I was a skeptic when activists first claimed that, after the push to mainstream the gay lifestyle, a push to take the stigma out of polygamy would follow. Well, according to Mark Henkel of TruthBearer.org, "Polygamy rights is [sic] the next civil-rights battle." He might have a point.
In January, the Justice Department in Canada released a report recommending that our northern neighbors decriminalize polygamy. The March 20 Newsweek will argue that the new wave of polygamy activists is emerging "in the wake of the gay-marriage movement." And on March 12, HBO launched a new television series, "Big Love," featuring a polygamous marriage existing in a middle-class American suburb.
Polygamy as a civil right may not be as far-fetched as it might have seemed just months ago, given that today’s popular religion of multiculturalism, and its chief tenet, non-judgmentalism, demands that we accept everything except Judeo-Christian morality. Some people argue that entertainment merely follows the social trends; others claim that it often presages emerging trends, urged on by so-called "progressives" who revel in overturning the existing social order. Certainly, entertainment and social trends usually go hand-in-hand.
Estimates of the number of practicing polygamists in the United States range from 20,000 to 100,000. A quick Internet search reveals a website listing nearly 50 polygamists looking for additional wives. The majority of those men have, at present, only one wife, but one has five wives already. Granted, the polygamists are a minority; not only is the practice illegal in every state, but a Gallup Poll last year revealed that fully 92 percent of Americans oppose polygamy.
Even so, the HBO story about a polygamous family portrays their lifestyle as just another option available to American men.
Ironically, the show’s creators are a gay couple, Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer. Their self-identified goal is to use polygamy as a "nonjudgmental and humane" template for looking at marriage and family.
Nonjudgmental? Humane? Yeah, right, whatever. While the program might be nonjudgmental about polygamy, it is certainly judgmental about the women and the situations surrounding polygamy.
Not surprisingly, given the creators’ sexual orientation, the version of heterosexuality of "Big Love" — despite the potential titillation of harem fantasies — fails. With the incessant demands of three wives, the male lead, Bill Paxton, ends up exhausted and dependent upon Viagra. Sexy, it is not.
Nor is it subtle. When the husband reaches for his hidden stash of Viagra, the camera zooms in for a close up so that we won’t miss the label. Bill owns a home improvement franchise called "Home Plus." Got it? After attempting (and failing) at sexual intercourse with his second wife, who is always begging for more money, he slips a $100 bill under her water glass.
What it is, is dreary — dreadfully dreary. Driving home from work, Paxton’s character, Bill Henrickson, has 16 phone messages on his cell phone — all are from the wives and kids, with most wanting more of his time and money.
It is also a soap opera. Bill can’t keep up with three wives’ sexual needs — not to mention their insecurities or competitiveness with each other. Nor can he keep up with the financial and emotional demands of the kids — or wives predictably trying to outdo each other in decorating their homes and clothing themselves and their children. In a tension-filled scene with Wife #1 — the only wife earning an income — he asks her to deposit her paycheck toward the family’s needs.
It’s cliché about religion. The single thread running through the program is the link between religion and polygamy. The dour-faced church leaders are predictably grasping for money and power, demanding 15 percent of the family’s income for the church because that is "God’s Law." An opening scene shows all the families together for a meal around a common table, holding hands and praying. When Nikki, Wife #2, tells her mother that she doesn’t want to go back to her home and family, the mother warns her that she must grow up and "accept the life that God chose for you."
All the relationships are cliché: The first wife is called "boss lady," the middle wife, Nikki, is hyper-materialistic, selfish and competitive, and the youngest wife, Marcy, is insecure and fearful. She thinks that she doesn’t measure up to the two older wives. She says, "I can’t contribute; I can’t take care of my two babies much less take care of Nikki’s, too." When Bill visits his parents, the scenes are completely over-the-top: When his critically ill father falls off the couch onto the floor, Bill and his mother argue over whether to take him to the hospital. It turns out that he has arsenic poisoning, and Bill suspects his mother of trying to poison his dad.
Whatever titillation the show’s producers envisioned arising from the polygamy theme gets smothered by the day-to-day realities and the exaggerated, soap-opera-type details. If they thought this was going to compete with Desperate Housewives … well probably not.
Even so, in the long term, realism won’t erase the fantasy of polygamy. Long after the series has been canceled and viewers have moved on to the next "great" idea, the bed-hopping fantasy will linger. Public rejection of the "idea" of polygamy will have softened. Probably the next poll will show disapproval down from 92 percent to below 90 percent. So the campaign for cultural change continues, and the "slippery slope" is all the more slippery.