Tessa Ndjonkou questions the lack of polyamory representation on-screen and how recent offerings miss the mark on what ‘free love’ might really look like.
The weeks that follow Valentine’s Day are as good a time as any to reflect on love, its ramifications and representations. As you scour through your streaming service of choice in search of the perfect romantic comedy you’ll notice they tend to follow the same pattern, and that the common denominator between them all is monogamy. In The 1995 American documentary film The Celluloid Closet, experts and actors retrace the American entertainment industry’s policing and censuring of “non-normative” relationships or characters by the Hays Code from 1934 to 1968.
The code dictated not only to the industry but to the wider public what kinds of relationships were legitimate or morally reprehensible. According to strict Hollywood guidelines, interracial, LGBT or non-monogamous relationships were not to be shown on-screen. Although interracial and LGBT partnerships have steadily become commonplace in mainstream media, the same cannot be said of polyamory. The reality is: non-monogamous representation simply isn’t as good as it is scarce.
As you scour through your streaming service of choice in search of the perfect romantic comedy you’ll notice they tend to follow the same pattern, and that the common denominator between them all is monogamy
However, as non-monogamous relationships have become more prevalent in popular film and television, the standard to which such representation is held has risen. In the romantic drama The Dreamers (2003), Bernando Bertolucci depicts polyamory as an act of reckless youth and rebellion and conflates it with incest. Similarly, in Andrew Dominik’s Blonde (2022), Marylin Monroe (Ana de Armas) is in a fictitious triad with Charlie Chaplin’s son Cass (Xavier Samuel) and Edward “Eddy” Robinson (Evans Williams) who are meant to fill the Freudian void left by her father’s absence. These are extreme examples of directors using polyamory as a creative device to imply that a character is so troubled they are unable to love ‘normally’.
A growing trend in the late 2010s to 2020s is to posit polyamory as a suburban solution to the routine of marriage. Although the self-proclaimed “first polyamorous rom-com series”, You Me Her (2016-2020) prides itself for not being utterly depressing or macabre, it does end up making its protagonists stereotypes. Throughout the five seasons, it becomes abundantly clear that the show is more so what monogamous audiences believe non-monogamy should be. The third season of YOU (2021) and the indie rom-com Newness (2017) support the idea that non-monogamy is a fun past-time to engage in when you hit a rough spot in a relationship with the ultimate goal of returning to your one true love. For Leanne Yau, polyamory educator, sex-positive influencer and creator of the Polyphilia blog, these types of representations are extremely harmful and offensive; she chides monogamous people to remember that “polyamorous people are not temporary partners for you to play around with and then discard when you find your forever person.”
The reality is: non-monogamous representation simply isn’t as good as it is scarce.
Even diverse series like the L Word: Generation Q (2019-ongoing) and She’s Gotta Have It (2017-2019) fail to meet the mark when it comes to representation. Alice Pieszescki’s (Leisha Hailey) short-lived polyamorous relationship with her girlfriend Nat (Stephanie Allynne) and her girlfriend’s ex-wife Gigi (Sepideh Mohafi) is proof of how non-monogamous storylines are presented but never completely explored. It was a shame to see the potential of a triad cut unreasonably short just to further a couple’s place in the plot. Although Spike Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It reboot has the advantage of having a Black pansexual as its heroine, refuting the myth that polyamory is reserved for the white middle class, polyamorous critics have noted Nola Darling’s idea of ethical non-monogamy seems unrealistic and at times, self-indulgent.
Currently, it appears that most studios cannot be trusted with treating non-monogamous characters or stories.
Despite the difficulties Hollywood has in telling faithful polyamorous stories, small but steady progress is being made in select shows. The Wachowski sisters’ science-fiction drama Sense 8 (2015-2018) features triads and polycules from diverse backgrounds. Additionally, the recent cancellation of HBO’s Gossip Girl reboot, has left fans mourning the loss of the rich-kid triad composed by Aki, Audrey and Max. Their relationship was an honest effort at depicting a healthy, if not fumbly, connection between three teenagers grappling with their emotions and public opinion. In more ways than one, Gossip Girl succeeds where You Me Her fails, by demonstrating the ups and downs of a relationship without leaning into tired tropes like infidelity. Similarly, Professor Marston and the Wonder Women (2017) faithfully retraces the journey of the creator of the Wonder Woman DC Comic and his polyamorous family throughout the 1930s in a touching biopic. The Netflix Original The Bastard Son and the Devil Himself (2022) met the same demise as the HBO reboot. Despite its brief run, it made a lasting impression due to how it presented its polyamorous characters.
To sum up, polyamorous and non-monogamous audiences deserve better. They deserve to see themselves truthfully represented on screen and for their relationships to be treated with the same respect monogamous relationships are treated with. Currently, it appears that most studios cannot be trusted with treating non-monogamous characters or stories, and non-monogamous people need the space to create the narratives they deserve.