Monday, September 20, 2010

TLC On Women

TLC began its life as The Learning Channel, and that's where the acronym comes from. Nowadays it's anything but a learning channel, what with mostly dealing in reality shows, the weirder the better.

And what do those shows teach us about women? 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.

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.

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.
*As tinfoil hattie points out in the comments, this applies not to Mormons in general but to the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints sect.
ETA: This video shows how very differently polyandry is treated in the media: