Mormon polygamy: what is it? Who practices it? And how are they depicted in modern day culture? Today, in the United States, polygamy is practiced by about 40,000 to 60,000 people. It can be described as a subculture due to defining itself as deviating from mainstream culture and due to its identity being uniformly shared. How does one define this subculture exactly? It is those who practice a form of the Mormon religion which was founded and preached by Joseph Smith that mainly consists of the practice of polygamy and “religious communalism.” (Bennion, 23)
To understand this subculture, one should have an understanding of its history, as Janet Bennion introduces in her book, Polygamy in Primetime. In 1831, Joseph Smith, the leader of the Mormon Church, had a revelation about plural marriage and was told to restore it to the earth. By 1852, Brigham Young, the next leader, announced the polygamy doctrine to the public and stated that a man’s righteousness before God was measured by the number of his wives. And less than 60 years after this doctrine began, in 1890, Wilford Woodruff, the president, declared that polygamy was prohibited in the Mormon church. Thus, a split occurred between those who thought this true and those who still practiced. This split stays true today. So, today, three main groups of Mormon fundamentalists are grown from this split (from what is now The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints or LDS). The largest is the Fundamentalist Church of the Latter-day Saints or FLDS, with almost 10,000 members. They are rigidly patriarchal. A man must have plural wives and these wives must be subordinate to their husbands. Next is the Apostolic United Brethren or AUB, with about 8,000 members. Their Church replicates that of the mainstream Mormon religion. And lastly is the Latter-day Church of Christ, with 3,500 members. This group is the most secretive with armed guards at all meetings and church gatherings. (Bennion)
Banking on Heaven
Having a basic background of the Mormon polygamist subculture, one can now look at its depictions throughout mainstream media. First, is Banking on Heaven, a documentary about Mormon polygamists. It is said to be the inside story of a polygamist group in the United States, both at the YFZ Ranch in Texas and the town of Colorado City, Arizona. It was written, produced, and narrated by Laurie Allen, who herself escaped from one of these groups. Allen has been interviewed and shown footage on such television shows as Anderson Cooper 360, America’s Most Wanted, ABC News, Fox News, and CBS News.
It appears that the goal of this documentary is to shed light on the abused women of fundamentalist Mormon families and to observe the lives of Mormons in these communities. Banking on Heaven opens with a woman walking through a desert, speaking about how she was beat by her mother for not sleeping with her father. The viewer is already introduced to the theme of this film. It is overtly going to depict the harshness of fundamentalist Mormon communities. The producer and narrator introduces herself as Laurie Allen, who says she was a child slave and never finished 6th grade while in the LeBaron polygamist sect.
Bill Nichols in Representing Reality would then argue this is the interactive mode. Interactive mode is when the filmmaker is a part of the film. His or her voice can be heard just as as readily as a mentor, participant, prosecutor, and provocateur. (Nichols, 44) Here, Allen’s voice is heard as a participant. It also answers the question Nichols asked about where does the filmmaker stand in regard to the historical world of the film. She is a part of it directly, having lived on a Mormon commune herself. Thus, one could also argue that the documentary has the interventional gaze because of the involvement of look and abandonment of the precondition of distance (Nichols, 85). The narrator/ producer has no distance from the story because of her involvement.
The film mainly consists of interviews. These range from a husband and wife who still live on a commune and say they enjoy the culture to women who ran away from their abuse household to young boys who were kicked out of their house at a young age. This sparks Nichols idea of a shared historical construct. (Nichols, 109) These people are all brought together in this film because of their connection to Mormon polygamy. All are different but have a similar background. There are also interviews with such voices of authority as the Majority Whip of the Arizona Senate, various journalists, and investigators. They all talk unfavorably about Mormon communes, so thus, the audience is instructed to think badly of them too.
The scenes of the YFZ Ranch mostly consist of shots of polygamist families in yards behind huge-barred fences. Is this meant to be a metaphor for their lives, stuck away from the modern day world? Did the producer do this on purpose to again get the viewers to not only question of the legality of these communes, but feel badly for the children literally stuck in them? This is especially true when the documentary has shots of the children playing in trees together behind these fences. It allows the viewer to see the normality of these children, and simply see how they are still children! This sparks the helpless gaze, which is the inability to affect a sect of events (Nichols, 83). There is nothing Allen, the producer, can do to help these children.
One woman interviewed, Ruth, who is exiled and has run away from her community, shows where she lives now, in a forest open to the elements and then in a shanty. She would rather live here than in a commune with her husband. This, again, indirectly informs the viewer of how bad these communes are. Also, the shots of her new “homes” are very long and focused, so that the viewer can let it sink in. Nichols’ idea of the helpless gaze again applies here. There is nothing the viewer or producer can do to help.
Some things that people talked about in their interviews were how bad the schooling was in these towns, specifically focusing on how teachers would slice out sections of the textbooks that were deemed unlearn-able. This documentary give the viewer aural representations of the world of Mormon polygamy through the interview process. Most interestedly, the documentary features news clips about these communes. Again, journalists are voices of authority, so audiences trust this. But, how objective can this documentary be when only the bad side of communes and Mormon polygamy is shown? That is a personal answer for each viewer watching to decide. As Nichols states, objectivity must be allowed to let the viewer decide his or her opinion based on the fair presentation of facts. (Nichols, 196) Documentaries give us photographic and aural representations of a world, in this case, that of Mormon polygamists. These representations, or “reality,” must be scrutinized because they give us an argument about the historical world.
Second is Sister Wives, a TLC reality show that started broadcasting in September 2010 and is currently on its fourth season. The show follows Kody Brown with his four wives: Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robin. All together, there are 17 children (including the three from Robin’s first marriage). The family decided to do the show to make the public more aware of polygamy and are acting to educate those unaware. This education appears to be working because the show is a hit with 2.5 to 3 million viewers an episode.
First, let’s look at Season 1, Episode 1, titled “Meeting Kody and the Wives.” It appears that the goal of the episode is to educate others about polygamy and depict the differences between the Brown family and typical Mormon fundamentalists, but at the same time, show the crazy big family and their funny antics. This applies with John Corner’s idea in “Performing the Real” that the point of television is public knowledge and popular entertainment. (Corner, 266)
The show opens with Kody and his family introducing themselves (saying names, ages, and basic descriptions of who they are) while at a wedding. The whole family is together dancing and socializing. Obviously this is the first shot for a reason. The producers wanted to show the family at a typical event that anybody could identify with: a wedding! Who hasn’t been to a wedding. But, one can question if the family is purposefully “acting” happy here for the cameras. As Corner states, almost everything on these shows is deemed to be true, including what characters say and do, but there are cameras there, so how “real” can this truly be? (Corner, 256) One of the first statements Kody makes is, “I’m a polygamist, but we’re not the polygamists you think you know.” So, he is already distancing himself and his family from other Mormon fundamentalists. The audience knows right away that this family does not have the crazy, commune-living, prairie-dress wearing lifestyle. Kody then talks to the camera directly when he asks the crew to come meet family. The crew is the audience here. Kody is showing how he is willingly letting the crew, thus viewer, in. No closed doors here! So, thus, Kody is putting himself and his family on display, as Corner writes about putting “self” on display. (Corner, 261)
Kody is also shown in a nice suit while driving a Lexus convertible. He arrives home after work to his kids running to say hello and then goes from wife to wife to kiss them. Is he here depicted as living the “American dream?” He has something that the viewers would want themselves (the Lexus) but also has a normal routine that most husbands do when coming home from work. He’s normal, but, just a little different with the many wives. Also, to draw upon Corner, the audience is already seeing behind closed doors, the personal side of the family. Here, it’s the after-work routine.
The interview style of the episode is quite interesting. Kody and his wives sit on a couch together and answer questions directly to the camera. They each equally answer questions. This hints that the wives have autonomy in the relationship. So, again, distances themselves from the typical Mormon fundamentalist through just this little action. Letting the women speak for themselves? Oh, woah! The interview style applies to Corner’s idea of documentaries as journalistic inquiry and exposition. These documentaries or reality shows have reporting and interviewers interspersed throughout. The show is looked at as a kind of visual evidence and here, it’s evidence of a subculture that it not widely seen. (Corner, 259)
Another way the family distances themselves from the typical Mormon polygamists is through what they talk about. For example, Janelle, in an interview, stated that the family’s final goal was to have happy and ethical children, not necessarily raised to be polygamists themselves. She also stated that she hopes they marry for love and makes a point not to say forced. The stereotypical Mormon fundamentalist practices and believes in arranged marriages. The Brown family does not. The interview process can make one question the “reality” of the show. For most people, they do not have interviews where they can discuss and dissect what happened that day.
This episode has many scenes of family dinners with the family sitting all together. They pray before they eat, like many Americans. And then are shown joking around and playing together after dinner. Again, just like the normal American families! Another scene has the whole family doing chores together in the backyard. Woah, again, a typical American family! Audiences can connect knowing that the Brown family is just like them and their neighbors. As Bennion states, “Sister Wives illustrates how the family deals with normal suburban problems.” (Bennion, 186) Can these scenes apply to Corner’s idea of documentary as diversion. It’s popular factual entertainment with the viewer onlooking and overhearing.
Kody introduces each wife separately and then each tells her own personal story. Every wife is seen having “normal” problems: Meri can’t have more children. Christine’s daughter won’t let her pull her tooth out and burns the toast she is making for breakfast. Also, the viewer learns that Janelle works full time, and thus, is a provider for the family. This, again, distances themselves from Mormon fundamentalists. It is even different from some “normal” American families where husband may want his wife to stay at home. Lastly, audience learns that it was Meri who really wanted plural marriage and pushed Kody to marry again quickly. Christine talks about how she always wanted sister wives. So, obviously these women were not forced into this. One can assume this not only because the wives say it out loud, but also through how the producers depict them: happy, content, and in love with their husbands, family, and fellow sister wives. Would you be having joyous family dinners all together if you hated your situation?
