The Sneaky Feminism of ‘Big Little Lies’
Yes, the women are wealthy and their estates are oceanside, but the hit series uses its elitism to tease out a deeper point.
By Jessie Yang, The University of Hong Kong
Following the previous critical and commercial success of “True Detective,” a seven-episode series chock-full of Hollywood A-listers, HBO decided to employ the same formula for its newest sleeper hit, “Big Little Lies.”
Though the series is less adherent to the “whodunit” narrative arc than “True Detective,” the skeleton of the plot still concerns a disturbing murder that has happened in the serene oceanfront vista of Monterey, California. There, the characters live in a wealthy community that offers only the illusion of calm, while, in reality, everyone is desperately trying to hide their secrets in the upcoming thunderstorms.
What makes every episode breathtaking is the great cast. The protagonists of “Big Little Lies” are messy, bloody and furious, and each proves themselves capable of demonstrating both fragility and strength in the face of an exploitative patriarchal society. Reese Witherspoon plays the domineering and blunt protagonist Madeline, whose life centers around her children, which leads to profound questions about the responsibilities of parenting and friendship. It would be simple to flatten her role into mere villainy, but in Witherspoon’s hands, Madeline’s rage is oceanic—seething and vast. When Ziggy, the son of the young and mysterious new resident Jane (Shailene Woodley), is accused of bullying Renata’s (Laura Dern) daughter, drama is ignited between the privileged, wealthy mothers.
Madeline’s best friend, Celeste (Nicole Kidman), who gives up her high-paid job to parent twins, spends most of her time convincing herself to stay in the destructive relationship with her abusive husband, Perry (Alexander Skarsgård). As for Jane, another character who suffers from sexual violence, director Jean-Marc Vallée constructs her storyline as the center of the mystery, weaving in flashbacks and dream sequences that hint at a tragic rape in her past.
The series revolves around three strings of unsolved mysteries—a murder, bullying and a rape—and Vallée cleverly raises the stakes in each episode by using his signature fast-paced, cross-cutting technique to combine contrasting scenes of violence and the listless ocean, indicating the conflicting nature of humanity.
Aside from the plot, one of the primary reasons people should watch “Big Little Lies” is that, in having more female characters than male, the show makes a significant contribution to television. In fact, according to “Women in Hollywood,” in 2016, only 6 percent of all television series feature a primarily female cast. As a result, the HBO series tackles problems that modern women face, such as conflicts over their careers, raising families and getting married, all from a female point of view.
“I just feel like they’re going to grow up and they’re going to be gone, and this’ll be you and I, and we’ll be onto another chapter, and you have another chapter,” Madeline says. “You have a business. And I don’t. I’m a mom. This is my universe.”
In Episode 6, one of the dads interviewed by the police says, “I believe that women are chemically incapable of forgiveness.” Indeed, in “Big Little Lies,” women fight each other, but they also put down their differences to protect each other against threats. In the drama, all of the women have a contentious relationship with each other, with the exception of the show’s main squad, Jane, Madeline, and Celeste, yet they put aside their feuds and find common ground out of compassion.
However, the biggest achievement of “Big Little Lies” is its raw and nuanced portrayal of the ripple effects of male violence, and most importantly, the strength of resilience when women band together against it. Although Celeste is abused by her husband, she comes to realize that she is not alone in this battle. Even Jane, who is haunted by nightmares of rape, eventually faces her greatest fear.
“Perry doesn’t realize that this is what he’s up against,” director Jean-Marc Vallée told “Vulture” of the showdown. “He’s gonna have to fight these five women.”
Perry doesn’t realize that he is fighting the ultimate force of nature, because when the women become one, they become as strong as the mighty, angry ocean surrounding the town. Five vibrant, powerful, complex women unify to defend each other from a toxic man.
Juxtaposed with a gruesome murder scene, the finale’s last moments show the women gathered on an otherwise empty beach, splayed across beach blankets with glasses of wine, as their children play in the sand. Spanning across the series we are reminded, again and again, that these moms are fallible, because that’s what makes them real to us, but “Big Little Lies” is much more interested in shining a light on their strength.
The women, like so many others, struggle to discern where they might be safe and then to soften their edges when they know that they are. They drop their roles as mothers, wives, CEOs, lovers and enemies, and turn into an indestructible wall, which reveals that the mysterious death in the seven episodes is not the point. “Big Little Lies” is about the women who were there when it happened, and how they handled it—just like they handle everything else.