Every Man's Fantasy?

Two television shows explore nontraditional relationships

Delving into communities outside the mainstream, two new television shows tackle an unlikely group: polygamists. The actual definition of polygamy is marriage to more than one spouse at a time; the two forms of polygamy are polygyny (marriage of multiple women to one man) and polyandry (marriage of multiple men to one woman). In America, polygamy is as a synonym for polygyny, and the practice of polygamy is most closely associated with Mormonism.

The Girls Next Door is a reality show on E! about the lives of Hugh Hefner's three girlfriends—Holly Madison, Bridget Marquardt, and Kendra Wilson—who live with him in the Playboy Mansion (it premiered last summer, continues to air in reruns, and has been picked up for a second season). Big Love, which debuted on HBO in early March, is about a Utah businessman named Bill Henrickson who lives with his three wives and seven children in three side-by-side houses that share a backyard. Although Bill's family is not specifically referred to as Mormon nor seen attending church, the implication is clear. In addition to reciting scripture-like phrases often, Bill was raised by parents who belong to a polygamist cult in a scary rural place called the Compound—presumably one of those splinter fundamentalist groups that mainstream Mormons routinely denounce. To further cover its ass, HBO ran a disclaimer at the end of the first episode reminding us that the Mormon Church outlawed polygamy in 1890.

In legal terms, Hef isn't a polygamist since none of the relationships have lasted long enough to be common-law marriages; plus, I'm pretty sure that the Los Angeles district attorney doesn't have an interest in prosecuting the 79-year-old mogul, who is actually still married to (but separated from) his wife Kimberly Conrad, who lives in the house next door. While Bill's household structure is based on his religious beliefs and upbringing, Hef's living arrangements reflect a swingin' decadent lifestyle befitting the founder of Playboy. They share a common central theme: a man who has simultaneous sexual and emotional relationships with three different women who are each monogamous with him.

In the fictional version, sex—including sharing, jealousy, and Bill's inability to literally keep up with his three wives—is central to the plot. In the unscripted version, sexual hedonism surrounds the foursome, but their sex lives are never openly depicted or discussed. Some speculate that the "we don't kiss and tell" coyness is all a ruse to maintain the mystique (and branding) of Hef and Playboy. Others say that with the help of Viagra, Hef's still got it—including former Mansion housemate Jill Ann Spaulding, who wrote in her book Jill Ann: Upstairs about orgies where groups of girls would take turns doing Hef.

In The Girls, we don't see nitty-gritty details of the relationship, like the women negotiating their rumored allowances or discussing allocating alone time with Hef. It's all parties, photo ops, and smiles at the Playboy Mansion. Holly, the "number one" girlfriend, has alluded to the harmony of the setup. She told MSNBC's Rita Cosby, "This group is heaven compared to what we had before [when there were seven girlfriends]. . . . We all love this lifestyle and this relationship. And we all care about Hef, so we want to try and make it work."

The first three episodes of Big Love gave glimpses of the intimate inner workings of an alternative relationship; there is a much better opportunity to explore the benefits and challenges, as well as how the four people negotiate different aspects of their lives with one another, the kids, and the outside world. But the show spends too much time on Bill's relatives and their cult, the more sensational element of the story.

Anyone with a stake in alternative relationships has something to say about Big Love. Mormon groups insist that it does not depict true followers of the Church of Latter-day Saints. Right-wing conservatives say it's yet another example of the gay marriage agenda and the left's attempt to dismantle the traditional family. Either show can be read as a cautionary tale: Look what happens when people stray from the heterosexual nuclear family! The straight man's emotional, financial, and sexual resources are spread too thin! Hef and Bill have become slaves to Viagra just to please the ladies! The women are really calling the shots!

Co-writers Mark V. Olsen and Will Scheffer, an openly gay couple, made it a point to show a link between gay marriage and polygamy. While polygamists and those who practice polyamory don't consider themselves in the same camp, polyamorists are certainly watching and debating the show.

It's time to show a complex and sympathetic alternative relationship. Big Love illustrates how relatively "normal" the lives of its characters are; I'm curious to see if the American public can root for them. I just wish the family weren't so, well, traditional. As Mormon polygamists, they carry a legacy of patriarchal inequality, coerced marriages to underage girls, non-consensual pregnancies, and abuse. That doesn't describe all Mormon polygamists, but the history is there, as the story line constantly reminds us. Why can't Bill and his wives live in suburban New Jersey and be Episcopalians?

I'd be much more encouraged about its radical potential if the show were about polyamory, a newer concept with no religious affiliation. Polyamory focuses on multiple committed loving and sexual relationships (that may or may not include marriage), allows for multi-gendered partner configurations, and usually involves all partners being non-monogamous (not just the men). It emphasizes honesty and communication.

Unencumbered by religion and stigma, The Girls Next Door holds more promise as a revolutionary relationship model, but it's superficial and feels like a commercial for Playboy. In both shows, I want to see the relationships fleshed out, but so far producers seem more interested in showing flesh. I've seen my fill of bare breasts and simulated doggie-style sex. Let us peek inside the minds and hearts of the people!


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