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

April 10, 2013

Do the media "over-normalize" polys? And a new TV documentary airs Tuesday.

HuffPost Women

The "polynormativity" discussion continues — following Andrea Zanin's January manifesto, The Problem With Polynormativity, which inveighed against how the media tend to showcase the most mainstream aspects of the most privileged-looking, normal-seeming polyfolks.

Sierra Black
This afternoon, polyactivist and writer Sierra Black posted about her own experience with this phenomenon when ABC's 20/20 filmed her and her extended family/community for three days. The result of that experience was the positive but whitebread-oriented segment on 20/20 a year ago. Their queer parts were erased. Black just posted her article on the Huffington Post Women site, where she's a frequent contributor. I found it hard to condense much, so she gave me permission to repost a large fraction of it below.

This is immediately relevant because she and hers are going to be on TV again this Tuesday: in a segment on the Destination America channel's "Hidden in America" series, at 10 p.m. Eastern time. It's part of a one-hour show titled "Swingers and Free Love." Schedule. Channel finder.

"Hidden in America" does not look like it is about showcasing normalcy.

Challenging Poly Stereotypes In Media (and at Home)

The media spotlight is on polyamory in a big way these days. In the past year and change, since I started writing about my open relationships, I've been approached by about 10 television producers wanting to do spots about my poly family.

A few of those came to nothing, a few I referred out to other poly folks, and we've actually filmed segments for three of them.... The revolution may not be televised, but suddenly, my romantic life is.

What does all this media mean?

On the one hand, it's great to have the media taking a look at polyamory. I never tire of telling the world how much I love my people and how wonderful the lives we share are. We're healthy and happy and having a good time. That's a great thing to show the world: Look, here's an idea that is really good for some people.

...On the other hand, the media isn't simply holding up a mirror to the reality of polyamory. They're shaping the cultural perception of what polyamory is and who does it, by carefully choosing the stories they tell.

A little while back, Andrea Zanin at Sex Geek published this fascinating (and perilously long) article on what she sees as "polynormativity" in the media. It's pretty strident, and rather polarizing. I know a lot of people who felt threatened and attacked reading it, like their personal practice of polyamory was under fire.

I certainly felt taken to task. Which I think makes sense, since the target of her article is "polynormative" people appearing on TV to talk about polyamory.... But... her thinking is good and a lot of her critique is spot on. For example:

      The most fundamental element of polyamory -- that of
      rejecting the monogamous standard, and radically
      rethinking how you understand, make meaning of and
      practice love, sex, relationships, commitment,
      communication, and so forth -- is lost in favour of
      a cookie-cutter model that's as easy as one, two, three.

She defines polynormativity as starting with a couple, who rely on hierarchy and rules to protect the primacy of the original couple, and who are young, white, conventionally attractive and straight. She doesn't mention class or gender identity as essential components, but it's a safe bet that affluence and cis-gendered bodies are part of the polynormative package.

It's easy to see me and my family and friends through that lens. Not because that's who we really are, but because that's who TV producers choose to portray.

In real life... I hate rules and hierarchies. I'm queer as f**k and also a big slut.

Good luck figuring any of that out from TV. TV makes it look like I have A Husband and A Boyfriend and A Girlfriend (in that order), not a spectrum of relationships with different friends and lovers and partners. There's no sex in my TV relationships. On TV, I never worry about money. My husband's Latin American background is erased, as is his complex queer identity.

It doesn't matter how loudly we disclaim the polynormative model. When "20/20" filmed us, they were here for three days to get seven minutes of final footage. They spent many hours talking to us all as a group and to each of us individually. All the brilliant, witty, insightful things my unmarried lovers and friends said wound up on the cutting room floor; they used only interview material from the two married couples in the group. That sure made those pairings look like primary relationships in a way that the original interviews did not.

They took hours of footage of me with the two women I was romantically linked to, and used only a few seconds of it, while focusing lots of screen time on my lunch date with the charming young man I hang out with. That editing choice sure made me look straight in a way the original filming did not.

So the problem as I see it isn't that the media is cleverly choosing people who do poly a certain way and depicting their lives. In my case, at least, it's that the media is cleverly misrepresenting my life to fit a certain model.

You may or may not see a problem here. Maybe the media image of polyamory reflects your experience in a meaningful and positive way. Plenty of people feel comfortable in their primary-couple-centered relationships. Rules work for many people; my partners and I have a few here and there ourselves.

Plenty of people don't thrive in this model, though. Many people feel marginalized by representations of polyamory that focus only on people with a lot of privilege around marital status, race, class, gender and sexual identity. It's hard to find your place in a community that looks monolithic.

So how can those of us who are representing and defining polyamory (either in the media or in conversation with our friends and families) do it in a more inclusive way? How can our communities legitimately become more inclusive?

To get at these questions, I corresponded with Pepper Mint, who organized the OpenSF conference for non-monogamous folks of all stripes in San Francisco last year. Pepper writes, "I think it is really crucial for community leaders and activists to educate themselves about issues of discrimination and power around race, gender, ability, sexuality and so on. This is not an easy process, but is very worth it."

