I feel compelled to talk

by francine Hardaway on March 28, 2006

I feel compelled to talk about “Big Love.” Oh, I know it’s not about technology (although there was an IPod on its way to the Mormon fundamentalists’ compound at the end of the last episode), but it is about life, the other focus of this blog. “Big Love” is the new HBO series about a polygamous family in Utah. It comes at just the right time: Tony Soprano has come out of his coma, but he can’t speak. “Big Love” follows “The Sopranos,” and on this show people speak constantly.
In case you haven’t seen it, or read its ubiquitous publicity, “Big Love” is about an ordinary guy named Bill Henderson, who looks pretty normal, except he happens to have three “sister-wives.” He doesn’t live on a rural religious compound anymore; he owns a couple of large Home Depot-like stores in the city. He’s just like you and me. Except he lives in three contiguous houses in a suburb, all of which share a single backyard full of swingsets and childrens’ toys. It’s a compound– but in a 21st century way.
Inside each home is a wife and a kid or two–Bill is the father of seven (I think). His life is complicated. He has to take Viagra to make the wives happy, there is always a child yelling for dad’s attention, and he has to buy cars the way some of us buy eggs. Bill took the second wife because the first wife had cancer and couldn’t have any more children. He took the third wife because she was the baby sitter, and needed a family to be part of. Family is even more important to Bill than business. He is bound and determined to be a good husband and father. It could be a lot worse for everyone. In fact, the youngest wife just got a brand new car. As Mormons, they are not focussed on material things, but they don’t scorn them either.
Polygamy doesn’t look good on “Big Love,” but it doesn’t look bad either. The wives are sometimes jealous of each other, but are often supportive. They share family chores and help each other with the kids. The only real contentious issue among them is sex: who gets the most. The wives work out the nights of the month and how to share Bill with scrupulous attention to detail.
Let’s leave out the obvious social issues that characterize America’s actual polygamists: forced marriage, pedophelia, brutality, isolation, and misogyny. In “Big Love,” the urban Henderson family has left those behind on the compound. Their family is one created out of free will–everyone in it wishes to be there. (And it’s almost possible to believe them, until you see where they all came from.)
“Big Love” is an interesting take on an era I grew up in– an idealistic time of shared spaces in which no one was married, but everyone shared household responsibilities. That was a common way to live in the hippie ’60s. It’s coming back. Today, seniors are designing communal living spaces in which everyone may sleep separately, but share common areas like kitchens and living rooms. It’s considered a healthy way for older people to remain engaged and socially connected. And after all, since women live longer than men and most retirement communities are heavy on women, in actuality, they probably don�t look that different from “Big Love”�just older. Everyone is looking for family, even if it’s not the one they were born into.
In America, many households are now made up of gay couples, single women with children, and extended families. Adult children are living with their parents; aging parents are moving in with their children. Immigrants live with relatives in whatever space they can afford. The four-person two-parent “Leave it to Beaver” family may never have truly existed in real life, and it certainly is not the norm in the 21st century.
And that’s why “Big Love” hits a nerve. It examines the question of what constitutes a family. It’s too early to tell how the series will end, but I’m in for the journey. As a person who has lived in multiple marriages, been a parent and a foster parent, I have certainly caused my share of unconventional family groupings. Who am I to condemn Bill Henderson?
After all, I’m embarrassed to say it, but I live in a household every bit as strange. Until I saw this show, I thought I was weird. But now I understand: I’m a polycaninist. I have two husbands–a Golden retriever and a chow-chow.

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