Tropes: Stories That Crush My Soul

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.)


Redwood Rhiadra said...

I actually know a Mormon polygamist. Well, she's actually an ex-Mormon. With two husbands. (Is there any religion that practices polyandry outside of Tibet?)

Kit Whitfield said...

I'll try to avoid specific spoilers, but...

If this is your reaction to the first two episodes, don't watch the fifth series. 

Having seen the whole thing, I felt ... well, I'm not so entitled as to say I felt betrayed because a series ended in a way I didn't like, but the ending was, from a female point of view, extremely problematic. It starts to stand out that the show's creators are male. 

As the story progresses, there's an increasing tension between the natural drama of the situation and the constraints of the fictional premise. In order to keep the series going, the Henrickson household has to stay together, which puts a serious limit on the female characters' possibilities for independence. And while all the actresses manage to invest their characters with intelligence and humanity, which more and more raises the feeling that this situation isn't sustainable, the writers seemed like they just weren't prepared to accept that. 

The show also suffered a bit from a tendency to start storylines and then drop them between one series and another, which can be frustrating. But the most frustrating thing was its tendency to have its female characters come to understand they needed more space and status, and then suddenly backtrack on that feeling for inadequate reasons because the storyline would have become more difficult if they'd really acted on it. That happened over and over, particularly with Barb, to the point where it started to become maddening, and just implausible. 

And then the last episode. Grr. It was horribly frustrating and disappointing, because it felt like they'd set us up for something and then completely dropped it because they didn't want to show Bill as the destructive megalomaniac they'd increasingly written him as being. It was like the end of a Doris Day movie: the 'happy' ending created by having the woman - or women - merrily give up those pesky desires to be a fully respected human being and go back to domesticity. 

There's an awful lot of good writing in there, and the acting is even better, but it was always going to depend on how it finally ended, and the ending was forced and sexist. Sorry. 

Dav said...

I have a deep affection for Big Love.  I didn't grow up in a poly family, or LDS, but it feels so familiar, and so weird to watch from the outside.  I've watched the whole thing, but a lot of it I tuned out, I think in self-protection.  I think some of the later, more dramatic, less realistic arcs are easier to watch than the day-to-day toil of the family.   I think they did a good job making Bill Hendrickson awful yet believable; several of the antagonists have echoes of the same. 

The whole cast is fantastic; Lois, Bill's mom, deserves buckets of roses every time she steps on the screen.  (She is nothing like my own grandmother, and yet she IS.  It is terrifying.)

I do a lot of defenses when I watch; I read recaps and take breaks as a form of insulation from the material.  It's not perfect - I wish they'd dialed back the antics, especially in later seasons, because there's plenty of meat to work with without it, and I hate hate hate the ending, but the show is very good. 

I laugh hollowly whenever it's brought up as an example of how great polygamy is, though.  (Usually by someone who has not seen the show.)  I think I need to be fully hands off when it comes to voluntary religious polygamy, as someone who isn't religious or marriage-minded.  I just can't grasp all the issues, and both sides have really good points.  (Legally, though, I can't justify the laws against "bigamy"; poly-marriages need to be possible.)

Ana Mardoll said...

Kit, I nipped over to Wikipedia and read the Series 5 summary (I'm a spoiler hound!) and.... I agree with your recommendation. I'm actually really sad -- from the first few episodes, I thought the writers *got* that this was a terrible, horrible, hellish, awful, really bad situation and that the ONLY happy ending would be to leave. Now I can see why the show was later criticized for backing away and taking an easy way out. "I guess I don't want independence after all if my family isn't here to support me" ISN'T a healthy response to be applauded. Grr. 

Ana Mardoll said...

Dav,  people reference the show as pro-poly? Wow. o.O

I've never really been sure how to make poly-MARRIAGE legal. Poly-relationships, sure -- and they should be, I think -- but the *marriage* part is a bit trickier. Do all the partners marry each other, or is there a "node" partner? Can the marriage occur without the approval of the other parties -- like, how am I affected if Husband decides to go out and get married and not tell me? Does that make me married to the other person, too?

