Sunday, April 25, 2010

Reluctant lover of Big Love

I wrote this blog entry while the third series of Big Love was still playing in Australia, and then got caught up with writing about diet and food intolerance, so it’s a bit out of date. But I couldn’t stand to hang onto for another year so have decided to give it an airing now.

I have a big but in some ways reluctant love for the HBO television series Big Love.

This long-running drama series centres on polygamist Bill Henrickson and his three wives, Barb, Nicki and Margene. The family live in three neighbouring houses in a suburb in Salt Lake City, Utah, with their numerous offspring.

Bill and his wives are renegade fundamentalist Mormons who have adopted polygamy because they believe that producing as many children as possible will increase their favour with their ‘heavenly father’ in the afterlife.

With a fifth series in the pipeline and seemingly as popular as ever, the show details the never-ending dramas as Bill tries to financially care for his large family while hiding his polygamy from the world. There are also the tensions cooked up at Juniper Creek, the rural compound housing an oppressive Mormon sect that Bill and Nicki grew up in and are still entangled with. Dynamics among the three wives, the criminality of Roman, the patriarch of Juniper Creek, and the endless obstacles to Bill’s business ambitions are complicating factors.

I watch the show for the drama, but find myself wanting the family to ‘make it’ and stay together because they obviously gain strength from the deep bonds they’ve developed (in plural marriages, it seems, the women are married to each other as well, but as sisters rather than lovers, which of course begs its own questions).

The show is honest in its portrayal of human dilemmas, including sexual dilemmas, while also being, in its own way, conservative. Each of the personal conflicts ultimately gets resolved, although they may continue for several episodes and even from one series to the next (although I can only speak for what I’ve seen so far, and I’ve just reached the end of the third series, whereas the fourth has recently been screened in the US, and seems to herald some changes). But the resolution always occurs because the character concerned decides for themselves that they are going to ‘behave’. They make a choice based on their feelings of love and of belonging to the family group.

And that’s why the show is ultimately a fantasy – the characters must always make this conservative decision for the series to continue. In real life such intelligent, complex characters might well end up separating and living their lives on new and broader canvases. Or, as many women in polygamous marriages must do, they might simply continue with the status quo even if they were basically unhappy. The relationship conflicts in Big Love give a nod to realism (even if the interiors are usually preternaturally clean and ordered, and even if Margene looks impossibly fresh-faced despite having three toddlers to look after) but the never-endingly peaceable resolutions don’t (again, this may have changed in the fourth series).

Not only that, but the show goes to great pains to portray Bill’s plural marriage as one that is relatively enlightened. We know that not all polygamous marriages are as equitable as Bill’s, and deeply inequitable and often criminally abusive marriages take place on the Juniper Creek compound, sometimes between elderly men and teenage girls. Some of the wives on the compound are portrayed as living restricted lives of deep unhappiness.

In contrast, the individuals in Bill’s plural marriage are always free to leave if they choose – the only catch is that staying involves accepting the ‘principle’, which means having as many children as possible. That’s part of the show’s cleverness – the members of this marriage are portrayed as ordinary people in a very challenging situation. This impression is reinforced by the back story, in which Bill and Barb, the first wife, originally had a conventional marriage before deciding to embark on polygamy in order to live the principle and keep reproducing. Also, it’s constantly emphasised that Bill is in love with each of his three wives.

The makers of this series have been ludicrously clever in their ability to pitch it to a range of audiences. Mormons are a tiny minority in the USA, making up only 1.7 per cent of the total population, and probably mostly object to the show; but Big Love is likely to appeal to a wide swathe of non-Mormons who are religious in some way. According to Wikipedia, in 2008, 76 per cent of Americans identified as Christian; Protestants made up 51.6 per cent of the population, that is, they were a majority of the country’s population. Meanwhile, 3.9 per cent were part of non-Christian religious communities; this figure included Muslims and Jews.

The members of Bill’s marriage make huge sacrifices to maintain their complex arrangement. I’d imagine that many conservative Christians, and perhaps even Muslims and Orthodox Jews, might enjoy watching the show to receive affirmation for the sacrifices they themselves make for their religion, such as abstaining from alcohol, not using contraception, or marrying young to avoid having sex before marriage.

But the show’s target market is wider than that. Women who watch this show may think ‘There but for the grace of God go I’. But some men may watch it because they like the fantasy of having three wives. That relates to what I think could be another reason for the show’s attractiveness. Given the in-between status of this family, sitting somewhere between the oppressive world of Juniper Creek and the uncomprehending secular world from which they must hide their illegal arrangement, their situation has glaring similarities with much more progressive forms of polyamory. Surely this would be part of the subliminal appeal of the series?

Genuine polyamory has to hide in the USA just as polygamy does. An interesting documentary shown on Australian television last year featured an arrangement between a man and two women living together, all of whom were in love with each other – in other words, there were three sexual relationships going on. One of the women was a lawyer and she had to hide the nature of her relationship in her workplace, just as do the characters in Big Love.

But the interdependence that characterises the adult family members (when they’re not warring with each other) also reminds me of the first share house I lived in, a communal arrangement in which we ate and shopped together, and had a food kitty and a cleaning roster.

Communal share houses can have polyamorous undertones (mine certainly did) but don’t rely on polyamory as a structure for the relationships of the members. They offer a different version of adulthood from the one that involves breaking away from one’s family of origin by living in an adult sexual relationship. Share houses allow a form of adult cooperation that helps young people to separate from the family, but also enables a great sense of autonomy and freedom for those not yet ready to form lasting ties (of course, share houses may also involve established couples, and the arrangement may give rise to new relationships). And yes, share houses are, like polyamory, difficult to get right.

I think there’s something similar between this kind of arrangement and the way the family in Big Love are housed: the family live in three adjoining houses but are always in and out of each other’s homes.

The share house model is very much evident in the way the show is marketed. The youngest wife, Margene, has a blog in which she talks frankly (ie bitches) about the goings-on in the family. (The comments from viewers that appear on this blog suggest that some at least have trouble distinguishing fiction from real life).

These echoes of the share house no doubt help to explain why the show also appeals to a lefty feminist like me. But I think it may be the very lack of political correctness that is the clincher. I enjoy the drama of the continuing conflicts, but can ultimately blame the Mormon lifestyle for causing the conflicts in the first place, thereby avoiding the need to feel guilty about the show’s political unsoundness. I get to have my self-righteous cake and eat it too.

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