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.

NEXT: Stem Cell Research Bill Up For Vote Tomorrow In Senate

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. Julian Sanchez,

    …but because sustaining one intimate relationship at a time is quite enough work for most of us.

    Or you can just compare the lifestyle of the Ottoman Sultan to one of his average subjects. 🙂

  2. If “love the sinner, hate the sin” really was the operative outlook for the Religious Right, showing decent, normal people troubled by the challenges of their “immoral” lifestyle would be exactly what they’d want to see.

    If.

  3. I wonder to what extent the polygamist males prefer polygamy to be illegal. As it is, they get the support of their “persecuted” communities while marrying adolescent girls and engaging in welfare abuse.
    Legalizing polygamy would put them into a situation where they may be held financially responsible for all the kids they create, not just the first wife’s children. Also, laws regarding age wouldn’t necessarily go away because the laws regarding the number of spouses you can have are changed.

  4. Or you can just compare the lifestyle of the Ottoman Sultan to one of his average subjects. 🙂

    Hakluyt,

    I’m not sure I follow you.

  5. smacky,

    The Sultan had a seraglio and a large administrative network to regulate the lives of his wives. Typically Ottoman male subjects had one wife.

  6. STOP IT
    STOP IT
    STOP IT
    STOP LINKING TO NRO

  7. What ever floats your boat, I suppose. But I, for one, have no interest in having more than one wife. I’ve “dated” two or more woman at the same time. Variety has its good points. But, for me, the deep emotional closeness that I have with my wife in our monogamous relationship is better than the pleasure I enjoyed in having a variety of sexual partners.

  8. For people whose politics are predicated on demonizing others, any non-demonic portrayal will be unacceptable. This applies to every bogeyman that they whip their audiences into a froth over. Gays, abortionists, people who choose euthansia, illegal aliens, muslims, you name it, must be shown as unredeemable monsters.

    After all, it doesn’t help their cause to show them as people.

  9. I am actually peeved about this show, not because it shows polygamy in a ‘good’ light but because it uses the ‘religious cult’ angle to do it. Religion is not a requirement of polyamory dangit. I have known people in a couple of polyamorous groups where religion played absolutely no role in the day to day function of the group.

    Why do people need to think that only Mormons or Branch Davidians can have fun and multiple spouses?

  10. As far as the emotional closeness goes, I’ve felt I had it both when in a polyamorous relationship, and when not. Though such relationships can vary along the entire spectrum of several different dimensions; many peoples’ mileage will surely differ.

  11. Religion is not a requirement of polyamory dangit.

    The conotation of polyamory is that either each participant essentially lives alone or lives with a primary partner. The conotation of polygamy is that at least one participant cohabitates with the other participants. That only seems to happen in the context of a religious cult or where the cohabitating participant is hiding his/her polygamy from the other participants.

    So, I guess they need a new show for the BDSM, power exchange, pansexual, polyamorous, extended pagan familyish thing. I guess they could call it The P Word.

  12. I love it when Libertarians are forced, or perhaps, choose to invoke Marxist analysis. Serious shady-Freud.

  13. Perhaps Graham didn’t watch the entire episode. IIRC, the first scene shows Paxton getting a very enthusiastic greeting from his wife of the night as she complained that it was hard for her to wait the requisite three days between relations. Feel sorry for me if you want, but that is a better greeting than I get from my wife when I climb into bed.

  14. Rimfax,
    I used “polyamory” in place of “polygamy” only because these people were not “married” in any religious context (state context not being legal and all). However, both groups lived in communal dwelling. One was a small 3 person group, the other a larger 5 person group.

  15. Polygamy should be outlawed because it is corrosive to society. You end up with a few men self-righteously taking marriageable women out of the potential wife pool for other single men in the community.

    So, in addition to that being deeply unequitable, it leaves society with a surplus of single men whose chances for the civilizing effect of marriage are limited. Too many single men in a society is a prescription for more crime, among other things.

  16. Well, here goes my kicking over a nest of hornets…

    Kwix, are you trying to say that the pagan/wiccan, hand-fasting style of polyamory doesn’t have a religious cult overtone to it?