And how are divorces handled? It seems awfully tricky to work out, especially if there's a conflict between the parties on, say, medical decisions. Usually "marriage" indicates that X person is the be-all, end-all when it comes to making legal/medical/financial decisions if you're incapacitated -- if X person become X,Y,Z people, I'm not sure how that works. But goodness knows we don't build laws based around Ana's limited understanding of things so there's probably a solution someone can work out to solve those questions.

Personal Failure said...

I feel the same way you do: I have no problem at all with polyamory between consenting adults who truly have the ability to say no. I do have a problem with religiously mandated polygny/polygamy in which the consent is induced at best.

I also had the same reaction to Big Love when I first watched it. The first few seasons are really great, but eventually it becomes a ridiculous melodrama with plot lines that are far fetched at best.

Dav said...

I dunno.  It might be that each poly marriage will need more delineation, or explicit power-of-attorney type assignations.  Tax law gets complicated, and all sorts of legal assumptions get complicated.  But I think the current situation is hurting a small but not negligible portion of society, both legally and socially; if your relationship isn't recognized by your country, that has all kinds of unquantifiable ramifications. 

Ana Mardoll said...

if your relationship isn't recognized by your country, that has all kinds of unquantifiable ramifications.

You're right, that's true and shouldn't be forgotten in the "how would this work" hypotheticals. I forget that sometimes when I get "distracted by the problem" and forget to concentrate on the people. :)

Kit Whitfield said...

I suspect that women in abusive or exploitative situations would probably be better off if polygamy was legal. That way 'asking for help' would not equal 'confessing to a crime', and they'd have some rights when it came to alimony, custody, visitation and so on. For that to work, divorce would have to be legal even if every other spouse contested it, but I think keeping it illegal is probably not good for the women reefed on it.  

Ana Mardoll said...

Kit, that's an incredibly good point.

From what I've read, the authorities in Utah at least are usually very sympathetic to women fleeing abusive poly marriages, but it's best not to leave people's safety to the kindness of authorities.

Kit Whitfield said...

I'm actually really sad -- from the first few episodes, I thought the writers *got* that this was a terrible, horrible, hellish, awful, really bad situation and that the ONLY happy ending would be to leave. 

The impression I got from the first series was that even Bill knew deep down that he'd made a mistake in marrying Nicki and then Margene, but having married and had children with him, he couldn't fix the mistake without hurting a whole lot more people. And I can see why that might have been taken as pro-polygamy - it was, at least, prepared to show it as a situation with basically nice people trying their hardest to make it work. It could also be taken as pro-polygamy in that it makes a fairly good case that polygamy is an authentic part of the Mormon tradition and the LDS church is on very thin ice when it condemns it as sinful, which I believe antagonised the LDS church a fair bit. 

The irony is that it started not so much 'pro-polygamy' as 'polygamists aren't monsters', and then got more and more heavy-handedly pro-polygamy the more monstrous Bill got. By the end, Bill was repetitively coming up with grandiose and destructive whims and insisting they were God's will, and bulldozing the objections of his whole family with a pat 'Honey, no one's struggling with this more than me, but we have to do what Heavenly Father wants...' and basically acting as if he couldn't tell the difference between God's will and his own. But at the same time, the fifth season pretty much forced a pro-polygamy ending, both by fudged character writing (including skipping forward a year to avoid having to show how they ended up changing their minds, which is just cheating) and by moving the subject from 'Is the Henrickson marriage healthy?' to 'Should the Henrickson marriage be legal?', which are two completely different questions. It's as if they began by saying 'Polygamy may be a bad idea but polygamists aren't bad people', and wound up saying 'Polygamists may be terrible people but hey, polygamy itself is great! Even if it destroys everyone involved!' 

Dav said...

It was the Wrong Ending in so, so many ways, and Kit encapsulates it very well.  I thought the parallels between Albee and Bill were drawn masterfully and chillingly, and I was really looking forward to seeing the fruition of that promise.

But somewhere in there, the parallels were kind of dropped and muddied, and instead of this great Greek tragedy set-up, you get weak-sauce.

