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The structure of relationships is changing, pop culture needs to change with it

Lisa Belmonte spoke to Jenny Yuen, a Toronto journalist, Zoe Duff, director and spokesperson for the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association and Ryerson Queer Media professor Andrea Houston to report on media representation of polyamorous relationships.

Graphic of a heart with an infinity symbol wrapped around it
Illustrations by Mika Tamaki.

LGBTQ+ representation in pop culture has slowly been improving, but there is still much to be done when it comes to portraying polyamorous relationships.

Polyamory is the act of engaging in a romantic relationship with two or more individuals at the same time, all with the consent and knowledge of each partner.

Having a good understanding of polyamory is critical when talking about accurate and positive representation in pop culture. This is made difficult when television, film and pieces that prominently feature polyamorous relationships are hard to find.

The definition seems simple enough to grasp, but in reality the simplicity is often lost on people who may see polyamory as solely being at odds with what they’ve always known — namely, monogamy.

“People are afraid of what they don’t understand,” says Jenny Yuen, a Toronto journalist who is currently in a polyamorous relationship.

To Yuen, loving more than one person doesn’t mean she only loves each with half of her heart.

“We often use the analogy of having kids — having more than one doesn’t mean you love your other one less. Love just expands,” Yuen wrote over Facebook messenger.

Yuen says she faced some confusion when she came out to family and friends.

“I remember when I breached the subject with a friend of mine a few years back, he said it sounded confusing and unfair. He said, ‘You get two guys and they only get a half of you.’”

Despite Yuen’s experience, some people think that times are changing. In 2016, the Canadian Research Institute for Law and the Family (CRILF), a University of Calgary affiliated research institute, began a study on the perceptions of polyamory in Canada and gathered preliminary data through an online survey of people who had experience with polyamorous relationships. Of the 547 people who responded to the survey, over 300 people responded that they believed that public acceptance of polyamory is increasing. Two hundred respondents disagreed, maintaining that people still don’t see polyamorous relationships as a type of family.

Shows like You Me Her, and movies like Professor Marston and the Wonder Women are ahead of the curve in terms of representing polyamorous relationships as actual relationships and family units. You Me Her calls itself television's first polyromantic comedy. The show follows a suburban husband and wife who both fall in love with another woman and then invite her into their relationship. It dives into what it’s like to have more than two people in a relationship and deals with folks being less than accepting of the relationship, even in the liberal, urban city they live in.

“There’s stuff coming out in the media that’s more accurate,” says Zoe Duff, director and spokesperson for the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association.

Duff, who is also in a polyamorous relationship, cites Professor Marston and the Wonder Women as a positive representation of polyamory. The film is a biographical drama that chronicles the life of the man who created Wonder Woman. It showcases the relationship between him, his wife and a woman they meet at work, with the three eventually engaging in a polyamorous relationship. The film also shows the hardships the three face when the nature of their relationship becomes public.

Drawing of a group of people laying in different positions on a couch

“It’s kind of nice to see how polyamory is a relationship and how long term the workings of it are,” Duff says.

While these are good examples of polyamorous representation, having a few examples of minority stories and characters doesn’t mean that the discrimination ended, nor does it mean full acceptance has begun.

Representation matters, and it’s no different when it comes to polyamory.

“Even though polyamory is more discussed in the media, its portrayal in film and TV may be more for fodder than legitimate relationship structure or lifestyle choice,” says Yuen.

Often times polyamory is misunderstood, and that can lead to the inaccurate portrayals in pop culture.

Duff says there’s a common misconception that these types of relationships are just excuses to be kinky and sexually deviant, but that’s not the case.

“It’s not all about the sex,” says Duff.

Ryerson University professor Andrea Houston teaches Queer Media, a course that explores the representation of queer stories in the media. She says that queer media is especially timely right now with all the uncertainties facing gender and sexual minorities.

“I think [more representation] would change a lot of false ideas about what the community is,” says Houston.

Duff says representation makes people more inclined to ask questions. Instead of avoiding a concept they don’t understand, stronger representation will give more people the opportunity to see polyamorous relationships on television and in movies, and then rethink their previous beliefs.

CRILF says that a majority of respondents in their Canadian perceptions of polyamory survey live in British Columbia and Ontario (a combined 64.3 per cent). These provinces are home to two major Canadian cities that are hubs for television and movie production.

With that in mind, if there is a large number of people in polyamorous relationships in and around these hubs, why isn’t there an influx of media content representing these relationships?

“The media is always behind the curve,” says Houston.

“I think the media has a responsibility [to the] proper portrayal of poly[amory],” says Yuen, referring to television, film and news coverage.

While there isn’t a great deal of polyamorous representation in pop culture today, if the few good representations of polyamory are anything to go by, the future looks promising.


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