The New American Family

By Rob Patterson

As the masterful and incisive HBO series Big Love plays out its sixth and final season, life for the suburban Salt Lake City polygamist Hendrickson family gets beyond chaotic. And within a drama that has already distinguished itself for its wild and bizarre twists and turns.

At the end of the fifth season, Mormon paterfamilias Bill Hendrickson got himself elected to the Utah State Senate. And then when he followed that with a public announcement of his polygamy it opened both a can of worms and a Pandora’s box. And now as the show approaches its last bow, the fallout surrounds him and his three wives and offspring, and it’s highly radioactive.

HBO is to be commended for its string of series that look at the modern American families through some very revealing prisms: the actual and criminal families of The Sopranos, the funeral home life of the Fishers with Six Feet Under, and now Big Love. Showtime followed its cue with Brotherhood, The Tudors and to some degree Californication.

Yep, we are no longer leaving it to Beaver when it comes to the American family as seen on premium cable channels. And the truly groundbreaking aspect of Big Love is that it brings to light alternative family structures. And does so in a context that is nonetheless quite traditional.

The Hendricksons are highly religious (if also schismatic within modern Mormonism) and adhere to old-school family values other than their polygamist structure. And even that is part of the Mormon tradition that the religion long ago abandoned as part of its mainstream, though it survives both on the show and in real life within the shadowy cults on their compounds, albeit in a very toxic atmosphere at odds with modern life. Bill Hendrickson believes that by “coming out” and bringing his relatively normal and healthy polygamist lifestyle into the light, he can integrate “the principle” of polygamy into the mainstream and end the abuses (such as underage and arranged marriage) found on the compounds.

He may have bitten off more than he and his brood can chew much less swallow and digest. Our society is already locked in a fever-pitch battle over gay marriage (as well as gay family adoptions and parenthood). To me it’s all a non-issue — any way that people can find a healthy and supportive familial union based on love that works is fine by me. The real issue is how any marriage and family can function positively in this complicated modern world.

Big Love, however, may well be the harbinger of an even greater hot button issue still to come: the very nature of what a marriage and family is beyond just a husband and wife dyad and their kids. In the outer realms of liberated sexuality, polyamory grows ever more common as a “lifestyle” choice. In the BDSM community — that’s Bondage/Discipline/Sadism/Masochism for all you more chaste, innocent and sheltered folks — there is what’s called “leather families” that group together and practice their dominant, submissive or combination of both roles.

To some this may seem shocking and highly objectionable. But the fact remains that such relationships exist. And just as on Big Love how the Mormon Church has never managed to erase its legacy of polygamy that it banned in order for Utah to gain statehood, these other familial structures do exist and are growing.

We can ignore them at society’s peril, I believe, and they need not be thought of as a threat to society, though such non-mainstream notions of marriage do raise major questions. Then again, so called traditional marriages and families aren’t in the healthiest state either. Or we can acknowledge and deal with them as a part of how some people choose to live.

As a leftist and progressive who likes to think of myself as truly liberal, I strive to dismiss no notion out of hand that doesn’t violate my morals, best defined as the Christian tenet as “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you,” even if I know that life and human nature and behavior is hardly that simple. And what may seem bizarre and even shocking if not objectionable may be less so once one looks beyond one’s preconceptions.

Any way that people can find truly healthy, nurturing and abiding true love is fine by me; again, maybe simplistic, but still a good starting point. While the Hendrickson family struggles with being public polygamists, all the “sister wives” are also seeking to define themselves as women in their own right beyond just their family roles. It all makes for a potent and revealing dramatic context. I remain on the edge of my chair to see just how Big Love wraps up its fascinating tale of one American family.

Rob Patterson is a music and entertainment writer in Austin, Texas. Email

From The Progressive Populist, March 1, 2011

News | Current Issue | Back Issues | Essays | Links

About the Progressive Populist | How to Subscribe | How to Contact Us

Copyright © 2011 The Progressive Populist
PO Box 819, Manchaca TX 78652