Barb, Nicki and Margene have only one thing in common-their husband. In a modern day polygynist household on HBO series Big Love, these women share one man and several children altogether. Seeing themselves as “sister wives”, they survive by holding onto the Mormon practice, often referred to as “The Principle”, of plural marriage where one man can take as many women as he sees fit into his life.
Sound familiar? The only difference between Islam and Mormonism is that Muslim men are limited to four women in marriage:
"If you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with the orphans, marry women of your choice, two or three or four; but if you fear that you shall not be able to deal justly with them, then you shall be content with one." (Quran 4:3)
Although it sounds pleasant in theory, these characters are anything but content. Barb, the “first wife” to Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is a humble and graceful mate to her husband of nearly two decades. “Second wife” Nicki is quite the opposite; jealous, deceitful and gossipy, Nicki has managed to delude everyone but herself. While she may pose as the quintessential example of The Principle, she couldn’t seem more hypocritical to her own philosophy of nuptials. If Nicki hadn’t been raised on an austere Mormon compound in rural Utah, she wouldn’t likely be the one to marry a man like Bill.
Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the youngest and most artificially confident, tries very hard to neutralize the family’s drama in spite of her own growing pains. Isolated and immature, she is compelled (and determined) to coexist with her husband’s wives more than the man she willingly married. In the show’s second season, Margene had a reunion of sorts with her estranged mother with whom she had to defend her decision to after mom discovered the bizarre arrangement.
The woman who plays Nicki’s personality is most certainly drawn to controversial parts in Hollywood’s film scene. Chloë Sevigny has appeared in many entertaining but no doubt, contentious roles in the most peculiar relationships such as Kids, Boys Don’t Cry and more recently Divorce Ranch (in progress). Donning prairie clothes in nearly every episode, the only time Nicki is seen in a scene wearing modern garb is on the eve of Barb’s nomination to be the community’s Mother of the Year.
During the last few episodes of the first season, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) made personal sacrifices to keep her husband’s lifestyle a secret from their neighbors and colleagues. Being that polygyny is illegal in the state of Utah, this family hides their realities behind the closed doors of their adjoining households. Situated three in a row, all on the same block, their homes appear to be very normal from the outside but are completely unorthodox within.
The show’s second season offered viewers extra emotional pull when Margene befriended a waitress Bill began to court as his fourth wife, an unknowing woman working in a diner he frequented to buy pies, who soon discovered the complicated world for which she was introduced. In an effort to forge a new bond, Margene was quickly disappointed when her matchmaking efforts didn’t work out.
There are many heart warming scenes throughout the seasons where Hollywood’s sentimentality shines through, but to a seriously critical viewer, you can easily dissect the message to its bare bones. As with most depictions of marriage and relationships on the big screen, these depictions are in fact, fiction. One cannot assume that sharing a man is as easy as these characters portray it to be. Anyone even remotely considering this decision has to give more thought to it than mere emotions and physical inclinations; after all, these decisions shape the success or decline of an existing family. And as the fictionalized family on this show demonstrates, it takes a great deal of democratic power in the enterprise. I wonder though, how much democracy played in the conception of this series, later nominated for 4 Golden Globes. Big Love is, by and large, written, produced and created by male dominated personnel. It is no wonder then that so much of the content may seem alluring for a male audience, despite the ‘fluff’ that sensationalizes such an odd arrangement.
It is a fascinating show indeed, one that most audiences have never seen the likes of. I am personally surprised that in the wake of cultural insensitivity, such a show would continue into its proposed third season, airing January 18, 2009. During the first season, propaganda circulated on network news laying harsh criticism on families that partake, whether willingly or unwillingly, in the practice of polygyny. Make no mistake- anthropologists have clearly defined the distinction between polygamy (multiple marriages of both husbands and wives) and polygyny, where one man marries two or more women. Nonetheless, Mormon “fundamentalists” were shown on the news as criminals and some were even sent to prison for bigamy while other footage showed raids on sectarian compounds like the ones shown on Big Love.
Two hot topics that avid newsreaders have been most intrigued by are the legalization of these marital practices and in the case of children who are products of these marriages, to whom their guardianship is entrusted once their homes are raided and parents are locked away in America’s prison system. Even the ACLU has stepped in to moderate the legal battles of these imperiled families. But the subject of family and “alternative families” has risen to new heights in the past few years in our society, as illustrated on network channel, We TV. One segment of the show Secret Lives of Women, aired an episode that exposed Mormon practices, in a modern day context, from the perspective of “sister wives”. It seems as though the producers wanted to redirect disinformation back to its rightful owners- the women who endeavor to live this way, for better or worse.
