Online Reactions to Polyamory: Married and Dating

Coverage of the social media explosion on Showtime's new reality show, Polyamory: Married & Dating.

A list of all of our episode reviews can be found here!

Since Polyamory: Married and Dating premiered a little over three weeks ago, I've been monitoring the online response to the series. The show has generated a lot of chatter-- response has been widespread, incredibly active, and pretty diverse.

As you may have seen in my reviews of episodes 1 and 2, I've already linked some related blog posts that I found; I also monitored Twitter for mentions of the show (by following the Polyamory and #Polyamory feeds) and Tumblr (under the tags for polyamory and the show's title). It took a bit of digging to find all the blog posts. Some were promoted on Twitter, but others were only mentioned in the comments of other blog posts.

It's a bit of a challenge to categorize the entire volume of public response, but the more I researched, the more it seemed to fall into 3 easy categories: the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (apologies to Sergio Leone).

 

The Good

Quite a few responses for the show have been positive.   

 

Deborah Anapol, who some consider as one of the co-founders of the modern polyamory movement, wrote an extensive article for Psychology Today detailing her views on the show.

In the ‘80’s, ‘90’s and into the early 2000’s, I appeared on a lot of television talk shows and a few documentaries, mostly as an expert on polyamory, but I don’t have any experience at all with reality TV which has only taken off in recent years, apart from watching a few episodes of the most popular shows and talking with a half dozen producers over the years who thought that a reality TV series on polyamory would be a big hit.

None of those conversations ever led to a show getting on the air so far as I know, although a few pilots were shot and at least one contract signed. So it’s quite a breakthrough to see Polyamory: Married and Dating airing on Showtime after all these years. I’m very happy about it, and would love to be a creative consultant on a polyamory sitcom or movie some day. Now I need to make it very clear that I am not involved in any way with Showtime’s polyamory show, but I do know the San Diego cast and their community quite well. And I do have a bit to do with the existence of the San Diego community in particular and the national and global polyamory communities in general.

With all those qualifiers in place, I’ll say that Polyamory: Married and Dating is a far better portrayal of polyamory than I feared, and not so good as I had hoped, judging from the first episode, which aired July 12.

 

 

Brian from Team Triad also wrote an in-depth, balanced review of the show. Some of the excerpts are as follows:

The producers of Polyamory: Married and Dating were presented with a considerable challenge for their opening act;  how to, in 30 minutes, not only introduce viewers to polyamory for likely the first time, but also introduce us to two established poly families, provide us with something more than a glimpse into their lives, and show us the unique trials and triumphs of those living a polyamorous lifestyle.  Despite those challenges, they got a lot of it right. ...

...The show is played out in typical reality show fashion.  We're a fly on the wall, spying in on the day-to-day lives of both families.  The producers frequently cut to studio interviews with families members as they candidly recount their thoughts and feelings of the experience as the drama is happening.  Not surprisingly given the tight schedule, editing is extremely fast paced, and important decisions seem to get vetted in mere minutes of conversation, with the focus of the editing being on the greatest points of friction.

 

Gawker also published a review of the series so far:

The "mind your own business" mindset gets complicated when those involved make their private lives public. But then, the lives portrayed here are perfectly suited for the format. Reality TV typically forces its participants to examine themselves closely... At the very least, those on reality TV are made to sit through marathon interviews picking apart the nuances of their behavior and its motivation. Never have I seen a situation that naturally fits this format as well as that of Showtime's currently airing... With their intricate configuration, these people would have to openly and routinely examine their and their partners' emotional situations, with or without cameras pointed at them. The show was already going on...

...While the show illustrates the emotional complications and possible turmoil that result from loving more than one person, it humanizes those involved to a degree that we've never seen. It is at once a cautionary tale and an argument for the freedom to participate in these kinds of living/loving situations. As such, it is as complicated, strange, hilarious and involving as these situations clearly are themselves.

Receiving early positive reviews from both the mainstream media AND some of the more influential members of the movement is definitely good news. But what about the bad reviews?

