By Madeline Lane-McKinley
From the outset Big Little Lies had great potential. Premiering in late February of 2017, the series tapped into what would become #MeToo by October that year: a building sense of disgust and outrage toward the social totality that is sexual violence. And unlike many of the stories that gained traction in #MeToo, Big Little Lies focuses on the household, which is where, as the series understands quite keenly, most sexual violence takes place, and where most sexual violence remains hidden.
In the relationship of Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), Big Little Lies is more interested in what some might describe as the ‘gray areas’ of sexual violence – the libidinality of domestic abuse. Perry physically and sexually assaults Celeste throughout the first season, nearly killing her on multiple occasions. At many points, their dynamic of abuse is captured vividly, and horrifically. Celeste’s beatings are not moments of spectatorship, as are quite familiar in depictions of domestic violence, but fixated on her eyes, her breathing, her thinking. This initial inquiry into Celeste is quite compelling – and what is most insightful in Kidman’s performance is how this character blurs the fantasy of women’s empowerment through career, marriage, and children, with a vision of sheer self-hatred and masochism.
However, while Celeste might bring us to the verge of an important critique, the series instead envelopes her in a would-be feminist collectivity of the era of post-2016 “I’m With Her” wounded white women. In her case, this includes a clique of mostly white and mostly rich women in Monterey, California, who tell themselves, each other, their husbands, and their children lots of big and little lies. Elastically, what unites the lies is violence. And throughout Big Little Lies, womanhood is defined by this violence, only to become a way of unseeing the racial oppression and class disparity in its midst.
All the women in the narrative’s inner circle have been marked by some kind of violence, whether sexual, physical, or emotional in character. Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz), we learn in the second season, endured a childhood of abuse. Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Renata (Laura Dern) have not been sexually abused, but emotionally harmed by men. In Madeline’s case, this harm came from her first marriage to Nathan (James Tupper), from which she has mostly moved on in her reliable yet boring marriage to Ed (Adam Scott). In Renata’s case, it is the harm of being perpetually scammed and cheated on by her husband Gordon (Jeffrey Nordling). And then there’s Jane (Shailene Woodley), a single mother whose son’s biological father was a stranger who raped her. The series never goes into Jane’s decision not to have an abortion, but this is just one of many missed opportunities.
Throughout Big Little Lies, there is the sense that a critique of this white and elitist brand of feminism is looming, but never quite available. Everywhere in its almost-entirely-white vision of Monterey, there are sparks quickly squelched. This is a vision of feminism brought to you by creator David E. Kelley, who also brought us Ally McBeal in the late nineties — another white, heterosexual, highly masochistic, and professionalized depiction of womanhood. This is a womanhood that supersedes all else, and which becomes a mode of unthinking political struggle. In Big Little Lies, it is a way of seeing and then forgetting, for instance, Renata’s mistreatment of housecleaners and nannies — immigrant women who are blinked away when Renata discovers that her husband also owes them compensation for sex work. It is a womanhood of stated inclusivity, and practiced exclusivity.
Initially, Jane is the outsider in the series, coming to Monterey from Santa Cruz. She can barely afford a small place, but in this region, that’s still quite significant. The rest of the women live in multi-million dollar houses along the coast or in the woods. Their husbands have careers, and some of them do too. Occasionally, there are moments of reflexivity – and, perhaps, uncharacteristic subtlety – in which the very real differences among them (race and class) can mean anything at all, but most consistently the interactions among them are about flattening these differences.
Just as Big Little Lies doesn’t know what to do about class or race, it also doesn’t know what to do with the trouble of gossip. And gossip is the most important, most revolutionary part of the narrative, at many points, actively undoing and sabotaging the vision of feminism that the series eagerly imparts. Gossip is what unravels things. It slowly breaks apart the “lies.” But it cannot fulfill its promise, ultimately, because the series seems so unsure of what to do with the lying. Whereas at times, a moralistic overtone reveals itself, at others, the series is not quite anti-moralistic, but almost: it’s confused.