His experience with media is that they will go for the most mainstream representatives of polyamory they can get their hands on, and for this reason, Pepper encourages those of us who talk to media to stress our own non-mainstream qualities and also encourage a diverse array of people to step forward to talk with media people.

It's not just in the media that polyamory is represented and images of it are formed, though. We need to take care to challenge assumptions in ourselves and in our friends and family as well.

Pepper says:

Any time someone says 'poly people are...; or something similar, call them on it. And at the same time, if you have gotten the impression that poly people are a certain way, remember that your impression almost certainly springs from the fact that you have only seen a self-selecting slice of the poly world.... Remind folks that any established sexual minority community is huge, and the people in it will have very different backgrounds, sexualities, motives, identities, and so on.

I have ideas about how to proceed with this.

1. Watch your language: Try to be mindful of assumptions that reinforce the mainstream image of polyamory. A lot of them may be built right into your language.

2. Be inclusive! Reach out to people whose lives and identities are different from your own. This is especially important if your life does at least superficially reflect the "polynormative" model, as mine does. Do what you can to include people from a wide variety of backgrounds and circumstances and demographics in whatever you're doing. Pepper stresses the importance of creating events that are accessible and attractive to people from a diverse range of backgrounds and sexualities.

3. Pervert expectations: A lot of the questions you'll get when you talk to people unfamiliar with polyamory won't make sense. Don't feel obliged to answer them. If there's not a bright line for you between your "serious" relationships and your "friends with benefits," don't draw one just to make a reporter (or your mom!) happy. If the phrase "poly couple" doesn't make any sense in your life, gently correct the person who uses it. You don't need to fit the reality of your polyamory into a monogamous framework.

More important than merely presenting a more diverse image of polyamory to the media and our social circles is embracing a richer, more diverse model of relationships and community. I asked Pepper how our communities could become more diverse and inclusive. He said: "I think the non-monogamous population already is quite diverse, and so it is just a matter of being able to recognize that diversity and hold events that actually cater to people across it."

Non-monogamous communities are small, marginalized groups with a lot of popular misunderstandings surrounding them. In that context, it might seem foolish to be worrying too much about the whitewashing of our media image. But as our communities become more visible, it seems like the perfect moment to ensure that we become visible in all our diverse, complicated beauty....

See the whole original (April 10, 2013).

P.S.: About next Tuesday's "Hidden in America" show, Black tells us,

We filmed it last summer, and it's been delayed considerably. We liked the producers a lot; they seemed generally respectful and like they "got us". They asked thoughtful questions, backed off when we corrected them about mistaken assumptions, and took a lot of guidance from us in shaping what they filmed. They spent a long time interviewing us individually, which gave people a chance to say really interesting things, but who knows how that will play on TV or how much of it they'll use.

One thing I'm sure of: they filmed more people! We had a backyard BBQ with a big group of friends and neighbors and lovers, so hopefully there will be lots of smiling poly faces on screen.

I think in some ways it will be very similar to the 20/20 piece; they asked a lot of the same kinds of questions and used some of the same settings. Which was a little disappointing, but maybe unavoidable — there's a clear story to tell here. My hope is that it will be more reflective of our actual lives and less supporting the kinds of mainstream stereotypes the 20/20 piece played into, but I have no idea how they will have edited the footage they took.




Blogger Desmond Ravenstone said...

As to "whitebread" presentations ... Sometimes the best way to break through stereotypical views of one's particular group is to emphasize the commonalities with everyone else. As understanding and acceptance grows, so will greater awareness of the wider diversity within the poly community.

April 11, 2013 5:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Agreed. People are far more sympathetic to someone who looks and sounds like them. Sad fact, but it's a fact. If you want to be listened to, look and sound like your audience.

Of course not all audiences are white bread. But know the audience. Anyone who hopes to be effective in public has to think about how they appear. You emphasize your aspects that help your message reach the audience, and de-emphasize things that that distract attention away from what you're saying.

April 11, 2013 7:51 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

So, what about the experience in the gay community, where anybody with any ties to anything NOT "white bread" has been marginalized, and the whole discussion of gay rights has been focused into "white bread" gay marriage?

And a couples-based message goes beyond "looking like your audience" and into distorting. I don't know how popular "primary/secondary" is in the poly community, but I know it's far from overwhelmingly seen as the paradigm, and some people have big problems with it.

If I had to bet, I'd say this sort of thing is more likely to create mental categories of "good polys" and "bad polys" than to pave the way for "greater awareness of the wider diversity within the poly community". Even among polys themselves.

April 12, 2013 4:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is, I think, a perennial debate with no single right answer. There will always be those who advocate for change from inside, and those who believe that change must come from challenges from outside.

Personally, I think it's a three-legged race, and that social change comes about from a combination of challenging & normalizing pressures.

April 12, 2013 10:16 PM  

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