Television Shows Stray Far From Mormon Reality

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Kody Brown and his four wives star in TLC’s reality-based television show Sister Wives. Courtesy of TLC

Video, Photo and Print Story by Kim Eiten, NewsNetNebraska

The reality show “Sister Wives” is far from reality for Mormons.

As season two began in March, star of the show Kody Brown clarified the difference between the lifestyle of him and his four wives and that of mainstream members of the Church of Jesus of Latter Day Saints, commonly known as Mormons. Brown explicitly stated in one recent episode, “We are not Mormon.” In the Mormon faith, people who practice polygamy are excommunicated from the church.

However, the distinction between beliefs of the Browns and LDS may not be clear enough for viewers. “Sister Wives” joins other Mormon-influenced shows like HBO’s “Big Love” in affecting public perception of the religion. Jana Riess, a professor of religion at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and religion expert who focuses on Mormonism, said TLC’s Sister Wives is no exception.

“People’s understanding of Mormon culture is affected by almost every depiction of Mormonism in popular culture,” said Riess, who converted to LDS as an adult.

But this public understanding may be inaccurate.

According to a December 2007 poll from The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, when poll participants were asked to describe their impression of Mormons in a single word, the most common response was “polygamy,” including “bigamy” or some other reference to plural marriage.

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A 2007 Pew Forum poll shows that the most common response to the word Mormon or LDS is bigamy, polygamy or some other form of plural marriage. Courtesy of The Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life

Lifelong LDS member Jon Petranek of Lincoln can relate to this statistic.

“When people think of Mormons, what’s the very first thing they ask us? How many wives do you have? I get that all the time, I really do,” he said.

As for himself, Petranek will be sticking to mainstream Mormon practice if he decides to marry.

“Heaven forbid I ever have more than one,” the 29-year-old said, with a chuckle. “One is just too many.”

For the star of Sister Wives, four is the magic number, something that is illegal not only under the law, but also in the church.

“At one time the church did practice that, but in order to become part of the United States and be recognized (as an established religion), they abolished that,” Petranek said. “Anybody who is caught doing that, and is an official member of the church, is excommunicated.”

Petranek said groups who practice polygamy may share similar beliefs to those in mainstream Mormonism, but they are not recognized as LDS.

“There are offshoots. It’s like when people say they’re Roman Catholic or Southern Catholic. It’s the same thing that happens with this. They’re not considered members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints,” he said.

With “Sister Wives” mid-way through its second season, the Brown family is facing criticism in Mormon blogs that want to make clear their differences in beliefs. On mormonwoman.org, the blogger criticized the show,  writing:  “When we study or celebrate our history, we usually don’t talk much about polygamy, because in reality, polygamy is not what defines (or at least shouldn’t define) what our history is all about.”   

 But this is not the first time church members have faced inaccurate or indistinct portrayal of their beliefs on television. HBO’s Big Love originally clarified that the polygamist family starring in the show was not Mormon. As seasons progressed, the distinction became fuzzy.

Lincoln resident Matthew Mellor, a  member of LDS, said “Big Love” is the most disrespectful of the discussed shows and depicts religious traditions with no regard for sacredness.

“It blurs the lines between those who belong to polygamist communities and those who are members of the LDS faith,” he said. “Unfortunately, these shows are used as a source of education and does little to distinguish between the LDS faith and those who are depicted in the show.”

The church agrees. In March 2009, it issued a statement titled “The Publicity Dilemma.” 

“The show’s creators and HBO executives assured the Church that the series wouldn’t be about Mormons. However, Internet references to Big Love indicate that more and more Mormon themes are now being woven into the show,” the release said. “…such things say much more about the insensitivities of writers, producers and TV executives than they say about Latter-day Saints.”

Despite the church’s declaration that “with a global membership of thirteen and a half million there is no need to feel defensive when the Church is moving forward so rapidly,” shows like “Sister Wives” and “Big Love” leave some Mormons worried about continued false impressions in the public eye.

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HBO’s fictional show Big Love has caused controversy in the Mormon church due to inaccuracies in its depiction of LDS. Courtesy of HBO

“There are a lot of misconceptions surrounding our religion and so the members are often socially judged based on our religion,” Mellor said.

These concerns stem from how  the church was viewed in the past, Riess said.

“Some Mormons who grew up in the church assume the default position that ‘oh, this is just going to make it worse, it’s going to make people not understand us even more,’” Riess said. “That is a legitimate feeling that stems from decades of actual persecution and some perceived persecution. Anytime you have a history of real persecution, you’re going to look at the world a little bit skeptically.”

LDS members may worry, but the church says shows like these have no serious negative effects on the Mormon faith.

“When the comedy writers for South Park produced a gross portrayal of Church history, individual Church members no doubt felt uncomfortable,” the church said in the same 2009 statement. “But once again it inflicted no perceptible or lasting damage to a church that is growing by at least a quarter of a million new members every year.”

There may be no detectable influence on the church, but this is certainly not due to a lack of popularity. Ratings show that both “Sister Wives” and “Big Love” have topped the ratings for their respective stations. A questionable portrayal of the Mormon faith even helped one South Park episode rank seventh on the San Antonio Express–News’ list of “Top 10 Most Offensive South Park Episodes and Therefore, Maybe The Best, List.”

LDS member Petranek said the creators of these shows may have a couple of different motives for basing a show on Mormonism or featuring the religion in their programs.

“I love the show South Park, I really do. The guys who created it were members of the church, and they were excommunicated for something that they did, and so in retaliation, you notice that they make fun of Mormons a lot,” he said. “I honestly find it hilarious because the things they portray are accurate, but they take it to the next level as a huge mockery.”

This mockery also shows inaccuracies that may be unrecognizable to an audience unfamiliar with LDS. Mellor says the best way to get the correct information about the religion is to “go to the source,” someone practicing or educated on the religion.

“Misinformation is being shown to mass audiences,” he said. “Few will ever try to get a true understanding of what is shown on television and what is the reality.”

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