 

 

The Bad

A lot of people commented about the level of drama in the show:

 

Others (mistakenly) took the on-screen drama as being normal within polyamory:

 

In an initial review of the show, the Jane Doe Writing Project assumes the drama is due to the cast:

Showtime definitely went the, “sex sells” route with episode one, but that street will come to a dead-end fast. This is a good thing for those who live the polyamory lifestyle because they will see what normal poly relationships are like outside of the bedroom. (yes, “normal”- ups and downs like any monogamous relationship) However, it could be a bad thing for the population in general who are tuning in to learn more about this alternative lifestyle because Showtime did not, in my opinion, pick the two most stable groups to follow. But, I guess drama is their thing.

Pearls and Pentagrams had similar comments about the show's drama and the behaviors of the characters:

Expecting a realistic reference for polyamory from reality television would be like taking parenting classes from 18 Kids and Counting or however many they’re up to now.  In any case, what I managed to give myself was a double dose of WTF and healthy side of assurance that even on our most human days Hubby and I are not as far behind the curve as it sometimes seems...

The initial group, a triad, clearly had some issues with jealousy that are being glossed over and sugar-coated with rules.  I want to write them a letter telling them that what they’re looking for is a house slave, not a girlfriend. [AUTHOR'S NOTE: viewers keep mixing up who is the wife and who is the girlfriend. This is disccused further in the section on Stereotypes.]... [They] berate her and whine about her being insensitive about their feelings while telling her she had to back off from someone she loved without seeming to care about her feelings?  I was angry for her, honestly...My tertiary concern is for the boyfriend and his perception of polyamory because of the actions of Lindsey’s partners.

Comments like these also make me want to encourage people to read my end remarks about the truth behind "reality" tv.  I saw posts on Twitter that bashed Vanessa and Anthony. I refuse to post them for two reasons: First, the majority of tweets I found that referenced them were pretty brutal. Second, I consider the two of them (the whole cast, actually) pretty brave for stepping forward and being "out" to the world.  What we see on the screen are all caracatures created through filmmaking, and not necessarily who they are in real life.

(I'm not sure whether or not the aforementioned blogger has approached the triad regarding her views. In my upcoming interview of the triad, I'll cover how the poly community and mainstream have reacted to them personally as a response of how they were portrayed on the show.)

Instead of focusing on the cast, Brian's review discusses how the editing style could influence public perception:

...With strong communication being such a cornerstone of successful polyamorous relationships, the editing style doesn't accurately relate to us all of the conversation that is happening in the cracks... I fear much of the non-polyamorous audience will be left feeling that their judgments of polyamory will be justified by the narrow cross-section of the action being played out.

...This focus on intense drama, followed by group sexual situations, was definitely cause for concern.  It only reinforces the inaccurate notion that polyamorous relationships are only ever tracking the pendulum between fireworks fueled by pain and jealousy on one side, and fireworks fueled by unfettered sexuality on the other.

 

 

The Ugly

Actually, these responses aren't really "ugly"-- they're the most "OMG/WTF" responses, both from the mainstream and within the community.

 

It's Not About The Sex (Except on TV)

 

 I wasn't surprised at the number of negative comments about sexuality in the show (or that one entertainment website titled their piece "Meet the Swinging Stars of Polyamory: Married and Dating"). We live in a culture that has rather messed up views when it comes to sex and pleasure. Sex is also a touchy topic (no pun intended) within the poly community. As our movement established itself during the past few decades, many worked to differentiate polyamory from swinging by emphasizing emotions and romance over sex.

Bonobo Meme Pic

Some bloggers are quick to point out that the use of sex within the show is similar to the sexual/social dynamics of bonobos (the "unofficial mascot" of the polyamory and sex-positive movements. [KIDDING!]).  For those who aren't familiar, bonobos are a non-monogamous species of chimpanzee that uses sex as a means of smoothing over conflict and forming social bonds. While those familiar with bonobos may be able to pick up on the nuances on how sex framed within the show, I fear that most of the mainstream audience will simply dismiss it as softcore porn.

 

 

The other objection that I saw - both in Twitter as well as in blogs - was Devin's presence on the show.  Some feel that it is inappropriate for Devin to have been filmed in a "soft core porn".

My response to this? Please... They didn't have Devin present during the sexual scenes of the show (they even say he's at Grandma's). They also keep the discussion with Devin age-appropriate by telling him that they're asking for their friends to move in together. The reason that it's a "big deal" to have a child on the reality show is because of our own internal and cultural beliefs about open sexuality being taboo. These types of reactions further the Madonna/Whore dichotomy by saying that we as an audience can't simultaneously see Kamala as both a loving mother and a sexual being.

