The cultural conformity of monogamy has shaped the way in which mainstream media portrays non-monogamous relationships. By linking them subliminally to infidelity and nefarious eroticism, dominating mindsets work to erase the visibility of polyamory. But what exactly does it entail, and how do films capture the freedom that an unrestricted definition of love permits?
Polyamory is defined as a relationship in which “longer-term intimate and sexual relationships are maintained with multiple partners simultaneously and ethically; arrangements that occur with the knowledge and consent of all involved”. What’s more, it occupies an intriguing place in the space carved out by alternative forms of sexuality, and often builds on social movements such as: LGBTQ rights, the bisexual movement, feminism and BDSM.
Non-monogamy through the ages
In Salon, Anna Pulley follows the thread of polyamory along the meandering paths of time. Before we set out on this journey, we should remember that much of society rests on the foundations of lifelong fidelity between one woman and one man, especially in the Western world.
Unfortunately, this idea, enforced both socially and legally, fails to honour the complexity of human nature. Unlike some animal species that mate for life, we are left conflicted and anguished by an ongoing struggle between the brain that is told to adhere to social rules, and the ungovernable heart.
In a bid to keep human nature compressed, non-monogamy is often regarded as debauched and disconnected from the steady progress of civilisation. And yet, it has been in practice since the time of Ancient Mesopotamia, referred to as the “Cradle of Civilisation”. Not only was homosexual love enjoyed without stigma or fear, seeing as the labels separating it from heterosexual love appeared with the introduction of later religions, but both monogamy and polygyny (when a man takes multiple wives) were the norm.
It’s common knowledge that the ancient Greeks and Romans entered marriages that were monogamous on paper, but not in the practical workings of their daily lives. In fact, bisexuality among men was not only tolerated, but celebrated as a way of strengthening bonds between soldiers, mentors and students. It was an expression of the society’s deep worship of vigour and beauty, the evidence of which is preserved in the naturalistic detail and erotic sensuality of the statues that continue to enthrall us to this day.
The Old Testament in the Bible depicts numerous cases of non-monogamy, with the first one appearing in the Book of Genesis. Lamech, Abraham, Jacob, David and Solomon all had many wives. Similarly, despite being outlawed in India now, the ancient collection of Vedic Sanskrit hymns known as the Rigveda, as well as the major Sanskrit epic of ancient India called the Mahābhārata, both mention polygyny.
In Islam, polygyny is permitted if all the wives are treated equally and fairly, and only if the husband can prove that they will all be well-provided for. In the US, the early Mormon settlers practiced “plural marriages”, and often do so to this day, though not in the same legal capacity.
Interestingly, Nepal embraced polyandry (when a woman takes multiple husbands) instead of polygyny, especially among the Gurung Community from Upper Mustang. Following an innate symbiosis with nature, polyandry served to ensure that there were enough strong arms around to care for the unaccommodating land. The practice has all but disappeared today because of religious influence.
In China, the Mosuo ethnic group is known for the zou hun (“walking marriage”), thanks to which people can easily change their partners and engage in a free expression of mutual affection in a way that’s not stigmatised, at least not by the members of the Mosuo minority. The liberal practice is being heavily questioned by the “modern moral criterion of monogamy”, as China Daily reports.
And in the Western world, the popularity of polyamory has been steadily growing over the past decades. The Australian polyamory community, influenced by indigenuous cultures and the way in which polyamory alleviates sexual repression, is known to meet regularly in at least three major cities. Poly communities are also active in the US, Canada and Europe (with the ZEGG community in Germany being one of the best known), with smaller communities in South Africa and Japan.
The list of films that explore themes of non-monogamous intimacy and love is surprisingly long. Design for Living (1933) is among the first movies to present complex interpersonal dynamics, though the trio we see on-screen is preserved in a bubble of culturally-sensitive platonism. It was followed by works such as: Jules and Jim (1962), A Small Circle of Friends (1980), Summer Lovers (1982), She’s Gotta Have It (1986), which was revolutionary in its depiction of one woman and three lovers, and Belle Epoque (1992), in which one man falls simultaneously in love with four women.
As we can see, films slowly shifted from a sex-centred perspective to long-term matters of the heart. A titillating representation of the sexual aspect of polyamory can still be observed in contemporary cinema, of course.
Modern portrayals of the exploration of non-monogamy can be seen in the internationally-produced The Dreamers (2003), the Canadian film Heartbeats (2010), the Spanish drama Angels of Sex (2012), the French romance Two Friends (2015), and the American biographical drama Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017), which introduced polyamory into the mainstream.
As Anna Smith points out in The Guardian, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) captures the blissful state of being in love with more than one person. By showing the happy, long-term union between William Moulton Marston (Luke Evans), the feminist creator of the fictional character known as Wonder Woman, his academic wife Elizabeth (Rebecca Hall), and his student Olive Byrne (Bella Heathcote), the film steers clear of the heavily-exploited eroticism that often serves as the only available representation of polyamory.
What’s unique about Angela Robinson’s film is the way in which the three-way relationship operates much like any other union, freeing itself from the shackles of disgrace. The director once said,
Metamours and paramours
Today, monogamy often alludes to the confinement of romantic and sexual attraction. In a globalised world, which redefines connectedness and challenges the status quo through the spread of awareness, polyamory takes on the appeal of individualistic freedom and choice. But to better understand the connections that make up the fabric of polyamory, we must first acquaint ourselves with two fundamental terms.
A metamour is your partner’s partner, who is not romantically or sexually involved with you. A paramour is an outside member of a marriage, such as the girlfriend of a husband in a polyamorous marriage. Considering that there can be no polyamory without consensuality, its definition stresses one’s openness to having metamour relationships more than one’s receptiveness of multiple romantic relationships.
It’s this very acceptance of communication with metamours that differentiates polyamorous people from those who are engaged in open relationships, which involve an unspoken, disconnected abundanced of romantic and/ or sexual relationships.
Source of stress
Going back to what we said about the suppression of human nature, it’s no surprise that our growing fascination with polyamory finds some purchase on the conflict between romantic love and individualised freedom. When trying to subdue our natural responses to the alluring people that exist outside our current relationship, or when trying to compromise to the point of discomfort, the anxiety we feel often leads us to employ risk-diminishing strategies. Examples include living apart, or establishing open relationships.
One opinion, expressed both in The Normal Chaos of Love (1995) and Cultures of Intimacy and Care beyond ‘the Family’ (2004), is that,
It seems that the only way a concept diverging from the mainstream can be understood, or even approached, is by being made somewhat banal, as we have already noticed in A Queer Fetish. Interestingly, the clash between the western, Christian tradition and the happiness achieved through non-monogamous relationships is slowly opening the dialogue on marriage and the law.
And seeing as we’re not nearly as free to “be ourselves” as we are led to believe, but are instead subjected to social and lawful conformity, the prospect of true liberty seems as titillating as the many transgressive forms it takes.