The publicity for the 4th season’s opener for “Big Love” reminded me that I hadn’t watched the 3rd season yet, so I downloaded it and have been watching it at the gym. I’ve got somewhat mixed feelings about the show. Don’t get me wrong; I love it to death as entertainment and think there’s a real brilliance to use polygamist Mormons as fodder for soap opera levels of drama. Polygamy is such a straight up bad idea precisely because it’s bound to create so much drama (amongst other reasons). Throughout the show, they’ve had fun exploring why that would be, and a major reason is that polygamy encourages people to set aside so many common sense objections that it simply inculcates the crazy. The Hendrickson family of the series have built their lives on a lie, which is that they can somehow make polygamy work without inculcating the same crazy drama. And of course they fail.
But my unease with the show has always stemmed from occasional sense that the writers wish to glamorize polygamy. They’ve certainly downplayed the sexual jealousy aspects, and often the women in the Hendrickson family seem just a little too unquestioning of the vicious patriarchy they’ve submitted to, even as they feel superior to the polygamists on the compound. Are the writers intoxicated by the exoticism of polygamy, I asked myself. What are they trying to get at here? The name of the show is a really bad indicator here, since it implies that the driving force behind polygamy is big-heartedness, not patriarchy. There’s a lot of hand-wringing on the show about how the polygamist Hendricksons have to hide away, due to mainstream LDS bigotry, and it always comes across as a ploy to make you feel that polygamists are some kind of victims of religious bigotry, which overshadows the severe fucked-up-ness of the religion.
That said, I have to point out that “Big Love” is the only narrative TV show that I’ve ever heard use the word “patriarchy” in a straightforward, descriptive manner, instead of being used in a jokey context to mock feminists for their supposed paranoia. But on at least one occasion on the show, the first wife Barbara refers to her culture and belief system as the patriarchy, and there’s nothing offered to suggest that the word is an overreaction. Which is good, because duh, they live in a polygamist family where the husband’s word is law and female bodies are seen primarily as vehicles for men to control and use as they see fit.
I realized what the show is doing when it humanizes patriarchy isn’t actually so different than what “Mad Men” does in its straight up feminist mission to expose the lies we tell ourselves to justify the oppression of women. In both cases, we’re treated to a cast of female characters that squelch their concerns because they’ve bought into the values system of their culture/have managed to scratch out a small advantage within it/don’t have other options. In both cases, we’re given an example of patriarchy that seems extreme compared to the ones we’re used to, so that we can really think hard about how far from those horrors we aren’t. “Mad Men” perhaps feels more relevant to liberal, secular audience, however, because we’re the heirs of the professional, secular characters on “Mad Men”—we’re the lapsed Catholics, the indifferent Episcopalians, the people for whom the center of life is commerce, not religion, the people who define ourselves by our jobs and social roles and not by our faith. (And I for one think that’s a healthy development, even as I maintain criticism of capitalism.) But “Big Love” is sending up something else entirely, and I’d say that after watching much of the 3rd season (I have a few episodes left), that they are making their themes quite clear. They’re sending up the patriarchy, the religiously-excused patriarchy. And they’re doing it by taking it to the extreme of polygamy.
This season especially, you begin to see how the Hendricksons are deluded if they think they’re so much better than the compound polygamists. After two seasons of suffering the great pains the family goes through to rationalize their behavior in relation to the worst extremes, the way this has become more explicit is welcome. The Hendricksons justify themselves by pointing out that they eschew certain “abuses” of polygamy: the rape, the way that women’s choice in marriage is ignored, the child brides, the police state the prophets keep their people under. The Hendricksons don’t do that, they tell themselves. Their patriarchy isn’t a problem, because they respect women. Women have to submit, sure, but they get respect and care in exchange. Their women are happy! Happy! Look at them smiling, unlike those dour compound wives. They believe in consent and choice and even women’s education. Totally different, right?
