A new documentary was supposed to provide a fly-on-the-wall window onto Gloriavale, New Zealand’s most renowned religious community.
Gloriavale: A Woman’s Touch aired on New Zealand’s TV2 last month, debuting with some of the highest ratings that year in New Zealand television. The documentary was the third installment in a series based around the 540-strong community on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island, filmed with a budget of close to half a million dollars.
The third Gloriavale series followed couple Dove Love and Watchful Steadfast, teenagers promised in marriage by their parents (as is the custom in Gloriavale) prepare for their life together by going on chaperoned dates where neither party involved in any physical intimacy (including touching). Before their marriage ceremony in the series finale – where, as custom dictates, the couple consummated their marriage during a break in proceedings – Steadfast admitted on camera what attracted him to his betrothed. “She’s willing to submit to me, which I feel is very important for a marriage to last,” he said. Romantic stuff.
Love even recorded a song to honour her courtship with Steadfast, the release of which went viral on Twitter in New Zealand.
The series also sparked a run on Gloriavale costumes at fancy dress parties (residents only wear blue, and bonnets for women are mandatory) and a Gloriavale-name generator on social media.
But a former Gloriavale resident who fled the community with her siblings and parents in her teens has slammed the production for being “irresponsibly soft” on the group and its questionable history, penning a passionate op-ed piece for New Zealand website The Pantograph Punch.
“For the casual viewer, there’s no denying that the subject matter is fascinating, and at times comical - but the way Gloriavale is being presented for our consumption now is exploitative and negligent,” former community resident Melissa Harrison wrote.
“As a piece of television, its makers are satisfied to deliver us our LOLs in a steady stream of sound bites and sight gags, and it satisfies our voyeuristic longings for the strange; all with no critical engagement, no history, no varied perspectives. Critical engagement probably isn’t as fun.”
Harrison is speaking specifically about the allegations of sexual abuse levelled at Gloriavale’s founder Neville Cooper, her grandfather. She’s also speaking about the psychological pain her parents endured – being cut off from their family, friends and community for life – after leaving the group and the misogyny of the division of labour (women are tasked with cooking, cleaning and caring for the children, men to the building) in Gloriavale.
“There can be no reasonable doubt that these people – the women in particular – are subjugated. Sentiments that suggest otherwise are naïve,” Harrison wrote.
"It's not fictional. They are real lives, and they're not all that funny ... let's not mindlessly and uncritically gather around our TV screens for a chuckle at Gloriavale as pop-culture phenomenon.”
Amanda Evans, the documentary’s producer and director, hit back with an op-ed of her own in the New Zealand Herald.
“I am fascinated that women like Dove… can live so happily and find deep satisfaction in their lives, given the obvious restrictions. This is what the story is about – how do they make sense of the world and make the most of it?”
Evans also refutes Harrison’s allegations that the documentary is “irresponsibly soft”, providing no context to the charges of sexual abuse and poking fun at the expense of the community.
“I fully acknowledge that one man has served prison time for an offence committed 30 years ago,” she wrote. “However I believe a living, dynamic community of 540 people… shouldn’t be forever defined by that event.”