Polyamory in the News!
. . . by Alan M.

March 16, 2006

Will "Big Love" be a cultural tipping point?

The HBO polygamy drama "Big Love," scheduled to run Sunday nights for 12 weeks, has turned public attention to non-monogamous families like nothing in recent memory. Opinions in the polyamory community are mixed, but the show is certainly better than many feared, and it has won some over. For instance, Rob Wilson at Polyamorous Percolations writes in the first of a series of weekly reviews he plans (titled "Big Love, Big Opportunities"):

...As I sat and watched I found several subtle things that we in the polyamorous world can point to and say "This is very true." Such as the support network created by an extended family.

...The show started off with all the family gathered together about the table sharing dinner. Notice the important word — family. Not a separate dinner with each wife, not a harsh word between the wives; a general sense of well being and community was instead implied.

All three wives are shown at the table dividing up the income, working out a fair and reasonable way to "share" the attentions of their mutual husband and discussing various things.... [When] Margene was way over her head while watching the kids... who comes to comfort her? Not Bill, but the other two wives who cradle her and express mutual support and love for each other.

And that's exactly the idea, say the show's creators, Will Scheffer and Mark Olsen, according to an article in the February 26, 2006, Los Angeles Times:

The more [Scheffer and Olsen] explored the idea, the more they realized polygamists could embody universal and admirable qualities that define the best family love. "We're very much populists in what we're going for. We don't like cynical.... We want people to fall in love with these characters and to root for this family," Olsen said.

...At a time when strong female roles are rare in movies and television, "Big Love" is a candy store for actresses. "There are feminist analogies in the material," Scheffer said. Polygamist women, who are bonded to one another as well as to their husband, have strong and close relationships, he said. "They find their power with and in each other."

"It's not just a marriage between a man and a woman," explained [actress Jeanne] Tripplehorn [who plays Barb] — who, like the other cast members, spoke of the characters as if they were real people. "A woman doesn't enter into that relationship without the agreement of the other woman, or women. If one had said no, then Margene wouldn't have been in the marriage."

Read the whole article.

Even some lions of cultural conservatism are being won over... a bit. At National Review Online, Louis Wittig has gone distinctly wobbly:

Being a cultural conservative is monotonous. Everything is in a perpetual state of going to hell. Two things can really break the routine. The first is when the slippery slope becomes a high-speed luge track....

Big Love is an example of that rare... thing that can interrupt conservatives' parade of sighs: a show that, if you think about it, does eat away at a pillar of society. But a show that you don't think about like that — because it's too good.

...Big Love's polygamy doesn't seem surreally normal because Olsen and Sheffer [a gay couple] tried to make it that way (if they have any obvious take, it's that polygamy is a tremendous hassle). Polygamy seems innocuous because its polygamists are such well-written, well-acted characters.... First and foremost, you like them. Bill, Barb, Nicki, Margene, all of them. You sympathize with them. You're pulling for them to overcome their obstacles.

It's kind of unnatural, then, to try and turn your mind around and start thinking of them in fire-and-brimstone terms. You just go with it. There may be things about the characters you don't connect with, parts of them you don't sympathize with. But if the characters are strong enough — and Big Love's are — those elements recede, becoming quirks more than defects, and, really, afterthoughts. Polygamy: an afterthought.

...At least you'll have something great to watch as everything falls apart.

Read the whole article.

So — is HBO on the cusp of a culture lurch toward group relationships becoming widely accepted, even hip? Karen von Hahn in Canada's national newspaper the Globe and Mail thinks maybe so:

...the people at HBO seem to have some weird third eye thing into the zeitgeist. Remember when they introduced Sex and the City, how it was also the moment that everything was about single girls in Manolos drinking their Cosmopolitans and talking about men? When they launched The Sopranos, we were all suddenly busy listening to the Rat Pack, buying pinky rings, playing five-card stud and taking the red-eye to Vegas. And guess what — Jeanne Tripplehorn, the "Boss Wife" on Big Love, agrees with me. "When I got the script, you know, I just laughed," she said in a telephone interview. "But the thing is, this really is a real way of life for a lot of people." Moreover, according to Tripplehorn, who prepared for her role by researching the "poly" lifestyle (we conventional couples are "diads," by the way), "the numbers suggest that this progressive kind of polygamy is on the rise."

Read the whole article.

(Before anyone gets too excited about Tripplehorn having researched "the 'poly' lifestyle," I wonder if this was just the author's clueless abbreviation for "polygamous." Does any reader know more?)

Our favorite conservative chronicler, Stanley Kurtz, uncovers, as usual, a conspiracy to overthrow Western civilization, and he practically throws up his hands in despair that we polys are winning hearts and minds all over the place:

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.

...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."

Kurtz then goes on to make a very perceptive point about social change that should gladden us all:

Collapsing Taboo

It's... 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....

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.

It's a radical's dream come true.

Read the whole article.

In a discussion of that article on the Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness e-mail list, Stanley Forrester — who describes himself as a conservative Republican with a libertarian bent — offers important insight on why people like Kurtz fear us, and how we can address their fears on their own terms. He wrote (reprinted with his permission):

From my reading of Kurtz he is not opposed to same-sex marriage/polygamy out of a desire to oppress as much as a desire to preserve something he sees as valuable. Advocates for a traditional family structure can point to a system which for all its faults has been instrumental in the continuity of our culture and civilization.... to dismiss out of hand the concerns and doubts of others is to drive yourself into an adversarial relationship with that other.

As a progressive you don't need the support of conservatives (and to try to get it would be a fool's errand in any case), but you do need their acquiescence. Your most powerful lever is the sense of fair play which is so part of the American character. Address the concerns that Kurtz raises, allay the fears that will drive the readers who form Kurtz's audience to the polls to oppose you. If you want to see same-sex marriage or polygamy legalized, then point out that there are same-sex and poly families that raise families and contribute to their communities. Show that these families can be stable wholesome environments that will promote values and the common good they can identify with. You may not convince many people, but all you really need is to move a few of those who would otherwise oppose you to give you the benefit of the doubt.

...Take the time to reach out to conservatives, to convince them that this is not just an issue of individual license. Take the effort to bring them along.

P.S. added later: Another widely printed conservative's column prompted by Big Love is Charles Krauthammer's, which originally appeared in the March 17th Washington Post.

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