An anthropologist by trade, Robert Lemelson has spent his entire life studying different cultures around the world and observing the human behavior and social conflicts that make the places he visits such an interesting resource for storytelling. In 2006, Lemelson took his role as an anthropologist to the next level by putting his research on film and making documentaries on his subjects. During this time, he has told an array of stories from a young Balinese woman with Tourette’s syndrome to a mass killing in Indonesia in 1965 to Javanese folk dancing.
In his new documentary “Bitter Honey,” Lemelson tackles the subject of polygamy by exploring the lives of families living in Bali. During an interview with Lemelson, we talked about how common polygamy is across the world, how he feels it is viewed in the U.S. and what the different reasoning is behind the number of wives a polygamist decides to take.
Along with 133 other feature documentaries, “Bitter Honey” was recently submitted for Oscar consideration for the 87th Annual Academy Awards.
Here in the U.S., polygamy isn’t a lifestyle most people practice, but worldwide it’s fairly common, isn’t it?
Yes, if you look at it historically, about 75 percent of the world’s society has had some form of polygamy as a valid kinship form. It’s very common everywhere from North and Central Africa through the Middle East and through Southeast Asian and Malaysia and Indonesia where polygamy is legal. That probably encompasses several billion people. Now, that’s not to say all these people in these countries are polygamists. But various forms of polygamy are all over the Old Testament, from Abraham on.
How do you feel polygamy has been portrayed in the American entertainment industry? Do you feel like it has been sensationalized in shows like “Sister Wives” and “Big Love?”
I think it’s probably viewed as a bit of a freak show because it’s unusual and bizarre to a lot of people. I don’t think Americans really know how common it still is.
At its center, “Bitter Honey” is a film about polygamy, but it also explores other themes, correct?
Yes, it’s about polygamy, but it’s also about relationships and power and how culture enters into people lives. Sometimes culture can be quite freeing and other times it can be quite constricting.
So when you look at a U.S. state like Utah where the attorney general just struck down some of the state’s anti-polygamy laws, should that give us an idea of where the U.S. is right now on the topic?
Because it’s a minority of people who practice polygamy, they are generally under and lot of pressure. Even in Indonesia where it’s not common but it’s not unusual, a large number of the population is not in favor of it. It’s a very contentious issue. Indonesia is mostly Islamic and polygamy is more or less practiced by the more conservative or fundamentalist sects there. In the U.S., they might make minor changes to the law and maybe not make it as criminalized, but it’s hard to image a time is going to come in the U.S. where polygamy is going to be considered a legal kinship form. I don’t think that would be accepted by most of the population.
The consensus on gay marriage has drastically changed over the years as we see more Americans becoming accepting of same-sex partners getting married. Why wouldn’t the same happen with polygamy as another form of non-traditional marriage?
That’s a really great question. I think that was one of the arguments when people were opposing gay marriage. They would say things like, “If gay marriage becomes legal, then the next thing people will want is to make bestiality or polygamy legal.” They would put them in the same category. But all societies have their own rules and histories. It’s not a tradition in the U.S. or part of our cultural heritage. Will it change as we get increasing populations from all over the world? I don’t think so.
How do the men that practice polygamy decide how many wives they want? In “Bitter Honey,” one man has 10 wives while another has two. How does that work?
In the anthropological literature, there are two separate streams of thought on that. It goes into the origins of polygamy and under what conditions polygamy arrives. One of the streams is really quite economic. For example, you see in Sub-Saharan Africa, where people are engaged in farming or horticulture, having multiple wives in a family is an efficient thing economically. Women do most of the hard labor in the fields. The women and children who work in the fields create an economic bubble around the family, which increases their wealth. Then there’s a personal or psychological argument that polygamy is driven by male desire to have multiple spouses or sexual encounters. I think that’s a bit more of what we’re arguing in the film. The economic argument doesn’t hold up in Bali where we were. Most of the women were not engaged in farming. Most are selling things at the market or they have other occupations. The women are financially supporting the men. What the film actually highlights is that polygamy for these men is a form of status and male prerogative. It’s like, “If I want another wife or three wives or five wives, I’m going to take them.”
That’s interesting that there seems to be some machismo in their thinking, but at the same time, they’re not playing that traditional role when it comes to supporting the family.
It also goes against this local, cultural reasoning that these men should be taking care of their wives. There is also a lot of gender-based violence and abuse going on that is arguing against the cultural logic of how your supposed to, as a man, treat the women in your life.
Would you say in these cases, it’s almost like another form of slavery?
Yeah, I think some of the women would consider it slavery. For some of the wives, there is a very strong sense of coercion. They really felt forced into the marriage against their will. There are a few wives in the film who felt it was there own interest or desire to be a No. 3 or No. 4 wife. But others felt that it was a form of coercion, in which violence was implicated. But you have to understand, if a woman wants to get a divorce, the children will stay with the husband. She will lose her children. She will lose land inheritance rights and tenure and wealth. As the film shows, they also lose their souls because they are recycled into their husband’s lineage as soon as they’re divorced.