Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Big Love!

I'm a big fan of HBO's Big Love. I started watching the show because I wanted to know how they were going to deal with the question of plural marriage. Would they take the easy route and condemn it? Would they create characters and scenarios complex enough to resist snap judgments? Would they humanise and idealise it?

In my mind, there's nothing inherently right or wrong about polygamy, any more than there's something inherently right or wrong about monogamy. Personally, I don't much care if someone is monogamous or polygamous, although I prefer monogamy for myself. I am, however, completely fascinated by the power relations in both kinds of relationships. And I do care about excesses, transgressions and abuses of power in any relationship.

Just think about it: Western romantic monogamy is not only the least common type of pair-bonding or marriage in the world, it's actually a rather ambivalent and contradictory practice that hints at unresolved tensions between sex, gender, class, public and private life. Mistresses, concubines, courtesans and prostitutes regularly supplement formal monogamy - at least in private, but sometimes also publically. At the same time, these practices are highly gendered: it remains more common, or at least more public, that men are the tolerated adulterers, the women who sleep with them are the sinners, and the wives are the powerless victims. Historically, no special words were used to describe a woman whose husband committed adultery (it was already part of her linguistic status) but a man whose wife committed adultery earned the shameful (public) title of cuckold. In some monogamous cultures it's still not possible for a man to rape his wife, and in others, only women are punished for extra-marital relations, including ones forced upon her, as in the case of rape. In other places, both men and women face prosecution for extra-marital relations, even if they both consent.

It's easy to see then how little space is left for public explorations or expressions of different kinds of relationships, including same-sex marriage or 'open marriages' and 'polyamorous' relationships - all of which involve monogamy while simultaneously redefining it. We also know how Judeo-Christian-Islamic traditions are often conflicted and contradictory about sex in general, and while the ideal-of-monogamy can be productively distinguished from monogamy-in-practice, neither myth nor reality implies or compels stable, egalitarian or non-hierarchical relations. Put simply: monogamy is fraught with power struggles and inequalities no less so than polygamy. (And actually, I don't think the two can usefully be separated or disconnected from each other anyway.)

In Victorian times, Lewis Henry Morgan, an early and influential evolutionary anthropologist considered promiscuity to be "the lowest conceivable stage of barbarism in which mankind could be found". But Europe's great men - the explorers, the conquerors - had already returned with tales of harems and geishas, forever exoticising and idealising polygamy - or more specifically polygyny - in the Western male erotic imagination. Even simple prostitution became an act of male connoisseurship, not least because purchasing the services of a call-girl versus a street hooker is considered a marker of class and morals - perhaps most notably if gentlemen are seen to be slumming or if prostitution involves rescue. So it's against this backdrop that any story of plural marriage or polyamory necessarily takes shape, and my interest lies specifically in the historical tendency towards polygyny rather than polyandry, and how this shapes the lives of women.

In Big Love, the audience is encouraged to sympathise with - if not overtly condone - the type of polygyny practiced by Bill's family, and to disapprove of - if not overtly condemn - the kind of polygyny practiced by Roman's family. Bill is presented as a good man, a kind man, a man who loves - and is loved by - Barb, Nicki, Margene and their seven children. In Bill's family, plural marriage is seen to be a worthwhile struggle for everyone. On the other hand, Roman is presented as powerful but corrupt and abusive, an older man with 17 wives, 31 children and 187 grandchildren. This plural marriage manifests itself most poignantly in the bitter defeat of his fourth wife Adaleen, the dubious circumstances under which Bill married Roman and Adaleen's daughter Nicki, and the righteous manipulations of 14-year-old wife-to-be Rhonda.

Of course, it's not quite that simple. In Big Love, polygamy - like any kind of social relationship - involves shifting relations of power. The audience witnesses Bill's benefits as patriarch, and his burdens. The women are in turn victimised and powerful, admirable and pathetic. We are introduced to characters who blindly submit to the practice, others who struggle to make it work, some who are ambivalent, and others still who openly condemn it. The characters and their values compete and cooperate with each other. And despite the richness of everyday experiences afforded to these people, not once does polygamy appear to be 'normal'. Even its most banal expressions take place within an always broader context of conflicting values and experiences.

In each episode we get a glimpse of how isolating the polygamist lifestyle can be. Where polygamy is illegal, the first wife and her children are the only family that can be publically recognised. This means that as second and third wives, Nicki and Margene can only exert their power as wives and mothers in private or domestic settings, and this seems to compel Nicki to treacheries and Margie to intimacies that put the whole family at risk. Everyone is constantly looking out for neighbours and co-workers that would report them to the police, and social interactions are almost exclusively limited to those within the family. (This sense of inclusion also relies on the exclusion of their extended families.) It's impossible to forget while you watch Big Love that these polygamous lives are playing out where monogamy predominates, and so it often seems a sad and lonely life.

