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Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Big Love holds no hatred for Mormons

The LDS church is not happy with the writers of HBO's Big Love, a fictitious show about a family of polygamists living in Utah. Apparently an episode of the current 3rd season features scenes in which the family's first wife, Barb, flashes back to memories of her days as a member of the Mormon church going through the temple rituals. Read the story about the controversial episode here.

I'm an avid fan of Big Love, because it's just good television. The characters and stories are deep and intriguing and rife with symbolism and cultural relevance. For a most excellent literary analysis of the show, check out B.R.'s free podcast over at Heteronormativity and Performativity. She does a much better job of talking up the virtues of the show than I ever could, and she's spot on. (And if you enjoy that podcast, make sure to subscribe to the Gendering the Media series, which is updated weekly.)

But one thing I want to say is that Big Love is most definitely not a negative portrayal of Mormonism, and it does not blur the lines between the LDS and FLDS churches. On the contrary, Mormons and the LDS church are portrayed in a rather favorable and respectful light, and the differences between mainstream and fundamentalist Mormonism are consistently impressed upon the viewer. Additionally, as a former Mormon and lifelong Utah resident, I can attest that the portrayals of Mormon belief and tradition in the show are pretty accurate. Every now and then there's something that's a little off, but you'd only really notice that if you had inside familiarity with the church.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the show, and one of the biggest draws, is that it is not a negative portrayal of polygamy, either. Instead, the show juxtaposes two different takes on the practice -- the extreme fundamentalist polygamists complete with prophet, pioneer style clothing, and 14 year old brides, versus the "mainstream" polygamists embodied by the Hendrickson family, a family of 3 wives, one husband, and many, many children that is just trying to eke out a living like the rest of us. Instead of painting a portrait of polygamy and Mormonism in black and white, the show is full of many shades of gray and color, and very little moral judgment is cast upon either the Hendrickson take on the practice of polygamy or on the belief system of the LDS church.

I wish the church could recognize that this show paints it very favorably. Besides, the temple ceremony has been all over the internet for years. I understand the desire to keep your beliefs sacred, but secret and sacred are not the same thing.

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26 comments:

Erin said...

Heck, I've known about this ceremony almost since I moved here. The person who told me did ask me never to reveal him, though.

And I heard that they changed it so there are no big white hats anymore (of course, it's a flashback on the show).

[sbg] said...

I love the show, I have been watching it for years. I've loved it for the same reasons you do: interesting characters and the inherent drama. I have defended the show for years against people who hadn't seen it but insisted on making claims about it. I was impressed by how tactfully and respectfully the writers handled the Mormon question. But... BUT... this, to me, seems like a disrespectful and unnecessary move on their part.

sov said...

The scene in question is being shown in a very respectful manner to the church. The "sacredness" of it is quite secure.

If anyone should be pissed about this, it's the Masons. The Mormon temple ceremony was at first a direct copy of the Mason ceremony. Over the years, it's changed I'm sure, but if Joseph Smith couldn't keep the VERY SECRET vows of the Freemasons sacred, then the church is nothing but hypocritical in this particular case.

Sra said...

And the can of worms has officially been opened...

[sbg] said...

:) worms...

For me it's not about sacredness. I don't believe anything is inherently sacred but sacredness comes from the person's attitude and belief. HBO and Big Love can't change that. For me it's an issue of respect. HBO and the writers of Big Love originally told the Church that they would avoid LDS scenes and themes out of respect, and they are backing out on that. Even though the sacredness is secure, it just doesn't seem like a nice thing to do. Is there a difference between Joseph Smith borrowing masonic symbolism for religious purposes and Big Love replicating LDS symbolism for financial purposes? I say yes and I bet some who aren't fans of the Church will say no, but this says more about our respective attitudes towards the Church than about the Big Love temple issue.

Sra said...

I can't really speak to the respect issue regarding the temple episode because I haven't seen it yet. I don't see the series until it's out on dvd, so I'm always a season behind.

Without having seen it, but knowing what the context is supposed to be, i.e., Barb's reminiscing on her past faith in light of her present, and the fact that Bill has said in past episodes that Barb "still misses LDS" (one of those things a real Mormon would phrase differently ;), my suspicion is that the temple scenes are intended to be respectful. Was it in poor taste? Possibly. But I don't thing any harm was meant by it.

SoMi's Nilsa said...

