Three Ring Circus

Jodie Janella Horn
The three wives at the center of HBO's Big Love

While polygamy has a place in the study of human history and culture, it has long been considered taboo. Leave it to HBO and its new hit drama series to make this socially profane subject seem... almost normal.

When I was a kid, I used to spend the entirety of my summer vacations watching daytime television. It was an activity that quickly squashed my desire to do anything else. June through August was dedicated to curling up in the abyss of soap operas, syndicated sit-coms, and talk show riots. For the most part, time spent suckling TV's milk would have been better spent, say, developing social skills or exercising, but there was one episode of a trashy chat fest that actually, truly changed my life. For the better, no less.

Allow me to paint the scene. A bearded man sat on the stage flanked by an entourage of dowdy long-haired women in unflattering prairie dresses. All extolled the virtues of plural marriage to an entirely hostile studio audience. Anyone could see that the polygamists were nutty zealots, but the studio audience struck me as equally unsavory. Ordinary folks lined up at the mic to get their chance to tell the polygamists they were Hell bound. The host's only function was to scowl in agreement with whatever judgment the viewers were putting forward. The whole spectacle was rather cruel.

But this particular episode proved to be different. A thin young man with dark curly hair stood up, and sheepishly asked, "So what if they're polygamists? They say it makes them happy and they're not bothering you. What's the problem?" The righteous mass booed the dissenter and quickly returned to their oral lynching, but his sentiment struck me. Wasn't he right? If everyone involved in an otherwise arcane social situation is a consenting adult and no one is getting hurt, shouldn't they be free to practice their religious beliefs in any way that they see fit? This is still America, right?

HBO's new drama Big Love is unique in that it plays to both the dissenter and the angry mob on the same subject. On one hand, the Henrickson family is modern and loving, with a separate house for each of the three wives and their children. They shop at the Gap, talk on the cell phone, and struggle to get their kids to the myriad meetings and practices that children have these days. Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton), the patriarch of the clan, runs a successful chain of hardware stores that keeps the family moneyed to the point of being rather posh -- this despite the daunting number of mouths to feed. They are just like any other family, but for the simple fact that there is one husband and three spouses.

However, it all gets a little shakier upon closer inspection. Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn, the 40-something first wife, exudes a dispassionate professionalism that chafes with younger second wife, Nicki's (Chloë Sevigny) brash and manipulative emotionalism. Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin), the baby-sitter turned wife, oscillates between wanting to be respected as an adult and girlishly flirting with Barb's teenage son. The wives function by establishing rigid schedules and boundaries and viciously enforcing them with sloppy emotional outbursts. The spousal drama certainly doesn't make polygamy look desirable, but it does make it real. Through the Henricksons, the viewer gets to observe such marital setups with more complexity and compassion in mind than is ever allowed on a tirade-based talk-show.

Slowly, we are learning about the scary commune that the family fled in favor of their comfortable but secretive suburban life. The Compound, as it is called, is rife with child brides, crooked leaders, and all-around ass-backwardness. For every step the Henricksons take to make polygamy more relatable, the loons at The Compound take 10 steps back. We learn that, as a young man, Bill was pushed from the community as part of the larger practice of preventing the stallions from stealing the fresh mares from the elders. We learn that the closed-off community supports itself with shady business schemes such as selling bum real estate to the elderly. And we learn about the poverty and lack of education that Compound children endure. In the dingy light of their origins, the Henrickson's choices seem a lot more defendable.

Historically and culturally, polygamy can make socio-biological sense, especially in a society that suffers massive male casualties due to war or the increased risk to men via similar sanctioned activities. In general, across many cultures, throughout time, and with many exceptions, males are more likely to die earlier than females. Males also marry much later in life than females in many cultures. If there are more brides than grooms, a system of polygamy may be the only way to ensure that everyone who wants a mate can get one. However, most of the time there aren't enough females for every male to have a few females. This means that only high-status males get bonus brides. If, on the other hand, there are too many grooms choosing from too few brides, then some males need to be removed from the competition, which is why some young men are often driven out of polygamous communities.

A shortage of any resource, from brides to bread, can induce violence in a closed community. The scarcity of marriageable females in contemporary polygamous societies explains the frequency of very young brides and the occurrence of brutality amongst polygamists. Another explanation for the violence is the unlawful nature of the arrangement. If the fundamental tenant of a culture is considered unlawful and must be kept a secret (as any '-gamy' is in the United States), then it's difficult to encourage followers to be lawful in other areas. The Henricksons are good people who work hard to keep their lifestyle on the down low, but dodgy business deals with The Compound continue to haunt them. As a result, they face the same problem as Nancy Botwin on Weeds (unskilled and recently widowed, Botwin turns to selling pot to support her family): how do you protect yourself and your family when your lifestyle effectively prevents you from calling the police?

The hardest aspect to justify for anyone, including myself, defending polygamy is the predilection for child brides. When Barb first learns that a former playmate of her teenage daughter is now married to the elderly alpha male Roman (Harry Dean Stanton) of The Compound, she is just as horrified as we are. You can see in her eyes that it disgusts her to have something in common with that kind of arrangement. In fact, Barb drops many hints that belie her disdain for her own choices. A self-flagellating polygamist is the most sympathy-inducing kind and discovering her motivations for consenting to a second wife is the most captivating back-story being developed in the series.

