Friday, June 09, 2006

You'd never need to doubt it: Big Love, season 1

When Bill Bennett was attempting to tell Jon Stewart why gay marriage would destroy Western civilization on The Daily Show a few days ago (video here), he immediately slippery sloped his way to polygamy. "What about the polygamists?" Bennett said, after inferring that they were eagerly awaiting the passage of laws allowing gay marriage.

Stewart argued that marrying multiple women is a choice, while being gay is something genetic, biological, a part of the human condition. Bennett argued that some people think it's part of their human condition to sleep with multiple wives.

The gay marriage debate is often framed, emotionally, as a slippery slope argument. "If two men can marry," so many cry, "what else might happen?! Polygamy? Incest? Bestiality?" Aside from the fact that slippery slope arguments are just ridiculous, I've always been curious as to why people leap immediately to polygamy after gay marriage. What, exactly, do they find threatening about it? Are they ridiculously diligent scholars of the sorts of crimes Warren Jeffs has engaged in? Or are they carrying forward prejudices from the 1800s, when the Mormons enflamed dormant queasiness about polygamy thanks to their very presence?

Into this weird little breach steps Big Love, a show about a man with three beautiful wives created by a gay couple. While I know I have to tread carefully here (to avoid suggesting that polygamy should be legalized or that the legalization of gay marriage would lead to the legalization of polygamy), I think that Big Love was a conscious response to the gay marriage slippery slope argument by two writers who know just how to make the medicine go down: with lots of soapy, soapy plotlines.

Big Love starts as an attempt to redefine the American idea of family, to suggest that our old ideas of the nuclear family simply don't work in our modern age. While in a gay marriage you only fundamentally alter the role of the spouse (there is no bride or groom), in a polygamist marriage, you funamentally alter a lot of things. While there are many brides and one groom (or vice versa), the relationships between the separate wives are ones that have to be created out of whole cloth. Are they sisters? Spouses? Rivals? All of the above? The genius of Big Love is that it gets you to think of these people as a family (it's clear they care about each other), but it never gives you the safe haven of normalcy. The relationships aren't clearly defined from your everyday life, so you're forced to invent your own understanding of those relationships as you watch.

What's more, the characters in Big Love are all deeply recognizable in one regard: They're deeply, deeply religious. They believe they are doing God's work. They cry out in prayer (unironically) to Jesus. Their faith is played not as a bad thing, but rather as a strong constant necessary in the characters' everyday lives. This is deeply familiar to a vast majority of Americans, and this move is a masterstroke. If we can't relate to the living arrangements, we can relate to the importance of their faith, which is unusual in American pop culture.

What's more, for a show that must have been fraught with attempts to portray how homosexuals struggle with keeping strong faith, the creators have made only one character obviously gay (and this guy's something of a villain, no less). In essence, they've tabled the debate about homosexuality, moving on to what social conservatives assure is the next step: the normalization of polygamy.

Finally, Big Love takes special care to show just how badly polygamy can warp people, especially the children who are born into it and know nothing else (and the young girls promised as brides to prophets long before they come of age). The characters who live in Juniper Creek (a massive polygamist compound) are backward, cut off from society, unable to cope off of their compound, particularly Rhonda, a creepily portrayed child bride.

And so, Big Love gets us to reexamine the idea of the American family in light that we are slightly familiar with. The argument is the slippery slope in reverse. "See these polygamists?" it says. "They're people, just like me and you. Who else might be unmonstrous?" I'm sure you can see the next logical step.

It helps that Big Love is a winning soap opera, thrillingly performed by its three female cast members. At first, it wasn't immediately clear why they would choose a life like this, but as the season wore on, it became apparent that they were as attached to each other as they were to their husband. Bill Paxton is a bit of a bland cipher in the middle of this show, but the universe revolving around him (like the celestial orbs of the title sequence) never ceases to amaze.

And so we have Big Love. Perhaps the only drama on television that works as entertainment and reverse polemic.

1 comment:

Edward Copeland said...

The whole anti-gay marriage argument seems completely absurd to me. They don't want them to try to be monogamist? As Stewart pointed out, gay marriage has nothing to do with the high divorce rate. What are they really afraid of? Do they think if men can suddenly marry men and women can marry women married heterosexuals will suddenly run for the door wondering why they married someone of the opposite gender in the first place?

As for Big Love, I liked it, but I'm still on the fence about it as a whole. It might be explored later, but I don't get why Jeanne Tripplehorne went along with the multiple wives. I also don't quite get why Bill Paxton, who was apparently kicked out of the compound at a young age, felt the need to pursue the polygamist lifestyle on the outside.