  17. What are you all talking about? I don’t understand.

  18. Albo,
    Who said anything about men heading a polygamist family. I the Fundamentalist Mormon context, yes men are the center of the household. However, in a more matriarchal setup, with one woman as the head and multiple husbands your theory wouldn’t hold water. Besides, what “civilizing effect” does marriage have? I haven’t become any more civilized since I got married, just fatter.

    Rather than outlaw polygamy perhaps it should be fully legalized but Fundamentalist Mormanism outlawed.

  19. Wait, women can have more than one husband? What are you talking about! That’s not allowed! Is it?

  20. I haven’t become any more civilized since I got married, just fatter.

    Sadly, me too. Is there a cure that doesn’t involve excersize or diet? 🙂

  21. Xmas,
    No, I am not. What I am saying is the two groups that I have personal knowledge of had no such ‘handfasting’ or any other form of religious ceremony. It was more of a “Susan, this is Bob, he will be taking the room at the end of the hall” sort of ceremony.

  22. Shelby,

    I’m glad it worked for you. I just don’t think it would work for me. I’ve been with my wife for nearly eight years, and we get closer every year. (I also don’t really have time for more than one partner. I spend too much time reading things like HnR.)

  23. Kwix,

    You make it sound like they were just trying to save money on rent.

    Hmmm, come to think of it, that’s not a bad idea.

  24. I’m glad it worked for you. I just don’t think it would work for me.

    Now see, that is a true libertarian perspective on everything.

    Now to draft a law forcing everyone else to think this way….

  25. Men always get fat when they get married. If I get married I’m gonna make sure my man works out.

  26. 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.

    That’s not what a little birdie told me.

    The little birdie told me you were big pimpin’.

  27. Of course, I spoke with a little birdie a long time ago, so this might be completely irrelevant and out-of-date now.

  28. Matt-
    The “vulgar-Marxist” thing was a little tongue in cheek. What Marx got wrong was the details, not the general concept of studying how economic circumstances can shape, or even drive, cultural or ideological phenomena that might, at first glance, seem autonomous. That’s basically what’s at the core of both the Law and Economics school and Public Choice theory.

  29. Hey little birdie I heard that too! Julian is smooth with the ladies.

    Why haven’t you hit on me yet Julian?

  30. mk,
    When I first met the smaller group I thought, “Hrrm, roommates with benefits”. To thier credit they actually had something between them. All three of them were very close to each other, almost like a hippy lovefest.

    The larger group was a BDSM couple with ‘subs’, completely different relationship dynamics all together.

    I don’t know if I could handle either one personally. I agree with The Real Bill, HnR takes way too much of my time.

  31. This reminds me of the morons that came out against the movie “Basketball Diaries” because it glamorized heroin. I’m still not sure how the scene with DiCaprio blowing a guy in a subway bathroom was suposed to be glamorous.

  32. In theory, polyamory might be OK.

    But in practice, Mormon fundamentalists screw 14-year-olds girls, send teenaged boys to die in construction accidents and raid my wallet for tax dollars for their AFDC and medical care for their inbred kids.

  33. ralphus, you don’t know many gay guys do you

  34. I wonder if, in a world where there is a shortage of good child care, more people in a marriage or family unit might not make sense.

    If you had a 4 adult household (skip the gender/sex issues for now) with 2 people working full time, one stay at home parent and a part time parent I bet your overall standard of living would be similar to a family with two incomes. You would have the additional benifit of at home child care and possibly enhanced food and cleanliness.

    I disapprove of non-adults getting married in any context, I don’t see what diffeance the number of other spouses makes

  35. In the days of my yute, I hung out with a buncha poly people. It was cutting edge, you see. The wave of the future. The human heart is big enough to love more than one person. You can love your mother and your father and your siblings and it doesn’t detract from your love for any of them, why should having more than one boy/girlfriend be any different?

    Anyway, out of all of the poly primary couples I knew back then, only two are still on speaking terms with each other. The rest are monogamously monogamous and loathe to talk about back then.

    For my part, I pairbond after so much as holding hands so poly never seemed like a real option for me.

  36. Is it just me, or does RPG look even hotter this time around? (RPG–Wouldn’t it be better if the Iraqi insurgency used the Reason Pillow Girl instead of rocket propelled grenades to defeat American forces? I bet it would work better.)

  37. “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.”