From the outset in Big Little Lies each woman harbors a secret. And each secret generates lies. Two of the primary secrets, in the first season, are focused on Celeste and Jane. In many ways, at least in the ways that their lives are organized, Celeste and Jane are quite different: Celeste is a career woman turned housewife, and Jane is a working single mother. Celeste has lived in Monterey for a long time, and Jane has just arrived. Celeste has money, and Jane does not. But by the end of the first season, we discover that they not only have their motherhood in common, but the same abuser. Their children – Celeste’s twins, Josh and Max, and Jane’s son, Ziggy – in fact share a biological father.
This extreme coincidence, almost supernatural, is part of the narrative logic of liberal feminism. Rather than render sexual abuse as systemic, Big Little Lies, at every turn, finds ways to individuate abuse – and by the second season, redeem it.
That Perry is ultimately found to be Jane’s rapist not only makes the series more closely a soap opera, but depicts the figure of the rapist in a highly selective, hyper-pathological manner. This missed opportunity is symptomatic. A more totalizing critique is always lurking in the series, which is what makes the singularity of “rapist” in Perry such a destructive turn. For multiple episodes leading up to his unveiling, however, rape is conceptualized with far more complexity and nuance. The threat of rape, that is, hangs over every moment of private life – or, more specifically, the private life of heterosexuality, from which moments of secrecy and solidarity between women can be somehow, and only at some points, differentiated.
In articulating the rapist as a singular, monstrous figure, the series firmly plants itself in the world of #NotAllMen. As soon as Perry’s monstrosity is revealed, all other men become exempt, and in some cases mildly heroized. If there is a moral compass in this world, in fact, it’s located in Ed, whose castration-marriage to Madeline not only justifies his hostility, but adheres to a common sensical anti-feminism that’s as pervasive as the Starbucksian-soulful-acoustic soundtrack.
#NotAllMen is where the series comfortably lands at the end of the first season, with Perry as the violent masculinity around which all else orbits. By the second season, however, it is around an evil mother figure that the narrative finds itself spiraling. From the moment of Perry’s murder – an incredible moment in which Bonnie pushes him down a flight of stairs, in doing so presumably saving Celeste – the series tips towards an incredibly dangerous iteration of carceral liberalism that brands itself, impeccably, ‘feminist.’
When Meryl Streep enters the cast in the second season — as Perry’s mentally unstable and grieving mother, Mary Louise — it’s as if the monster has become a sleeping prince. With Perry’s death, we are left only with terrible women. And to watch them, as the series would have it, is always to blame them. Whereas the first season veered between a radical feminist essentialism – a vision of “sex class” that is, in effect, an obscuring of class – and a #NotAllMen liberal feminism, the second season throws itself fully into the deep waters of misogyny.
Streep’s character, Mary Louise, is a “bad mother” to her core. And she is a “bad mother” first and foremost because she is a mother. She articulates, in her own way, the impossibility of the mother. “The mothers, if we could look into their fantasies – their daydreams and imaginary experiences,” writes Jacqueline Rose, “we would see the embodiment of rage, of tragedy, of the overcharged energy of love, of inventive desperation, we would see the machinery of institutional violence wrenching at the experience of motherhood.” This impossibility of motherhood, in Mary Louise, is never challenged, only elaborated.
As she grieves for her son, Mary Louise immediately suspects that he was murdered. While it was Bonnie who pushed Perry down a flight of stairs, all the women are implicated, and they are bound together by their lies. All of them were there that night, and all of them, because of their lies, are somehow, always already, guilty.
But guilty of what? The series is never quite sure. This specter of guilt in the second season, we eventually realize, extends to Mary Louise as well. Her grief over Perry’s death is overshadowed by the death of her other son, killed as a child in a car accident. The accident was – of course – Mary Louise’s fault. If this weren’t already the implication, a flashback pushes her villainy further: “Look what you made me do!” she yells to the young Perry, beside his dead brother in the backseat.
Mary Louise’s abuse of Perry becomes the organizing principle, in this sense, of the second season – absolving Perry’s misbehaviors in hindsight. As Perry’s childhood suffering comes to light, he is swapped out as the monster of the series. Streep is superb in this hysteric mode as monster, and I mean this as a criticism. It’s as if she loses sight of what’s at stake in this character throughout. She simply sinks her teeth into a deeply anti-feminist trope, never looking back.
