On TLC, Women Have Lots Of Kids But A Fraction Of A Husband

TLC began its life as The Learning Channel, and that's where the acronym comes from. Nowadays it's anything but a learning channel, mostly dealing in reality shows, the weirder the better. And what do those shows teach us about women?

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Well, women should have lots of children, lots. This is true of two of the TLC shows, including the show about the Duggars with nineteen children: Nineteen Kids and Counting.

Add to that a new show about a polygamous family: Sister Wives. This one consists of one Mormon husband with three wives and a bride. It looks like TLC believes that women should have both lots and lots children but only a fraction of a husband.

Should we take these lessons seriously? After all, reality shows of the type TLC specializes in are supposed to be about unusual families. But note that none of the TLC shows are about polyandry or about truly egalitarian marriages.

What unites the TLC shows about the Duggars and about polygamy is that they are about religious fundamentalist families. Such families do not believe in the equality of men and women in marriage, even though the TLC shows tend to skate over that fact. The reason Michele Duggar has nineteen children is not some accident: She is following a religious imperative of the Quiverfull movement to have as many children as possible. The reason some Mormon women* agree to (illegal) polygamy is because their religion requires that.

Do the TLC shows address this? Do they cover the negative aspects of these living arrangements? Even non-feminists might wonder how the polygamous Mormon families can justify The Lost Boys: the extra males which have to be thrown out with the trash if the community is to remain polygamous. Likewise, even non-feminists might wonder if aiming at having nineteen children is the best thing for a woman's health or even the best thing for those children. Indeed, both of these shows would give good examples of families where the role of the father must be stretched over a very large number of children. Does any of this get criticized in the shows?

My impression is that the shows are pretty much cheer-leading for the lifestyles of these religious extremists. Everyone is happy! Having nineteen children is great and doable on just your average single-earner income! Training your daughters to dream of nothing but childbirth is just dandy! Having lots of sister wives causes no jealousy, no competition for the husband's affections or time, no quarrels at all! These are happy families.

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Try to think some suitable reversals by replacing "women" in this discussion with some other demographic group, and you might notice how very anti-women's-rights these shows are:

In the TLC program, the Duggars are portrayed as a wholesome American family who just happen to have a lot of kids; in one episode we see their resourcefulness as they shop for baby clothes at a thrift store. Absent from the screen, and smoothed over in the public representation of the "Baby Conference" (as well as in much of the homeschool movement in which the Duggars work with Phillips and Vision Forum) is the specter of biblical patriarchy, which is completely at odds with contemporary notions about the roles and the rights of women.

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Biblical patriarchy or Mormon patriarchy. Either way, it's patriarchy, and it is indeed at odds with contemporary notions about the roles and the rights of women.

This video shows how very differently polyandry is treated in the media:

*As a commenter points out, this applies not to Mormons in general but to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints sect.

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This post originally appeared at Echidne of the Snakes. Republished with permission.

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DISCUSSION

By
pichou

Critics, like the author, have to stop treating religious people as though they aren't aware there are other options. Also, just because they have a different moral vision than that of mainstream society doesn't mean they have no free agency. These women are motivated by a different set of morals and values that give their lives meaning. Having 19 kids might not seem fulfilling to a secular woman living in an urban area, but it might be extremely self fulfilling to someone who holds Michelle Duggar's religious worldview and it's pretty arrogant to just say "well I know what fulfilment is, and these women cannot feel fulfilled by their choices." These shows don't say, this is what it means to be a woman; they are reality shows about distinct families motivated by different value systems.

Also a note on the term "religious extremist": it's used in reference to someone whose religious views promote the use of violence or whose views pose a threat to the safety of adherents or society. The correct word to describe the Duggards and FLDS is either radical, since their religious views demand uncompromised engagement, or orthodox (attitude not tradition or group), since they voluntarily adhere to the strict rules and principles of their tradition.

Why does this matter? It's very easy to paint any religious tradition as extreme because their values differ from mainstream secular society which is popularized as "the norm" within intellectual circles. Disrespect of difference, particularly religious difference, is a huge source of tension and prevents collaboration and cooperation.