Second, let’s look at Season 2, Episode 6, “Polygamist Party.” It appears that the goal of this episode is to show how personal the family gets with the camera, and thus, audience. The family is putting themselves on display. It opens with Meri having a screening for colon cancer. The audience sees all. The camera goes into the consultation and then the surgery room for a colonoscopy. The audience literally sees inside Meri’s colon. So, if the family is showing such a personal thing as this, they obviously are not hiding anything from the camera. If the audience does not trust them by now, they certainly will.
The other half of the episode, the audience sees the wives throwing a dinner party for their friends, who they have just recently come out as polygamist to. The wives are in the kitchen joking around with each other. The producers obviously want to depict them as friends who get along well. For dinner, an eclectic group of friends come over: mostly monogamous couples, but two gay men. Also, one family brings their baby with them. So, again, distancing themselves from Mormon fundamentalists because have gay friends. The one gay man talks about how other couples are unconventional like the Brown family, drawing upon his own relationship. Another guest states that the Brown family is just like the rest of America. “It’s our diversity.” Here, friends are accepting. So, thus, audience feels reassured in accepting the family too.
Lastly, the wives have an interview where they talk about the persecution their families had faced in decades past. Christine’s grandfather had been jailed due to his practice of polygamy. Why do they do this? To reveal their personal struggles, but it also can be argued to have the viewer reminded of the “wrongfulness” of polygamy. As Kody says, “People don’t like what they can’t understand.” But the creators, producers, and the subjects themselves of Sister Wives are looking to help people understand and thus, make informed opinions about Mormon polygamy.
Now, let’s look at our two media representations side by side. Do these help define Mormon polygamy as a subculture? One can use Ken Gelder’s identifications in Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. First, the author writes that one can “… equate subcultures with excess or exaggeration… which are then contrasted with the restraints and moderations of normal populations.” (Gelder, 4) Gelder then also writes that “subcultural identity is pitched against the conformist pressures of mass society and massification.” (Gelder, 4) Subcultures thus separate themselves from mainstream culture because of their differing actions, belongings, and ideas.
How does this play out in its representations? Banking on Heaven applies if you view exaggeration by its opposite of excess. These women were shown wearing prairie dresses, long, untouched hair, and simple plain clothing for the men. No opulence depicted, not even typical material pleasures in life. This vastly contrasts with normal populations, and thus, also the Brown family. Or, one can argue that having more than one wife is “excess” and then, both representations fit this description. Being aligned against society may be the most fitting definition for the Mormon polygamist subculture. Just by having more than one wife, this subculture is fighting against the conformist pressures of mainstream culture. This is especially true for the Brown family, who want to fit into normal society, actually live among it. Mormon polygamy, thus, does constitute a subculture based on these two definitions of Gelder. And how does this make them represented? Either in an educational light, as with Sister Wives, where the Brown family is trying to teach the viewer about this unknown world, or in disapproving light, as with Banking on Heaven, where Allen informs the viewer of the secrets of this subculture.
Own Media Representation
If I wore to create my own media representation of this subculture, I would try to combine these two representations. As Nichols states, a documentary should be objective so that its viewers can be personal informed decisions. (Nichols, 196) The facts about Mormon polygamists should be presented in a fair and modest way. I would make a documentary featuring a family like Kody Brown’s in Sister Wives and one that lives on a commune like those in Banking on Heaven. I would plan to first follow each around separately, see their lives, and focus greatly on their wives. As Corner stated, reality shows reveal the personal, so for this to be true, my audience would have to see behind closed doors. (Corner, 257) What do each family eat? What is their daily routine? Which wife does the husband sleep with every night? I would intersperse normal interviews throughout this. Either the man, wives, or both together speaking to the camera. Thus the viewer is introduced to aural representations of this world, or Mormon polygamy. I would end the documentary with having the two husbands meeting and each discussing his ideas about polygamy and how he puts those into practice. Thus, the viewer can have a completely objective viewpoint about this subculture due to hearing the husbands debate about their issues. Nichols specifically writes about the importance of objectivity and letting the viewer decide based on the fair presentation of facts, so I would strive for this.
Mormon polygamy is a very interesting subculture (to say the least) mainly due to their lack of presence in mainstream society. Through reality shows like Sister Wives and documentaries like Banking on Heaven, viewers are introduced to this religion and the families that practice it. Seeing just how they are representing allows the viewer to be educated, make judgements, and form an opinion about this mysterious subculture.
Bennion, Janet. Polygamy in Primetime: Media, Gender, and Politics in Mormon Fundamentalism. Waltham, MA: Brandeis UP, 2012. Print.
Nichols, Bill. Representing Reality: Issues and Concepts in Documentary. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991. Print.
Gelder, Ken. Subcultures: Cultural Histories and Social Practice. London: Routledge, 2007. Print.
Corner, J. “Performing the Real: Documentary Diversions.” Television & New Media 3.3 (2002): 255-69. Print.
Poole, Christopher. “Sister Wives.” Sister Wives. TLC. 2010-present. Television.
Banking on Heaven. Dir. Laurie Allen. Over the Moon Productions, 2007. DVD.