Sunday, August 19, 2007

Love (American Style), Big, Bigamy, Bigamist

So, I've been meaning to write a post about the HBO series Big Love for some time now, and no time like the present, I guess. Now well into its second season, the series is about a modern polygamist played by seasoned actor Bill Paxton,

with interesting supporting parts from Harry Dean Stanton,

Bruce Dern,

and Grace Zabriskie (from Twin Peaks).

I suppose they could have called the program My Three Wives, with the better halves (but that doesn't add up, does it?) played by Jeanne Tripplehorn,

Chloë Sevigny,

and Ginnifer Goodwin (in order of priority).

Oh, and in case you were wondering, the modern polygamist is not a Saudi sheik, it's a red, white, and blue Mormon living in the suburbs of Salt Lake City, Utah. Big(amy) Love, American Style! It's not quite as freaky as the old sixties sitcoms with witches, genies, hillbillies, and even astronauts and cavemen (did you think Geico was all that original? look up It's About Time, which featured comedy great Imogene Coca in a secondary role).

But it's certainly more way out there than mobsters from New Jersey, which raises the inevitable question, how does this show compare to The Sopranos? The answer is, Big Love don't mean a thing, cause it ain't got that bada bing! But then again, what else does? It's an unfair comparison, really, and all I mean to say is that isn't great, but it is good, another example of quality television, courtesy of cable TV.

I do think that The Sopranos not only set the bar, but provided a model, so that many of the series that have followed have tried to incorporate some Sopranos-like elements (The Sopranos series itself suggesting that there were many other mafias out there, in politics, religion, higher education, the motion picture industry, etc.). For example, HBO's Deadwood was The Sopranos set in the old west. So, Big Love's Sopranos-like element is the fundamentalist if not fanatical Juniper Hill compound, run by Roman Grant (played by Stanton), who is considered "the prophet" of what is described on the website as a breakaway polygamy sect (broken away from the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints, as I understand it). He is the boss of this particular mafia, which is held together not by greed but by fervent religious belief, and in addition to being in charge of the corporation that represents the financial part of the cult, he also determines who gets to marry whom, and takes the most wives for himself, of course.

Bill Henrickson (played by Paxton) grew up in the compound, but was thrown out as a young teenage boy, forced to fend for himself on the streets. This is a common practice apparently, as younger males need to be sent away because they represent potential competition for the girls that the older men want to take on as second, third, fourth, etc., wives. So Bill had to make his way in mainstream society, pulling himself up by his own bootstraps, going to college, marrying his college sweetheart within the established, mainstream Mormon Church, and becoming a successful hardware store owner.

But somewhere along the line, things changed. His wife Barbara became ill, cancer I think it was, they needed help caring for her and her children and household, and she would no longer be able to bear children, to boot (this is one of those be fruitful and multiply religions). Bill turned to Juniper Hill for help, Roman sent one of his many daughters, Nicki, and the three of them over time decided to "live the principle," enter into plural marriage, making Barb and Nicki sister-wives, and Bill something of a priest or religious leader for his family (they became an independent unit, rather than following "the prophet" or the established Mormon Church). Nikki provided a stronger connection to the fundamentalist sect, and she herself is the least ambivalent about plural marriage in the family, and the most traditionalist, although she also developed an addiction to shopping and running up credit cards. Paralleling this, Bill also received financial backing to expand his retail operation from Roman Grant, so the links deepened despite his distaste for the compound. Nicki has had two kids with Bill, and later they were joined by a third wife, Margie, who is only 21, has added 2 more kids to the mix, with yet another on the way.

Oh, and they live in three houses, side by side, so from the outside everything seems normal, but on the inside it's all interconnected. And, Big Love takes us behind closed doors and picket fences, to spy on the lives of a polygamous family living an otherwise normal suburban American lifestyle. That's what's emphasized in many ways, the utter normalcy of their arrangement. The program makes it easy to identify with a way of life that might otherwise be considered deviant, abusive, and most certainly illegal. How do they do this?

For one, Barb is the first wife, which is significant in that the first wife is the one that's legal in the eyes of the government, but she also acts as the senior sister-wife--Nicki calls her "boss lady." And Barb is very much the classic wife and mother character, perhaps a bit less liberated than contemporary TV sitcom and family drama wives are, not all that career oriented, but she does work some of the time as a substitute teacher. And she does not come from a bigamist family, so she serves as a point of identification, having moved from an initial position of skepticism to one of acceptance, having made a difficult but deliberate decision to enter into the "principle" as they call it (albeit all of this occurred before the series began, and is revealed only in bit and pieces over time).

