So considering the following facts; 1. Monterey, California is one of the places I grew up in (and where some of my immediate family and much of my storage still reside), and 2. I was a bonafide student, and am a self-proclaimed aficionado, of good drama, it’s quite lame that it took me so long to watch Big Little Lies… But better late than never, eh? What I also didn’t realize prior to starting the series, was that my investment in feminism also made the program an absolute ‘must watch’ for me. Suffice to say, I was in for a few epic surprises (which is kind of what the show, and my little piece on it, is all about).
Big Little Lies starts off/commences at a slow burn, but culminates in what is honestly the most epic, uplifting and bad ass hour of television, and drama for that matter, that I’ve watched in quite some time (The final episode of The OA is the only competition really).. And throughout the show’s thoroughly enjoyable narrative, some pretty important themes we rarely see dramatized today are addressed. These include, but aren’t limited to:
•the potential and power of female friendship (in all of its solemn, lesser-known, dark-side-of-the-moon, glory, as opposed to its more frivolous aspects, a.k.a. all that over-familiar, shopping/dating-centric stuff)
•victims taking ownership over their trauma rather than allowing their trauma to define them- responding constructively rather than destructively, however tempting the latter option may be.
•the necessary negotiation between parenthood and professional/artistic fulfillment that women are almost exclusively beholden to (men are expected to do/have both, women are expected to choose).
– and the HBO series deserves to be commended for simply broadcasting this content in the first place. But Big Little Lies goes much further, by both successfully incorporating these themes into what is, at bottom, just a damn good story, and conveying a firm, and frankly quite political, stance on the proceedings as well. Not only does BLL depict female-for-female/marginalized-for-marginalized ideologies being practiced, it endorses these mentalities and acts of solidarity.
Yet you don’t feel the full weight of these feminist and ethical slants until later on*, because nothing is actively confirmed or denied until the second half of the final episode. Obviously that choice, to wait until the eleventh hour to drop the information we’ve all been on the edge of our seats to obtain from the eleventh minute, has a lot to do with the nature of the show’s genre, but is also, I’d argue, synecdochical (part and parcel) of Big Little Lies’ fundamental genius. The show takes great care to set up, and seemingly confirm, certain expectations, that they then undermine, on multiple levels, for multiple purposes (to enhance the element of surprise, highlight and emphasize messages through analogy and retrospect/hindsight, finagle a wider general audience, make the twists less predictable and the conclusion even less so, etc), and this strategy begins with genre.
*(although the longer you watch the more you sense its presence, and the opening credits do, of course, provide a fairly substantial hint right off the bat, with their emphatic featuring of only the female and child actors)
A large chunk of my own hesitation to give Big Little Lies a shot, came from the show being touted as a murder mystery (a genre that already holds minimal appeal for me) in a #whitegirlproblems*** setting. But we’re intentionally misled here- after starting the show, one realizes pretty quickly this isn’t a traditional murder mystery. For one, the identity of the ‘victim’ remains as much of a secret as that of our ‘culprit’ throughout the episodes, but there are a couple other factors at play simultaneously too.
Whenever we begin and/or purchase any sort of fiction, whether it be a novel or film or television program, we engage in a transaction of sorts which entails our giving up time, effort/energy, and sometimes (nowadays) money, in exchange for a type of story that promises to meet our individual tastes and requirements. Genre helps us narrow our options down in the selection process- through categorization we can make choices based on what we already have tried and tested/know we like, and every genre comes with its own set of laws (per se) that fits our personal criterion to varying degrees. The ‘laws’ guiding any tale advertised as a mystery mainly involve the provision of enough legitimate clues for its viewer/reader to be able to deduce on their own (if they’re savvy/observant/clever enough, which we love to be challenged to prove): who did it, what happened, and why. But with Big Little Lies, two out of three of these components (who did it and what exactly happened) are nigh impossible to guess from the cornucopia of information proffered.