I think the writers could have had a great show if they'd gone there with the wives gaining independence.  There's still kids, and most of them are still cut off from their families; there's plenty of ways for them to interact as they try to sort this thing out.  I think there were quite a few promising directions a "divorce" of some kind could have gone in, and it could have introduced many of the same themes of ostracization and isolation from the community that were central in later seasons. 

Season 5 is dead to me, but I would like to rewatch the others, especially 1-3.  I'm doing a mental rewrite of the series after that.

Kelly G said...

I agree that the laws against bigamny and polygamy need to be off the books.  As long as everyone is aware and consenting (no cheating behind the spouse's back or underage brides) it really should not be a problem.  I agree that legally, it would have to be defined and is thus a polygamous marriage bill would require a lot more work than a SSM bill.  SSM is just removing a restriction.  Multi person marriage gets into a slew of questions wrt custody, divorce, illness/death, military benes, health benes, Social security etc.  I just can't see most states being able to answer all those questions whilst fighting the "one man one woman" crowd. ::sigh:::  It would be great to get the laws *against* these relationships off of the books though.  We have ages of consent when citizens are legally able to marry, and we have laws covering what happens if you are forced into marriage w/o consent.

Anyway, I never got around to watching Big Love, then when I heard the critisms I gave up trying.  
Did any of you catch the Sister Wives series? I think it did a good job showing the challenges for both the man and women in divvying out attention and balancing everyone's needs.  However, I did start to get annoyed when the women talked about how sharing makes you a better person and this marriage 'makes you grow'...etc.  I kept thinking but...what about the men? They don't get to share you and grow!  :P

Mychelline Fiadhigla said...

I have not watched Big Love. But I have recently read several memoirs of people who grew up in the FLDS system of current polygyny, and yes, pretty much everyone's lives are destroyed.

A problematic aspect that I haven't seen touched upon is the pressure to have children. Because once you have them, everything is much worse, and you really are stuck. On the other hand, if you are in a plural marriage and you don't have children, you have no bargaining chips.

I've seen in my own family of origin that women who got into abusive situations, and had children within them, were offered help to get out "for the sake of the children". If there had been no children, I would guess there would've been no help. How could you, as a mother, not resent that you are worth nothing on your own? that's partly why I didn't have children -- I wanted to find a way to live so that I as an individual matter.

keri said...

I didn't really watch Big Love, except I still live with my parents, and they watched it, so I'd often catch an episode here or there while eating dinner or spending quality "sitting on the couch next to my family while we each do something different" time. I found that my view on the show changed a lot when I learned that a lot of the plot elements in the middle seasons were taken straight out of LDS history books, even current day ones (Warren Jeffs, for ex) - it's almost a roman a clef in parts. - Stoney was blogging about it for a while there, if you care to check her archives (try the Polygamy or LDS related tags). She's exmo and explained a lot of things about LDS culture that also helped make some of it make sense to me.

Loquat said...

I have no problem with poly-marriage as long as it's either rare or more-or-less gender-balanced. Because if polygyny gets popular in a society, and they don't have constant wars or something reducing the male population, they wind up with a whole lot of excess males who have basically no hope of ever finding wives*. And that's really bad for social stability, as China should have learned in the 19th century** and is currently learning again. Small societies like the polygamist groups in Utah can get away with it by kicking out their excess boys, but on a country-wide scale? It'd be bad.

*Yes, some of them might hook up with each other. But most are going to want the opportunity to marry women, and will support movements/revolts/etc that promise to change things.

**If you're unfamiliar with 19th century Chinese history, here's the Cliffs Notes: they had multiple major revolts, which drew a fair bit of manpower from the substantial population of men who were priced out of the marriage market because richer dudes were taking all the women.

Nick the Australian said...

This is just me, but I think the best way to do it is everyone-is-married-to-everyone-else (i.e. no "node" partners), which therefore means that all new marriages into the family need every spouse's approval to be legitimate (in other words, Caprica-style). If marriage really is about love for and devotion to your spouse, then it makes sense to me that your spouse would share in any other marriages of yours as well.

(Full disclosure: I've never been in a poly relationship.)

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