‘big love’ is one of my favorite shows on cable television. the show concluded its fourth season a couple weekends ago, and in the course of watching the show over the past four seasons, my opinion about plural marriage has been significantly altered. and i think that’s a sign of really good television show: one that can make me care about and be sympathetic toward people that i perhaps wouldn’t be otherwise. so let’s talk about polygamy, ‘big love’ style.
the family structure of polygamy consists of one man, several wives and many children. bill henrickson, the protagonist of ‘big love,’ has three wives (first-wife barb, second-wife nicki, and third-wife margene) and eight children between his three wives. the principle of plural marriage was once a tenet of the mormon church, but is no longer accepted by the church (they excommunicate people who practice a polygamist lifestyle) and is in fact a felony in most u.s. states.
many would argue that polygamy is just an excuse for a man to have multiple sexual partners, an excuse that is validated by his faith. however, sex is not really the point of plural marriage, as i understand it. mormons believe in an afterlife where they are reunited with their earthly family for all eternity. as a result of this belief, the practice of polygamy is used to grow the earthly family for the afterlife. the reason that there are multiple wives instead of multiple husbands is that women can give birth to children, which helps grow the family. and it’s not just a man having multiple children with multiple women and then not having anything to do with them; while bill and his family are an exception, they have three houses (one for each wife) with a big shared backyard so that everyone can come and go into each other’s houses as they please, and so that they can all be in community and relationship with each other. i think to have multiple children and wives and to take care of all of them is commendable in many ways; think about how hard it is for some men to provide for one wife and two or three children, and then think about how much harder it would be for a man to provide for three wives (and pay for each to have their own house, no less!) and eight children. regardless of whether polygamy is moral or not, bill serves as a better model of a good father than a lot of men do with fewer wives or no wives.
i think that what fascinates me the most about the henrickson family is the level of commitment that they have to each other, and how much trust is present in their marriage. especially the wives. they live in a world where their family is looked down on and discriminated against and where they constantly have to hide who they are. nicki and margene especially exhibit so much faith in their marriage given the fact that barb is bill’s only legal wife; bill really has no legal obligation to his other two wives, and that could mean so many bad things for nicki and margene if bill were to decide that he didn’t want to be married to them anymore. but the wives don’t even see themselves as just being married to bill; they are all married, and fully committed, to each other. as opposed to the juniper creek polygamist compound, where marriages are arranged by the prophet, bill and barb and nicki and margene are all part of the marriage because they want to be. they whole-heartedly believe that their model of family is the way god (or “heavenly father” as they call him) intended family to be and that their afterlife will be blessed because of it.
although i prefer the original opening sequence, i do think that this sequence is really powerful conceptually. it’s like a visual representation of what they experience in their everyday lives as polygamists: the sensation of free-falling, loss of control; constantly reaching out toward each other and toward what they believe; having to constantly be asking the question “is this my home?” for the henricksons, earth is not their home; their home is in the afterlife, where they’re free to be themselves, to be a family, and in everything they do on earth, they are mindful of that.
one would think that a plural marriage would yield a hierarchy between wives, and while that’s somewhat present on ‘big love,’ the wives are generally equal. barb, as first-wife, is in a slightly elevated position because she’s legally married to bill and because she’s the “public wife,” but she doesn’t necessarily have any more sway within the marriage than nicki and margene. the wives sit together every week and plan out bill’s schedule (ie. whose house he’ll spend each night at); the only rigidity in the schedule is that they try to split bill’s nights as evenly as possible, but it’s very flexible in the sense that they can trade nights with each other, or give one wife more nights with bill if there’s a special occasion or something of the like. for example, when nicki decides that it’s time for her to have another baby, barb and margene give up their nights with bill for an entire week so that she has more opportunities to conceive. the wives are also willing to trade or give up nights if bill and one of the wives are fighting, so that they can have a night away from bill to cool off or have an extra night to try to work through their problem, depending. the wives don’t just try to selfishly try to have bill to themselves as much as possible, but rather they are willing to sacrifice for the good of their sister wives, and they do so without much complaint. what’s interesting is that bill doesn’t really have a say in where he goes from night to night: the schedule is left entirely up the wives, and if bill doesn’t like it… tough.
barb, nicki and margene are all really different as women and have vastly different backgrounds, but they use their diversity as wives for the good of their family and their marriage. all have strong personalities, and none of them are shy about voicing their opinions or their distaste about something to the other wives. they butt heads a lot, but at the same time, they are all endlessly supportive of each other. each wife has parental authority over all of the kids, so that if one of the kids gets into a predicament and their biological mother isn’t there to remedy it, one of the other wives can take care of it. barb, nicki and margene have all taken turns working outside of the home, but regardless of who is working at a given time, there is always someone at home to take care of the smaller kids and who can be called on by the other kids in times of need. the wives are the glue that hold the family together, and they operate within a really loving model of feminine community and interdependence.
now, i’m not advocating for polygamy or saying that i take a moral stance on it one way or another, but rather that, through watching this show, i can see both the advantages and disadvantages of plural marriage. i can understand the intention behind plural marriage, and i feel sympathetic toward these characters who live this alternative lifestyle based on strong convictions. there are a lot of interesting dynamics at play within a plural marriage, and i seeing how it plays out in people and not just thinking of it as an abstract marital structure makes me less hasty to condemn it or the people who believe and participate it. i guess what i’m saying is that i really like ‘big love’ as a show.