Back in October I caught the flu. The real deal. Influenza. I lay on my sofa, drooling on my pillow, shivering under blankets and watching reality tv. I am not generally a fan of reality tv. I tend to watch it on very rare occasions, but being sick, I decided to give Sister Wives a go.
I watched the first two seasons straight through, broken up by naps and potty breaks. I expected I’d dislike Kody Brown and that I’d be generally annoyed by all the Mormon cheeriness. Instead, I saw a family that works, and as much as I rooted for their courage to come on the show, I also mourned for what the show was doing to them.
Not merely because the government was threatening them with investigation (and as a Pagan I completely understand their freaking out over that) but because it invaded their lives in very real ways. They said things on camera they may never have said to each other before and I’m pretty sure Kody got the rough end of that with his wives expressing doubts, concerns and disagreements in such a public forum. The children shared things with millions of strangers that they normally wouldn’t have. And as always with reality television, drama was created where it perhaps never existed.
As much as I applaud their courage, and as much as I think the show has been positive for alternative families in general, I think the show is harming the Brown family. Sometimes when the media approaches, it’s better to say no. I spoke to Terisa Greenan, the force behind Petal Films and 3 Dog Pictures, about her experience dealing with the media attention from her polyamory web series Family:
There has been some negative backlash associated with being so out and open about polyamory, and with becoming something of a spokesperson for the community, as I have, but the positive feedback and the rewards I have enjoyed have been far greater than the negativity. I wouldn’t change it for anything. I would absolutely do it again. Having said that, though, I’ll add that we have stayed away from certain types of publicity. We have had over a dozen offers to star in a reality show and have declined them all. Just this month we opted to do a print interview in Details magazine, but chose not to do TV interviews with Anderson Cooper or Inside Edition. Certain TV formats strike us as sensationalistic and we don’t want to be a part of those.
Featuring the music of Christopher Bingham, of Gaia Consort and Bone Poets Orchestra, the series focused on a poly family in Seattle, their relationships with each other, with their families, neighbors and somewhat shifty documentary filmmakers. I was a huge fan from episode 1, enthralled by the storyline and fantastic actors, and more than a little heartbroken when it ended.
The series only lasted a year, but to my knowledge it’s the first time polyamory, and not polygamy, has been the feature of a show like this. Rather than a documentary or reality tv project looking at polyamory from the outside, it was an original creative project created by “insiders”:
I have no idea where the show would have gone if it had continued. The 3 main characters, although originally based on me and my 2 partners, took on a life and a personality all their own. They really weren’t us anymore. So, who knows what they would have done or where they would have gone or what other interesting people they would have met? I have no idea. Anything was possible with those three!
I actually started the web series as a lark. It was supposed to be a small project to keep me busy between feature films. I was in the midst of trying to raise funds for my second feature at the time, and fundraising was so uncreative, that I wanted something creative to fulfill me while I was doing that. Of course, very soon after it started, “Family” became quite popular, and the schedule I set for myself of writing, shooting, editing and posting an episode every 2 weeks for a full year, became a full-time job. My other project fell to the far back burner and “Family” was my life for all of 2009.
The idea of plural, committed relationships is a recurring theme on television the past few years. The outstanding success of Big Love, followed by the more controversial Sister Wives, and the continued growth of polyamory as an acceptable lifestyle, has left many people viewing the legalization of plural marriage as a natural and welcome continuation of the marriage equality movement.
Part of that comes from great representations of plural committed relationships in the media. Without Big Love and Sister Wives, most of us would still have this image of polygamy as an oppressive patriarchal harem rather than seeing a different way families can work. For polyamory, we have Family, which showcases how actual polyamorists live and the issues they face, including dealing with an intrusive media that wants to feature the Freak-of-the-Week. While Family has wrapped up, and we will just have to imagine the future adventures of the trio, it’s still available as a positive example to help people understand alternative families.
Yet the media is a double-edged sword. Sister Wives, although positive, shows the strain alternative families face under the spotlight. The teenagers, before they’ve graduated high school, are already being put on the spot as to whether they plan to be polygamists. Every statement the Brown’s make, from feminism to child-rearing to Warren Jeffs is being debated in the court of public opinion. It’s already caused them to uproot their lives and move to a new state. While a polyamory reality tv show might be good for public perception, how could I wish that on any poly family?
Maybe there will be new shows featuring poly families in the future. Terisa Greenan has already moved on to other projects:
It’s a documentary, called “Someday You.” It’s about American author Robert Clark Young, who was sort of a bad boy of literature. You can look him up on wikipedia and read all about him. Anyway, in 2008 he completely turned his life around when his parents had strokes and he became their sole caregiver. My mom is also caregiver for her elderly mother, so it’s a topic that’s of interest to me. And I think RCY’s story is particularly interesting because of the transformation that he’s gone through as a result of caring for his aging parents. I finished editing the film in October, and it’s being submitted to film festivals now, so hopefully it’ll play the festival circuit next year, and with a bit of luck, get picked up for distribution.
However, she’s still working with Christopher Bingham on projects, such as the Perils of Poly music video:
Chris and I and our families are dear friends and yes, we have worked on many projects together. I frequently tell people that Chris is likely the most talented person I know, and I know a LOT of talented artists. It’s amazing to be able to use his art in my art and to be able to collaborate with him creatively. He’s a genius, and I feel so lucky to know him and be close to him. We sometimes clash and disagree, and sometimes get thrilled and jump up and down, and do all those crazy brainstorming things you do when you’re coming up with ideas for things. He’s incredibly smart and supportive and eager to make great art. I adore him.
I think plural relationships in entertainment media are just getting started. I think we will see more, possibly even Pagan poly families, on television and I find that idea both exciting, and a bit terrifying.