George Frey for The New York Times
From left, Mary Batchelor, Doris, and Anne Wilde watching an episode of the HBO series "Big Love
March 28, 2006
'Big Love': Real Polygamists Look at HBO Polygamists and Find Sex
By FELICIA R. LEE
SALT LAKE CITY � Yuck, she said. A sex scene. And right at the beginning of the show, her friend chimed in.
"Big Love," HBO's new take on a fictional polygamous family in the suburbs of this city, was on the television. The Viagra-popping Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) was thrashing in bed with Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the youngest of his three wives. The five women watching the show � covering their eyes during the sex scenes, chiding the competitive wives, urging Bill to take control � were critics with special credentials: a current or past polygamous marriage.
And despite the show's flaws, these women called "Big Love" a cultural benchmark, one with the potential to cast a warmer light on their lives.
"It's a more realistic view of a polygamous family that lives out in society than people have known," said Anne Wilde, a widow who was part of a multiple family for 33 years. "It can be seen as a viable alternative lifestyle between consenting adults."
"Big Love," which had its premiere on March 12, has certainly made a noisy splash. Some television critics find it an intriguing twist on suburban family angst. The Mormon Church contends that the show glamorizes a practice it renounced in 1890. Vicky Prunty, the head of the leading anti-polygamy group here and herself a former polygamist, dismisses it as a Hollywood fantasy for men. The first "Big Love" episode was watched by 4.6 million people (following "The Sopranos," which drew 9.5 million), according to Nielsen Media Research. A week later, the number for "Big Love" was down to 3.4 million after "The Sopranos" attracted 9.2. million.
For the women gathered in a hotel room here at the request of The New York Times to talk about the intersection of their lives and popular culture, more is at stake than good ratings. "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. "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.
In addition to Doris, Ms. Batchelor and Ms. Wilde, the women watching "Big Love" on this night included Linda, a 53-year-old widow and mother of four who said she lived for 30 years "in a plural situation" with 12 other wives; and another Mary, 52, who has been married for 10 years, has five children and whose sister-wife ("my best friend") lives up the street in a town called Bluffdale. She is an artist and high school teacher.
They did have some worries. "My concern is that this will stereotype and cause more prejudice from the mainstream Latter-day Saints Church," Mary said of the "Big Love" family. "People who are not Mormons will say, 'They are kind of normal,' but people in Mormondom will say, 'They are as disgusting as we thought' because of the sexual content." Like the characters in "Big Love," who talk about keeping their families below the horizon, these women were careful about providing private details. Ms. Wilde, for instance, declined to say how many sister-wives were in her family.
The personal and the political sometimes converge, though. Ms. Batchelor is a second wife who became an only wife after the departure of the first wife � that being Ms. Prunty, the co-director of Tapestry Against Polygamy. That nonprofit group's trustees and directors include formerly polygamous wives and family members, and its advisory board consists of legal and social-work professionals. Their main focus is to help people leaving polygamous families and to educate the public.
"Big Love" skims the surface of the intense dynamics in plural families, Ms. Prunty said. Their isolation, secrecy and complicated logistics make them breeding grounds for forced marriage, under-age brides and abusive men, she said. The writers of the series have said that those issues will be addressed.
"In reality, there's not a woman out there who's going to share a man without religion being a factor," Ms. Prunty said. "That's what's missing in the show. This seems like some male fantasy, some alternative marriage that is Hollywood."
While each episode, after discussions between HBO and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, includes a disclaimer that the Mormons long ago renounced polygamy, thousands of polygamists who call themselves Mormon fundamentalists say they are following the church's original teachings on marriage, called "the principle." Some live in religious communities, others live independently.
C. Michael Quinn, a historian and former professor at Brigham Young University, said his research shows that the devotion of fundamentalist Mormon teenage girls to polygamy helps keep the practice alive. Dr. Quinn, the author of several scholarly books on Mormons, said the girls from polygamous families cannot imagine another life. The boys, he said, cite the difficulties in supporting a big family but find wives among the girls in their community.
"They believe polygamy was a commandment from God to the Mormon founder, Joseph Smith Jr., in the 1830's," explained Dr. Quinn, himself an excommunicated Mormon from a Mormon family that goes back seven generations. He estimates that one-third to one-half of about 30,000 to 50,000 Mormon fundamentalists are also polygamists; Tapestry Against Polygamy estimates that there may be as many as 100,000.
The fictional Henricksons are portrayed as independent fundamentalists. Middle-class and attractive, their three households include seven children in total and discreetly share a backyard. Bill is hustling to open his second home-improvement store. The show's darkest element is a creepy father-in-law, Roman (Harry Dean Stanton), the patriarch of a polygamous clan, who wants a bigger cut of Bill's business profits.
The women gathered to watch the show liked that a distinction was made between such groups and more modern, independent polygamists. They laughed at Roman but admitted he represented a certain reality. "There's diversity," Ms. Wilde said. But Linda added, "Please, we don't believe in forced marriage or child brides."
They also liked the cool and collected first wife, Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn); disliked the second wife, Nicki (Chlo� Sevigny), a secret shopaholic and Roman's daughter; and empathized with the efforts of the newest wife, Margene, to fit in. Bill, they said, was mismanaging his time and not standing up to the women, who seem to fight constantly for his attention. In the show's second episode, Nicki and Barb are upset about the short robe that Margene wears to breakfast with the whole family and spar about the need for the women to stick to "the schedule" for visits from the Viagra-enhanced Bill.
"Viagra is not part of our culture," Linda said. "Our men don't need Viagra." She added that sister-wives would not put pressure on a man sexually.
Later in the show, when a friend asks Bill if he is thinking of "adding a fourth" wife, Bill demurs, saying that he has his hands full. "They're the path you've chosen; walk it with decency," the friend comments.
"That's a good line," Linda said, as the other women murmured their assent.
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. There are already hints in the early episodes: Roman has at least one teenage bride.
Back in the Salt Lake City hotel room, where a light snow mixed with rain fell outside, Ms. Batchelor worried aloud about Bill and his wives. "I think they're a family in transition," she said. "I hope they're going to make it."