March 8, 2006
Hollywood Family Values

By Maggie Gallagher

At the Oscars, George Clooney declared he was "proud to be out of touch." Movies and TV, he suggested, can help change the world, one wicked human heart at a time.

So perhaps HBO is just doing its bit for human progress this Sunday (March 12) in bringing you "Big Love," because as the promo says, "Polygamy Loves Company." According to the Los Angeles Times, the show about "the polygamists next door" is "family values of the provocative kind." ABC News called it "buzzed about." Time magazine hailed it as "the next cool thing on TV."

Just a TV show? Series co-creator Mark Olsen is unabashed about his intentions. "Big Love," he told Newsweek, is "everything that every family faces, just times three. The yuck factor disappears and you just see human faces."

There's Hollywood family values for you: taking the yuck out of polygamy on national TV. This is just the latest salvo in what appears to be a nascent push for normalizing polygamy in this country. In January 2005 at Yale University (according to the Yale Daily News), Nadine Strossen, president of the American Civil Liberties Union, defended the ACLU's fight for legal polygamy: "We have defended the right for individuals to engage in polygamy," Strossen said. "We defend the freedom of choice for mature, consenting individuals." (According to the Chicago Tribune, up to 40,000 Americans practice polygamy right now.) University of Chicago law professor Elizabeth Emens, in a series of legal journal articles (a.k.a. "Beyond Gay Marriage") lays out a new strategy for defending polygamy as both a constitutional right and as a morally acceptable way of life, calling this historic moment a "unique opportunity to question the mandate of compulsory monogamy."

Maybe her next essay will be called "Beyond Polygamy," because when you think about it, polygamy is terribly old-fashioned, isn't it? The latest cool thing is "polyamory"; the Chicago Tribune calls it "monogamy with more partners" and goes on to describe it like this:

"John and Sue have an offbeat marital arrangement. For the last five years of their marriage, Sue has spent three nights a week with her boyfriend, Fred. And that's not even the strange part. As it turns out, John openly shares Sue -- and their king-size marital bed -- with Fred. Confused? Consider this: During the rest of the week, Fred sleeps at home with his wife, Peggy, and their male lover, Bill. John, a 71-year-old San Francisco-based researcher, also has relationships outside his marriage to Sue. He has three current girlfriends, Fred has two and John's wife has four boyfriends."

The main appeal of polygamy has historically been among straight people. But in the Southern Voice last April, one writer argued: "Gays should support polyamorist rights because many of us already participate in a kind of informal polyamory."

The most disheartening telltale sign I spotted came from a grad student at the University of Wisconsin, writing unself-consciously in the Badger Herald earlier this year: "Over the past few years, the social stigma of engaging in polyamory has greatly subsided on college campuses -- and this university is no exception." She's not very pleased with the trend (which in her retrograde way she calls "cheating without guilt"), but she's hoping to learn more about it in her Close Personal Relationships academic seminar.

How powerful will the new push for polyamory prove, now that Hollywood, in its restless search for new ways to be "out of touch," has thrown down the gauntlet on monogamy (never its favorite family value)? I don't know. But I think we are going to find out.

Because after all, who but a hate-filled American could object to truly Big Love, right?

Copyright 2006 Maggie Gallagher

Maggie Gallagher

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