I see very few examples of relationships like mine in pop culture. When I do, they’re often twisted, sinister, evil, used to underscore the fact that one or more characters are depraved or amoral. I look, for example, to House of Cards, and the open marriage that Frank and Claire Underwood have negotiated as part of their relationship with each other. The Underwoods are undeniably evil, especially in the case of Frank: On a quest for unchecked power, willing to stop at nothing. It’s a show headed by villains who do villainous things, and their nonmonogamy is wrapped up in that evil.
Which isn’t fair to nonmonogamous and polyamorous couples who basically never see themselves represented in mainstream pop culture, ever. When the only representation of relationships that looks like theirs is tied with unmitigated evil, it sends unmistakably negative messages to the general public. Even as Claire and Frank experience genuine love and connection with some of their other partners, they’re also using some of them for political and social expediency, to accomplish their aims, tainting the complicated balance they’ve created as a political power couple. Those encounters are what monogamous viewers seize upon when they think about the Underwood marriage.
For heterosexual, monogamous people, relationships like theirs are ubiquitous in pop culture, unremarkable. They’re associated with evil and horrible people, neutral people, heroes. They’re magical loves for the ages, they’re love triangles, they’re multifaceted and complicated. They’re ferocious, enduring past death, they’re tempestuous, marred with cheating and arguments. There’s a rich diversity of this kind of love in pop culture, allowing people to see themselves, but also showing that heterosexuality and monogamy are complicated things that come in many different forms: That people are not defined by their monogamy and heterosexuality.
That’s not how it feels for nonmonogamous and poly people, who continually see themselves used as objects of lurid fascination or evil, in very one-dimensional relationships. It’s so rare to see such relationships presented neutrally, or in depth, that seeing just one is like finding a unicorn — as in the case of Malinda Lo’s Inheritance, for example. There’s something deeply crushing about never seeing yourself reflected in media and pop culture, the very things that mediate how people think about you and your relationships.
For people who think they might be nonmonogamous or poly, who are trying to figure out who and what they are when monogamy is a heavily enforced norm and people don’t really understand the complexity of other kinds of relationships and forms of love, these depictions are tremendously harmful. If your only model of nonmonogamy is Frank and Claire Underwood, it’s not a good look to see — because it’s hard to disentangle their relationship from their evil, to explore who they really are and how they love each other and interact with their partners. When you get the messaging that people like you are evil, incapable of really loving people, superficial, secretly just cheaters, or any number of other things, you start to question yourself, and your integrity. You try to adhere to monogamous norms even though those aren’t who you are, and you cut yourself off from the kind of love and relationships that feel right to you.
Queerness, and variations thereof, is similarly troubling in pop culture. Though representations of gay, bi, lesbian, queer, and other characters have radically improved, there’s still a sting to them — for every wonderful, fully realised, amazing, supercool couple, there are a dozen that are sour and unpleasant. The bi women who cheat on their partners because apparently being bisexual means that you’re incapable of staying with the boundaries of a single monogamous relationship. The tragic queers, punished personally and socially for their sexuality. The evil lesbians, the gay men saddled with HIV for daring to be who they are. There’s a huge burden piled onto queer characters and it’s one that they never really escape, and one that is frustrating for people to encounter over and over again, to be reminded over and over again that their relationships are lesser and their love isn’t as important.
And again, we see people who are exploring their sexuality and who aren’t quite sure of themselves seeing relationships everywhere that are highly negative. Pressuring them to turn to heterosexuality to work themselves out and create authentic lives for themselves, even though it feels hollow, ungainly, unpleasant. And some people never see themselves at all — asexual people are nearly entirely absent from pop culture, for example, leaving asexuals at a loss when it comes to figuring out their sexuality, wondering if they’re broken in some way to not experience love and sexual attraction in the same way that the heterosexual people they see everywhere around them do, not getting a chance to see that love and relationships don’t necessarily involve being sexual.
Love in the time of pop culture is very narrow, limited, defined by the heterosexual, monogamous storytellers who drive it. People of more marginalised sexualities and orientations are not well represented as creators or characters alike — barriers both visible and invisible flicker around the edges of attempts to break into a market that budgets and parcels out certain kinds of love to avoid scaring the horses. One lesbian couple is acceptable, but not two. It’s okay to have two gay couples, but one of them had better be a bit evil. A couple can’t be neutrally queer, but must have some sort of Queer Story. A poly or nonmonogamous relationship must have some kind of instructional warning lesson for the viewer — those people are suspect, you see.
We attempt to build that which we do not see, for ourselves, for others, but it’s hard to find our footing in a market that doesn’t want to hear our stories and leaves us at a profound disadvantage at every turn. For now, we seize upon the crumbs tossed to us with pathetic eagerness, wondering if someday our love will be allowed to take centre stage.
Image: Latina Couple Showing Love, Crushed Planet, Flickr