Feminism in Big Love.

by Meredith O’Brien


As she lay in her hospital bed, fearful that her cancer was going to kill her, she was emotionally blackmailed into turning her loving, monogamous marriage, which had seen the birth of three children, into a polygamist one. From that point on, Big Love’s Barb Henrickson, has never been the same. And as its final season progresses, Barb’s character (Jeanne Tripplehorn) very well may turn out to be the Betty Friedan of the fictional Big Love Mormon set.


Over the course of the HBO polygamist drama – now in its fifth and final season – I’ve had a soft spot for the would-be feminist Barb, who never seemed to be fully on board with this whole multiple wives thing but only agreed to it because her husband Bill (Bill Paxton) wanted her to, plus she felt guilty that she couldn’t bear him any more children which he desired.


Early in the show’s second season, after being thrown out of a state Mother of the Year competition in the middle of a ceremony because her polygamist status had come to the attention of the contest organizers, Barb went on a soul-searching mission to figure out what had happened to her life. She left home for a few days and told Bill she wasn’t sure she wanted to be in a plural marriage any more. She enrolled in a master’s program at the University of Utah to study social work. I was thrilled that, amid the stifling patriarchy that seemed to imprison nearly all of the Big Love women, one of them was breaking out and away from being kept under the thumb of her husband. “Go Barb,” I found myself thinking as she happily drank a hot cocoa on campus and pondered her wide open future. But, disappointingly, all of Barb’s ambition and independence fizzled out when Bill decided to open a Mormon-friendly casino that required Barb’s attention AND run for the state senate which also put more Bill-centric work on Barb’s plate. Bye-bye master’s degree.


There was a brief time, at the beginning of the third season when Barb thought her cancer had returned and knew that Bill was interested in adding another wife to the family, when Barb reversed her previously stated “no fourth wife” position and decided to take the lead on welcoming the woman into the marriage, particularly if Barb was sick. She wanted to make it look like she was on board. However the marriage to the fourth wife lasted for only a few days before the woman fled, and Barb learned she was still in remission.