This is my second installment in a series on excellent TV shows and the 2012 election. I’m skipping over Girls for now and turning to the HBO series Big Love. You might ask, of course, why I’m telling you about a show that’s no longer on. My obvious answer is the idea of a repeat or a rerun is outmoded. All these shows—as much as great books—now, thanks to technological progress, live in the eternal present and are easily accessible by us all.
BIG LOVE, of course, is about living the principle, the religious idea justifying polygamy among dissident Mormons in Utah in the age of feminist egalitarianism. We learn how hard polygamy is on the man of the houses (each wife has her own house!) if his wives really expect equal treatment. We see him popping Viagra desperately, because it’s really not possible by nature to love all your wives the same all the time. (We also see him having sneaking around for a while with his first wife at the expense of the others as if it were an affair.) We also wonder (with his first wife) whether polygamy, in his case, flows from his authentically self-interpreted religious principle or is a way of shamelessly indulging his weakness for younger women. It’s strange to see wives accepting the fact their husband is dating again. And we’re shown that a downside of polygamy is that your oldest son might become almost fatally attracted to your youngest wife. Your oldest son can also get dumped by a very promising girlfriend when he tells her she’ll only be his first wife. The more prudent approach, followed by his dad, is to break the news to her about more wives well after they’re married.
An upside for polygamists is each of their many children has three moms, and so there’s no need for babysitters or daycare. Polygamy is quite arguably, after all, more child friendly than monogamy, especially these days. There’s no denying how much this family’s father is willing to sacrifice to keep his family together (more than any of his more ambivalent or relatively self-obsessed wives). He’s not most deeply out for himself, and he thinks of his family in terms of eternity. Of course most of the polygamists displayed on Big Love—those found on the Juniper Creek compound—take family seriously in the criminally dysfunctional way we also see on the Sopranos. But that’s old-fashioned, rural, marginalized polygamy, the kind that’s incompatible with suburban life and a prosperous and legitimate career in business. Big Love is about a new kind of polygamy struggling to emerge from the shadows and gain acceptance. Tony Soprano, let’s face it, is a dangerous sociopath (although a charming one) all the way down. Mafia guys like him don’t and don’t deserve to have any future. Big Love‘s Bill is a good guy and a respected community leader with a problem with the law we’re led to think he doesn’t deserve to have.
The creators of Big Love are gay and interested in promoting the cause of same-sex marriage. The pathologies connected with being gay and being a polygamist both come, they suggest, from having to be shamefully in the closet. The kids struggle pretty desperately on Big Love, but maybe they wouldn’t if their loving family could live loudly and proudly in the open. If people should be free to live their religious convictions and autonomous choices, then we ought to stop repressing both polygamy and same-sex marriage. And the mainstream Mormons, in the last season of the show, come off badly (after being treated respectfully for several seasons) for wanting to repress them both. The show shows gay Mormons stuck with denying or hiding the truth about themselves (and even being driven to suicide), and it also shows the church’s hierarchy covering up one of their faith’s foundational principles.
Big Love is a politically cutting-edge show in suggesting that the struggle for marriage equality might reasonably be understood to for both gays and polygamists. The late 19th century Republican party forced Utah and so the Mormon church to abandon polygamy as a condition for becoming a state, and the Supreme Court—in an opinion that arguably allowed Christian religious prejudice to trump the Mormons’ free exercise of religion (an opinion that has no value as a precedent today)—refused to intervene. Today’s Republican Party, some say, has the same sort of prejudice against same-sex marriage, and it’s shared, of course, by the Mormons.
The 19th century Republicans understood polygamy—like slavery—to be a relic of barbarism. But what about genuinely consensual and richly feminist polygamy, a kind of polygamy compatible with the wives’ personal self-fulfillment? A child of a same-sex couple has two moms or two dads, and that’s a loving fact his friends have to learn to accept. Once we’ve accepted two moms, why not three?
Big Love seems, at first, perversely ineffective as propaganda for same-sex marriage. One of the most potent arguments used by its opponents is that the idea that same-sex marriage is a right inevitably points in the direction of viewing polygamy the same way. Americans are rapidly abandoning their opposition to same-sex marriage, and the young view it with a kind of benign indifference. But that’s, in part, because they don’t really believe that the prospect of polygamy is a real issue. Most proponents of same-sex marriage are all about assuring us that it’s not.
The show’s creators seem to look at the matter differently. The most telling criticism of same-sex marriage is that it’s not a real marriage; the exclusivity and permanence—and the routine openness to children—just aren’t there. By identifying the struggle for marriage equality as one that involves the highly relational, genuinely religious, fecund, and self-sacrificing polygamists too, the response to such critics becomes that in our time real marriage takes many forms. The key point is that the heterosexual, two-parent family is not the norm for judging a marriage’s quality of love and commitment and people’s capacity for being joined together irrevocably for common responsibilities. The most insistent part of the point is that the struggle for marriage equality is not about emptying marriage of its dutiful, relational content or being hostile to “breeders.”
It might be only fair to consider the Mormon view of the Big Love‘s point. It’s one thing if the people acting through their states vote in same-sex marriage. They’re just not going to vote in polygamy too. Maybe that’s prejudice, but that’s democracy too. But if same-sex marriage is a Court-imposed constitutional right, then it does make sense to see the right to polygamy not far behind. And that, from one view, would be breaking the deal the Mormons of Utah made with America: We’ll, in deference to the requirements of American citizenship, stop being pro-choice on polygamy. We want to be part of a country that’s a nation of families.
It’s doubtful, of course, that Big Love will be remembered for the contribution it made to mainstreaming same-sex marriage or polygamy. Its effectual truth was to make the Mormons look stranger and more repressive than they really are, and so to distort their intrusive but admirable communal life in the eyes of most Americans. Most Mormons these days, after all, are hardly preoccupied with polygamy, and they’re arguably the Americans who most deeply understand themselves as parts of heterosexual, two-parent families—not only now but for eternity. The Mormons are all about high technology, healthy living (without alcohol, caffeine, or tobacco and in highly stable and supportive communities), being devoted to their country’s founding principles, being cosmopolitan or open to the whole world, higher education, worldly success, and the habits that highly effective or productive people have. It’s a Mormon, after all, who writes all that influential stuff about disruptive innovation. And some of our country’s most profound interpreters of philosophers such as Leo Strauss and Martin Heidegger are Mormons!
Big Love was also cutting edge, of course, in being on the cusp of “the Mormon moment” of political life, a moment remarkable in being in spite of the deep suspicions many Americans have about the incompatibility between Mormon life and our increasingly more libertarian idea of personal freedom. The show, by playing to those suspicions, doubtless made Romney’s electoral challenge somewhat more difficult than it would have otherwise been.