Weekly meditations from your humble messenger

Real, Traditional, Marriage
(Big Love, 2/1/10)
By Nicholas Nicastro

The HBO series Big Love is not for everybody. In a time when mere gay marriage—that is, between just two people—qualifies as a white hot issue, asking an audience to sympathize with a family of fundamentalist Mormon (FLDS) polygamists in suburban Salt Lake City takes a certain amount of faith. The gamble seems to be paying off so far: the series began its fourth season last month.
      The show is the saga of the Hendricksons, an outwardly ordinary Utah family where small businessman Bill (Bill Paxton) has no fewer than three better halves. Wife number 1 is eminently presentable but passive-aggressive Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn); number 2, Nicki (Chloe Sevigny), grew up on the compound of a hardcore FLDS sect and, with her belligerent self-sufficiency and taste for prairie skirts and ruffled blouses, had trouble fitting into suburbia. Number 3 is Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), a live-wire whose sunny disposition is undermined by the indignities of being the most recent to arrive. The quartet, surrounded by its penumbra of kiddies, lives in three adjacent houses that look separate from the front, but share a common yard in the back. Together they uphold the "Principle" (that is, of plural marriage), but in the face of the mainline Church of Latter Day Saints official disavowal of polygamy in 1935—and Bill's public profile as owner of a chain of home improvement stores—they don't make their lifestyle too obvious.
      Big Love is unique, but like any other soap opera, it is overloaded with events and crises, many of which seem ripped from recent headlines from Texas and Arizona. Suffice it to say that over the last three seasons Bill, who began as one of the surplus "Lost Boys" cast out of his FLDS compound, has risen to the role of benevolent patriarch, protecting his domestic ark against assaults from without and within. One of the best aspects of the show is how it portrays the four-way politics of plural marriage as complex, but not as hopelessly fraught as critics of polygamy assume. Like the members of any family, the Hendricksons test each other, disappoint each other and, on occasion, support each other without conditions. It helps that their faith is unshakeable, but pragmatic: one of the current plot strands follows Bill and Barb's travails in starting up a "Mormon-friendly" casino on a nearby Indian reservation.
      Fascinating as it is on its own terms, Big Love raises uncomfortable questions for people on all sides of the current culture war over "traditional marriage." In their zeal to defend customary (straight) monogamy, conservatives too readily forget that ancient Israel was full of polygamists, including Abraham, Esau, Jacob and Solomon (who, you recall, had no fewer than 700 wives and 300 concubines). All of these Biblical sister-wives were, by necessity, also married to people of the same sex. So what qualifies as real traditional marriage?
      For those who want to support expanding the legal definition of marriage, the implications are also provocative. For if consenting adults of the same sex have a right to marry, what about the rights of three or more adults who likewise wish to plight their troth? Who are you and I to tell such people that their arrangement is illegitimate? And as long as the persons concerned are of legal age, why should the government have anything to say about it? The constitutional stakes are even higher when religious beliefs are—FLDS members, after all, believe that having multiple wives and legions of children are necessary to enhance their afterlives in Heaven.
      Critics of plural marriage tend to argue that however difficult the union of two people can be, holding three or more people together is even harder. But this is a practical argument, not a moral one—nobody has the right to bar a couple from marrying because they think they're bound to divorce. And indeed, the affairs of human beings can be wilder and weirder than our imaginations suppose: sometimes, with the right combination of personalities, three or four actually is more stable than two.
      For now, we have Big Love. Tomorrow, the fight over legalizing the Principle may not be confined to fiction.

©2010 Nicholas Nicastro

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