“Big Love” and “Good” Patriarchy


"Big Love" (not unlike the similar "True Blood"), is an off-kilter allegory, a story about a
persecuted marginal group that, according to liberal sensibilities, may well deserve to be given a hard time. As we
watch our consensual, modern polygamist clan, the Henricksons, struggle with
each other, with the mainstream Mormon church and with their fundamentalists
cousins on the Juniper Creek "compound," we are constantly torn
between sympathizing with and railing against them. As last year’s season
ended,  Bill Henrickson took matters into his own hands and declared
himself patriarch of a new church, free from both the disdain of the LDS and
the violent power grabs of the FLDS. It was hard not to notice, though, that
their new "humane" polygamist church looked a little too much like
the other two, specifically the part with the controlling, charismatic man in
charge. Of course, this moral ambiguity makes for great TV–and at its heart,
that’s what "Big Love" is: a well-done soap opera chock full of
revenge, crime, secrets and  confusion. And yet, under its churning
surface, the show is deeply relevant to our endless feminist discussions of
women in fundamentalist settings and what constitutes "choice" in an overly- zealous
environment.

Last season "Big Love" really began to genuinely explore women’s role
in religion–particularly women’s role in a highly-patriarchal religion which
they believe and willingly embrace.  As I wrote last year, reproduction and its role in the polygamist
collective were the hot topic throughout the season. The show’s writers made a
point of highlighting the way that the "principle" of polygamy
subsumes female bodily autonomy for the sake of the family’s entrance into
celestial eternity–the more kids the family produces, the higher their
immortal status. Therefore Nicki’s choice
to use birth control is seen as a huge betrayal, a blow against her clan.
Amanda has a good summary of how the point is
furthered by the plot with Sarah, Barb’s daughter
:

And if we don’t
get the point, later Barbara, when talking to her daughter who is discovered to
be sexually active, straight up tells her she can’t just see use her body how
she wants.  It grates on the ears of anyone with a semblance of humanism
in them; it’s meant to.

Although the family was nominally re-knit together at the end of last season,
the wives’ struggle between their own feelings and their beliefs and deferrals
to Bill have reared right back up and are taking center stage once more.
Barb–who married Bill as a regular old Mormon and has followed him doubtingly
but dutifully down every path he’s taken–is a brittle mass of contradictions,
and the younger Margene is coming into her own financially and beginning to
question the family structure. But Chloe Sevigny’s Nicki, a
pathologically-lying, contradictory mess of a character, is always the most
compelling to watch. Now, the show is beginning to delve into the root causes
of her erratic behavior. Her father, the late prophet of Juniper Creek, put her
in the "joy book" for potential husbands to browse, when she was very
young, and later married her off to the sadistic JJ, whom she loathed so much
she gave up her daughter in order to escape.

On Sunday night, we learned more about Nicki’s beliefs, and
watched them unravel. Her brief romantic interest in a polygamist-prosecuting
DA whose case she was trying to sabotage (yes, it’s a soap) shattered her
understanding of love and marriage. She had married Bill because she felt an
alliance between their families was destined, she says. But now that her
feelings for him are uncertain, she begins to doubt everything– particularly
whether her father, who essentially abused her, was a true prophet. She
desperately tries to repair the cracks in her faith by imagining her
pseudo-estranged husband taking his place. Nicki also wants to give her
newly-returned daughter Cara Lynn all the chances she herself was denied, but
her daughter has grown up inculcated with the FLDS mentality–Cara Lynn finds
living with the Henricksons confusing because the women "talk back"
to Bill (even if he has the final say). And even as Nicki begins to doubt her
faith and upbringing, she and Barb are genuinely convinced that if their oldest
daughter, Sarah, who is disenchanted with polygamy, gets married in a civil
ceremony and says the words "’til death do us part," she will be denied salvation.

It’s in moments like these that the show makes its most subversive case against
patriarchal religion: we realize that the lingo of "choice" is all
very well when women espouse it, but how much choice does one really have
when one actually believes that one’s
father is God, or His prophet, and must be obeyed at every turn? As Nick
Kristoff recently noted in his controversial column and follow-up blog post, sometimes religion merely aids and abets an
underlying culture of misogyny. But sometimes, religion is directly to blame
for misogyny. Nicki’s struggle looks to be at the center of the show’s
message that those who practice fundamental religion can indeed be deeply human
and worthy of sympathy–but that having the tenets of extreme patriarchy imbued
at an early age is tantamount to a form of abuse, necessitating either blind
allegiance, the trauma of disillusionment, or the wrenching pain–which Sarah,
Nicki, and Barb all experience– of having to break with your family. And this
message can be expanded from religious patriarchy to any kind of patriarchy.

It’s a pretty radical idea for a soap opera.


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