Politics & Policy

Big Love, From The Set

I'm taking the people behind the new series at their word.

It’s getting tougher to laugh off the “slippery slope” argument–the claim that gay marriage will lead to polygamy, polyamory, and ultimately to the replacement of marriage itself by an infinitely flexible partnership system. We’ve now got a movement for legalized polyamory and the abolition of marriage in Sweden. (See “Fanatical Swedish Feminists.”) The Netherlands has given legal, political, and public approval to a cohabitation contract for a polyamorous bisexual triad. (See “Here Come the Brides.”) Two out of four reports on polygamy commissioned by the Canadian government recommended decriminalization and regulation of the practice. (See “Dissolving Marriage.”) And now comes Big Love, HBO’s domestic drama about an American polygamous family.

It has been argued that Big Love is just a harmless drama, no more likely to promote social acceptance of polygamy than the Sopranos is likely to promote crime. But we know that Big Love’s own creators and stars don’t see it this way. They clearly intend their show to challenge and change America’s way of thinking about the family.

Big Plans

Will Scheffer, co-creator of Big Love, wrote Falling Man and Other Monologues, a play about gay life, as a direct response to the public battle over same-sex marriage. Commenting on Falling Man, Scheffer said, “The voice from the conservative right is getting louder and louder, so I think we have to state who we are in our lives, especially with the reversal of the marriage thing in California.” Scheffer sees Falling Man as an entry into the gay marriage battle, and he and his co-creator, Mark Olsen clearly see Big Love the same way.

Speaking to The Washington Blade, Olsen said he and Scheffer wanted to address our culture war over the family by trying to “find the values of family that are worth celebrating separate of who the people are and how they’re doing it.” In other words, family structure shouldn’t matter as long as people love each other. Scheffer adds that what attracted him to the Big Love project was “the subversive nature of how we deal with family values….I think what’s really exciting about the show is the nonjudgmental look we have on our characters.” Now maybe cultural radicals are mistaken when they claim that they can change society just by shaping the movies, plays, and television we watch. But clearly this kind of cultural transformation is exactly what Scheffer and Olsen have in mind.

The one thing that doesn’t ring true is Scheffer’s claim that he had initially resisted Olsen’s idea for a show about polygamy because he thought the practice was “yucky.” Given the fact that Scheffer’s Falling Man and Other Monologues includes a scene in which noted serial killer, necrophiliac, and cannibal, Jeffrey Dahmer, gives cooking lessons from his “kitchen in heaven,” the idea that Scheffer found polygamy “yucky” is a bit hard to credit. In any case, it makes sense that Scheffer and Olsen like to tell that story. The notion they’re out to promote is that polygamy seems “yucky” at first, but is actually just fine once you get to know some really nice polygamists. Or, as Olsen told Newsweek. “The yuck factor disappears and you just see human faces.”

It isn’t just Big Love’s co-creators who think of it as something that will influence our cultural, legal, and political battles. Big Love’s actors seem to feel the same way. Ginnifer Goodwin, who plays one of the wives of Big Love, says that for many women, polygamy “is the answer to their problems, not a problem in and of itself.” Big Love lead, Bill Paxton, says: “This show talks about the freedom in this country. Are we free to choose who with want to live with? Well, yes, but we can’t have legal rights together.” Paxton seems to be pretty clearly arguing for decriminalization of polygamy, and probably for direct legal recognition as well.

In one episode, Big Love directly addresses the legal-political issues at stake. A polygamist leader explains to fictional reporters that judicial recognition of privacy rights for homosexuals would have to be extended to polygamists. “We’re just like homosexuals,” the man then explains to his shocked wives. As for the fictional Henrickson family (headed by Big Love star Paxton), Olsen and Scheffer “want people to fall in love with these characters and to root for this family.” Says, Olsen, “If people in the gay community want to embrace the show, identify with their struggle, so be it.”