 

Stereotypes

Needless to say, people in the poly community who fall more on the mainstream end of the spectrum are a little annoyed. Here's anpther excerpt from the Jane Doe Writing Project:

Let’s imagine it’s the first time a minority will be broadcast on television. We’ll start with gays. The first ever episode features gay men who are all flamboyant, colorful dresser, with high-pitched voices who love to shop. Another first time show featuring African Americans. The show focuses on a fried-chicken eating, baggy pants wearing, all day cussing black family drinking B&J like it’s water.

Now imagine you’re apart of either of those groups. Wouldn't you be a little upset that the first ever truly public display of your minority is represented by the most common and least favorable stereotypes? Even if you have friends/family just like the ones you’re watching and you love them to no end! You love them, but maybe it wasn’t wise for them to represent the entire, “I’m gay and I’m proud” community.

I feel that way about the couples on Showtime’s, Polyamory: Married & Dating. I’m sure they are great people, but wow! Way to feed into every, “poly people are sex driven, free love, hippy-types, with more drama in the relationship than it’s worth,” stereotype.

Later in her post, the author ponders why the more extreme examples of polyamorists were picked. The answer to that lies in the nature of the film & television industry: More mainstream-appearing polyamorists are too boring (more on that shortly).

The most common response to the stereotypes presented? Of course, comedy and satire. The blog blackleatherbelt really plays up the stereotypes by using terms like "The Unicorn Corral" to discuss the FMF triad.  Most polyamorists are familiar with the "unicorn" trope--the hot bi babe dates (and is ultimately anchored down by) an established male-female couple.  The writer (along with myself and a few others) was confused when this trope was altered: the wife's (not girlfriend's) outside love interest was the source of drama and jealousy. The confusion of who's who becomes a source of humor in the second episode review. If you want an alternative to my almost TL;DR-length reviews, I highly recommend this one. The posts are hilarious and peppered with My Little Pony and LOLCat type pics.

Grantland, a sports and comedy website, also published a satirical article about what they "learned" from the tv series. They take jabs at the show's fixation with sex scenes, bi babes, drama, and a watered down image of Tantra (references to the Namaste section of Pier 1 and "channeling energy").

if you're a polyamorist dude, be prepared to share your razors and other personal care items, because gendered objects are so mono.

They even made light of the pokes at monogamy.

There have also been a few non-satirical/snarky comments questioning why the cast is exclusively white and cisgender. We don't know how their casting process worked, or whether they did a casting call or if they partnered with an organization like the Polyamory Media Association to identify candidates for their show. But it's true it doesn't do anything to dispel the all-too-common stereotype that polyamory is "a white thing."

Potentially Alienating to Monogamists

 

In my reviews, I've noted the excerpts and phrases that could be seen as potentially alienating to those who are monogamous (either by default or by choice).  This form of poly-vangelism (promoting polyamory by criticizing monogamy) can lead to a knee-jerk response from the mainstream.

I emailed Anthony to ask him what he meant by that clip. This is the response I received:

I realize now that comment is unecessarily alienating. I was trying to humorously suggest that if there were no stigma from centuries of religion and political ideologies that exploit The small nuclear family the statistics might be reversed:  most people might incline towards poly, given the historical dominance of cheating, divorce, etc, and a minority would find monogamy just fine for them. I used the unfortunate word "freaks" because that's often how sexual minorities are thought of. I think I probably in that interview went on to explain why I think poly would be prevalent if not stigmatized. So much gets cut!

I also reached out to the cast and staff of the series on their Facebook page. Here's the response that I received from Kamala:

This is a very important question who's answer depends on the different perspectives not only between families, but between each member of the family. Personally I am Pro-poly NOT anti-mono, but I'm glad that this question is being brought to light. I'll be writing a blog post to address this in more specifc detail www.kamaladevi.com

On the positive side, the "monogamy" related comments were next to non-existant in episode 3.

 

Response From Religious Conservatives

If anyone was curious, we saw some backlash from the religious conservatives. Some.

 

 

A Note On Reality TV

We have seen a lot of commentary around the amount of drama and sex in this series. What we need to remind ourselves is that Polyamory: Married and Dating is not a documentary, but rather a reality tv show. The promotion of the show as "documentary reality series" has added to the confusion as to the nature of the show. Most of us are familiar with television documentaries on polyamory, and while Polyamory: Married and Dating does educate the public on the existence of polyamory, the style in which this show does so is different from that of the National Geographic Taboo episode or the ABC 20/20 clip we saw earlier in the year. 

