If you don’t think Dan Savage is one of the most awesome people in the world, well, then you’re wrong. He is. If you just said “Who is Dan Savage?” then listen up.
Filmmaker Tao Ruspoli was so distraught after his divorce that he went into pilgrim/seeker mode questioning monogamous pair bonding and set out to explore the nature of monogamy and marriage and whether it was necessarily the best way for him to live. He turned this vision quest into a well researched and entertaining documentary: Monogamish. That word was coined by Dan Savage, columnist with Seattle’s alternative paper The Stranger and host of a popular weekly podcast Savage Love. I have learned more about life’s rich pageant from Savage Love over the years of listening than I could ever have predicted. Ruspoli is also a Savage fan and wrote many letters to Dan that he never sent. He asks Dan some of his questions in the film.
Though he doesn’t mention her by name, the woman he was married to is Olivia Wilde. Live with that for a minute. Would you be philosophical about that or would you forever think of yourself as Olivia Wilde’s ex? And how pissed must she be that her divorce: A. wound up as the origin point for a movie and B. pushed a person away from monogamy altogether? I wonder if she’s invited to the premier. Without her, no film would have been made.
“How you reconcile the domestic and the erotic, your need for security with your need for passion with the same person isn’t a problem that you solve, it’s a paradox that you manage.“
On the other hand, Ruspoli has a family history of unilateral non-monogamy (aka cheating). Ruspoli is the son of an Italian aristocrat, Prince Dado Ruspoli, who had wives, and girlfriends and was fathering children into his 70’s. When Tao was born his father was 50, his mother 18 and she was not his wife. Ruspoli saw a number of family and relationship modes as a child and was not stuck on the all-too-American puritan default of how relationships and marriage should work (and usually don’t).
The Ruspoli men (would it be painting with too broad a brush to say Italian men in general?) are Catholics, but practice widespread monogamish behavior. They don’t seem to be too bothered by the contradiction. The women in the family saw opportunity and took financial power while the men were chasing other women, which solidified the marital family structure. It is clear, at least in this family, that many men fear women with power. The conversation with his fiery aunt is one of the film’s best moments: she advocates executing an unfaithful male or even one you are bored with.
Considering the phrase “Italian Prince” and Ruspoli’s colorful life, the money, the privilege, boggles the mind of a kid from West Virginia. I am a starfucker reduced to gibbering fanboy. Ruspoli’s luxury is life on Mars compared to mine. But as the film unfolds we are schooled: he’s a person who hurt badly when his wife left. Same as me. That spins my head around almost as much as the awareness of how different that life is than mine. It reminds me how out of my depth I would be in his world. If I were to suddenly find myself with his resources and connections I’m guessing I wouldn’t live five more years. They’d be fun years though. They’d be tacky, TMZ fodder.
“Getting divorced just because you don’t love a man is almost as silly as getting married just because you do…”
The documentary features authors of books about monogamy. Sex at Dawn was co-written by Christopher Ryan, PhD, and Cacilda Jethá, MD, who did research on different primate species’ mating behaviors. Esther Perel wrote Mating in Captivity. They talk about the pitfalls of monogamy and while none of them is against it, per se, they point out what an unusual construct it is for people. Despite popular belief in instinct or natural order they argue there’s no encoded human “way” based on the wide diversity of observed behaviors in humanity.
Where did marriage originate? One idea explored is that marriage was a control mechanism of men over women, a financial security and stability contract largely driven by the paternalistic, misogynistic culture that relegated man and wife to very specific roles where the entire enterprise was ruled by the male by cultural and financial decree. Civilized, equitable non-monogamy could be a boon for empowering women, handled correctly. Those qualifications are crucial: we’ve had unofficial forms of non-monogamy all along.
Ruspoli speaks to several people who’ve declared themselves incapable of monogamy, having tried and failed, and he himself is now part of a triad with a woman who has a relationship with two men. We also meet some people for whom monogamy is the right life. It turns out, unsurprisingly, as Kinsey discovered in the ’50’s, when it comes to human sexuality there just ain’t no such thing as “normal.”
The doc also presents us with some great quotes : “Getting divorced just because you don’t love a man is almost as silly as getting married just because you do.” – Zsa Zsa Gabor
“Marriage is the triumph of imagination over intelligence. Second marriage is the triumph of hope over experience.” – Oscar Wilde
Monogamish is an intelligent meditative film regardless of your stance on monogamy, whether non-monogamy is for you or not. Esther Perel points out that “How you reconcile the domestic and the erotic, your need for security with your need for passion with the same person isn’t a problem that you solve, it’s a paradox that you manage.”
Monogamish (2017) Directed by Tao Ruspoli. Written by Tao Ruspoli, Mark Wrathall. Starring Tao Ruspoli, Dan Savage, Stephanie Coontz.
7 out of 10