Why Big Love may be the most politically savvy show on TV.

For those that haven’t watched, Big Love documents the story of Bill Hendrickson, a fundamentalist Mormon who practices the principle of polygamy (in the suburbs of Salt Lake City), his three adult wives, and their gang of tow-headed children.

Big Love has attracted lots of media attention for its portrayal of the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS), its portrayal of polygamy, and its radical gay rights agenda. The show functions like a soap opera, but it’s also making a really interesting political intervention. Big Love argues that while polygamy is fundamentally patriarchal, it also might be a more efficient way of organizing a family (for both the men and women involved). Once you become used to the strange orientation of the show (3 wives, 1 husband, many kids, everyone is reasonably happy?), it becomes clear that marriage law excludes not just gay unions, but all sorts of non-traditional family units.

Polygamy on this show functions in a strict patriarchal sense. Bill’s wives are each expected to remain faithful to him, and to obey his every command. There are no threesomes here, and no sex outside of marriage (unless you are the patriarch and are auditioning a potential fourth wife). But three Moms means three times the flexibility, and three times the chance that a Mom can show up to see you in the school play. It also means that you have a support system made up of three other people, not just one. In this marriage structure, Bill is clearly the weakest link, as he is spread incredibly thin (financially, sexually, emotionally, etc), but it’s hard to pity a man surrounded by such beautiful, smart, and interesting women. The question is always, why are these women with Bill?

On Big Love, what is meaningful about marriage has nothing to do with a certificate issued by the state. Because plural marriage is illegal in the state of Utah, Bill is only legally married to one of his wives, the first wife, Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn). However, all of the Hendrickson wives are married to Bill (and to each other) under their God, ensuring that they will be together in heaven for eternity. They are married under God, if not under the laws set up by the state. Now, perhaps for some, U.S. law is equivalent to a deity. I don’t mean that to sound glib. I think for many, having your partnership sanctioned by the law is an elegant, and incredibly significant act.

But our government has a truly limited understanding of what a family can look like. Obviously there are lots of economic reasons to become legally married, but bear with me for the sake of argument. Big Love is just one example of how families function outside of the traditional structure. My two roommates and I make up a household. We are not a family because we are not related by blood and there is no patriarch or matriarch. But we all live in the same home, share meals, expenses, and our daily lives. We can’t, unfortunately, share a membership to the local YMCA, jointly file taxes, or visit each other (as kin) in the hospital. Of course, thinking outside of the traditional family also means thinking outside of traditional sexuality. But I think there is something much more radical about de-normalizing the couple in general than merely de-normalizing the heterosexual couple.

In last week’s episode of Big Love, Margene (the third wife, Ginnifer Goodwin) legally married a man who isn’t her husband. She did this for a variety of complicated reasons, but in a nutshell, it was about getting a green card. When she told Bill what she had done, he was outraged, but she insisted that a legal marriage couldn’t possibly mean anything, since if it did, it would mean that Bill was MORE married to his first wife than his second or third.

It’s a great argument, and again, points toward this distinction between legality and religion. I think we could expand religion in this sense to include anything that is more meaningful (to you) than the state. I guess the point I’m trying to make is that marriage as an institution seems increasingly less relevant in a society where so many people live in families that look different from the ones we all grew up watching on television.

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