Johannesburg - The problem with the reality show Uthando Nes’thembu is that it’s #NotAllMen from the first frame to its last, and it’s a little dull. #NotAllMen is a Twitter hashtag that refers to the kneejerk reaction of men pointing out “but not all men” whenever women are talking about problematic things men do. Apart from derailing the conversation, it shields men from having to think about the very many ways they may be complicit in misogyny.
For a country that oscillates between drooling over the curvaceous female form (from hip-hop video vixens to soapie femme fatales) and grieving over the vicious attacks targeting women, broadcasting a show about a polygamous family seems bold. Our Constitution is clear that, as a traditional practice, polygamy is lawful and protected. But it’s a political hot potato because it supports the patriarchal notion that men rule over subservient women. If polyandry – women with multiple husbands – was as accepted, there would be nothing to discuss. But in a country where women are publicly beaten for turning down men’s advances, where pregnant women suffer gang rape, is it responsible to have a show that supports the patriarchal idea that #NotAllMen contribute to oppressing women and there is, in fact, this one polygamous man from KwaZulu-Natal who is so not #NotAllMen that he built all his four wives double-storey houses?
The #NotAllMenning starts when we learn that Musa Mseleku loves and respects women and believes in equality in a household. An impossible task, because as is revealed later, there is a clear hierarchy among the wives, with the first wife (MaCele Mseleku) holding most of the power and the others much less. While he sees himself as the head of the household, he respects his four wives enough to listen to them before he takes decisions. He is also careful to treat the women equally, except MaCele, who has more cars because she agreed that he could marry the others. Musa is painted as an exception to the stereotype – a young, articulate, gentle, successful man who works for his wives, not the other way around. This representation worked so well that, even before the first episode had finished airing, his Facebook page was inundated with friend requests from women hoping to become number five, six, seven...
Watch the trailer here:
Uthando has so carefully crafted the images of its cast as “normal, just-like-everyone-else” that it suffers from a blandness that would turn audiences off – if we weren’t all waiting for something “abnormal” to happen (which is what many of us believe about polygamous families). Like maybe none of the wives wear underwear – shock, horror, clutch pearls – but that is fake news, so there’s nothing to see here, people.
The show does destroy stereotypes about polygamous men being oversexed studs and their women being without agency and constantly at war with one another. The channel did well in casting a genuinely loving, caring family. And it’s clear the wives are smart, each with a unique personality. But it’s a 24-minute visual representation of a Sunday showhouse – pretty, clean, nice-smelling but quite boring after a walk through. And if you’ve seen one Tuscan townhouse in Midrand, you’ve seen them all. Viewers want drama, arguments, dirty laundry to be aired – like in all families.
And the show does nothing to challenge notions of male superiority, which is also made “normal”. Is it normal for a wife to dish Musa’s meal while he sits back even though the good Lord gave him two functioning hands? Is it normal for MaKhumalo to ask MaNgwabe to do the dishing up as that’s how the power dynamic works? Wife number four puts up a little fight but eventually laughs it off because there’s no winning this battle.
It’s still not clear how Musa deals with the stress of sharing himself with 14 other people.
He seems like a lucky guy who has it all figured out. Hopefully the channel pays him well for this show, or it becomes a long-running hit, because he’s going to need a lot more money to keep his head-of-the-household life going, just like “normal” men.
Uthando Nes’Thembu airs on Mzansi Magic (DStv 161) on Thursdays at 20:00.