As the HBO series comes to a close, a look at how the show's three wives have wrestled with different aspects of feminism
The hallmark of Big Love is its ability to dive into modern social issues that are seemingly beyond the scope of the Utah polygamist family at its center. One of the show's creators said on a HBO featurette about the series, "There was something almost a little bit retro, you know, '50s American suburban family about the Henricksons and I think we were turning that idea on its head a little bit."
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Mormon fundamentalist Alby's homosexuality—and the self-loathing surrounding his inability to control it—became a key element in the series, and the Henrickson's eldest daughter, Sarah (Amanda Seyfried), also revealed the struggles of encountering an unplanned pregnancy.
And in the show's final season, which ends Sunday, each of the three wives has experimented with an individual brand of feminism.
Barb (Jeanne Tripplehorn) expressed her take on feminism when, early on in the season, she began taking a dance class and told her husband Bill (Bill Paxton) that she believed she, too, was a "priesthood holder" in their religion. The desires Barb expresses are similar to those of second-wave feminists. She asks to be recognized as an equal within the family and doesn't see why her gender should stand in the way of an equal place within the church. Near the end of the season, she decides to attend another church, the Reformed Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, in which women can serve as bishops.
There are also literal references to second-wave feminism; when Barb visits her mother, Nancy (Ellen Burstyn), she asks about her role campaigning for the Equal Rights Amendment in the early 1970s. We learn that Nancy worked to bring First Lady Betty Ford to Utah to campaign for the ERA, but the LDS church, which opposed the ERA, canceled the appearance. The audience sees vintage news footage of Ford in the campaign. Barb even bequeaths a copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves, a second-wave feminist touchstone, to the Nicki's teenage daughter, Cara Lynn (Cassi Thomson).
Meanwhile, Nicki (Chloë Sevigny) encounters feminism in a significantly different way than Barb does. Much of the way Nicki acts is reflective of the backlash feminists experienced in the 1980s. She is insistent on the fact that men and women's roles within the family are separate, and that the sister wives must be subservient to Bill.
Still, Nicki has her own strength. Throughout the series, Nicki is competent in household repair duties and in season three, she secretly goes to the gynecologist to get a prescription for birth control. She desires control over her body even while she simultaneously insists that women's roles are to be mothers and wives.
Furthermore, Nicki wants her daughter to have a better life than she did. She pushes Cara Lynn to excel at math, something her daughter shows a talent for. In many ways, Nicki enjoys the benefits of second-wave feminists—legal access to birth control and a good education for her daughter—yet she loudly reinforces traditional gender roles. Nicki seems offended by Barb's proclamation about the priesthood and shames Cara Lynn for a sexual relationship she starts with her older male math teacher. Instead of explaining why the relationship is inappropriate, Nicki places all blame on Cara Lynn's exploration of her sexual desires.
But Nicki show signs of change over the course of the show. She pushes for Bill to propose legislation for something called Safety Net, a program of protection for women who seek to leave polygamist communities and connects them with state-sponsored services like welfare and subsidized housing. In an episode near the end of the season, Nicki, despite her distain for traditional feminism, even declares, "I am an advocate for the rights of women who cannot defend themselves!"
Margene (Ginnifer Goodwin) has a perspective on feminism that is reflective of many modern women's struggles with gender roles. She feels pulled in multiple directions. In the current season, after being forced out of her job at the show's QVC-equivalent, she buys into a multi-level marketing scheme called Goji Juice in hopes of regaining her financial autonomy. She was proud of her identity as a savvy and independent businesswomen; losing that crushed her. Near the beginning of the season, Margene is in despair and she finds solace in Jewel's "Who Will Save Your Soul?" The song's lyrics are meant to be a metaphor for Margene's loss and desperation.
It's also very important to Margene to satisfy her husband and be a good mother to their three children. Much of her role throughout the series is to be the friend of the family's teenage children, the pleasing third wife, and a peace-maker between Barb and Nicki. In many ways, Margene tries to be all things to all people, struggling to be perfect in every way—and failing. Margene, in other words, struggles to have it all.
As the final season plays out, it becomes increasingly clear that Margene feels she can't, and slowly realizes she must give up her new career with Goji Juice to save her family. For Margene, she can have her family or she can have her career, but she can't have both.
Each of the wives deals with the different schools of thought within feminism in ways that roughly align with their ages. The three tell the generational story of feminism, albeit in broad and heavily stereotyped ways.
What's interesting about the expressions of feminism is that they are happening within a family structure where the husband/father is at the center as the authority.
But despite the restrictions of polygamy, feminism has manifested itself anyway. The message is that no matter the environment, no matter how much the structure is anti-feminist, fights over gender politics will come up. And no matter the structure of the family, such struggles aren't ever easy to resolve.