Big Deal


The National Review crew have had their sacred underwear in a bunch of late over the new HBO drama Big Love, which stars Bill Paxton as paterfamilias of a polygamous Brady Bunch in Utah. This is, on face, a little odd because as Cathy Seipp herself observes, and as I can confirm after watching the show this weekend, Big Love is scarcely an advertisement for polygamy. Paxton's character is as harried as you might expect a man trying to maintain three families to be—the strain of which has left him with a case of wet-noodle syndrome about the nether regions—and his wives are tightly-wound bundles of sexual and emotionial jealousy in heels. And while they're all more-or-less likeable—even, occasionally, Chloe Sevigny's catty, shopaholic middle-wife, who seems perpetually on the verge of letting loose with a primal "Marsha, Marsha, Marsha!"—the series scarcely glosses over the uglier customs associated with some forms of polygamy: Roman Grant, a creepalicious cult leader played by Harry Dean Stanton, is seen rolling up to meet the prodigal Paxton in a caravan of SUVs accompanied by the well-programmed adolescent who's slated to be his 14th wife. Tim Graham's description of the show as "glamorizing" polygamy is—well, "bizarre" is the most charitable word that comes to mind. If this is what he regards as a "glamorous" relationship, Graham has my condolences.

So why are Stan Kurtz and Louis Wittig getting their dudgeon on? The trouble seems to be that even if the program doesn't make polygamy itself terribly appealing, it insidiously presents the polygamists as, you know, people. Homo sapiens. Some with no visible horns. And that, as Wittig puts it, makes it difficult to "start thinking of them in fire-and-brimstone terms." Of course, if that's the problem, then any representation of any polyamorists in any art form is going to be objectionable, except perhaps as snaggletoothed trailer-barons ruling with an iron fist over harems of prepubescents.

Kurtz concedes that "Traditional polygamy, by its nature, will have limited appeal in America," but thinks that less-structured polyamory could be a serious homewrecker. I've got my doubts. If you look at the history of marriage, you typically find (and forgive a bit of vulgar-Marxist analysis here) economic realities wagging the cultural dog when it comes to family institutions. In other words, it's not that polygamy and polyamory are relatively rare because they're seen as deviant; they're deviant (in the descriptive sense) because they stopped being adaptive. I suspect that in our lovely, decadent coastal cities where nobody much raises an eyebrow at homosexual relationships, most folk wouldn't be much more fazed to learn that a friend was in a polyamorous relationship. But relatively few people even in those areas go that route—not because their wild Solomonic fantasies are just barely held in check by the crushing power of social stigma, but because sustaining one intimate relationship at a time is quite enough work for most of us.

Addendum: A poster at Feministing is down on the show as well, though not for quite the same reasons.