    I guess a lot of people didn’t get the memo that went out, oh, some time in the early eighties, when the fundies really started to feel their oats. Not hysterically attacking a behavior or activity with biblical righteousness and zeal means the same as glamourizing it. If, say, Dobson, Falwell, Robertson, and any of the mavens from NRO are not pleased…well, you get the point.

  38. Other John,
    As with illicit drug use and prostitution when you make something illegal, particularly a consentual crime, you loose the ability to regulate it. If polygamy were legally recognized by the state then they could impose age restrictions on relations/marriage. The way the law works now, you are screwed whether you take a 14 year old or a 30 year old as your bride.

    As for the AFDC and medical care how is it different than a ‘normal’ couple that has multiple children. Not saying that the Duggar Family uses the AFDC credit or medicare but you have to admit that 16 children is a potential tax burden.
    http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/9680098/

  39. Tim Graham’s description of the show as “glamorizing” polygamy is?well, “bizarre” is the most charitable word that comes to mind.

    He probably thinks that Trainspotting glamorizes heroin use.

  40. Reason Pillow Girl,

    Actually I do, but most of the gay guys I know would rather be blown by Leo in a tastefully decorated browstone.

  41. Forgive me, I don’t often read NRO, so perhaps they addressed this point thoroughly at some point, but do these “traditional values” bullshitters have some explanation for the (apparently) God Almighty-sanctioned polygamy in the fucking Bible? (And, yes, there is a LOT of fucking in that Bible.) I mean, didn’t some of the Chosen People’s head honchos do this shit all the time, without that vengeful Old Testament Invisible-Dude-In-The- Sky pouring out his copious wrath, which he otherwise seemd to do at the drop of a hat? What is their excuse for this–are they holier than God than now, literally?

  42. 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.”

    If “love the sinner, hate the sin” really was the operative outlook for the Religious Right, showing decent, normal people troubled by the challenges of their “immoral” lifestyle would be exactly what they’d want to see.

    Brokeback Mountain had exactly the same problem. Given the basic message of the flick – that being gay will make you miserable – the sociocons should’ve, er, “embraced” it. Problem is, the storyline made what happened to the cowboys tragic, rather than a case of a coupla deviated preverts(sic) gettin’ their just desserts.

  43. Henry,

    I’d be shocked to see that traditional values types admit that those values have little to do with their God, and a lot to do with their personal preferences.

  44. I think that’s a different Reason Pillow Girl.

    It’s the Reason Green Girl, or Shamrocker or something

  45. I know this is the land of the free and all but I just cannot abide seeing people form family structures that I find objectionable or unappealing. No way. Throw those bastards in jail.

    nmg

  46. 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 emotional jealousy in heels.

    Apparently, this guy doesn’t know about Shultz’s patented coin flip rule.

  47. In any case, as expected, Big Love has emboldened defenders of polygamy. The idea that this is just a television drama with no public policy implications does not hold up.

    For pundits, every issue is a public policy issue, and as such everything must come down on one side or the other. Neutrality is synonymous with opposition. It never occurs to any of them that government shouldn’t be licensing relationships at all, or that “values” can be adhered to without the force of law.

  48. I’d marry both the Reason Pillow Girl and her twin sister the Reason Shamrock Girl.

    How’bout it, girls? I promise to hold no other magazine in higher esteem.

  49. Apparently, this guy doesn’t know about Shultz’s patented coin flip rule.

    Ken,

    What is your coin flip rule? I think I already asked you this before, but I don’t think I ever got an answer. I must know. Pretty plz?

  50. Kwix – I think they were made Mormon-style polygamists because it adds dynamics to the setup, including a credible sense of threat.

    Because despite the positive correlation between practicing non-Mormon polygamy and spouting bullshit about “The Burning Times”, modern polyamorists aren’t really under that much threat. About the worst they can fear is that we won’t alter our institutions to help them out; there’s no major fear that we’re going to be mounting a big crusade anytime soon. For all politicians can talk, if and when some agency of the state finds out that my sysop lives with his two girlfriends, I’m pretty sure they’re not going to press charges. And as far as I can remember, the US government has never raised and mobilized an army to stop them. That’s two things Mormon polygamists can’t say.

