Poly in Pop Culture

There are a lot of terms for it. Everyone needs to use the term that applies to them, but polyamory or simply poly is one of the most widely-used to describe intimate romantic and often sexual relationships that involve a multiplicity of partners with full consent, awareness, and respect. These relationships can take a huge number of forms; a marriage and several additional partnerships outside the marriage, a committed triad, a mixed household. Poly is vast and wondrous in its configurations, which is one of the remarkable things about it.

In its own way, it’s a reflection of the complexity of humanity when it’s allowed to flower. I view poly as an orientation in its own right, just as monogamy is—some people favour monogamy and find that this is what works for them and feels comfortable, while others are poly, and love and are intimate with multiple people at once.

Yet, of course, one type of relationship is regarded as the gold standard for society: a monogamous cis heterosexual relationship, one man, one woman. True to the last. While such relationships do of course exist and are valid, and in fact make up a statistical majority of the world’s population, they aren’t the only kind of relationship.

Pop culture has taken to more boldly exploring this in recent years. Queer relationships are more visible, and we’re finally having a chance to see same-gender relationships in pop culture, to see relationships with transgender people, to explore the possibility that love between two people is not necessarily a sex or gender-dependent thing, that it’s also something that can shift and evolve over time. Bisexuality, for example, is finally appearing and being treated as something other than an exotic oddity; it is, instead, a valid sexual orientation, something to be considered rightfully alongside other forms of sexuality.

Poly, however, remains in darkness, and when it does appear, it’s often in a very negative light. Audiences are titillated by depictions of polygamous marriages in extremist Mormon sects, or by the idea that some Muslims believe the Qu’ran provides allowance for multiple wives, acting as though this is the only kind of plural or poly relationship that can exist. One in which a man ‘has’ several women, and they revolve around the man’s sexual and social needs.

This is not, however, how poly truly works. Sure, it can be one form of poly, but it’s far from the only one. Thus, I get tremendously excited when I see poly and open marriages depicted in pop culture, when the producers dare to make poly simply part of the story, rather than a negative trait and evidence that those involved are social deviants. It’s such a rare thing that I truly relish it.

An elegant example comes up in House of Cards with the relationship between the Underwoods. Frank and Claire have a very complex and fascinating marriage that really forces people to think about what ‘marriage’ means and the fact that there are a lot of reasons to marry. Are the two deeply attached and committed to each other? Yes. Is their relationship also to some extent a complex business relationship? Yes. Are they friends who work together to achieve common goals and support each other in their ongoing war against the world? Also yes.

Does Frank also sleep with other women? Well, yes, he does, and it’s made explicit that this is something he and Claire have negotiated and agreed is okay. This doesn’t mean Claire is free from jealousy and complex emotions, of course, but it does mean that their marriage admits room for more than Frank and Claire, that the Underwoods work within a framework that doesn’t insist on a single intimate relationship within the marriage.

Frank also has at least a past history of bisexuality—it’s not made explicitly clear if he’s still attracted to men, but he certainly had a relationship with at least one as a younger man. This, too, is a striking and startling admission for pop culture. Usually it’s women who are depicted as bisexual because bisexual women are thought of as alluring and sexy, while bisexual men are viewed with skepticism and discomfort. Frank’s sexuality challenges viewers, creating discomfort; yet, even though he’s a rather terrible person, his cruelty and manipulative personality don’t revolve around his sexuality, and the producers are very careful to never conflate the two.

Frank is a bad person. Who also happens to be poly, and possibly bisexual. Within the narrative of House of Cards, being a bad person doesn’t make you poly and bi, and the opposite holds true as well. These are just facets of his personality, Things About Frank, if you will. And it’s such a radical statement for a work of pop culture that I’m kind of not surprised that it would, of course, show up on Netflix, where there is more license to work outside the box a bit; I suspect a network wouldn’t have been so comfortable with the depiction of a polyamorous political marriage.

Claire, too, has a lover, although her relationship with Adam appears more emotionally complex than Frank’s with Zoe. While Frank largely uses Zoe, Claire obviously experiences romantic attraction to Adam and considers him an important part of her life. Adam, meanwhile, seems to struggle with the fact that Claire has no plans to leave Frank, that she is happy in her marriage even if they have rocky periods; if what Adam wants is a monogamous relationship with his lover, he’s never going to get that, because that is not who Claire is, and it’s not how she relates.

These are radical, radical things for television. Explicit poly visibility is a huge, huge thing. House of Cards may be laying the groundwork for more honest and unbiased exploration of polyamory in pop culture, giving poly a fair depiction that doesn’t just appear on the margins, but in the centre of our cultural narratives.