  

I have the sense that Kody simply decided to have his time alone with Robyn. The two of them speak often of their long courtship, and say that it is rare, in the polygamist world, to court for such a long time. Marriages are often made within 60 to 90 days, but Kody and Robyn have been going out together (and even, scandalously, kissed before marriage!) for quite a while. They seem to feel they deserve time together. Of course, this is TV, and it’s hard to say what is really going on.

I found myself wondering if the other wives could be a little afraid to complain to Kody (or to Robyn). It would be not only anti-Principle and unwelcoming, but has the potential to drive Kody further away from them. And yet, one senses each of them may feel they are uncertain how they will get back to a more reasoned, more fully shared life. Will each of them feel as though he would really rather be with Robyn when he is with when their new, scheduled four-way married life begins?

In one amusing passage, Kody and Robyn visit the San Diego Zoo, where a sincere tour guide shows them a group of rhinos, and explains earnestly that three or so females will “hang out together,” and will only find a use for the male when the time comes to mate. Robyn and Kody look both justified and barely able to contain themselves, overwhelmed with the desire to laugh.

As the Brown family has put itself in a difficult position by appearing in this show—I have read that they are under investigation for bigamy—I cannot help but wonder what made them wish to expose themselves in this way. The desire for 15 minutes of fame? Possibly money to help keep this enormous family fed and housed?

I see in Kody Brown’s eyes a kind of zealous stare to which I am not a stranger. Perhaps he—and I am not saying that he doesn’t believe in every aspect of the Fundamentalist Latter-Day Saint religion—feels a drive to display their lives to the public, a drive which clearly the wives share, to one extent or another.
Possibly they believe that by doing this, they will be able to alter the state of polygamous families, to bring on a lawsuit that will validate their lifestyle.

One more word: one constantly feels, watching Sister Wives, that the three other wives, despite Kody’s rather hyper assurance that he loves them, are clearly insecure. They talk a great deal about the time they will spend with him, the substance of their own personal relationship with him. But is it a bit like having a relationship with Jesus? Is the reality of their marriages with them still a reality? Robyn has to insist that he call them while they are on their honeymoon together. The reality of marriage to many men is simply that youth and beauty are the bottom line of romance. Does Kody Brown love his other wives still as lovers, or more as security-figures, mothers of his children, now? (I appreciate that the Browns say that the children have the right to do whatever they want when they grow up, and not to be forced to marry anyone they don’t wish to marry. This makes them a lot more palatable, certainly to me.)

Do the other wives simply sense that their relationship with him is not the same as his relationship with Robyn? Meri, wife #1, tells him bluntly over the phone that they are unhappy with the long honeymoon and the entire situation.
Kody wants Robyn to have the experience of being with him alone; he wants to be with her alone, too—and he seems to believe that the tension surrounding his marriage to Robyn is normal, an unavoidable transition that comes with taking a new wife.

I cannot help but feel that real love should include everyone in the relationship, no matter how many that relationship contains. Do Kody’s wives even have a choice about what he does? Could any of them say, “We can’t handle another wife?” It’s unclear what the story is, though Meri, the first wife, apparently suggested Robyn to Kody as a possible fourth wife. The group of Browns has spoken of the marriage as being a “democracy,” but is it really?

They come to the conclusion at the end that Robyn needed 11 days‘ honeymoon and that it is “selfish” of the others to have wanted him to not spend so much time with Robyn, but there is a sense that the situation is still tense. The other wives say they understand that Robyn “needed” the 11-day honeymoon…yet it must seem to some of them, at least, that she got much more than any of them did (none had what might call a lavish honeymoon).

One hopes that all the wives feel they are getting what they need from this relationship. Robyn urges him to make sure he loves all his wives—that this gives her a sense that he will always love her. I can understand loving more than one person; and I am sure that the love they all have for one another is real. If only the women could have other husbands: and why not? (At one point during the series, Meri, whose 20th anniversary with Kody it is, speaks of her loneliness and jealousy. She says, in essence, “How would you like it if there were another man?” Kody blows up and says that the idea of her another husband is “vulgar.”) Due to their religious beliefs, they won’t have other men in their lives. The best hope one may have for the family is that all of the Browns fully blend together and be completely loving and supportive of one another.
Is it interesting? Yes—at least for some, certainly for me. I want to know more about this story, and will go on viewing the show if it renews for another season—despite my husband’s saying “How can you watch that stuff?” (Yes, I have only one husband.)

I look forward to seeing how things develop in the world of real, honest-to-goodness Big Love. I am well aware that I am writing here about real people who have a life together, children who are brothers and sisters, and thoughts and feelings. Their story is fascinating, and I wish them well…and hope, to be sure, that they avoid trouble with the law for having been so honest about the truth of their lifestyle.

