Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Who says monogamy isn’t the aberrant state? Reflections regarding Sister Wives

I’m the first to admit that I’ll watch a show or read a book out of perverse curiosity. Who hasn’t watched five consecutive hours of Paris Hilton’s British Best Friend just to see how it would affect your brain? It’s my casual interest in interspersing long television-free stretches with some random TLC reality programming that led me to watch Sister Wives.

I was not prepared for how much the show would engross me and how much frustrated self-reflection it would provoke.

First of all, this blog isn’t a thorough critique of Sister Wives as a television show, as I haven’t watched enough to adequately analyze it. Rather, I’m reflecting on how taking in a few episodes of this show, and what it depicts, made me question my reactions to polygamy.

One man, four women, seventeen children
The Brown family belongs to a polygamous Mormon fundamentalist church called the Apostolic United Brethren and is shown residing in Utah at the beginning of the series but later moves to Nevada. The show is currently in its third season.

A man, Kody, has four wives: Meri, Janelle, Christine, and Robyn. Legally, Kody is only married to Meri and has “spiritual unions” with the subsequent three wives. The women live in separate houses with their respective children (currently 17 in total) and Kody…makes his rounds. As such, he has four different households and continues to maintain pseudo-separate relationships with the respective wives (as well as procreate with them). The show focuses not only on the relationship between Kody and each wife, but the relationships of the wives with one another, and their participation in a bond they refer to as being “sister wives.” The show also depicts a lot of communal gatherings and activities in which Kody, the four women, and all the children come together as a family.

Some definitions: the term for a marriage consisting of a man and more than one wife is technically polygyny but is often subsumed under the broader term for a person and multiple spouses, polygamy due to the higher frequency of this one man-multiple women arrangement. The term for a woman with more than one husband is polyandry. For polygyny and polyandry there are no marriage bonds between the multiple wives and multiple husbands, respectively, as opposed to group marriage. I’ll be using “polygamy” to characterize the familial/spousal arrangement portrayed on Sister Wives.

My knee-jerk response watching some episodes of this program was one of protest. The feminist arguments against polygamy are many and well known. To name a few points: women are collected like possessions and added to a spousal relationship that is inherently and completely patriarchal; multiple women have marital access to one man while one man has access to multiple women; young women can be exploited and forced into (sexual/marital) relationships; religious, social, and familial pressures and teachings can raise the children of polygamist families to automatically accept polygamy as the required lifestyle without giving them the knowledge and agency to “choose” another way to life.

My profound fascination with the few episodes I watched, and the resulting contemplation of how I felt about it, led to a lengthy conversation (about four hours) with my good friend and conversational/philosophical debate companion, Chris. Some of the semi-conclusions I’ve made about my responses to the show – and polygamy of this nature, generally – are the result of his excellent interlocution.

The bottom line is I feel adverse to polygamy and I want to understand why.

The hardest part for me to accept is that these women are happy, fulfilled, and satisfied in this arrangement. Of course, it is a “reality” television show and so there is inevitable scripting and plot direction – of the depictions of happiness and satisfaction as well as tension and drama – so it’s difficult to really know anything about the nature of this complex relationship. While each woman gets one quarter of a husband – emotionally, sexually, etc., by virtue of being a man in the Mormon fundamentalist faith, Kody has unlimited access to four women – to bear and raise his children and to feel compelled to love and befriend one another as sisters because that’s how it’s done.

Kody is shown arranging to go on “dates” with each wife while the women candidly discuss the relative challenges of their wifely placement – Merri is the first wife, which has some advantages, but Robyn is the newest wife, and was the first new addition in 16 years, which sparks jealousy. Janelle can tell you why she enjoyed coming into the relationship as wife #2, and Christine feels frustrated as wife #3.

Inevitably, this family revolves around Kody. He is the one person completely tied to everyone else, mothers and children. It’s difficult for me to accept that this arrangement is emotionally and sexually fulfilling for the four wives – but then again, what do I know? I’ve never been in a polygamous relationship.

I’m a monogamist in practice, but my ideals and philosophies do not rely on monogamy (and especially not marriage) as the bedrock of a hetero- or homosexual relationship. I’m very interested in the idea that monogamy and pair-bonding are not necessarily natural (historically, anthropologically) practices for human beings. Im an ardent supporter of being non-traditional and analyzing why we believe everything we do.

I realized that reacting to polygamy as a deviant aberration of the typical sexual/familial union of two adults could be considered akin to reacting to gay marriage as an aberration. And as a feminist and a LGBTQI rights advocate, that makes me uncomfortable.

Just as polygamy seems to me as the most bizarre, unthinkable practice, in terms of what I want in my sexual/familial life, I realize that I’ve been socialized and raised to accept monogamy as the norm, just as these women appear to think polygamy is the way to go.

My politics is always one of personal agency and choice to live life however one wants. I don’t criticize the woman who wants to be a homemaker. But the issue here that makes me confused and uncomfortable is trying to understand “choice” – if you’ve been raised in a faith that dictates huge families of multiple women that revolve around a single patriarch, have you really “chosen” that lifestyle?

