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Polygamy on TV: Are the Portrayals Realistic?

Things you should discuss before marriageThings you should discuss before marriage

Polygamy has been one of society's greatest taboos. It is spoken in hushed words and very few people get an actual glimpse into the lives of polygamists. Television networks are aiming to change that with the introduction of a few shows and movies that attempt to blow the taboo lid off of polygamy. HBO's "Big Love" came first, and now TLC is weighing in with a reality show, a la "John and Kate Plus 8," that focuses on a polygamist family living in Utah. Lifetime has also weighed in with a movie about the wife of a polygamist called the "19th Wife."

HBO's "Big Love" takes viewers on a journey through the dramatic life of a polygamist family estranged from their fundamentalist group. The plot is further complicated by the excommunicated Bill Henrickson taking Nikki Grant, daughter of the group's prophet, as his second wife. The family is forced to live in seclusion for fear of public outcry. The portrayal touches on the difficulties the family and wives face in a very real way, however the dramatic nature of Bill's dealings with the UEB and the Juniper Creek Prophet, Roman, are highly dramatic and can be compared to the dramatization of mafia life in "The Sopranos."

TLC's "Sister Wives," a reality-based show that premieres Sunday Sept. 26 is a real-life look at how a polygamous family manages day-to-day life and their crusade to legalize polygamy. Unlike HBO's rendition of polygamy, TLC is taking a reality-based approach showing the true nature of a polygamist family and how religion plays into the mix. The family members are fundamentalist Mormons living and thriving in Utah. Maggie Furlong of TV Squad spoke with the family about their upcoming show. The family, which includes four wives and 13 children, said it aims to show the world that it is an average family, simply super-sized.

One of the greatest issues presented in fictionalized portrayals of polygamy is the emphasis on the religious aspect of the practice. Yes, polygamy is commonly used in fundamentalist religious groups and is worked into the value system of the religion in question, however polygamy and polyamorous relationships begin and flourish for a variety of reasons, and religious affiliation is often but not always involved.

David Barash, in his essay "Deflating the Myth of Monogamy," argues that humans may never have been designed to be monogamous to begin with. According to Barash, "the intense sexual jealousy and competitiveness among human beings strongly suggest that adultery has a long history in our species. (Why would our biology have outfitted us with such traits if utter fidelity were the rule?)" If monogamy were the rule and not the exception, then jealousy would simply not exist. He argues that men, specifically, are hardwired to take on polygamous relationships in an attempt to spreed their seed. The basis is biological more than it is religious. The shows that touch on polygamy on television now emphasize the religious basis of polyamorous relationships far more than probably necessary. True polygamy is part of fundamentalist Mormon protocol, however they are not the only ones who practice it. At its most basic definition, anyone who cheats is theoretically in an open or polyamorous relationship. In the case of a "cheater," the other party is simply not aware or simply has not granted permission for the act.

So is television portraying polygamy in a neutral and correct light? Probably not, but that's not what most of these shows focusing on the practice are about. They are about entertainment value and should not be treated as a real-life look into polygamy just as "The Sopranos" should not be considered a realistic portrayal of mafia life nor should "Entourage" be looked at as a true rendition of what life at the top of Hollywood's food chain is like. Those looking to explore the true nature of polygamy are better off checking out some documentaries.