Big Love, whose fourth season is airing Sunday nights on HBO right now, took awhile to grow on me. Y’all should be watching it, in my humble opinion, if you’re interested in feminism. When the show first premiered back in 2004, I was skeptical. The sunny colour palette of the promotional material made me wonder if the creators of the series were taking their subject very seriously.
What I suppose I was worried about was a “lighthearted” approach to the practice of polygamy. Now, I’m not going to start listing clichés about true love being between two people only. As a feminist I just can’t get it up for an unequivocal defense of traditional monogamous marriage/relationships per se. But I don’t kid myself that polygamy is challenging traditional notions of marriage. Any notion of marriage in which there is a dominant and a subservient partner is, to me, a priori patriarchal. And the polygamy practiced by the FLDS and various splinter sects of Mormonism is a relationship of unequals. One type of genitalia is heavily valued over another, vaginas apparently being relatively interchangeable but penii divinely called to penetrate as many of the former as possible. Lord help me, indeed.
My fears have largely not been borne out by the way the show has progressed. Much like Mad Men, this story about what I think of as High Patriarchy (which is to say, wholly unapologetic patriarchy) has revealed that the way women struggle to express and assert themselves with men’s feet on their necks holds far more dramatic interest than the actions of their oppressors.
Ta-Nehisi recently wrote, intelligently and thoughtfully as usual, about his personal response to these men (though I can’t get on board with his admiration of the sniveling Don Embry, who often is the mouthpiece for some of the male polygamists’ more misogynist attitudes towards women):
One of the consequences of feminism is not simply redefining roles for women–an unquestioned good–but redefining roles for men. I think that will be a good in the long-term too, but right now a lot of us are in this space of trying to figure out who we are and what we should be. Bill Hendrickson is a guy inventing manhood in this new world–all of his wives want to work, for instance… as he constructs new definitions, he can’t escape the root of the old, of the ancient and all its questions and conundrums. I’m a modern man, and the child of a 60s radical… but even as I try to remake myself, hoping not to repeat the mistakes of those who came before me, old magic is at work, and ancient identities, that we thought we’d shed, call us back home.
There’s a part of me that thinks this gives Bill too much credit. Bill may be full of words and commonplaces about how much he values his family. But it’s Barb, the polygamy doubting-Thomas of the lot, who seems to be making all the real sacrifices. She left her church, her family, her job and she has to accept second and third and mayhap fourth wives who are not the products of divine fate to her in the same way they are to her husband. It’s Nicki who is incandescent in her defense when her brother threatens the safety of the whole family, at the expense of the connection to the FLDS splinter-sect community that was the only life she knew before marrying Bill. It’s Margene who takes the “Principle” of polygamy to a new place when she actively recruits and “dates” a potential fourth wife, and shocks herself when she actually enjoys having a life and existence outside the confined roles of “wife” and “mother.” In short, while I think Bill cares about his family, he is not redefining manhood. He is clinging, often tenuously, to what he thinks it means, at the expense of his wives’ emotional well-beings, and at the expense of proper attention to his children, like Sarah, who are feeling morally adrift in the way he has defined “family” for them.
The show is no less interesting or accurate for this, of course. But if you are watching Big Love – and, as I said, I think you should be – do it for the women, not for the men. It’s the former who have the more interesting things to say about redefining gender roles.