The 'Big Love' Strategy
Big Love, HBO's series about the "polygamists next door" in Sandy, Utah, ended its five-year run last March, but polygamy is still going strong on American television. TLC's reality series Sister Wives, which features a real-life polygamist family named the Browns, has just been renewed for a third season.
TLC used to be called "The Learning Channel," which prompts the question: What are Americans learning from sympathetic portrayals of polygamy in popular culture?
When Will & Grace debuted in 1998, few could have imagined that scarcely a decade later, same-sex marriage would be regarded by many Americans as a constitutional right. Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan of New York was no alarmist when he worried aloud that the next step in the marriage debate would be another redefinition to allow polygamy and infidelity. How did we get to this point?
It began with making what was once marginalized and tolerated seem normal and mainstream by calling into question the very idea of norms. Pop culture excels at perpetuating this kind of relativism: gay characters were depicted as interchangeable with, if not superior to, their heterosexual counterparts. The message was clear: Only a bigot would make a fuss over homosexual behavior.
This approach, while effective, was too slow for some activists. That led to the second part of the "how": the legal strategy. This strategy built on the foundation laid by abortion-rights advocates, especially Planned Parenthood v. Casey, which defined liberty as "the right to define one's own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life."
This notion of liberty as self-definition led to Lawrence v. Texas, which not only overturned Texas's anti-sodomy law, but also put the validity of all morals legislation into doubt. As U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia wrote in his blistering dissent, the majority opinion would preclude all further morals legislation, opening the door to bigamy, same-sex marriage, and even adult incest and prostitution. He was right, of course. When a federal judge overturned California's Proposition 8 last year, he cited Lawrence. Now the aforementioned Browns have filed suit against Utah, seeking to have its law against polygamy invalidated. Their attorney, Jonathan Turley, argues what gay-rights advocates vehemently deny: "Homosexuals and polygamists do have a common interest: the right to be left alone as consenting adults." Following Lawrence's logic to exactly where Scalia said it would lead, he adds, "There is no spectrum of private consensual relations—there is just a right of privacy that protects all people so long as they do not harm others."
What then about evidence that polygamy is bad for women? What about studies linking polygamy to higher rates of domestic violence, an increased chance of dying in childbirth, and abuses such as daughter-swapping? What about intentionally depriving children of the singular devotion of a loving father and mother? Doesn't that constitute "harm"? It is ironic that feminist writers (and even a professor at that bastion of feminism, Brown University) are sounding the alarm about the dangers of polygamy. After all, feminists have always bristled at the idea of government "legislating morality" regarding any kind of "consensual relationship." But now they are ready for government to step in and legislate in the case of "consensual relationships" that harm them.
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