Second, the wives are depicted as basically liking, and loving one another. Yes, there are jealousies and squabbles, but they really do seem to be very sisterly. And there has been no coercion or pressure to marry here. Moreover, when it comes to taking care of their households, there seems to be a clear economy of scale, and sharing of different competencies, from Barb's intelligence and ability to deal with the outside world, to Nicki's pioneer-like self-sufficiency, work ethic, and basic skills such as appliance repair, to Margie's youthful energy and enthusiasm, and ability to relate to the children. And together, they are in charge of the domestic scene, and at times are able to gang up on Bill, so that he appears to be dealing with domestic pressures times three.

Third, there is no hint of any sexual abuse. There's no underage wife among the Henricksons (as opposed to the compound, where for example there is one that Roman wants to marry, who ends up running away). Margie is the youngest, but her relationship with Bill doesn't seem that different from a successful middle aged man's affair with a younger woman, or more to the point, his second or third marriage to one--it's been said that divorce and remarriage is serial polygamy, after all. There seems to be healthy sexual relations between Bill and his wives, with some touch of jealousy, but basically the wives work out a schedule for equitable distribution of their husband, each sleeping with him every third night. I think having two nights off might well seem appealing to a number of women, and as for Bill, his biggest problem is keeping up his performance level, and like a lot of men, he turns to Viagra for help. But sex does not dominate the program, and to the extent that it is a topic (and it definitely is one, and there are some racy scenes now and then), it's not reduced to lust, but appears within the context of their polygamous marriage.

Which brings me to the fourth point, that the Henricksons are depicted as religious, but not fanatics. They say grace before meals, are decent, respectful, God-fearing folk, but they don't try to proselytize in any way, or interject religion into everything they do. They don't drink alcohol or coffee, or smoke (Margie has been known to cheat, though), but you rarely notice the absence of these behaviors in the program (an exception being the last episode, number 22, "The Happiest Girl," where deliberate reference was made in an interaction with non-Mormons). Their religion lends a spiritual quality to their marriage and family life that is downright enviable, and all they seem to want is the freedom to practice their religion without fear of persecution, the problem being that plural marriage is central to that practice.

And while the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints is not entirely absent from the series, it is very much in the background, and typically only functions as one of several threatening forces hostile to this family (since it has long ago outlawed polygamy), along with various forms of governmental authority, and advocates and activists seeking to rescue women victimized by plural marriage and the children brought up in such families. Typically, these agencies are depicted in a relatively negative light, and as insiders in the Henrickson's household, we see them as hostile forces. The point here is that the LDS is not used to provide a contrast between mainstream Mormonism and the Henrickson's secretive practice of their religion. Instead, the Henrickson's normalcy is contrasted to the extreme fundamentalism and cult-like situation of the Juniper Hill compound--a compound that it is gated and guarded, with its own police force answering to Roman Grant. This is the fifth way that the show gets us to identify with Bill, Barb, Nicki, and Margie.

Of course, having established the differences between the two groups, things become more complex over time. For example, this season we are introduced to other groups even more extreme than Grant's. We also have been seeing over time that Bill either gets pulled back into compound affairs, or deliberately interjects himself into them, most dramatically by buying a seat on the corporation's board. And there was a brief mention in one episode of the fact that the former "prophet" that Roman Grant had displaced, through some kind of hostile takeover of the compound, was Bill's grandfather. It was mentioned once, and not brought up again, but in my mind this suggests that Bill might potentially vie for the role of "prophet" in the future, even though that seems highly unlikely at this point in the series. But the stage is set for some kind of move in this direction, with Roman being shot in a recent episode, and his frustrated son Alby taking over the leadership of the compound, and appearing intent on euthanizing his father. This should make for very interesting plot possibilities for the remainder of this and for next season. But so far, the emphasis has been on the distinction between the fundamentalists at the compound, and our modern, typical family with one dad and three mommies.

