Is Big Love More Feminist than Barbie?

(Dedicated to my sparkling little feminist, my niece Lexi)

Okay, before you jump down my throat, I loved the Barbie movie. I appreciated Greta Gerwig’s and Margot Robbie’s deft and honest handling of the toy’s patchy record with female empowerment, and the visual spectacle that brought me right back to playing with my own Barbies in my homemade, cardboard cut-out version of her Dream House. The woman, the feminist, and the girl in me were all satisfied.

But it just so happens that I’m rewatching the HBO series Big Love right now, and I’ve got to say that it strikes chords that Barbie just can’t. Whether it’s because of the show’s length or its intended audience, Barbie doesn’t or couldn’t savor the complexity of actually standing in the shoes of a woman struggling with her feminism. Except briefly, in my favorite scene, where Robbie, face down in Astroturf, bemoans that either you’re brainwashed or you’re weird, Barbie is fairly certain and undaunted in her feminist mission. I wish it were that simple.

If you haven’t seen it, the conceit of Big Love is that Bill, played by Bill Paxton, is both seeking to both run from his past on a fundamentalist Mormon compound and toward becoming the scion of a renewed polygamist Mormon church. His first and legal wife, Barbara – played by Jeanne Tripplehorn – is a devout mainstream Mormon whose cancer brings Nicky – played by Chloë Sevigny – into the home as nursemaid and eventually second wife. Third wife Marge, played by Ginnifer Goodwin, is the result of an affair that Bill had with his underage employee. They and their nine children live in three adjacent houses, the backyards of which connect, on a quiet street in Sandy, Utah, a suburb of Salt Lake City. 

I was born into a prominent LDS family in Utah, though I always existed outside of it because I am both half-Asian and full-Buddhist. My memories of my Mormon grandparents are sweet and warm, but also tinged with bitterness because of the strict patriarchy and subtle racism that sat like low ground fog throughout my interactions with them. When I watched Big Love for the first time, in the early naughts, I was in my twenties, freshly graduated from college, and tickled by the authenticity of the show. I remarked on how my grandmother had that lamp and those glasses, and how she too pronounced her “ahs” as though they contained an r, so Washington came out “Warshington.”

Viewing it the second time, in my late forties, I am astonished at the bravery of these women. Having been raised surrounded by that level of patriarchy – where women are born and taught only to be wives and mothers, where fathers, husbands and sons hold priesthood authority over their women, where women have no direct access to either God or earthly power – I can attest to how hard it is to protest or even catch a glimpse of a different perspective. I have struggled with having only one foot in this world. But the women in Big Love, fully immersed and bought into this ideology, raise hell like I couldn’t imagine.

Barbara starts the series by handing over her paycheck to Bill because he demands it, later to discover that he’s turned around and bought Marge a car with the money. ** SPOILER ALERT ** She ends the series divorced from Bill, though still attached to her plural marriage, and claiming her own priesthood authority, with or without Bill’s assent.

Second wife Nicky, the daughter of compound leader and self-proclaimed prophet Roman Grant, has actually fallen in love with Bill after flirting with infidelity, become his legal wife, and announced that she wants him all to herself.

Third wife Marge, who entered the marriage a 16-year-old babysitter of Bill’s children, now has discovered her passion and thriving talent for sales and has launched three successful businesses, all while raising three children of her own. 

They each struggle with their own version of needing to buck against patriarchy, and they each fall down dramatically along the way. There is very little certainty; we are privy to all the waffling and searching, begging for signs and sudden outbursts of messy inner lives. We also witness the little markers of progress, the small triumphs that subtly, inch by inch, pave each character’s path. 

I find comfort in that. I find comfort in looking at my journey as imperfect yet uniquely mine, as paved equally with deep potholes and glimmering gold bricks. I think feminism is messy; everyone’s version looks different and no one’s path is straight and flawless. Feminism is a thousand little choices, made one after another. I’m deeply moved by Big Love’s embracing of that. 

When Roxane Gay wrote Bad Feminist, she spoke to the ways in which feminism has been burdened by a perception that it has to be one thing. It does not. It does not have to be pink and #girlboss like Stereotypical Barbie. We are learning a new way of being: feminism is nothing other than equality in action, and we are all still deeply in the process of outgrowing patriarchy. If Barbie teaches us anything, it’s that even a plastic doll can evolve.

My version of feminism, at the moment, is 60-miles-an-hour, chaotic and a bit Joan Jett – I think I’d be Weird Barbie in the movie. It hasn’t always been that way, and there were definitely times when I wanted to be anything but weird. But I’m okay with it now because it’s the result of a deeply human and sincere process – one laid, like the arcs of the characters in Big Love, brick by faulty brick.

There is one place on which Big Love and Barbie are absolutely aligned, and that is sisterhood. Ultimately, all the women in both shows are buoyed by each other, able to call on each other in their darkest, most lonely moments, present for each other in ways that Bill and Ken simply cannot be. 

May that be the case for all of us, sisters. 

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