    So that creates an interesting dynamic. Where almost all sexuality-based drama revolves around keeping secrets, Big Love inverts that dynamic. Traditionally, other people may have known about your flings and other outside attachments, but you tried to keep your family from finding out. Here, the family knows all about what’s going on, but Bill & co. are trying to keep anyone else from learning. And that lets the writers create and explore situations that haven’t really been done before, which as someone currently orbiting the periphery of the TV writing world I’m sure is one of the big draws of working on a show like this.

    Every stupid sitcom has done an episode where a man walks in on a friend in the shower, thinking she was his wife/girlfriend, and awkwardness ensues. It’s been played out. But a man who walks in on his third wife, thinking she was his first wife? Even in this silly little scenario, there are questions to be explored – does he acknowledge his mistake, or pretend that’s what he intended to do all along? And if he goes through with it, how does he redirect his intentions and emotions w/r/t the first towards the third? – and they’re questions that haven’t been beaten to death before, and they’re questions that provide real opportunities to flesh out the characters and their dynamic. And it’s that sort of freshness that’s going to be Big Love’s biggest weapon, in my mind.

  51. Dissent at NRO, you must be kidding, the whole site is nothing but a 24/7 Bush cheerleader camp, Buckley is the only one with the guts to call Bush and the cons on their BS and when he does the other Bushbots fall in line to criticize Buckely. The only dissent you will see at NRO is whether it is better to kiss Bush’s ass or suck his cock.

  52. NoStar,
    What do you drive?

  53. Right on Scott. If NRO’s Frum, Lowry or Goldberg have a late column it is probably because the talking points from the White House got stuck in the fax machine. While they every now and then have a very thoughtful and/or scholarly guest writer, One cannot read the site with any regularity and not get a feeling most of the regulars are on the take.

  54. Scenescent,
    Sounds perfectly logical to me, thanks. If I had HBO I might actually watch it just for the S&G’s of it.

  55. 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.

    Mormon polygamy, as it was practice in the 1800’s, had a strong economic component to it. It was an unwritten obligation that polygamists who could afford it would marry older widows and spinsters and thus provide them with a home and support. Quite an important thing when you’re scraping a precarious living out on the frontier.

    Brigham Young, for example, had 27 wives, only 15 of which were “connubial”. The rest were older widows for whom he provided a home. Two of my great-great-grandfather’s wives were older women whom he married to help them cross the plains.

  56. Hakluyt,
    IIRC, Sulieman (sp?) had around 300 wives, but once he slept with his second wife, a russian girl, he never bothered with the others.

    Those Russian girls are sumtin’ else, I guess.

  57. Hakluyt,
    IIRC, Suleyman had around 300 wives, but once he slept with his second wife Roxolana, a russian girl, he never bothered with the others.

    Those Russian girls are sumtin’ else, I guess. What kind of girl could make a man forget about 299 other girls? I wish I knew.

  58. hee hee, I thought I hadn’t hit the button. The spelling is better in the second post 🙂

  59. The real joker in the deck is that many folks (even the fundamentally religious) who utterly oppose plural relationships in fact participate in them. The difference being that their marriages are consecutive instead of concurrent. (Which is also a no-no Biblically.)

    For all politicians can talk, if and when some agency of the state finds out that my sysop lives with his two girlfriends, I’m pretty sure they’re not going to press charges.

    Given the percentage of elected representatives with both wives and girlfriends it would be blatantly hypocritical. Not that hypocrisy slows politicians down much.

    And I still think the Bible has it right. No man can serve two masters.

  60. “Syriana” was called pro-suicide-bomber for similar reasons…they weren’t shown torturing puppies in their spare time, which of course, all suicide bombers do.

  61. An fath cailin can’t have sex if she’s Irish, now can she? 🙂

    Kevin

  62. STOP LINKING TO NRO

    There could be worse times to do it. Our government could be contemplating invading a mid-East country for no good reason…Oh shit!

  63. Dearest Reason Pillow Girl,

    I currently drive an 89 Chrysler New Yorker, a 91 Ford F150 and soon will have a Yamaha V-Star motorcycle. Maybe not all that impressive, unless you understand it’s not what you drive but how hard you drive it.

  64. PS to the Reason Pillow Girl,

    I forgot to mention my 30 foot sailboat.
    (Modesty prevents me from mentioning the size of my dinghy.)