The Compound connubials create a sordid foil for the Henrickson's, making them seem rather relatable by comparison. It's easy to forget while watching Big Love how different this family is from other television clans. One anthropology degree and many years later, I still couldn't tell that dissenting man in the talk show audience exactly what's wrong with polygamy, if anything. I know that it's not a part of my culture or belief system and that I want nothing to do with it myself, but there is intrinsic value in understanding where folks different from ourselves are coming from. Big Love manages to not pathologize or demean its multifaceted families, and thus allows us to learn from the characters' choices and values. Just like I learned on those lazy summer afternoons years ago, TV occasionally gives as much as it takes. Lessons can be learned, even from a tacky talk show -- or a curious pay cable drama.

In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Nonetheless, there are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. There are singers tackling deep, universal matters of the heart and mind. Artists continuing to mess around with a genre that can sometimes seem fixed, but never really is. Musicians and singers have been experimenting within the genre forever, and continue to. As Charlie Worsham sings, "let's try something new / for old time's sake." - Dave Heaton

10. Lillie Mae – Forever and Then Some (Third Man)

The first two songs on Lillie Mae's debut album are titled "Over the Hill and Through the Woods" and "Honky Tonks and Taverns". The music splits the difference between those settings, or rather bears the marks of both. Growing up in a musical family, playing fiddle in a sibling bluegrass act that once had a country radio hit, Lillie Mae roots her songs in musical traditions without relying on them as a gimmick or costume. The music feels both in touch with the past and very current. Her voice and perspective shine, carrying a singular sort of deep melancholy. This is sad, beautiful music that captures the points of view of people carrying weighty burdens and trying to find home. - Dave Heaton

9. Sunny Sweeney – Trophy (Aunt Daddy)

Sunny Sweeney is on her fourth album; each one has felt like it didn't get the attention it deserved. She's a careful singer and has a capacity for combining humor and likability with old-fashioned portrayal of deep sadness. Beginning in a bar and ending at a cemetery, Trophy projects deep sorrow more thoroughly than her past releases, as good as they were. In between, there are pills, bad ideas, heartbreak, and a clever, true-tearjerker ballad voicing a woman's longing to have children. -- Dave Heaton

8. Kip Moore – Slowheart (MCA Nashville)

The bro-country label never sat easy with Kip Moore. The man who gave us "Somethin' 'Bout a Truck" has spent the last few years trying to distance himself from the beer and tailgate crowd. Mission accomplished on the outstanding Slowheart, an album stuffed with perfectly produced hooks packaged in smoldering, synthy Risky Business guitars and a rugged vocal rasp that sheds most of the drawl from his delivery. Moore sounds determined to help redefine contemporary country music with hard nods toward both classic rock history and contemporary pop flavors. With its swirling guitar textures, meticulously catchy songcraft, and Moore's career-best performances (see the spare album-closing "Guitar Man"), Slowheart raises the bar for every would-be bro out there. -- Steve Leftridge

7. Chris Stapleton – From a Room: Volume 1 (Mercury Nashville)

If Chris Stapleton didn't really exist, we would have to invent him—a burly country singer with hair down to his nipples and a chainsaw of a soul-slinging voice who writes terrific throwback outlaw-indebted country songs and who wholesale rejects modern country trends. Stapleton's recent rise to festival headliner status is one of the biggest country music surprises in recent years, but his fans were relieved this year that his success didn't find him straying from his traditional wheelhouse. The first installment of From a Room once again finds Stapleton singing the hell out of his sturdy original songs. A Willie Nelson cover is not unwelcome either, as he unearths a semi-obscure one. The rest is made up of first-rate tales of commonality: Whether he's singing about hard-hurtin' breakups or resorting to smoking them stems, we've all been there. -- Steve Leftridge

6. Carly Pearce – Every Little Thing (Big Machine)

Many of the exciting young emerging artists in country music these days are women, yet the industry on the whole is still unwelcoming and unforgiving towards them. Look at who's getting the most radio play, for one. Carly Pearce had a radio hit with "Every Little Thing", a heartbreaking ballad about moments in time that in its pace itself tries to stop time. Every Little Thing the album is the sort of debut that deserves full attention. From start to finish it's a thoroughly riveting, rewarding work by a singer with presence and personality. There's a lot of humor, lust, blues, betrayal, beauty and sentimentality, in proper proportions. One of the best songs is a call for a lover to make her "feel something", even if it's anger or hatred. Indeed, the album doesn't shy away from a variety of emotions. Even when she treads into common tropes of mainstream country love songs, there's room for revelations and surprises. – Dave Heaton

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

Scholar Judith May Fathallah's work blurs lines between author and ethnographer, fan experiences and genre TV storytelling.

In Fanfiction and the Author: How Fanfic Changes Popular Culture Texts, author Judith May Fathallah investigates the progressive intersections between popular culture and fan studies, expanding scholarly discourse concerning how contemporary blurred lines between texts and audiences result in evolving mediated practices.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.