In general, the criminalization of plural marriages and bigamy, is in question now that homosexuals were granted legal rights to “marry” in certain states across the country. In California specifically, the law was passed and later revoked in the Proposition 8 frenzy we experienced in the 08’ elections. If two people of the same gender are no longer seen as breaking the law, or at the very least, challenging it, then why are the men and women who willingly accept polygyny? Furthermore, if two people of the same gender can receive the benefits society grants them through marriage, why would these same benefits be denied to a man who would like to provide health care coverage, among other things, to all his children and wives?
If America is ready to accept this notion of alternative family lifestyles, then surely Americans are prepared to reckon with men who father children with more than one woman and women who desire to be called his wives and recognized legally as such.
Whether or not Big Love focuses on ideals of normalcy and how this relates to marriage, the concept itself is intriguing and culturally educational. It is a breath of fresh air compared to The Sopranos, which aired first in the evening’s schedule of shows on HBO two years ago. Ironically, both shows include profiles of families in America who build legacies on controversial premises. However, polygyny pales in comparison to Tony’s clandestine mafia activities.
Aside from Bill’s busy life satisfying three women, he cannot seem to cut loose old and questionable business ties with those still on the compound, a focus that intensified during season two, climaxing with murder plots and assorted corruption. Caught in an intricate web of corruption, Bill, his brother and mother have been spun tighter into the show’s complicated dramatic storylines. Ironically, these dramatized scenes seemed to mirror, to an extent, what the nightly news was airing with regards to manhunts for abusive bigamists on the run.
The children of Bill and his wives, seven in sum with Margene’s third on the way, are the least integrated in his convoluted life. Although he appears to be a dedicated man of faith, family and community, Bill is seldom seen bonding with his offspring aside from the occasional holding of an infant or bending to kiss another child on the cheek when he first arrives to his homes. This mild negligence becomes especially acute in season two, where his eldest children find themselves in constant conflict with the decisions of their parents. While Ben, Barb’s eldest son, engages in illicit liaisons with his teenaged girlfriend, his sister Sarah completely rebels against the beliefs her family holds near and dear. She discovers a support group for expatriated Mormons but soon realizes they don’t espouse to the “fundamentalism” her family has. With each passing episode, viewers saw moral fibers of the Henrickson family slowly fading and tearing.
One would think that Bill’s own bucolic rearing would encourage him to hold his children above all else. To the contrary, although a younger Bill was alienated by his parents and forced off the compound to allow elderly men access to young brides, he doesn’t seem to delineate his children may too feel abandoned. In a wild notion that young men lessen the chances of old men securing more wives, it is said that teenaged boys are forced out to make room, leaving their female counterparts to the aging hands of their elders. This twisted rationale causes an obscured gender ratio, one that Islamic scholars would never even dare to justify even if, somehow, men were allowed to take more than four wives. Young men, when ready, are just as entitled to matrimony as their elders are in the real world.
Aside from the obvious adult oriented scenes, the series represents a different outlook on life’s precious decisions, be they marital, spiritual, business or otherwise. You may want to keep the remote close by while tuning into season three, as some scenes are inappropriate. Overall, you may enjoy it. I know I have.
Big Love forces its audience to picture how and who we love, in a much bigger context.
Well, it's not a good representation of the Mormon church, which no longer recognizes this practice. We wouldn't appreciate it if someone made a movie that highlighted practices done by Muslim heretics (familiar?), especially those which embarrass the Muslim community, would we?
February 20, 2010
I'm not sure Dion but maybe an article would kick things off (hint, hint). But in all honesty, it is a very sensitive subject for progressive folks in both "religions". Still tender to the touch- maybe that's why it hasn't happened...aside from it being "illegal".
March 12, 2009
You're right, it could be a good meeting for Mormons and Muslims living with such circumstances to discuss their experiences, lifestyle, and reasoning for it. Maybe the show will do something that? Or, maybe there are Mormon/Muslim brothers and sisters holding that type of discussion today?
March 12, 2009
I wouldn't agree with a boycott of the show, as I think its educational with regards to Mormonism and plural marriage in America. This season, the show has picked up intensity tenfold. I love it! In fact, I would love to see a roundtable discussion takes place between Mormons who practice "The Principle" and Muslims who are living in similar circumstances.
March 12, 2009
In follow-up to this writing about Big Love, there's an article published on Reuter's today titled: "Big Love network apologizes to Mormons". Check it out.
March 12, 2009
Well done article. Keep up the good work.
February 14, 2009
Walaikum salaam Najea and Berhan,
Najea, it is something to think about. However, there are deeper reasons, usually related to financial benefits for certain males in a certain demographic that have great privelege, historically.
January 27, 2009
As-Salaamu-Alaikum Sis. Yahsmin,
This is a very thoughtful and well-written article. I have many times wondered how Americans can consider and allow legalizing homosexuality, while making polygamy illegal. You raise many good points in your article.
Hijabi Couture, CEO
January 27, 2009
January 15, 2009