In fact, their excuses are indistinguishable from the excuses monogamist Mormons make for themselves, or any patriarchal religious group makes to justify themselves by comparing themselves not to secular standards for women’s rights, but strictly against people they’ve deemed are “abusers”. But this last season, the false wall the Hendricksons built up between themselves and those other, bad people is being exposed. During the trial of the bad guy prophet, for instance, you begin to hear more of how the compound Mormons justify themselves and it sounds…..remarkably close to how the Hendricksons justify themselves. Of course they believe in consent (except they force marriages)! They’d never treat their daughters like chattel (except they do)!
Meanwhile, the Hendricksons are shown unable to live up to the values that they preach, in terms of treating women with respect and compassion, because it’s impossible to do this while demanding their submission. The family claims they want to educate their eldest daughter, and yet somehow all the pressures they put on her cause her to give up and refuse to go to school. But the plot that really drove it home was the exposure of Nicky’s secret use of birth control. We see her talking to a doctor about her fertility problems (which the family assumes must be the only reason she’s not having more babies), and he looks at her compassionately when she reveals her birth control secret and reminds her that she has a choice. The word is laden, because the family is forever using the word “choice”, assuring each other that women in their family have those choice things. But when it’s revealed that she’s choosing not to have children, the big fucking lie undergirding their self-justifications comes out, and it doesn’t even occur to anyone that instead of screaming at Nicky about this and demanding that she produce more babies (even when it’s obvious that every bone in her body is screaming against it), that perhaps they should respect that she has a choice. And if we don’t get the point, later Barbara, when talking to her daughter who is discovered to be sexually active, straight up tells her she can’t just see use her body how she wants. It grates on the ears of anyone with a semblance of humanism in them; it’s meant to. We see Bill taking arranging his family for a family picture, and being startled to realize that everyone in his family is unhappy.
Regular LDS members are brought in more in this last season, and we see more parallels between how they run things and how the FLDS folks do, even as they keep seeing themselves at odds. We see mainstream Mormon husbands silence wives, and mainstream Mormon wives exhibit exactly the same strained attempts at obedience and submission as the fundamentalist Mormon wives. We find out that the mainstream Mormon church engages in the same member policing (mapping streets and marking which houses have lapsed members), and that they also have serious corruption issues, such as their attempts to conceal the real history of their church. And you realize that all the characters, from the compound to the state house, are operating under the same delusion, which is that they know how to have their patriarchy cake and eat it, too—that they have the right formula to have a religious patriarchy without being overwhelmed by corruption and the abuse of women. They’re all wrong, and we see it in the moment when Marjean’s LDS friend comes over to find her crying in loneliness and despair, and quietly gives her some of her Zoloft.
Where the show is way different than “Mad Men” is that it’s hard to find where all this satirical commentary on religious patriarchy is situated in relationship to alternatives in the audiences’ world. Or, to put it more simply, on “Mad Men”, everything that happens is filtered through an understanding of how much has changed and how much hasn’t. For better or for worse, you get a really good idea on “Mad Men” of what the problems are and what needs to happen to improve things. But on “Big Love”, that sort of lens is cloudy. There’s a lot of attention paid to how everyone in this circle of Mormons is complicit in the patriarchy, and how patriarchy means abuse. But the alternatives are beyond the range of the show. Would the only solution be no religion? How about the relationship of the religious patriarchy with plain old secular sexism? The two characters who have a chance to find out—the Hendrickson daughter and her LDS friend—are stopped from escaping their heavily Mormon confines and seeing something else that might offer up a neat contrast.
The show feels claustrophobic. It’s a bunch of characters mired in a patriarchy fighting over who is the least abusive patriarchs, but even a hint of truly feminist values are a distant echo. We occasionally get a glimpse of the outside world that is far from perfect but is way more feminist—the doctor who tells Nicky she has a choice, the district attorney whose normal ideas of dating that involve having fun instead of moving straight to babies, the waitress the family tries to bring in as a 4th wife who balks when she’s told she can’t have her own money. But mostly the alternatives aren’t addressed very much. And maybe that’s the point, to really drive home why people would accept these obviously screwed up values if they don’t have to. Most people don’t have the imagination to create other possibilities; they have to look out in the world and see them. But in this world, there is no world to look out to. Because of this, even at its most twinkly comic moments, it comes across as a very dark show indeed.