I’ve been watching a Netflix series about Mormon polygamists in Utah and finding it very disturbing – though not for the reasons I expected. I anticipated that I would disagree profoundly with their way of life, which I did; but I also anticipated that I would find them repressed, button-lipped, old-fashioned and rigidly patriarchal – which they were not.
First, the bad points:
Polygamy: I disagree with polygamy, not because it is a deviant way of life (I think we should at least explore deviant ways of life) but because it is structurally unequal. As a Quaker I believe in the fundamental equality of all beings and marriage, being a relationship between equals, should reflect this. Of course marriage between two people can be unequal, and often is in a patriarchal society, but polygamy is structurally so, and therefore cannot be equal. Where one man’s attention is divided between three women, that is an unequal relationship.
Then there’s the patriarchy: though the series didn’t focus on this, there’s a council which makes decisions, and that council is composed only of men. Men also seem to speak for the group in the wider world.
Then there’s the sheer number of children they have. Each woman seems to have at least half a dozen (and to start quite young) and in an overpopulated world this is questionable, to say the least. However that is offset to some extent by their aim of being self-sufficient as they believe some sort of apocalypse is imminent.
Having said all that, I found these people quite engaging. They were frank and open both with the camera and with each other, and quite honest about their struggles with polygamy which they saw as something to be overcome on the path to a less selfish life. It did seem – as far as anyone can tell – that the women entered into ‘plural marriage’ after a great deal of thought; and though there might be conformism there was no compulsion. The women are far from silent; they speak their mind and some of them have jobs. They don’t drink and their courtship habits are quite Victorian, but unlike fundamentalist Christians they both swear and do yoga!
I did find it quite creepy to watch though, especially the scenes where the man would embrace both wives at once.
At the end of the series they were fighting a proposed bill to outlaw plural marriage which in Utah is not legally recognised. But up to that point they’ve generally been left alone. I found myself reluctantly on their side because although I profoundly disagree with their way of life, I don’t see why they should be made criminals because of it. As far as anyone can tell from a TV series, it seems to be a free choice, so why should it be outlawed just because the rest of the country behaves differently?
I wouldn’t want to see plural marriage adopted anywhere else (especially not where it might be forced or coerced) but I don’t see why these particular people shouldn’t be left alone.
Anyway, here’s the series: