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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 ...

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In the Magazine

October 2011

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