My husband and I used to watch the show and we really enjoyed it while we did (now, we've just moved onto watching other shows instead). And I cannot agree more with you about portraying polygamy in a positive light. Personally, I have nothing wrong with polygamy so long as it involves consenting adults. Consenting + adults being the key words there!

Sra said...

I agree, I have no problem with multiple consenting adults willingly entering into a relationship together. It's when 12yo's are forced to marry their 60yo uncle that I have a problem with it.

B.R. said...

Thanks for the mention, Sra!

Something very interesting is happening with the large-scale, social perceptions of the LDS faith. I do think that respect is owed to all who genuinely follow their faiths but many faiths are also representative of cultures and, in my mind, Big Love primarily depicts (and on some levels) exposes to the rest of the world the different versions of polygamy.
The West, not just the state of Utah, claims Mormonism as one of it culturally authentic contributions. I'd venture to say it's as West as Shulz' Starbucks up north.
Jokes aside, however, the more people in the country and the world learn about its diverse literary/cultural ramifications, the better.
For what better way for people to lean about one another than via fiction?
Isn't that what we primarily thank the Sumarians, Greeks, Romans, and Judeo-Christians for?

Sra said...

That's kind of how I see it, Big Love takes a taboo topic (polygamy) and turns it on its head, challenging your expectations.

Mormonism is very West indeed.

I'm of the mind that knowledge is never a bad thing. I actually think if Mormons were more open about their temple ceremonies, fewer members would find themselves astonished when they experience it for the first time. I've heard from quite a few former Mormons who were kind of jaded by the ceremony because it's unlike anything else you do in the church. I think if they knew what to expect, it wouldn't seem as weird.

Chino Blanco said...

Tom Hanks puts this brouhaha into perspective (and waxes prophetic) at the 3rd season premiere of Big Love:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=u7JgK_mmEBk

"There's gonna be lies, and secrets, and discoveries, and problems. Television!"

Sra said...

True that. But Hanks also called Mormons "un-American" for their support of Prop 8. While I vehemently opposed Prop 8 from the bleachers over in Utah, I think calling the Mormons un-American is a bit harsh. (And as B.R. pointed out, the culture is very authentically American.) Misguided is a better word, I think. But it's not just the Mormons on that issue. Times will change eventually and the entire country will come around to the fact that gays are entitled to no fewer rights than anyone else. But so far, the American position is anti-gay.

jess said...

i actually disagree with you just a little bit that mormons are portrayed favorably in the show. barb's family is portrayed as difficult, particularly her sister.

also, the neighbor who is kinda ditzy is seen as strange.

let's not forget the ward map, with stars by the homes where inactive people live. not exactly positive portrayal.

this is all in this season, which i realize you haven't seen yet. i think when you see season 3, you'll see that mormons aren't portrayed as nicely has they have been in the past.

sov said...

I actually disagree with the last comment a little bit. Especially in the episode where the Henricksons travel out to New York. There are a couple of scenes in particular where Bill is forced to defend his faith (the Mormon faith), regardless of being a PolygMo. It's true that Barb's BITCH of a sister is portrayed as difficult, but let's be honest... she is difficult. She hates Barb because of her choice of lifestyle, and pardon me if I'm offending anyone, but that's pretty much a staple of any religion to dislike and mistrust anything your leaders tell you is "wrong." Forgive me (or don't), but I think Big Love's portrayal of Cindy is spot-on and very realistic.

sov said...

I need to go back and clarify something about my last comment. The point was whether or not Mormons were being portrayed favorably. I kinda skewed off a little bit. I want to note that I think that Barb's sister is being portrayed REALISTICALLY, but not necessarily FAVORABLY. Sorry.

Sra said...

Yeah, I remember Barb's family from the second season, I believe. I agree with Sov that they are being portrayed realistically, and not necessarily favorably. But have you never known Mormons who ostracized family members who left the faith? It's not ideal, but it happens, and is realistic.

I've never actually seen a ward map with stars by the inactive members houses, but I do know that this information is monitored. It's not an unfair depiction. I don't see it as negative.

As to the neighbor, I assume you are talking about the red head. She is ditzy, strange, but a good person, and someone that Margie really likes as a friend. What's bad about that? You have to admit that Mormons are a peculiar people, as I believe Gordon B. himself once admitted.

What about Sarah's friend, whose name is escaping me -- the one who works at the diner with her? She is a strong Mormon character in the show. Although I do sense a little sexual tension between the two of them, which could make for some interesting television in the future if I'm sensing correctly.