Now, getting the audience to identify with the main characters is typically the goal of a narrative (not necessarily, I should add, as the show could have just said, in effect, look at these freaks, how strange and bizarre they are, how much better off we are than them, or alternately, look at these beautiful people living a life we can only dream about). But in this particular case, I think there is some added significance that connects to the larger political and cultural environment of contemporary America.

First, there's the whole Mormon thing. I brought up Big Love in my popular culture summer class, and one of the students said that in her theology class at Fordham University, the Mormons were identified as a cult rather than a bona fide religion. Now, I'm not sure that the student was reporting this correctly, and I actually was surprised to hear that, as I tend to associate Mormons with certain other Protestant sects such as Jehovah's Witnesses, Seventh Day Adventists, and Christian Scientists. I guess there's some question of whether Mormons are even considered Protestants, but who am I to say? And, figuring they mostly resided out west, I was surprised to find Mormons ringing doorbells and trying to talk to people and give them literature, much like Jehovah's Witnesses, here in Northern New Jersey--I could only imagine Tony Soprano's response! I actually asked them for a copy of the Book of Mormon many years ago, which they gave me, and I think they were a little disappointed with their follow-up visits when I explained that I hadn't read it yet--hey, I'm a busy guy, but I will get to it one of these days.

Whether Mormons are categorized as a cult or not, the fact that the question can be raised is itself significant. And while the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City was good for the image of their Church, the South Park episode "All About Mormons" was devastating in its deconstruction of the origins of this religion, albeit while taking a few liberties. Of course, we might also ask what religion could stand up to such scrutiny? The bottom line is that it is easier to accept a mythic or legendary account from antiquity, and view it as a metaphor or at least subject to interpretation because the conditions of life have changed so dramatically since then, not to mention the language the account was written in, than it is to accept the same sort of thing coming from contemporaries or the recent past. I'm reminded of a Firesign Theatre routine where a preacher is saying something like, I'm not talking about a book that was written by a bunch of babbling barbarians thousands of years ago, I'm talking about a book some of which was written as recently as last night! Newer is better, after all, right?

At what point does a cult become a religion? Good question! My mentor, Neil Postman, was known to joke that if a religion is not at least a few thousand years old, it's just a cult. And perhaps religions need a certain amount of deep time to reach maturity. It does seem that after a period of time, a given religion's prophetic period comes to a close, and new claims to having a direct line to God are rejected. Thus, by the time Jesus and his apostles came around, many Jews could no longer find such claims credible, and by the time of Mohammad, most Jews and Christians could no longer accept a new prophet. Of course, Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith, was not the last of the modern prophets, he was followed by, among others, Siyyid `Alí-Muhammad later known as "the Báb," a prophet that most Muslims did not accept, who began an off-shoot of Islam known as Bahá'í (made famous in the U.S. by Seals and Crofts).

Ours is a pluralistic society, one that has grown increasingly more tolerant, but certain faiths are considered more or less mainstream and others not. And I do not mean to suggest that Big Love is responsible for moving Mormonism into the mainstream, no more so than I would attribute such a shift to Donnie and Marie Osmond (if you don't know who they are, don't ask). But Big Love does not hurt things at all for them, and more to the point, I take it as a reflection of changing attitudes towards this faith, a sign that this religion has come to be accepted as legitimate.

What fascinates me about all this is that it coincides with the appearance of the first serious contender for the presidency of the United States who is a practicing Mormon, Mitt Romney. Romney has a fairly decent shot at the Republican presidential nomination, although he is not the front runner, but I would not predict that he'd go all the way, at least not yet. I do find this an amazing coincidence, and it can't be deliberate because he was not a serious candidate at the time Big Love premiered, and anyway, if you wanted to launch a show to help a Mormon candidate, you wouldn't make the Mormon characters practicing polygamists since it goes against their church's present doctrine and potentially reinforces prejudices and stereotypes.

Time for a tangent, but a relevant one, something I share with my students whenever I teach about popular culture, and about how popular culture items are reflections of society in general, its myths, values, and beliefs, and how a given item is a reflection of the particular times it is created in. I begin with the common example that during the fifties, situation comedies featuring the nuclear family were popular, such as Leave It to Beaver and Father Knows Best. This is understood as a reflection of that relatively conservative era, and a time when the basic family unit was still intact. I do make the point that the emphasis on the nuclear family also reflects the disintegration of the extended family, as postwar prosperity and mobility resulted in the middle class moving away from the old city neighborhoods, to the suburbs, while at the same time the need to stay close to extended family members for survival dissapeared. Anyway, things begin as we move into the sixties with the appearance of single family sitcoms like My Three Sons, The Andy Griffith Show, The Doris Day Show, Family Affair, etc. Again, the obvious connection is that this shift reflects the rising divorce rate in the American population. So far, so good.