While both genres use film to tell a story, documentaries aim to educate the public on an issue where reality television aims to entertain through melodrama. While reality tv is supposed to seem "real", it is not meant to portray the nuances of a diverse demographic group.

When Natalia Garcia, the producer/director/creator of the series, recently contacted us regarding our coverage of the first episode, I was hopeful that she would recognize our concerns regarding the lack of diversity and perceived monogamy bashing within the show. Providing honest feedback is important to us as a community: we can commend the things that went well, bring up issues that we feel need clarification, and provide insight on parts that could be changed for the better. We're delving into new territory in portraying polyamory(and alternatives to monogamy) on mainstream television. Maintaining an open dialogue between the creators and the greater community is critical to having a voice on how the outside world perceives us, instead of letting someone else tell our story.

 

 

During our brief exchange, though, Garcia chose to not respond to our concerns, but rather highlighted the bravery of the 'trailblazers' featured on camera for being 'out.' I don't view the concerns I raised in my review - or those who made similar comments online - as "bashing" the cast or the show, as Garcia seemed to feel. My intention was to call out specific behaviors and opinions expressed on camera that we see as possibly damaging to the public's perception of polyamory, or even the movement as a whole. It would also follow logically the producer is under the impression that very few poly or non-monogamous individuals are actually 'out', and those are the only ones with opinions worth caring about, since anonymity affords such license online. While the last part may be true, it is an obvious wake-up call to some of the dangers of having a movement that is still largely in the closet: it is a lot harder to effect change when people don't know how many of you are out there.

Ultimately, we must remember that while we're coming at this as activists and members of the community, Natalia is coming at this from the position of a filmmaker.  Where our job is to educate and to build a supportive and inclusive community, her job as an ally was to create an entertaining television series that gave us a level of exposure that we could not have obtained on our own.  While we may disagree with some of the aspects of the show, we are able to use the attention that it has generated to engage the public in further dialogue about polyamory and relationship choice.

Whether or not this becomes a watershed moment in the public acceptance of polyamory, this is an excellent reason to become more active in our discussion of the series online as it progresses. If you find well-stated coverage, please let us know and we'll promote it! I also strongly encourage you to reach out to Natalia through her website or the show's Facebook page with your praise for the series. The more of us respond, the more apparent it becomes that she is representing a large audience, and that may be our best chance of continuing to stay in the conversation, instead of it only being 'about' us.

 

Postscript: A Call to Action

As I just mentioned, it's our job as activists to educate and build an inclusive community. Some of the backlash about the series has been in response to the lack of diversity featured onscreen, and we at Modern Poly have decided in  response to (re/)start two projects that showcase the diversity in our movement a little more.

The first is the #PolyAnd Project-- a month-long series of articles from different perspectives on how polyamory interfaces with other aspects of identity. The month of August, our ezine will become flooded with articles written to a prompt that changes by the week: Poly and Race the first week, Poly and Politics the second week, Poly and Gender Identity the third week, and Poly and Religion the fourth week. Many of our current authors will be sumbitting pieces here, but new and interesting perspectives can be submitted to our editor at Mai.Li@modernpoly.com. Make sure to read the submission guidelines here for deadlines & specifications before submitting!

The second is a reboot of our "Faces of Polyamory" project that we did on our Tumblr this past spring.  The new version will be called "What Polyamory Looks Like". This will be a place where members of our community will be able to "come out" at their own level (sharing of name and photo is optional) and share who they are, what polyamory means to them, and answer some of the Frequently Asked Questions about polyamory in their own words.

Thanks for your help and support in building awareness of relationship choice and advocating for our rights. If you want to volunteer on this or any of our other projects, please fill out this form. We also accept donations to help with web hosting and administrative costs.

 

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About the Author

Jessica Karels - Cheif Technical Officer - Active Contributor

Jessica is a writer, speaker, and workshop facilitator who is helping to bring about greater public awareness about polyamory. She is currently working on several creative projects locally and online, including her new blog (The Polyamory Pundit), and a webcomic (Not Quite Normal).


Jess is also one of the co-founders of Modern Poly, and currently serves as their Chief Technical Officer. She is in an open marriage with her husband of 10+ years.