So if conservatives treat Big Love as a serious attempt to deconstruct the American family, rather than as a harmless drama with no cultural, legal, or political implications, they are simply taking the creators and stars of the show at their word.

Public Support

But is it fair to treat a television show or a movie as something that can change public opinion, and through public opinion our laws? I think it is. Certainly such claims are not new. The Dutch gay community’s official history of the same-sex marriage movement notes how important a turning point it was when a gay couple appeared on a popular Dutch honeymoon show. That appearance helped pave the way for legal gay marriage in The Netherlands. So why shouldn’t we take Big Love as a significant breakthrough for polygamy?

We don’t need to talk about all the claims for the cultural significance of Will and Grace or Brokeback Mountain. Have a look at this fascinating piece from the Salt Lake City Tribune, “Will the polygamy debate ever be the same?” The Tribune draws an analogy between Big Love and the first appearance by a black in a television commercial. That appearance was arranged by Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, through his then intern, Ed Frimage. Now a law-professor emeritus at University of Utah’s law school, Frimage has long advocated the decriminalization and regulation of polygamy. Once you get an black on television to sell refrigerators, argues Frimage, “the game is over.” The Salt Lake Tribune wonders out loud whether, after Big Love, the same might now be true for polygamists. As the Tribune reports, there are already legal challenges to anti-polygamy laws based on the Supreme Court’s Lawrence v. Texas decision. It’s likely we’ll see more in the future. It’s hard to believe that changing public attitudes in the wake of Big Love won’t have an influence on those battles in years to come.


Some deny that Big Love “glamorizes” polygamy at all. It’s true that the show is frank about abuses. The Henrickson family is at odds with the polygamist “compound” where the show’s hero grew up. And the Henricksons obviously abhor abuses seen in the compound, like marrying off very young girls to much older men. But this hardly stops Big Love from being “pro-polygamy.” On the contrary, Big Love mimics the position of most polygamy advocates: prosecute individual abuses, but don’t attack the practice itself. By setting up a contrast between good polygamy and bad polygamy, Big Love puts forward a case for decriminalization, recognition, and regulation.

The last line of defense against the slippery-slope argument is the claim that there is no prospect of a national movement for polygamy that could match the movement for gay marriage in wealth, clout, or intensity. This claim, too, is getting tougher to credit. Polygamy is supported in principle by the American Civil Liberties Union, hardly an insignificant player on the national scene.

And that article from the Salt Lake Tribune makes it clear that serious legal challenges to anti-polygamy laws are already afoot. In 2004, when it looked as though a polygamy case might be headed for the supreme court, George Washington Law School professor Jonathan Turley called for decriminalization in USA Today. This past Saturday, New York Times columnist, John Tierney, endorsed polygamy and tied his endorsement to support for same-sex marriage. Just like Big Love star, Ginnifer Goodwin, Tierney argued that, for some women this is the answer to their problems, not a problem in and of itself.

More important than any of these individual responses is the advance critical acclaim for the show. Mostly we’ve seen rave reviews, even from conservative outlets. Actual objections to polygamy have been few and far between. This general chorus of praise for the show is a telling sign of change in a country that once viewed slavery and polygamy as the “twin pillars of barbarism.”

Collapsing Taboo

It’s also important to remember that support for polygamy and polyamory (approval of one is bound to help licence the other) cannot be tracked in a simple, linear fashion. This is not something that can be judged by open support, like public opinion during an election campaign. Polygamy is illegal, and polygamists are still afraid to identify themselves by name to reporters.

We are dealing, not with an election campaign, but with the possible collapse of a social taboo–something television is ideally suited to achieve. Social taboos may erode gradually over the very long haul, but up close, and especially toward the beginning, you get little collapses–the quick and unexpected falling away of opposition. What used to be hidden emerges with startling rapidity, because much of it was there all along. Polygamy, and especially polyamory, are already widespread on the Internet. Both practices are pushing toward a major public taboo-collapsing moment. We can’t know when “critical mass” might be reached, but Big Love has got to be getting us there a whole lot quicker than we were.

