Recently, I finally got around to watching all 7 episodes of season 1 of Polyamory: Married and Dating, Showtime’s polyamory reality show. Given that this show is (potentially) pretty huge with regard to public perception and awareness of poly relationships, I think it’s worth a blog post. But just as a head’s up, I’m condensing my thoughts on all 7 episodes into one post here, and I’m not going to spend my time doing a recap on every episode, so bear with me if it’s a little jumbled. I do recommend checking out the show for yourself if you haven’t already, both because it is worth watching and because it will probably make my rambling here seem a lot more coherent.
To offer a bit of a summary before I move on to some of the finer points, though, overall I have to say this show is a good thing. I don’t know what the ratings were like, but I can only imagine that at least a reasonable number of people now know that polyamorous relationships exist thanks to the show. And unless it portrayed poly folks in a simply awful light, I think that any amount of increased awareness is a meaningful thing.
Of course, there’s always a disparity between what’s accurate and what makes for good TV. No one in the entire series played Dominion or Settlers of Catan even once, so I can’t say it’s a completely accurate portrayal of the life of the typical poly family. But all joking (mostly) aside, I present a list of my likes and dislikes about the show, in no particular order.
Things I didn’t like:
There’s a lack of diversity. And I mean an absolute lack. I know that poly communities do struggle with this in reality, but the lack of people of color is not nearly as absolute in real life poly world as it is on the show. The entire cast is white, able-bodied, cisgendered, thin and conventionally attractive. There are bi women (which is hot, right?) but no lesbians or gay/bi men, and everyone adheres pretty closely to gender norms as far as their appearances are concerned. It’s not exactly shocking that the show would be cast this way, especially with regard to the attractiveness of the participants. But I still reserve the right to complain about it. Even the poly potluck on the show included pretty much only gorgeous people as far as I could tell; I wonder if there were more normal looking humans present who just didn’t get camera time, or if there’s just some superspecies of genetically superior polyfolk in California.
Some of the rules present bothered me, in both situations. That’s more personal preference than a real criticism of what the folks on the show are or aren’t doing, but it wasn’t entirely relatable for me. And I do have a big criticism of one cast member accusing his wife of not being poly for not wanting to share her girlfriend with him. Poly doesn’t mean anyone is entitled to sex with anyone, not even partners’ partners. If people have an agreement that includes that entitlement, cool. Discuss that. But your personal, specific agreement doesn’t make something a necessary ingredient of poly. Polyamory = “many loves,” not “many loves who necessarily must be permitted to hook up with each other.” Enact whatever rules work for your family, but don’t play the “my way of doing poly is the best” game.
There’s a lot of group sex. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but I think the fact that the sex in the show is almost exclusively threesomes and foursomes and moresomes–and those who are seen having one-on-one sex are cast members who also frequently are shown participating in group sex–seems to fuel the misconception that this is what all poly folks are doing. Plenty do have group sex, for sure. But I would say that it’s equally common, if not more common, to be in relationships of the V (or N or W or some kind of zig-zagging line) variety, in which people have multiple partners but the sex still happens only between two individuals at a time. I know Showtime is trying to sensationalize the group sex here, but it would have been nice for the sake of balance if the show had included a poly relationship that didn’t include threesomes or foursomes, since that’s the reality for a lot of us. And speaking of sex…
There’s a lot of attention given to sex in general. Which is cool; sex is a fantastic and normal part of our lives and relationships. But I feel like if the amount of time we see people naked in bed on the show compared to the amount of time we see them doing other things was actually a representative ratio, these people would win awards for most sex ever and they definitely wouldn’t have time for things like jobs or hobbies (maybe that’s why they never play Dominion). I don’t mean to be sex-negative here, and I actually think most of the sex scenes were quite tastefully filmed and edited. And of course I’m not at all surprised that Showtime would want a lot of fun sexy naked time on the show. I just know that people in general tend to hyper-focus on the sex lives of poly people rather than considering our relationships, and the show didn’t do much to discourage that kind of thinking.
Things I liked:
The relationships were all serious, long term, and committed between more than two partners. When I heard the subtitle “Married and Dating,” I had the awful vision of a show that focused only on married couples who were still subscribing to a fairly mono-normative central partnership paradigm and seeking only casual relationships outside of their marriages. That’s a fine arrangement for the people who want it, but it would hardly seem like an accurate view of polyamory. The two groups on the show, however, are a triad and a quad, both groups living and planning futures together. Members of both families had lovers outside of their live-in partners, but the focus was definitely more on the dynamics of the partners living together under the same roof.
It was nice to see some obviously leftist poly folks in the cast, as I feel like a lot of the poly people who appear in the media aren’t really engaging with radical politics. The triad on the show had Occupy posters all over their house, and on several occasions spoke of their lifestyle as revolutionary and compared it to other social movements. They certainly saw their own commitment ceremony as a revolutionary act, beyond simply one of personal significance.
Rather than only focusing on the drama within the relationships (of which there admittedly was plenty), the show also tackled obstacles that are facing poly people living in a monogamous world. The topic of coming out was dealt with somewhat extensively, and a lot of the on-camera interview time with various cast members focused on advocating for the acceptance of poly relationships. I really appreciated–and was surprised–that the show actually placed polyamory in a social context, rather than sticking strictly to interpersonal dynamics and dramas. I will say that the coming out scenes felt a little unrealistically smooth to me, though; I was applauding all the warm fuzzy parental approval while at the same time thinking that even my super awesome and accepting and open-minded parents would probably be a bit hesitant if I told them I was actually going to marry my other partner.
Bisexuality in poly is directly addressed when one member of the triad says that as a bisexual woman, monogamy would inherently close off part of her sexuality. I think a lot of folks are reluctant to talk this way about bisexuality and poly so as not to give the (false) impression that it’s impossible for bi men or women to choose monogamy. But while plenty of bi folks do happily settle down with one partner, many others do feel that it’s more authentic to have the freedom to maintain relationships with both men and women. And that should be embraced as a healthy, positive motivation for desiring a polyamorous relationship.
The triad on the show formed organically. There’s sort of an in-joke in poly circles about “the unicorn” or “the hot bi babe,” because so many couples initially enter into poly saying “we want a girlfriend, we’re looking for a sexy woman who wants to date both of us.” Of course, this works out on occasion, but generally it’s difficult enough to date individually, let alone as a couple who wants that same spark to exist for both of them. Most successful triads I’ve heard about developed in a more fluid way than this, and the triad on the show is no exception; their third member was a long time friend, maid of honor in their wedding, and became the wife’s lover before becoming physically intimate with the husband.
There were a lot of happy, positive moments. While of course any reality show is going to be edited with a bias toward showcasing the tense, dramatic moments, there were also ample opportunities to observe happy and harmonious moments within both poly families. That’s something most people have seldom–if ever–been exposed to.
I’m sure I’m forgetting some things in both categories here, but I’ll say again that my bottom line opinion is that the show is a good thing for us. Any mass media portrayal of a misunderstood and underrepresented group is likely to be problematic in some ways, especially when the media in question is the hyper dramatic reality show. But I’m going to go out on a limb and say that this portrayal of poly folks could be a whole lot worse, and is a lot better than being invisible. If I’m not mistaken, there’s going to be a second season; I’ll admit I’m a little bit excited to see what’s next.