Anyway, I think the show would be doing the Mormons a disservice if it tried to paint everything rosily. Instead, it tries to be realistic, and based on what I'm seen, it does a fine job.

sov said...

Sra, you need to come over and watch season 3 with me. I'm busting not having anyone to discuss it with.

[sbg] said...

Have you read what Robert Kirby says about this?

http://www.sltrib.com/ci_11898310?source=most_viewed

Sra said...

Sounds good, we'll have pizza, beer, and Big Love night. Bohemian Cherny Bock beer in a jug, methinks. Yay! Maybe we can do that this weekend. We'll talk.

Sra said...

[sbg]: I just read it. It's a pretty good take, I think. I like the last couple paragraphs.

B.R. said...

Human beings are imperfect, foible, full of pecadillos and in a constant journey of self-amelioration. In other words: worthy of story-telling.
Tell me one narrative out there that revolves around perfect characters and you'll most likely not find it.

What makes this show fundamentally interesting is not necessarily the subject matter but rather how it depicts different people's view of societal/religious structures within which they can express their love and commitment to one another and their chosen hierarchies.
The show is, after all, called Big Love.
I am finding the current season, mature, anxiety-filled, perturbing, i.e., the stuff of good story-telling.
Of course, when you mention an otherwise little known concept to the mainstream, one is bound to meet some level of resistance. And that is to be understood, too. It takes time to get used to being talked about, I suppose.
In sum, Sra, I got a note by a colleague of mine this week who teaches at UMass and she tells me that she is absolutely loving the show even though she knew basically nothing about its subject matter.

Sra said...

Way to put this discussion in perspective B.R. At the end of the day it's just good storytelling. And the main point isn't Mormonism or even polygamy but love.

feed the world with PEZ said...

I watched the scene last night and I can see why it would upset the LDS folk.

Ponder this, as a child you are given a present wrapped up in paper. You are not allow to open it until you graduate from high school. Lets now imagine that its your freshman year in high school. You have managed to not open this present for all these years and are just dieing to know whats in it. Then all of a sudden someone opens your present, may be a bully. Then tells you what it is and spoils it for you... I sort of see it as that. There is something sacred to you that is part of your initiation of your faith. Its meaningless to anyone else but it was important to you. You only get one life and now its somehow diminished. I can see how that would upset you.

I'm not sure why it was put into the show but I can imagine it wasn't completely needed to tell the story. On the other hand it is art and have the freedom to show it. Anyone that doesn't agree simply has the choice to not watch the show.

I see it as a lesson to all though. Gay rights are just as sacred to them as this ceremony it is the LDS faith. You can't poke your finger in the eye of another and then complain when someone pokes you as well...

Sra said...

This is a really good point, PEZ. I didn't really think of it as a right of passage, but in many ways that's what it is.

Still, I've heard from several exmos who were kind of freaked out by the ceremony when they first experienced it, since it really is nothing like anything else you do in the church. So maybe a little more heads up would be a good idea coming from the church.

I can understand your argument as to why having outsiders disclose it is not good, though.

Sra said...

Yeah, I remember Barb's family from the second season, I believe. I agree with Sov that they are being portrayed realistically, and not necessarily favorably. But have you never known Mormons who ostracized family members who left the faith? It's not ideal, but it happens, and is realistic.

I've never actually seen a ward map with stars by the inactive members houses, but I do know that this information is monitored. It's not an unfair depiction. I don't see it as negative.

As to the neighbor, I assume you are talking about the red head. She is ditzy, strange, but a good person, and someone that Margie really likes as a friend. What's bad about that? You have to admit that Mormons are a peculiar people, as I believe Gordon B. himself once admitted.

What about Sarah's friend, whose name is escaping me -- the one who works at the diner with her? She is a strong Mormon character in the show. Although I do sense a little sexual tension between the two of them, which could make for some interesting television in the future if I'm sensing correctly.

Anyway, I think the show would be doing the Mormons a disservice if it tried to paint everything rosily. Instead, it tries to be realistic, and based on what I'm seen, it does a fine job.

jess said...

i actually disagree with you just a little bit that mormons are portrayed favorably in the show. barb's family is portrayed as difficult, particularly her sister.

also, the neighbor who is kinda ditzy is seen as strange.

let's not forget the ward map, with stars by the homes where inactive people live. not exactly positive portrayal.

this is all in this season, which i realize you haven't seen yet. i think when you see season 3, you'll see that mormons aren't portrayed as nicely has they have been in the past.

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