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Queer(ing) Relationships - Representations of Polyamory in Series and Films.

Updated: Apr 30, 2021

Queer(ing) Relationships – Representations of Polyamory in Series and Films. A Short Introductory Analysis to Wanderlust by Sarah Ganss

Queer Theory has revolutionised the way we look at people, for example their sexual or gender identity, but the various modes of relationships and their potential queerness remain often overlooked. Despite the immense success of Queer Theory, the heteronormative ideal of a relationship still consists of monogamy. Queering relationships hence means to challenge the traditional categories in which we describe the romantical, platonic, sexual, or even more diverse ways we relate to the people around us. This may go as far as to ask whether being polyamorous is a (queer) sexual orientation.

Cinematic representations of polyamory and non-monogamy date surprisingly far back[1], the topic however was boosted significantly by the series You Me Her (2016-2020, 5 seasons), which enjoyed great overall interest and critical appraisal. A short time later, the BBC series Wanderlust (2018, 1 season) aired. These diverse representations are not only fascinating for Queer Theory as potential sources to discuss the queerness of non-monogamy, but are also crucial for enhancing the recognition of the polyamorous community. The following questions may be asked:

To what degree do they address the subject of prejudices and do they maybe even overcome them? In how far are non-monogamous relationships pictured as an equal alternative to traditional monogamy? What overall image of non-monogamy is conveyed?

The plot of Wanderlust is easily summarized: Joy, a therapist, and Alan, a teacher, an otherwise happily married couple, struggle with their physical intimacy. They have not lost their lust for good, but only towards each other. After having both cheated, they perceive that a way out of their crisis might be to sleep with other people. Alan starts seeing his co-worker, Claire, while Joy has several short affairs with different men. At first, their experiment works out, but it slowly leads Joy to doubt it and, ultimately, a final separation. Alan moves to Claire while Joy stays alone, reluctant to start an affair with her ex-boyfriend. In the end, Joy and Alan find themselves alone and without any kind of relationship. It is left open if a reconciliation is possible.

In terms of the importance of honesty and openness, Wanderlust shows some very strong moments of recognition. In the beginning, Alan and Joy talk about the cheating and how they want to handle the growing sexual frustration between the two of them (cf. ep. 1 and 2). The series depicts the cruel reality of not having the desire to sleep with your spouse without directly hinting that this would mean the end of it. Joy is very open about trying something new in order to save her relationship with Alan. Both admit that they are aroused by the idea to see the people they have slept with again. After having agreed on seeing other people, the series shows some very strong, empowering moments in full recognition of consensual non-monogamy: Joy and Alan help each other to get dressed and they share the joy of good dates with each other (cf. ep. 2). They discuss their ‘project’ with their respective lovers and define their relationship as ‘open’ (cf. ep. 2) – which even might leave to a break-up. They talk openly about it with their three children, stressing that they only want to sleep with other people and that divorce is not an option or a threat (cf. ep. 3). Eventually, Alan, Claire, and their lovers meet up as the four of them (cf. ep. 4). They ‘come out’ at their workplaces as well, facing severe criticism and even discrimination (cf. ep. 4). All this is an accurate representation of how, little by little, people can open their relationship(s). For society, this means to see what kind of work is put into ‘making’ a marriage polyamorous, thus fighting the stereotype of polyamorous people sleeping with everyone they meet without having any boundaries. Those strong moments mentioned above, however, are undermined by episodes 5 and 6. It might be because the series picks up pace, but a lot of important scenes are supressed in the last two episodes. For example, the separation between Joy and Marc, her lover whom she even introduced to Alan and Claire (cf. ep. 4), is not narrated. Moreover, in the beginning of episode 6, Alan moves to Claire without any reason given by any of the sides. Showing a discussion or even argument between Joy and Alan about the way they want to continue their marriage could have been a strong moment of recognition – like the exemplary scene in the beginning when they decide to open their marriage (cf. ep. 6). Alan’s point of view, his ideas and feelings toward his marriage and Joy are not explained, the focus of the narration is on Joy. There is no balance anymore and the audience is left in a state of ignorance: it only sees that Alan and Joy fail. The legitimacy to depict that polyamory may not work out for everyone is not thematised, but Wanderlust does not explain reasons for the breakdown of the relationship. Subtly, monogamy as the only possible relationship mode is promoted.

In terms of taking consensual non-monogamy as a serious way to live and love, Wanderlust reinforces stereotypes and mischaracterises it severely. Although the idea that a marriage is more than sexual exclusivity is a step in the right direction, it remains unclear if the sexual (and maybe emotional) attraction towards other people is really for that specific person or just a transfer, a way to get rid of the pent-up sexual energy between the two spouses. The driving factor in the decision to open the marriage is a feeling of lack, in order to ‘fix’ something. The respective lovers are not seen as an enriching supplement, but as a makeshift – at least from Joy’s part. In the very end, she states that she wanted to save the marriage but feels Alan wanted something different (cf. ep. 4). Again, because only her viewpoint is given, the possibility to portray Alan’s different feelings about it, is missed.

This idea to ‘fill a void’ is one of the most common prejudices against non-monogamous relationships.[2] It ridicules any non-monogamous way of feeling and judges it as false, pretentious. Moreover, if we include the debate whether polyamory can be regarded as a sexual orientation[3], it leads to severe lack of recognition of people’s identity. In addition, episode 5 evokes the prejudice that consensual non-monogamy means commitment phobia. Episode 5 deals with a therapy session of Joy’s where her psychotherapist wants to get to the bottom of Joy’s wish to have a non-monogamist marriage. Through flashbacks of traumatising events in Joy’s early adulthood, the therapist reconstructs Joy’s trouble to allow emotional intimacy, searching for rebounds and problems in order to avoid the trauma she suffered in the past. Polyamory is thus not only represented as a coping mechanism but also as something ‘psychologically irregular’. By doing this, it confirms common stereotypes and strengthens misrecognition by society. Furthermore, it renders self-knowledge impossible, leaving polyamorous people with a feeling of ‘not being normal’. The audience needs to critically question what kind of general image of non-monogamy Wanderlust wants to impart.

In conclusion, even though the series highlights the importance of honest communication in order to make polyamory work, it falls short to display the possible reasons for a split-up. Moreover, throughout the series, non-monogamy is not treated as a serious relationship that has the same entitlement as monogamy. Sadly, Wanderlust does not question stereotypes, but enhances them, missing the opportunity to discuss problems and solutions of non-monogamy.

This short introductory analysis is only an example how medial representations of polyamory can be approached – there are many more ways to look at and read films, series, books, comics and more. Future research, from literary studies, film studies, to philosophy, psychology and many more, will not only show the rich variety of polyamory and non-monogamy but also highlight the empowering moment of challenging, of queering relationships. Our future surely remains colourful.

[1] Cf. [2] Cf. Gesa Mayer, ‘Poly werden. Oder: Warum es dem Begehren an nichts mangelt’, Journal für Psychologie, 22 (2014), 1-27. [3] Cf. Ann E. Tweedy, ‘Polyamory as a Sexual Orientation’, University of Cincinnati Law Review, 79 (2011), 1461-1516 and cf. Christin Klesse, ‘Polyamory: Intimate practice, identity or sexual orientation?’, Sexualities, 17 (2014), 81-99.

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