Aired Sun., November 21, 2010 on TLC

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About Ladybelle Fiske

  • Jim

    What a sensitive approach to a situation that many people would just recoil against. I’ve never seen this show but I enjoyed reading your perspective.

  • Nan Simon

    Jim, thanks! I am glad you liked it. It’s a whole other world, and by and large I am glad to be married to one man now, but I can understand the feelings of the sister wives perhaps more than most.
    Ladybelle

  • Nan Simon

    PS the above is not by Nan Simon. Mistake. By Ladybelle Fiske.

  • http://blogcritics.org/writers/realist Realist

    You shouldn’t be using your sister’s email, Ladybelle!

    The aspect that fascinates me about this show is the topic of this post: why the other women tolerate in-house competition. I know no woman who is willing to share her man with another woman, and yet these women do.

    Up until I read this article, I thought that Kody had something special going on, but now I see that what he has is a flock of hens with self-respect issues who are deep in denial against their own feelings regarding their complex relationship. In order for this cluster arrangement to work, their feelings have to be subverted under the guise of religious observance. As such, I don’t buy it, and I fear that Kody’s idyllic existence is going to explode. He isn’t treating Robyn as he did the others, and there is clear resentment over this fact. Robyn’s warning to call the other wives and tell them he loves them isn’t going to fix things. His other women will suddenly decide that they have had enough and want out, leaving him to deal with the wreckage. Will the show cover that episode?

  • http://quarryhillcreativecenter.blogspot.com Ladybelle Fiske

    I hope so, Realist! I look forward to it. (Was at Nan’s house for Thanksgiving– that’s how it happened that her name is there– an odd irony).
    Kody, frankly, seems like a “nice jerk” to me — and there are more of those in both the monogamist and polygamist worlds than we’d like to think. You’re probably right. Robyn’s special and this is not going to change, no matter how much they say “we’ll settle into it”… Meri, I feel, realizes this already, being quite bright. Yet, I like the women and hope for the best for them all. Glad you liked the article.

  • Jordan Richardson

    Sounds like a very interesting program. I’ve not seen it, but I’m going to have to have a look at it now. These sorts of relationships are fascinating.

    Very nice review, Ladybelle.

  • http://quarryhillcreativecenter.blogspot.com Ladybelle Fiske

    Thank you, Jordan.

  • wanda shepard

    sister wives tv show is one i like watching and should make more like this one , great job keep up good shows

  • Madea

    I can honestly say that I like this show a lot better than seeing Kate Plus Eight. this woman saw that there was money to be made by pimping those eight kids out just as the Duggar’s are doing with their kids. In the case of 19 kids and counting, this woman is IMO having all of these kids in order to keep that show going. having a large family is nothing “NEW” because, that was the norm back in the day and, no one profited from it either.

  • Rebecca Nay

    I know i don’t think i could be apart of that life style .I do believe in a world were single mothers and fathers and same sex couples are raising children.I believe the more support are children of the future have the better no matter the circumstances And these mothers love there children as well as each other. And i personally think its wonderful.Before you judge remember we all live under the blanket of freedom, self expression,the freedom of religion and how we worship and who we worship and the right to live are lives how each of us see’s fit.

  • Rebecca Nay

    The differance between Kody and any other man.you have to admire that

  • http://quarryhillcreativecenter.blogspot.com Isabella Fiske McFarlin

    The main thing that bothers me (in ANY religion) that people do in the “name of God” is striking children. Adults can leave, they can refuse, they can fight back. Children, often severely punished in the name of religion, are unable to leave or to fight back. It seems to me that the women in this marriage are adults, and can choose for themselves what they want to do. (Of course, it can be hard to swim against the current of one’s upbringing and Or it appears that they can, at least– though we can hardly know all of it.
    Kody appears to be an amiable fellow (as long as he gets his way, anyhow). I personally wouldn’t want to marry him, but chacun a son gout (To each his/her own), as the French say. It’s just a matter of preference.
    Love comes in many strange shapes and guises. As long as no one is getting hurt, and as long as the children are well-cared for, I am inclined not to be too critical “Judge not…”
    Thanks for reading and writing back!

  • http://quarryhillcreativecenter.blogspot.com Isabella Fiske McFarlin

    Whoops, sorry for the broken sentence up there… I didn’t see it somehow and there seems to be no way to go back and edit it now. I’ll try to find out.

  • http://quarryhillcreativecenter.blogspot.com Isabella Fiske McFarlin

    Hello All,
    I will be reviewing the second season of SisterWives on a new feature on Blogcritics, TV OPEN THREAD. I will post briefly after the show (leaving some time for it to air in the West) and all who wish to are welcome to comment, so we can chatter about our first impressions of the episode. Sounds like fun, doesn’t it?
    Isabella