March 28, 2006

Watching real polygamists watch fictional polygamists.

The NYT watches some real polygamists watching HBO's fictional polygamists on "Big Love":
"This is a glimpse of a family that is mainstream," Mary Batchelor, a 37-year-old mother of seven and director of "Principle Voices," a leading polygamy advocacy group, said of the Henricksons.
Batchelor. I love when the real life names seem like a screenwriter's concoction.
"There are hundreds of these families. It shows an aspect of polygamy nobody ever sees. Before, you saw families in crisis." She referred to media images of men being carted off to jail for beating women or children or marrying child brides.

"This is making all of America say 'Why is there a law against polygamy?' " said a 55-year-old woman who wanted to be known only as Doris, because she feared repercussions at her new job after years of staying at home with her 14 children in suburban West Jordan. "This guy is just trying to support his family, and the family is just trying to make it."

While the women said "Big Love" had too much skin and not enough religion or humor for their taste, they agreed that it portrayed the Henricksons like any other American family, especially in an era of mixed marriages of all sorts, gay partnerships, single parents and serial monogamy.
Uh-oh, the NYT is helping the anti-gay marriage crowd with its slippery slope argument!

The show is written by two gay men, by the way, which makes us tend to assume that they want the show to bolster the argument for gay marriage. From the Times article:
The creators of "Big Love," Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer (who along with the actor Tom Hanks and Gary Goetzman are the executive producers of the series), said in a telephone interview that they were hearing all the criticisms and compliments. The show was conceived as a prism through which to look at the "struggle for the common good over the individual good" that exists in any family, Mr. Olsen said. He and Mr. Scheffer are partners in real life.

"The pro-polygamists think it's too dark," Mr. Olsen said. "The anti-polygamists don't think it's dark enough. I think we've split the baby down the middle." The men said they spent almost three years researching the show, talking to experts and reading everything from sociological tracts to official Mormon records.

Mr. Scheffer said future episodes would explore some of the darker aspects of polygamy, like the abuses of patriarchy.
It sounds to me as though they are trying to write a complex story. You can't make good shows if the main thing you are thinking about is your political agenda. Olsen and Scheffer have created a great set of characters, with immense dramatic potential, and they need to let things happen without paying too much attention to how everything will affect various political issues.

In the most recent episode -- the third one -- they had a character who was explaining polygamy say "We're like the homosexuals." But I didn't get the sense the writers were trying to sell us that argument. When a fictional character says something, we always have to wonder whether that's something to believe or resist. If we didn't, it wouldn't be art.


MadisonMan said...

Were real journalists watching the Times journalists watching the real polygamists watch the fictional ones?

Balfegor said...

I love when the real life names seem like a screenwriter's concoction.

My favourite is the eminent neurologist, Lord Brain. Not even a screenwriter's concoction -- a B-Movie screenwriter's concoction.

chuck b. said...

I feel vaguely grossed out watching Big Love. I wondered if that made it art too. Everytime someone says something about "being complete" in the marriage I want to gag (they do it in the first two eps, haven't watched the third yet).

I think I'd gag if I heard someone in a conventional marriage say that to his or her spouse too, so I'm not being polyphobic. Other things make me queasy too, but that one comes to mind right away.

As far as screenwriting goes, I hope (if I continue to watch) something will explain to me what the Jeanne Tripplehorn character is doing in this relationship. Because I don't get her at all.

And I've been wondering if that's really Bill Pullman's ass when we see it, or is it an ass model's ass? Because that's a great ass for a man his age.

Lonesome Payne said...

I think what this program shows is that the legal distinctions you point out – between gay marriage as an issue and polygamy as an issue – are only part of the story.

There is a level at which some parts of our society are constantly intrigued with breaking down definitions of things, of questioning the way “they’ve always been;” they see that simple act as an inherent good. There’s something about that I can relate to, in fact: maybe the undergrad part of my soul, which in a way is the part I love best. I certainly cater to it more than might be wise.

It’s that level where the issues are related. And when these guys present a complex, interesting, ambiguous idea of polygamy, they’re in essence making the point that it is like any other family. It doesn’t matter where the story leads; the argument is already out there: it’s complicated, this polygamy, it’s hard to judge, who knows what the larger effect on society would be; all of which makes it like reality in any style family including our received heterosexual monogamous patterns, so what the hell? It’s hard at that point to offer an opinion beyond “it just doesn’t seem right” or “it’s against my religion” as the starting points.

Although they don’t say so, and it’s not a matter of lying, the fact they’re gay and the fact that they’re filmmakers make me suspect – not that it’s a bad thing – that they fall into the “let’s deconstruct” camp as the organizing principle of deep politics.

Beau said...

Even dooce, weighed in on this one, Monday 27. Interesting take from someone brought up Morman.

PatCA said...

I watched three episodes and gave up. It has the same bitchy tone as American Beauty and the same cardboard cutout characters, Desperate Housewives meets Brigham Young. The writers, despite their years of research (yeah, right), give us superficial details tacked onto a soap opera plot; the action arises not out of character but necessity.

The reason Barbara is a cipher is because her stereotype hasn't been revealed yet. Nikki the neurotic Daddy-loving shopaholic and Margene the nymphet. Feh.

Shows like this, movies like American Beauty, denigrate "the American family" as if it were a monolithic unithinking bloc like "gay people" or "black people." I guess their theme or agenda is that if they delegitimate the traditional family, that normalizes all families?

I recently rented The Best of Youth an Italian TV family saga and was struck by the respect the writers had for each character, no matter what his politics, so different from Big Love, which I was attempting to give a fair shot at the same time. The loathing and self-loathing of Big Love is just a Big Turnoff.

Eddie said...

A number of thoughts:

chuck b.: Thanks for the term "polyphobic." I don't know if you are making it up or not, but I'm glad to add it to my vocabulary!

patca: I have a very different response. I find the drama compelling, which leads me to ask: why can't television or the movies examine family life without this twist?

Which leads me to the following -

paulfrommpls: I agree that the writers are making the family look normal, which does open them to the charge that they are trying to define deviancy downward. But I draw the further conclusion that the normal family is more interesting than screenwriters tend to depict. Again, why can't we see drama, made for adults, about normal families?

PatCA said...

"I find the drama compelling, which leads me to ask: why can't television or the movies examine family life without this twist?"

Because it isn't interesting to me any more, that's all, and it isn't organic--the twist is imposed by the writer; it doesn't arise out of an interesting compelling character. Again IMO it's a (shallow) trope and a genre that has been exhausted. There are many stories of normal and conflicted families to write, a wealth of stories about polygmay even, but they aren't being made because a good family drama requires the respect of the writer so, to me, Big Love seems more of a mockumentary than drama. I cite Best of YOuth again as an example of an organic family drama that works for me because the writers did not overly their distaste upon the characters.

Protagonists need foils, and the only wholly permissible foil in Hwood today is the fundamentalist, usually white, Christian. Even in Lost, which I love, the only devout characters are African or Af-Am which is interesting.

So I'm not saying Big Love will cause the world to spin off its axis, I just think it's boring. Just my opinion!

michael farris said...

I don't live in the states, is this show about a mormon family or is it a polygynous grouping for some other reason?

And the show is about a polygynous family, is it not?

For some reason I was expecting something about polyamory, maybe better defined as group relationships of undefined numbers and genders (you might get three women and two men in one group or four women in another). I don't know if those involved in long term polyamorous situations are petitioning for any kind of legal recognition.

Balfegor said...

Polyamory? When I heard the name, I actually thought it was going to be about fat people in love.