More Wives, More Problems

Sarah Seltzer

"Big Love"'s patriarchy-by-choice leaves its participants thoroughly messed up in ways that won't be easy to fix -- with plenty of lessons about gender and power for American culture at large.

It’s only natural that on
HBO a drama about fundamentalist Mormon polygamy brims with
a commentary on our culture at large. In fact, sometimes the religious
framework of "Big
" has seemed
like a thin excuse to portray an unconventional family situation and
play with ideas about gender, the American family, and power dynamics.

This season, though, the focus
of the show has zoomed in closely on the religious aspects of the Henricksons’
lives – a raid on the polygamist compound! A potential fourth wife to
help the family attain celestial immortality! And even so, its relevance
to American life, and American issues of gender and sexuality, seems ever more urgent. 

Only five episodes in, "Big
Love" has already tackled many of the sexual politics we see on the
news and in our lives. The initial Mormon-prophet-on-trial arc is a
clear echo of this summer’s raid on the Texas
FLDS compound
the Warren
case. The
show posits communal coercion of arranged marriage of young women as tantamount to rape, but plays with
the tricky ethics of the government interfering with citizens’ private
lives. "Big Love’s" recently-introduced teen pregnancy
plot is reminiscent of Bristol
, while its
exploration of repressed homosexuality in religious settings inevitably
links to the saga of Ted
. And then
there are further subplots: the family’s "courting" of a fourth
wife who’s not ready to commit brings up the sexual double-standard,
and Nikki, the most religious wife, secretly
takes birth control pills

while urging her sister-wives to procreate. It’s the "reproductive
choice for me, but not for thee" phenomenon. 

On "Big Love," we see life
through the eyes of a family that is conservative in nearly every way:
they believe in modesty, chastity outside of marriage and "family
values." But the show’s creators – incidentally, a gay couple who
ventured deep into polygamist territory for research – clearly have
an enlightened and liberal view of human sexuality.

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"Big Love"s characters
are all deeply sexual beings. The women in the Hendrickson household
all love and crave sex for their own satisfaction as well as their husband’s.
The show’s teenagers are blooming, flush with hormones and naturally
curious. While no one in their world can be openly gay, many characters
experience same-sex desire, sometimes clear, sometimes ambiguous, but
always painful to repress.  

Furthermore, the show’s writers
delineate the Henricksons, who are polygamist and communal by "choice,"
from their relatives on the Juniper Creek compound, whose lives are
strictly regimented by a patriarchal prophet and a cruel set of rules.
We wouldn’t want to see Bill Henrickson arrested or his family forcibly
broken up. But we long to see the young girls on the compound, whose
pictures are put in a "joy book" for men to browse, vindicated by
the law. 

At the same time as "Big
Love" depicts the Henricksons living a life of their choosing, though,
it does not shy away from the problematic existence Bill has set up
on his suburban street. Bill, who grew up in Juniper Creek and 
was thrown out – as young boys often are – believes that he has defined
his life in opposition to his childhood home. But has he? In many ways,
Bill has set himself up to be as a more modern version of "the prophet,"
with three wives that act like the children to his father figure. He even lives
on a mini-compound of three houses surrounding a pool. Everything in the Henrickson family orbits around his star, and like the prophet of Juniper
Creek himself, Bill has no problems manipulating his wives against
each other and laying down his fatherly authority when he feels it’s

Meanwhile, his wives find their
designated lives as alternating baby-makers fulfilling only in theory – hence
conservative Nikki popping birth control pills on the sly and all of
them longing for careers. And the damage done to the children, particularly
the older ones, is stunning. Sarah sleeps with her boyfriend without
protection because she was taught to be "chaste"
rather than safe, while Ben, after feeling humiliated when he loses his virginity
with a long-term girlfriend, decides to follow in dad’s footsteps
and live "the principle" by planning to take multiple wives. His
mother, who claims to be happy with her lifestyle, is horrified. 

So this patriarchy-by-choice
has left its participants thoroughly messed up in ways it won’t be
easy to fix – even Bill struggles in vain to be a decent human being.
But there is one primary appeal to the world of "Big Love," which
is the family’s communal values. It’s fascinating that the women
are willing to share a partner, to share kids, to love each other as
sisters. Their intertwined lives are so different from the isolation
of our modern existence.

And as much as we see the unhappiness inherent in their family units, there is also unhappiness when those units
are broken. When Bill’s business partner Don, also a polygamist, sees two of
his wives run away (it’s hinted that they may be having an affair
with each other) he breaks down over having limited recourse to track
down and see his kids–in part because of the harassment polygamists face in the business
and legal world. This scene evokes
the struggles
gay couples face when their bonds are not legal
Of course, the situations are not morally parallel, and the show doesn’t
want them to be: Don’s polygamous relationship was far from egalitarian
and his misery also arises from feeling pathetically "unmanned"
by the loss of his extra wives. But while the ultimate sympathy lies
with the escaped wives, "Big Love" also shows us the pain of any family
bond going unrecognized by the law.  

Don, too, is a victim of the
system that he perpetrates, and the previews hint that Bill may be headed
for a comeuppance too.  Like patriarchy in general, polygamy can
hurt all involved. That’s the humanity at the core of "Big Love" – the show truly lives up to its name by being pro-love, pro-sex and anti-authority. It demonstrates the way fluid and strong human desires chafe
against containment by externally imposed rules: private or public,
our rules or theirs.

As the season progresses it
will be fascinating to see what happens to Bill’s universe as some
of the younger female characters – Sarah, Bill’s younger wives and
young women on the compound – continue coming to terms with those needs
and desires and begin to question whether they are being met by Bill
and their "alternative" lifestyle.

Topics and Tags:

Big Love, Mormonism, Pop Culture

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