Deconstruction Crew

Even so, it would be a mistake to treat Big Love as fundamentally about polygamy. The truth is more complicated. Consider Martha Bailey, the professor who advocated the decriminalization and regulation of polygamy in Canada. Bailey herself does not “approve” of traditional “patriarchal” polygamy. On the contrary, Bailey is a radical feminist who would like to abolish marriage and replace it with an infinitely flexible relationship system, neutral with respect to gender, number, or even the presence or absence of a sexual relationship between partners. Although Bailey has forged a tactical alliance with practitioners of patriarchal polygamy among Canada’s Muslim immigrants, she is hardly a fan of patriarchy. Instead Bailey is using Muslim immigrants as a lever to achieve her long-term goal of deconstructing Canadian marriage.

I think something like this is going on with Big Love. Superficially, the show is a complex defense of polygamy. More deeply, Big Love wants to claim that, so long as people love each other, family structure doesn’t matter. So Big Love’s lovable polygamists also serve as subtle standard bearers for gay marriage, as the show explicitly notes from time to time. But that’s not all. Big Love’s pro-gay marriage message emphatically fails to echo the so-called “conservative case” for same-sex marriage. Big Love signals the surprisingly early re-emergence of a rift that split the gay community at the very start of the movement for same-sex marriage.

Behind the seemingly unanimous support for same-sex marriage in the gay community lies (at least) a three way split. “Conservative” gays say they favor marriage because they admire this bourgeois institution. Radical gays reject marriage as an outdated and oppressive patriarchal relic. These radicals favor gay marriage as a gesture of public approval for homosexuality, yet oppose the idea of actually getting married. Then there are gays who agree that marriage is outdated and oppressive, but who see a chance to radicalize the institution from within (say, by using sexually open unions to break the link between marriage and monogamy).

All indications are that Big Love is a product of this radical sensibility. The goal is not to adapt couples to an already existing institution but, in Scheffer’s words, to “subversively” transform the institution of marriage from within. So by highlighting the analogy between gay marriage and polygamy, Big Love simultaneously builds support for same-sex marriage, while also deconstructing the very notion of monogamous marriage itself. It’s a radical’s dream come true.

This means the real challenge we face is not from a huge, nationally based movement of so-called “Mormon fundamentalists.” (These renegade polygamists are emphatically not members of the mainstream, Mormon Church.) Instead, as in Canada, the challenge will come from a complex coalition: gay radicals who favor same-sex marriage but who also want to transform and transcend marriage itself, feminists (like Canada’s Martha Bailey) who feel the same way, Hollywood liberals like Tom Hanks (an executive producer of Big Love) who want to use the media to transform the culture, civil-rights advocates like the ACLU and ex-Humphrey aide Ed Frimage, libertarian conservatives like John Tierney and an ever-larger number of young people, fundamentalist “Mormon” polygamists, and the ever-growing movement for polyamory (which features both heterosexuals and large numbers of bisexuals), and perhaps someday (as in Canada) Muslim and other non-Western immigrants.

This complex coalition ranging from old-fashioned Humphrey-style liberals to anti-marriage feminist radicals, to libertarian conservatives, is what will power future efforts to radically deconstruct marriage. And we’re only at the very beginning of these efforts. For the most part, cultural radicals are holding back, knowing that anything they say may jeopardize the movement for same-sex marriage by validating slippery-slope fears. The remarkable thing is that, at this early stage, the radicals have forced themselves so openly into the cultural argument. That is a sure sign that if same-sex marriage were to be safely legalized nationally, the way would finally be open to a truly concerted campaign to transform marriage by opening it up to polygamy and polyamory, or by replacing it with an infinitely flexible partnership system. Whatever we’re seeing now is only the barest hint of what will happen once the coast is clear.

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