The problem is that none of those single parent sitcoms that start to appear are actually about a divorced parent. They're always about widows, widowers, or even a single relative taking care of orphans. This is an example of how distorted popular culture reflections can actually become. While the divorce rate was going up, divorce itself remained a stigma, taken as a sign of moral failing, lack of character. So these sitcoms reflected both the new demographic and the old negative attitude towards divorce.

And I remember very clearly the 1968 presidential elections, which we followed in my elementary school class, fifth grade I believe. At that time, Ronald Reagan, governor of California, was for the first time a candidate for the Republican nomination (which Nixon eventually won). And our teacher said that he would never, ever be elected president of the United States. You might guess that she said that it was because an actor could never be president, which is certainly how many people felt at the time, but that wasn't it at all. It was the fact that he was divorced! She said that the American people would never accept a divorced man as president (even though he had remarried). And this made absolute sense from the point of view of 1968.

But attitudes were changing dramatically at that time, with the civil rights movement, women's liberation, the antiwar movement, and of course the sexual revolution. As we moved into the seventies, divorce has become more and more commonplace, and less and less of a stigma. In 1975, the first sitcom featuring a single parent who was divorced, One Day at a Time, premiered. The following year, Ronald Reagan almost snatched the Republican presidential nomination away from Gerald Ford, a sitting president (albeit an unelected one). The fact that he was divorced was not an issue. In 1980, he captured the nomination, and beat Jimmy Carter, and not only was his marital status never mentioned, but he ran as the candidate of family values!!! I only wish my old grade school teacher had been around to comment on that development.

So, anyway, if Mitt Romney gets the Republican nod in 2012, you'll know why.

That takes care of the Mormon part of the equation, but what about plural marriage? Well, of course we've been grappling in this country with a somewhat different problem concerning the definition of marriage, the question of gay marriage, which was a big issue during the last presidential election, although it now has somewhat subsided. On one side, we have the idea that the government should officially recognize marriage between two members of the same sex just as it recognizes marriages between two members of the opposite sex. On the other side, there is the counter-effort to establish an official definition of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Now, given that this post has been about Big Love, I think the point is obvious enough, if we are going to widen the definition of marriage in terms of gender, why not also widen it in terms of number of partners?

There certainly is ample precedent for plural marriage in the Bible, and there is no commandment about monogamy in either the Old or New Testaments. I find it ironic that the Reform Jewish movement, of which I am a part, changed our liturgy in order to modernize and balance the patriarchal bias of traditional Jewish prayers, adding the four matriarchs to the three patriarchs: after saying, "God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob" we add, "God of Sarah, God of Rebecca, God of Rachel, and God of Leah," but this implicitly recognizes that Jacob had two wives at the same time (Leah and Rachel). Now, there is nothing in the Jewish or Moslem religions prohibiting plural marriage, and just from doing a quick Google search for "origin of monogamy" it seems that there is nothing in the New Testament of early Christian Church either. Instead, it seems that this practice is a pagan residue, mostly coming from pre-Christian Rome, with some Hellenic influence, although it is also acknowledged that they did not take marriage as seriously as the Church did. I should also point out that polygamy is an accepted practice under contemporary Islamic law, and various experiments with all sorts of plural marriage has been associated with communal living back in the sixties and seventies, and presumably to this day--this also shows up in the science fiction of Robert Heinlein.

Now, before you think that I've become an advocate for plural marriage, let me just note that I am not trying to make an argument for it, I am just pointing out that in this respect too, Big Love may be a reflection of our times. In a distorted or disguised from, it reflects the issue of gay marriage, in a more general sense, it reflects the decline of marriage as an institution, the symptoms including divorce, premarital sex, people living together without making it official, the greatly reduced stigma attached to adultery, not to mention the concept of "open marriage" from the sixties (does anyone remember Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice?). As a culture, our respect for marriage as an institution, not to mention a sacrament, is pretty low in real terms, even if there is a powerful sentiment reacting to the latest efforts to open it all up.