If the thesis of the first season is #NotAllMen, then the thesis of the second season is #YesAllMothers. This is made painfullly clear with the appearance of Bonnie’s mother Elizabeth (Crystal Fox), a portrait of the black mother as both angry and magical that further clarifies the white supremacist concepts at work in this series’s brand of ‘feminism.’
Bonnie is by far the most compelling character, and by far the most unexplored. Within this narrative world, Bonnie’s feminism is the least compromised. But she can only be feminist in secret, just as she can only be black in secret. She is perpetually an outsider, whose blackness and feminism are both criminalized, season by season. Beginning with Perry’s death, Bonnie is imagined fundamentally not as feminist, not as black, but as a murderer.
When her mother is hospitalized, suffering and vulnerable, Bonnie takes on this mantle of murderer once again. This is as deep as the series wants to understand her. But Kravitz troubles her character at different junctures. In moments of quiet and withholding, Bonnie gains most clarity as a character. She is often found hiking, alone, leaving much unspoken. At the same time, so much revolves around her. While she does not have a substantial voice in the narrative, Bonnie’s actions speak for her — and she eventually extends this state of voicelessness to her mother, whom she suffocates, after becoming debilitated from a stroke. Her mother, perhaps in contrast with Perry, can be redeemed insofar as she can be let go.
Ultimately, what Big Little Lies cannot break beyond is its carceral imaginary, in which feminism will always be defined in relation to guilt. This includes the guilt of rapists, as well as the guilt of mothers. In doing away with its monster, Perry, the series not only finds in Mary Louise a more expansionary vision of monstrosity, but positions Perry as innocent in relation to a conspiring and murderous collectivity women. The economy of guilt shifts toward the question of who killed Perry, not why Perry was killed.
When Mary Louise is confronted with some of the details of her son’s routine physical, emotional, and sexual abuse of Celeste, she initially denies it. It’s much easier for her to pathologize Celeste. To the extent that she is the villain of this world, she is also its moral conscience. We see this in how the narrative vacillates between Celeste’s victimhood and complicity, with nowhere between. After Perry’s death, Celeste begins to abuse prescription medication and alcohol. She also engages in risky sex at a high frequency. One morning she wakes up while driving, after taking some ambien. And much of the time she finds herself missing and fantasizing about Perry, which she admits to her therapist. The result for her character is not nuance but obscurity. There are moments of outright victim-blaming. It’s as if she’s deprived of any expression outside the shadow of Perry’s abuse, and later on, the circumstances of his murder.
By the end of the second season, this carceral imaginary takes hold of everything, providing what might be the thesis-moment of the entire series — especially if, as is currently rumored, HBO does not commission another season. The conclusion, as it stands, suggests that the women have come together, despite conflicts that have ensued, in order to do the right thing. That is: they go to the police department, and they turn themselves in. Why can they do this? Because they are elite, lawyered-up women, who put trust in the legal system and the police-state, ultimately, to make things “right,” and, presumably, see their innocence.
The polemic of the series is that the state was never the problem — the problem was always the lies: the individual choices that these women made. Punctuating the first season, the Kavanaugh hearings loom throughout the second season. However professionalized and mostly white, there are plenty of reasons why these women should know very well that they will not be believed, no matter what. This, if anything, is what we can take away from Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony.
If Perry, in turn, were not a rich, white man, the stakes would not be so high for Bonnie, especially. Not only is she the one who actually pushed Perry down the flight of stairs, with the rest of the women cast as effectively witnesses, but she is the clique’s token black friend. The risks she has taken are never named as disproportionate to the other women. This is all left implicit, unspoken.
When the moment came, and we all know this, Bonnie did what the other women couldn’t do — and this implies, of course, a lot about her blackness and perhaps her ‘instincts,’ which the series fails to ever adequately acknowledge or reckon with either. At the same time, if Mary Louise is to be the series’ moral conscience, let Bonnie be its political unconscious. Her clarity and strength get at what many of us want a popular narrative like this one to articulate in the #MeToo era, but what we can’t expect the HBO regime of ‘quality television’ to ever quite deliver.
Through the course of the series, the lies get bigger and bigger. They grow from the couple-form, to the private household, to the state. The lies tell the story of a deeply troubled ‘feminism,’ and they declare that there is no way out.