Take the episode in which Bill and his first wife Barb have an affair. According to a schedule the wives collectively agree upon, Bill spends one day (and one day only) with each wife in rotation. This allows for some sort of temporary monogamy, which also forms sub-family groupings within the larger family structure. These boundaries within the family are both physical (each wife has her own house) and social (no sex with Bill in another wife's house or during another wife's time) . So when Bill and Barb start seeing each other outside the schedule, and Barb confesses her excitement to a polygamous girlfriend, the friend plainly counsels against getting her hopes up because Bill isn't going to leave his wives for her. (This kind of conservative polygamy should be distinguished from, say, more liberal forms of monogamous swinging or group sex in hetero porn, I think.)

In the third episode, there's a brilliant scene between young bride-to-be Rhonda, and Bill and Barb's 16-year-old daughter Sarah. Sarah asks Rhonda what it's like to be married, and Rhonda corrects her by saying it's just a "pre-marriage placement" to get around the law until she's 16. She insists that she wasn't forced and that Roman is nice to her - which reassures Sarah and the audience that this isn't a case of pedophilia or child abuse. Then she comments, with a knowing smile, on how much the other wives envy the attention she gets because she's younger and prettier. When Sarah remains sceptical, Rhonda calmly states that "the greatest freedom we have is obedience" and I almost fall out of my chair. (Because it's true - and that horrifies me. Even when I know that conformity is not always a problem, I don't admire it. As you can probably imagine, this leads to several political and ethical constraints that I wouldn't otherwise support, but there you have it.)

Now I look forward to watching Big Love because I find all the female characters to be utterly believable, if not always likeable, and that's a pretty rare and beautiful thing in my experience. Barb breaks my heart and Nicki makes me angry. Sarah's character may be the only one I really identify with, and I probably like Bill's mother Lois and his third wife Margie the most because they seem the most excessive or difficult to contain. In any case, these women demonstrate more complexity of character than I have seen on any screen in a long time. And if we've ever wondered what it would be like to slip out of our monogamous bindings, their stories probably offer more truths than we might want to believe. Damn good stuff.

8 Comments:

Blogger Sam Teigen said...

I'm a little fascinated how polygamy often comes from a very macho mindset, as noted by concubines, harems and mistresses. But from a purely reproductive point of view, men aren't so necessary. As a species, wombs are harder to come by.

Thinking about cultural values and gender, particularly the Chinese and boys, through the lens of polygamy, many of those coveted boys are unnecessary.
So while an alpha male is desirable, most men are beta, delta or gamma.

In an odd way, it reminds me Levitt & Dubner's chapter on inner city gangs. Applied broadly, the potential of "rising to the top," or "being the man" is a huge motivator for all sorts of dangerous, if not silly male behavior, while the likely outcome is much more mundane.

Not that a monogamous relationship need be mundane.

05:26  
Blogger Phil said...

In some monogamous cultures it's still not possible for a man to rape his wife

I think it probably is, you know.

Hmm - "not thinkable" has similar problems. "Not conceptualisable"? Or maybe the problem is the tense - "it's not [possible|thinkable] for a man to have raped his wife"...

Sam's point about status also relates back to this - even if you're epsilon-minus male, at least you're not a girl. Sexism as compensation.

22:14  
Blogger Catherine said...

Does Roman feel that he being a good profit by demeaning the Henrickson name? I respect the Mormon values. I understand why he wants to get the money from the second store but why defame a previous profit and his family? It will be interesting to see how Roman got to be in that position in the first place.

I also did not understand in the last episode why the LDS missionaries were pestering Nikki. Did they know she was a Mormon? If so, why was she being targeted? Is polygamy condemed by the Mormon church? so many questions...such a quality show

07:35  
Anonymous Kathy said...

HI,
I just started watching Big Love two days ago. I had avoided Big Love because I was not comfortable with the topic. Then, I was home sick and I caught one of the shows. In one day I got to see all the episodes released so far via my Comcast. Big Love is sooooooo good that now I can stop feeling so bad about the end of Six Feet Under. I don't have a lot of criticism for the show right now, as I ams still reacting to its presentation of poligamy both in the context that I can relate to (Bill's suburban homes) and the other that I don't think I could ever accept (Roman's compound - it seems like
the Manson family ranch) but I am so looking forward to the next episodes. The show's cast is perfect, with Harry Dean Stanton topping the list as the evil Roman. His 15 year old wife-to-be only underlines his debauchery. Interesting that she was happily clutching the pink I-pod given to her by her friend Sarah as she drove back singing hymms in the Hummer from Nicki's failed Birthday party.
Its funny that how Bill's family is packaged cleans it up some for me ... I guess he has learned how to be an agent of his material wealth in a very upscale and palatable way. Just call me superficial.
I have been wondering if Nicki's 50K $ credit card spending fiasco is going to result in her banishment?
Can't wait until Sunday 10:00 pm after my beloved Sopranos, who better s___t or get off the pot soon. Big Love may be my new big love.
KK

09:25  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Has anybody recorded these shows? I was watching BIG LOVE when I had free HBO, but now I don't and I am having withdrawals! If anybody can help please email me at jenr1221@yahoo.com. Thanks

05:20  
Blogger GeorgeB said...

There are some great discussions about this over on http://www.bigloveboards.com

Also @ anonymous. HBO just last Sunday announced that the show is on In-Demand now. So you can watch it any time.

10:59  
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