Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

"Proud Mormon Polygamist": Assimilation, Popular Memory, and the Mormon Churches in Big Love

Academic journal article Journal of Religion and Popular Culture

"Proud Mormon Polygamist": Assimilation, Popular Memory, and the Mormon Churches in Big Love

Article excerpt

The branding of Big Love, HBO, and the Mormon Church creates an intricate backdrop for the positioning of Big Love and polygamy into the tapestry of television history and popular memory. Television contributes to national popular discourse, and Big Love is a pivotal text for both the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) and the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (FLDS) in their struggle for assimilation into American culture. There are three Mormon subcultures in different positions in the assimilation process, as seen in television programming, media, and branding. The official LDS Mormon Church is currently positioned as an assimilated or normalized group within American society, through programming like Big Love (HBO, 2006-2011) and Sister Wives (TLC, 2010-present), while the polygamous FLDS "prairie dress" compounds are rejected by American society. However, modern suburban polygamists, members of an emerging third Mormon subculture, are struggling on the edge of assimilation in these programs and in society. The conflict surrounding the assimilation of the official Mormon Church and FLDS polygamy into American mainstream culture is fought on television screens, branding campaigns, and the evolving popular memory they participate in.

Over the course of the program's run, Big Love has created extensive recurring representations of polygamist Fundamentalist Latter-day Saints and the Mormon Latter-day Saints, a first in American television history. Big Love is a distinctive component of a larger social discourse in which Mormons have been rejected by American culture and relegated to running jokes; the polygamist FLDS Church has been criminalized and ostracized socially. (1) Members of the LDS or the official Mormon Church are depicted as part of "normalized" society in Big Love, which contributes to the shifting popular memory of the official Mormon Church from subaltern to an assimilated part of American hegemonic culture.

The secular-created and popular media text Big Love follows the life of Bill Henrickson (Bill Paxton); his three wives, Barbara (Jeanne Tripplehorn), Nicolette Grant (Chloe Sevigny), and Margene Heffman (Ginnifer Goodwin); and their collective nine children. The program also includes representations of FLDS compound life at Juniper Creek with the prophet and Nicolette's father Roman Grant (Harry Dean Stanton), his sixth wife and Nicolette's mother, Adaleen Grant (Mary Kay Place), and her brother, Alby (Matt Ross), among others. Representations of the LDS Mormon Church include the Henricksons' monogamous neighbours, Pam (Audrey Wasilewski) and Carl Martin (Carlos Jacott), and Barbara's mother, Nancy Dutton (Ellen Burstyn), and sister, Cindy Dutton-Price (Judith Hoag). The variety of Mormon representations from traditional FLDS "prairie dress" polygamists to modern suburban polygamists and monogamous LDS couples creates a spectrum of cultures in various positions in the assimilation process.

HBO's Big Love is in its fifth and final season. The first three seasons of the show primarily tackle religious issues between the two official churches depicted on the show: the LDS and the FLDS. These issues include Barb's excommunication from the LDS Mormon Church for the practice of polygamy; under-age marriage; and the "lost boys" of polygamist Juniper Creek. In the fourth and fifth seasons, the show has taken a decidedly political bent with Bill running and winning a state senate seat. The last season of Big Love positioned the Henrickson family as battling for civil and political rights for polygamists. Throughout the season, Bill fights for his senate seat, considers and rejects "closed door" deals, and eventually, in the series finale, inserts legalization of plural marriage into the state legislative agenda.

According to Lynn Spigel, "popular memory" is the history of the present created by popular media and society's interpretation of the culture around them. …

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