Can polygamists be feminists? It’s a brave new world; if Barack Obama can grace the cover of Ms. magazine under the phrase “This is what a feminist looks like,” why not slap the label on Big Love’s multiple wives?
Okay, sure, they’re not your garden-variety feminists, and no bra-burning wing of the movement would have this crew of conservative, not-exactly-Mormon wives. But the multiwife marriage here is a symptom—not the cause—of the toxicity in their lives. The HBO drama has never been more focused on bernurturer Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn), bristly fundamentalist Nikki (Chlo Sevigny) and desperately clingy Margene (Gennifer Goodwin), and it’s hardly a portrait of victimhood. The third season follows the three wives as they show flashes of self-awareness Betty Friedan would applaud (well, maybe).
In the third season pilot, Barb stared down a possible cancer flare-up, and now continues to reclaim authority in her marriage (of course, in true Big Love fashion, that’s done by overseeing her husband’s acquisition of a fourth wife). And what feminist isn’t fascinated by Nikki, the religious extremist who just happens the be the most practical member of the clan? In this season’s second episode, her tortured embrace of contraception was a frank illustration of the modern woman’s dilemma—even if the extrafamilial goals this particular woman pursues are more nefarious than noble. The season promises further drama as Nikki faces the fact that her beloved prophet father trafficked in the innocence of young girls, including her own. On the third-wife front, a family death may cause Margene to finally exhaust her well of emotional neediness, and she’s demanding a role in the family business.
And that’s just the wives. Big Love also gives us world-weary, pregnant daughter Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), the only one who grasps their screwy situation, and Mary Kay Place as a power-mad prophet’s wife who knows that the cult doesn’t run itself. Can even Rhonda (Daveigh Chase), the child bride with a sociopathic streak, teach us anything about feminism? What about cranky plural-wife Lois? Sure; their clumsy attempts at manipulating men, boys and prophets alike are a stark lesson in how feminine power erupts when it’s hog-tied and repressed.
Patriarch Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton) is constantly mewling about whether he’s a good man, but it’s clearly not the basic question of Big Love. Are Barb, Nikki and Margene good women? Can they raise them,, andan an off-the-compound head case ever become one? The answer we get is “maybe” —and that’s why we continue to hang around with this harem.