But ultimately, given the secular nature of our system of government, the question of defining marriage is a legal issue. And there really is no logical reason for limiting the definition, aside from tradition. Since marital status is linked to various economic and legal benefits, on what basis are those benefits given to one class of people, and denied to another? Having opened this Pandora's box, and we pretty much have, there's no going back. If two people of the same sex can get married, why not, say, a brother and sister, father and daughter, mother and son? Apart from the rather horrifying question of whether incest ought to be illegal, which I do not want to touch in any way, shape, or form here, what I mean to say is, why can't close relatives obtain the same legal and economic benefits from marriage that complete strangers receive? Marriage, after all, from the point of view of the government, is not a license to have sex, it's an official declaration of a particular legal status, one that entitles individuals to certain benefits from the government (e.g., tax breaks) and employers (e.g., health insurance). And again, why limit this status to only two partners? In the end, this is all simply a matter of contract law, and justice is, after all, blind.

So, where are we going? My guess is that the government will be forced to get out of the marriage business altogether, and marriage will no longer be a determinant for benefits, rights, and privileges. Perhaps an employer will simply make a certain amount of benefits available, the total of which can be spread among as many individuals as the employee designates, so that the more there are the less they get. Or maybe it's time for a new category to take the place of marriage, and family, or rather time for the retrieval of an old category which has been semi-retired, that of household to designate a marital or family unit of two or more individuals.

Bottom line, it's not really clear where we're headed exactly, but its pretty clear to me what we're leaving behind. And there is no question that cultures and social institutions change over time--marriage changed dramatically from the 19th to the 20th century. But there is also cause for concern here, because social theories all pretty much acknowledge that marriage, family, kinship relations, are foundational to every known society. They differ from one culture to another, sure, but the health of a society is dependent on the stability of these institutions, and if they break down, who knows what will happen? We are really heading into uncharted territory, and I don't know if love, however big, will be enough to get us through safely.


Anonymous said...

I love this show. The writers were driving through Utah trying to think of an idea for a show. One blurted out "how about a show about polygamy".

What I love about this show is that this situation is ripe for character development and relationship issues. All of the characters are very rich with distinct personalities. The writers also get to explore the religious continuum from fundamentalist to mainstream.

It is so fun to watch Bill, who is actually more like a mafia don, couch his decisions in scripture. He is in to power and becomes corrupted by the draw, ever justifying his behavior by his religion. He is building a house of cards and as the intro with the great Beach Boy theme suggest, things WILL fall apart.

A note on the definition of "cult". A cult is a community which relies directly on the wisdom of a human prophet who has a direct connection to the creator. Members have to go through the prophet to get guidance. Based on this definition Mormon's are cultists. This system breeds power hungry corrupt behavior. Hence all the sexual abuse in the more fundamentalist version of the cult.

I very much enjoyed your synopsis of the show. I used to think that I would enjoy plural marriage with sister-wife camaraderie, until I fell deeply in love with a man who I would not be willing to share with anyone else. I am not strong enough to pull it off and he does not have the drive to satisfy other wives.

I am able to love some of the characters and respect all of them for their quirky persona's and for their individual complexity.

Contrast this show with "John from Cincinnati" which never went anywhere. All the characters were despicable on one level or another and the was no central theme. I think the show was just canceled. It just couldn't pull off quirky like Big Love does!

Martin said...

I particularly liked your discourse on marriage; what it is, what it could be, where it's going. Developmental psychologists have been studying for years the effects of different family dynamics, or as you put it, the 'household'. We have traditional marriage, gay civil unions and gay marriage, blended families, step-families, single parent families, non-traditional marriages, etc.

Perhaps as you suggest our society will begin to move in a different direction so as to broaden its definition of 'marriage'. Thankfully, as a society we are becoming more tolerant of diverse lifestyles; maybe we can all spend more time on what is going on in the world instead of dwelling on the topic of who is sleeping with whom.

As a coda, and perhaps as a result of an aging brain, I hadn't realized that within reform Judaism the addition of 'God of Sarah,"... and that Jacob had two wives. And, I believe, very few realize the lack of a commandment regarding monogamy, just that 'Thou shalt not covet thy neighbors wife', with not an inkling of commentary regarding the coveting of love for multiple partners.

A very interesting and educational piece of work.