I haven’t accepted polygamy. As an atheist, its hard for me to imagine believing in fundamental religious teachings dictating that I should be one of many wives. I deeply believe that polygamy can be oppressive to women and children and I cannot ignore how the practice of multiple wives disturbs me as a feminist, no matter how the Brown family of Sister Wives claims “love should be multiplied, not divided.”

That being said, I recognize that the power of socialization to regard a religious/lifestyle practice as perverse or bizarre works both ways. In such a complex and diverse world, who’s to say what’s natural or normal?

Regardless of my frustration and skepticism about polygamy as a lifestyle, the show had a powerful effect on me, making me analyze the reasons why polygamy bothers and concerns me, and forcing me to recognize how even educated, very liberal thinkers can operate with hard-wired assumptions.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

My Love of Toys; or, A Tale of Two Tutters

If you’re reading this blog post, you likely came across it via my Facebook page, and are thus likely already familiar with the exploits of a loveable, blue, mouse finger puppet named Tutter (full title: Travel Tutter) and perhaps even the full-sized model, affectionately known as Big Brudder Tutter.

Tutters unite!

But do you know his* origins? Are you privy to The Story of Tutter?

Tutter, the character, is a creature from the Jim Henson Muppetverse and hails from The Big Blue House. According to MuppetWiki, “Tutter (born Tutter T. Tutter) is a blue mouse who lives in the Big Blue House with Bear on Bear in the Big Blue House.”

With a brother six years my junior, I managed to stay up to speed on children’s television programming long past my childhood (and adolescence…). As an ardent fan of The Muppets, I was inclined towards Bear in the Big Blue House and the adorable, albeit saucy, mouse Tutter.

Then one day, around age 12 or 13, a friend and I came into possession of a finger puppet Tutter. I won’t divulge how, for the privacy of those involved in Tutter’s dubious beginnings.

Tutter after a hard night on the town.
Like the Ring of Power, Tutter lay dormant for many a year – approximately 10, to be precise. I liked him, and played with him alongside my vast and ever-growing collection of toys and puppets, but he didnt really have a personality of his own. In my mid-teens, I purchased the full-sized plush Tutter, because two Tutters are better than one.

Perhaps ironically, it wasn’t until my early adulthood that Tutter, shall I say, blossomed into the mouse he is today.

My mother was likely the biggest accomplice in gradually and inadvertently ascribing a personality to Tutter. Likeminded in our zaniness, my mom would take Tutter to the office with her as a companion, occasionally sending me e-mails about how Tutter was slacking off, or being a nuisance. I’d retort with instructions about how she should set him to work sorting her paper clips. She also thought it was funny to make the larger Tutter, who she later dubbed Big Brudder, lip sync to the Cutting Crew song “(I Just) Died in Your Arms Tonight.”

Big Brudder pretty much has a Master's in English.
Travel Tutter, specifically, was born in 2008 when he accompanied me to England for a four-week study abroad program at Memorial University’s campus in Old Harlow. He went on some day trips, saw some plays, but wasn’t quite yet a tourist gimmick. Within the following few years, he gradually became my travel token, a subject for every requisite touristy photo.

Many people have taken toys or figurines on trips for photo ops but Ive kept it up with surprising alacrity.
Tutter at Edinburgh Castle in Scotland.

Tutter’s everyday activities eventually came to eclipse his travels, and what started as this:

Tutter smoking some Cubans in Cuba.

…soon devolved into this:


As long as I can remember, toy animals have been – and are – magic.

A Wrinkles puppet
I brought my two GANZ Wrinkles dog puppets, Shiloh and Rink-a-Dink (I came up with the latter appellation all by myself) to school pretty much every day of Grade Two and entertained (annoyed?) my classmates with informal puppet show sagas. I wrote and illustrated stories about the adventures of these two dog puppets.

A few toys guarding my former office.

Anyone who has known me for a long time is well aware of my (healthy!) obsession with toys and other collectable objects. And not just sentimental stuffed animals that have stuck around since childhood; many of my current plush toys, puppets, and other creatures are acquisitions since adulthood. Penguins, Paddingtons, or an Edgar Allen Poe doll – I love toys. 

Playing with stuffed animals and other toys was an incredibly valuable part of my childhood and imaginative and creative development and, in many ways, this part of my personality never faded with age.

Let's not forget about Grandma Flutter.
Tutter is an elaborate inside joke that keeps on growing. Eventually, everyone was “in” on it – friends, family, co-workers. Sometimes Tutter is very active, and sometimes he lays low for awhile.

It went without saying that I would bring Tutter to Montreal when I moved here for September 2011, and, while I never gave it too much thought, I did wonder how to “introduce” my new friends to Tutter beyond the obvious: this is an old mouse finger puppet that goes places with me.

It only took the first night of inebriated merriment at Thomson House following the Departmental Wine and Cheese for Tutter to make his appearance, and the hilarity with which my new friends have accepted, embraced, and loved, this old, ragged, purportedly alcoholic mouse was a great sign of things to come.

* I typically refer to Tutter as a single character/entity although embodied in two forms.