  65. What is this “drama” you’re speak of? I’ve never even heard of it. Is that what you little people watch on your “TV”? Honestly! Don’t you have anything better to do with your time than sit in front of the Idiot Box? Hello, people! I have so many More Important things to do than sit in front of The Tube like the rest of you. I don’t even know what television is! I can’t even find the remote.

  66. I haven’t become any more civilized since I got married, just fatter.

    I think you got your definition of civilized messed up…if getting fatter isn’t the basis of civilization then i don’t know what is

  67. How can someone complain about linking to NRO but not to Feministing?

    (And just to piss some people off, IMO, women are more sexist than men. And no, I have no proof, only anecdote.)

  68. Re: NRO
    They are not entirely unified, nor do they entirely agree with the President. They mostly do, but the interests of conservatives and Republicans still mostly overlap, particularly on the issues they consider most important (war on terror, Supreme Court justices). Having a fair number of social conservatives over there will also lead to some views that would be considered distasteful here.

    They do disagree frequently, with each other and the President, though most of their criticisms of the President come from the right (like how Daily Kos criticizes Democrats from the left). NRO was solidly against the Miers nomination, is still bitter about McCain-Feingold, and frequently reminds that “big government conservatism” is not conservatism. The British writers frequently dissent, like Derbyshire’s view of Iraq as a fiasco.

    They do tend to circle the wagons when attacks come from the left, presumably because they prefer Republicans to Democrats in general. Protecting the lesser evil and all that. They alos believe that many of the problems are communication issues rather than substantive disagreement, such that the country would support Iraq, wire taps, the ports deal, and shooting lawyers in the face if the White House communications department were better.

    I’m just sayin’: they have some good writers and interesting points, and it is unfair to write them all off as shills for Bush. OTOH, I understand if any given website falls below your acceptable signal:noise ratio.

  69. Having been married for seven years next month, I find a monogamous marriage to be enough of a challenge, thank you very much.

    As far as “Big Love” goes, it all comes down to this: who the hell would want to watch normal people on TV? Normal people are boring. We love our freak shows.

    Maybe Tim Graham wants to watch a TV show about an Average American family who does a whole bunch of Average American nothing, but I imagine he’s in a small minority. Even the “Brady Bunch” was sort of a freak show for its time. Personally, I have a hard time not falling asleep in front of the TV even during a veritable freak parade.

  70. What kind of girl could make a man forget about 299 other girls? I wish I knew.

    mk,

    You’ve already met me!

  71. I wonder if they have the guts to look at what happens when the children grow up. I mean, how old are the girls before they are given in marriage? 14? 13? 12? And how about the boys? What happens when they are no longer young and cute, but reached puberty and are in direct competition with the older men?

    In the past those extra young men were dealt with by sending them to war. Either they died, or they brought bridess back. Problem solved. But if that is not an option, what happens to them?

    Not too long ago there was on TV a report that one such polygamous community routinely expelled young men and left them to shift for themselves in the wide world (may they were taken in by kindly Mormom monogamous families, but others drifted into the big Cities, to survive as best they could.)

    The problem with poligamy is the math. Given a 50:50 ratio of men and women, if some men have routinely more than 1 wife, there will be quite a number of men who will have none. And these will tend to be young (quite a damper for those oversexed adolescent with polygamous fantasies)

  72. Adriana –

    The show does indeed address the dynamics of gender balance in a polygamist society, mostly in the context of the messianic compound Bill grew up in, before – surprise, surprise – being forced out so as not to compete with the older men for young women.

  73. An interesting idea about legalizing polygamy: might it actually *reduce* the incidence of child and spousal abuse, since such arrangements would be out in the open? I have to think that some of the worst practices of current polygamists are partially enabled by the veil of secrecy that surrounds their lives.

    Personally, I find most polygamists that I’ve seen profiled on TV to be rather disturbing (disturbed) individuals, and I wouldn’t want any part of that. But I also question the interference of the state in such matters between consenting adults. So yes, in that sense the argument for gay marriage is equally valid for polygamy. And not being tied to a religion, I don’t find polygamy (absent child abuse of involuntariness) any more objectionable. And, of course, I don’t believe in supporting their children, either, but that’s another matter.

  74. You’ve already met me!

    Oh yeah, I guess the reason I didn’t know was just that you had already made me forget.

    For the record, Smacky not only made me forget 299 girls, she also made me forget my dreams and the location of my car keys.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.