Last week, I checked out the first season of Big Love from the library. I've seen so many people online rave about the wonderful acting, complex characterization, and overall awesomeness of the show, and I have to admit that all that is there and more. Bill Paxton does an unbelievable acting job as the patriarch of the modern polygamist family, and each of the wives are acted superbly. Having said that, I think I'm going to have to stop after a mere two episodes because I seriously think this show was designed to crush my soul.
I'd heard criticisms of the show back when it was being put together that it didn't go far enough to showcase how hurtful religious polygamy can be. And now I feel I have to put up a big asterisk because I don't have a problem with secular polygamy (as practiced by legally consenting adults, etc.) but I do have a major problem with religious polygamy (or, rather, religious polygyny, let's call it what it is). Maybe it's not fair of me to say so, but I feel like any time you have a lifestyle choice that is supposedly mandated by a god as necessary for salvation or approval, I feel like the human participants aren't in a situation where they can truly evaluate whether or not this lifestyle choice is good for them.
I realize, on an intellectual level, that this isn't perhaps the most fair distinction I could make. After all, I rarely agitate on the differences between vegetarianism-by-choice and religiously-mandated vegetarianism. You're not likely to see a "Won't somebody think of the Hindus!?" post on this blog, though I'm no more a vegetarian than I am a polygynist. So it's entirely possible that I'm being hypocritical on this subject... but I don't think I am. I say that because I also believe that social behavior doesn't happen in a vacuum. Religiously-mandated polygyny has been used to disenfranchise and hurt people for a very long time, whereas I don't think religiously-mandated vegetarianism has a similar history of oppression. (I could be wrong.) So I feel fairly comfortable drawing a line between the differences of a lifestyle that is entered into because Love and Sexy Good Times blossomed naturally within a group relationship and, say, a lifestyle that is entered into because someone said that God wants people to live that way and someone else believed it.
So having said all that, I think that "Big Love" -- or at least the two episodes I've seen -- has done a great job with portraying modern religious polygyny. I'm glad that they chose to focus on an affluent religious polygynist family instead of focusing on the poorer compounds -- the public is by this time aware of the compounds and the dangers they represent to young girls, but I think that a lot of people still don't understand why religious polygyny can still be painful and dangerous in a modern, affluent American setting. I'm glad that they didn't make Bill a sadistic abuser of women, because once the man is at fault the focus is on him instead of on the institution of religious polygyny. And I'm glad that the wives are all well-characterized, complex people instead of stereotypical shrews clawing at each other and their husband, because again the focus needs to be on the institution and how it affects real people instead of being a gleeful "let's watch dreadful people be dreadful to each other" type of show.
Will it sound like exaggeration when I say that every single moment of the pilot episode was marinated in pain and human suffering? I'm utterly distressed by how the wives are treated. The women are infantilized by their husband and by each other, even down to their names: Margene is "Margie", Nicolette is "Nicki", and it's a wonder that Barbara got off easy with the sharp "Barb" instead of the infantile "Barbie". Their entire lives are wrapped up in the satisfaction of their husband and in a constant, desperate struggle to reaffirm to themselves that he loves them. If Gary Chapman is right in there being 5 love languages -- Praise, Time, Gifts, Service, and Physical Affection -- then the women are each lobbying as hard as they can to eke out each affirmation of love from their busy, distracted husband. It's tragically painful to watch, and all I can do is sit there and wish that someone, anyone, will step in and give Margene, Nicolette, and Barbara a tight hug and a few well-placed words reaffirming their worth outside of their husband, their children, and household responsibilities.
(Also, I love that the writers have written the infants in the show to be permanently screaming. It strikes me as utterly realistic in context, and it's such a rare show that doesn't showcase infants as being perfect little soft bundles of love at all times. Ha! They even pee on the kitchen floor, the little scoundrels!)
Bill Paxton does a wonderful job as Bill Henrickson, and I respect him for taking on the part, but it doesn't mean I don't hate Bill (Henrickson, not Paxton) every second he's on the screen, because I do. I recognize that the writers are doing a good job at making him three-dimensional and sympathetic, what with him being overwhelmed with the responsibilities of having three wives and more children than I can count, and what with his background on the compound and his problems with his parents, but none of the woobieness will warm me to him. He doesn't hate women, but he doesn't view them as equals either -- his struggles with impotence and Viagra are (to me) less a matter of finding a solution that will keep his wives happy and more a matter of maintaining a position of dominance in his household. As long as he can dispense sex (and therefore, a manifestation of love and approval), his wives will continue agitating to please him; if he loses the means of dispensing what is at the moment a major source of competition, how will his position in the family change? I do like that the writers chose not to portray the lifestyle as some kind of sexual paradise dream-come-true for men, though -- that was a nice touch.
For me, perhaps, the worst moment was when Barb was comforting Margene and reassured her that "None of us are trapped; all of us are here by choice," and Margene broke down wailing that of course she's trapped: she has two infant children, no formal schooling (that I know of), no car, no claim on the family finances (since she and Bill are not legally married), and absolutely zero way out of this situation. (The next comparable moment of heartbreak would be when Margene surprises Bill and Nicolette screwing in Margene's bedroom, with Bill using Margene's words of affection on Nicolette, and Margene runs downstairs and hides under a counter. Ginnifer Goodwin should get some kind of award for vulnerable, heartbreaking facial expressions because I was bawling.) I really appreciated this moment because too often religious polygyny is portrayed as a "choice" because the women "could leave at any time" and such statements really don't take into account that, in America at least, it's not that easy. We don't have a lot of social support structures for single mothers.
I'd really like to continue the series, as I've read so many good things about it online and on Slacktivist in particular, but I'm not sure I'll be able to continue. Stay tuned to see if Ana's morbid curiosity can outweigh all the sads in the world.
(Also, I cannot bear to see Amanda Seyfried not get out of this dreadful situation. Does she get out? Seriously, I just want to swoop into that Burger King or wherever and offer her a scholarship. Run, Amanda Seyfried, run! Please tell me she gets out and goes to a nice liberal college where she meets a nice lesbian and they adopt a dog together from the nearby shelter and everything is lovely forever. Please.)