Polyamorous Love On The Big And Small Screen
Poly Is Trending And Multi-Person Romantic Entanglements Are Becoming TV Fodder.
Sex doesn’t have to take a central role in screen depictions of polyamory and non-monogamy but, as in real life, it certainly makes things more interesting. And given an estimated 20 percent of people have tried some form of ethical non-monogamy, around 70 percent have had an affair, and the rest of us are too scared to admit it, it’s no surprise multi-person romantic entanglements are becoming – albeit slowly – fodder for TV and filmmakers.
In a few short years, we’ve gone from the ‘Mormons-only’ polygamy storyline of Big Love, to the offhanded and non-defining non-monogamy of Ilana Glazer in Broad City. Refreshingly, Ilana isn’t a unicorn – a lover who falls into a relationship with an established couple in just the way that couple would want and named after a mythical creature for good reason.
Izzy, in You Me Her, billed as TV’s ‘first polyromantic comedy’ is one such creature. In falling hard for suburban Portland couple Jack and Emma, she allows ample space for the show’s writers to examine everything from coming out, to friends, neighbours and colleagues who just can’t understand why the loved-up ‘thruple’ has lost its collective mind. Which is to say, the monogamy narrative in TV land and elsewhere remains the default, with all others – queer, non-monogamous, asexual – the stuff of increasingly accepted (thanks world!) ‘other’.
In Unicornland, an eight-part webseries about divorcee Annie, the established straight and lesbian couples are clearly the dysfunctional ones, having domestics in her presence over how to tie bondage ropes and, incredibly awkwardly, describing unicorn Annie as a rarefied being who “deigns
to bestow her presence on mortals”. In Compersion, another superbly cast webseries crying out for big-budget adaptation, a married couple with children navigate the tricky terrain of one partner wanting more than the other can give, starting with the daunting first step: “I wanna try polyamory. […] It’s something like, ‘You’re my husband, but I can have a boyfriend too’.”
Refreshingly, Ilana isn’t a unicorn – a lover who falls into a relationship with an established couple.
Ramping up the drama – and steering clear of unicorns – Wanderlust follows parents Joy and Alan, who, beset by unresolved issues, open up their marriage only to realise N+1 isn’t necessarily the magic formula they were hoping for.
On the big screen, Woody Allen’s 2008 film Vicky Cristina Barcelona, remains something of a standard-bearer for straight-male non-monogamous fantasy thinking: two beautiful American women fall in love with an archetypical Latin lover, Juan Antonio, who remains in love with his gorgeous but unstable ex-wife, María Elena. Wouldn’t that be nice, men? (This is definitely not going to be your experience.)
Unicorns, meanwhile, enjoy a rare big-screen outing in the 2017 bio-drama Professor Marston and the Wonder Women in the shape of Wonder Woman creator William Marston and his (and wife Elizabeth’s) polyamorous life partner, Olive Byrne.
It’s maybe not surprising that otherwise heteronormative male-female couples with an impossibly compliant sex-kitten love interest have dominated in the first wave of non-monogamous TV and film, and that webseries and outlier free-to-air comedies such as Threesome (with its two-men-one-woman triad) are still notable exceptions. It’s almost as if too much ‘weirdness’ would blow our tiny minds.
But 2018’s Bohemian Rhapsody, for all its mixed reviews and rightful outrage at the near-erasure of Freddie Mercury’s queerness, does offer, very quietly, one of many polyamorous dynamics that deserve more screen attention, in the character of Mary Austin, who Mercury referred to as his “common-law wife”. In the film, as in reality, she exists not to the exclusion of other partners, but as a cherished source of mutual affection – the love, as the song goes, of Mercury’s life.