Normally when a crime story has a conclusion that we weren’t really able to figure out for ourselves, we feel let down and cheated. Nonetheless, Big Little Lies’ resolution is SO DAMN satisfying (to any viewer who isn’t a straight up misogynist, moron, and/or sociopath). Why is that? Because (in my opinion anyways), by the time the season finishes, we’re far more invested in the characters and their personal story arcs, than the trajectory of the mystery itself. And therein lies the cleverness: they ‘get’ you signing up for one thing, and before you know it, you’re engrossed in something else entirely.** Eventually we realize BLL only poses to be a murder mystery, a glorified soap ‘class’ed up by its accolade-heavy cast… In reality, the series is, at core, a psychological thriller and a socio-political treatise, that eventually belies the melodramatic premise that got you watching in the first place.
For what begins as a good old fashioned white privilege*** ‘whodunnit’, ends with a microscope pointed at the very hook of sensationalism that reeled many of their viewers in. And what we see on the other side of that microscope, tells us in no unclear terms:
The identities of the killed and the killer are insignificant when compared to the crimes we allow to occur, and the criminal ideologies we allow to perpetuate, in even the most affluent corners of civilization.
And much in the same way the series employs genre subversion to intensify the narrative’s, and (one of) the ‘moral of the story”s impact, so too are dramatic conventions exploited to a similar effect:
What begins as an almost unconscious parody of middle class intrigue (I at least felt, during the first couple of episodes, the show took itself a tad too seriously), evolves into a caustic commentary on the problematic perspectives (misogynistic/sectarian) dominating dramatic mediums (film/tv) today…
This is largely achieved through the way Big Little Lies structures its plot (the order in which the narrative is told), which I previously touched on when mentioning the show’s deliberate choice to withhold its major thematic intentions as long as possible. Other plotting devices employed to lull the watcher into a false sense of security/place, include finely tuned pacing and the even distribution of topical material. IE, only through a slow build-up/incline, a subtle and measured integration of typically not-so-subtle and urgently-asserted feminist agendas, does Big Little Lies enable itself to espouse those very agendas scot-free/with a soft, light hand. Take for instance the program’s handling of mother/daughter relationships-
We watch mothers and daughters discuss music and theatre instead of reality TV (ie art not mindless entertainment), discuss bullying and networking instead of boys and crushes (ie socializing children to be productive adults/professionals, not socializing girls to be enticing prospective mates/housewives), and even the more mundane/filler dialogue remains gender neutral (ie favours groceries/technology over cosmetics/clothes)*. Moreover, mothers stress to their daughters the importance of (and privilege that is) education, the responsibilities of victims and those possessing information (all while remaining entertaining no less!).
*sidenote/PS: The women who engage in petty hyper criticism of the outfit bashing vein, are notably all minor/’below the line’ characters-
nota bene/PPS: At the fundraising gala it is the obese woman who describes Maddie’s creative/non-obvious Audrey Hepburn/Holly Golightly costume as ‘desperate’ (ie aesthetic insecurities inculcated into women by the patriarchy/the beauty myth, breeds much of the female hostility/rivalry we’re all quite familiar with)…
And then to get right at the(my) heart of(in) the matter: the one teenage daughter and her mother (Abigail and Maddie) discuss sex only as it pertains to a political performance project for a feminist cause (a middle class white girl auctioning off her virginity to raise awareness and funds for Amnesty International’s fight against sex trafficking). This character arc should be applauded in and of itself, but is amazingly just one coruscating thread of enlightenment in the entire phosphorescent enlightening tapestry that BLL is woven into.. But to return to the latest, significantly less illuminated, thread of this, significantly less illuminating, essay…:
Despite the audience not being used to seeing these kinds of topics focused on by women/girls on screen, these scenes nonetheless never really feel unusual or heavy-handed to us at any point, for two reasons (I’d posit): 1. Yes, in fact many real mothers and daughters have these conversations in their real homes, and it is only their disproportionate and skewed depictions within popular dramatic mediums that would have us believe otherwise…
2. Again, the status quo is rejected at a quiet and gradual pace, so we don’t recognize the peculiarity of the perspective, the dramatic sedition, while it’s happening.
The witness statements in the interrogation room, which are peppered throughout the episodes, combine to act as a more overtly manipulative plotting mechanism, and also demonstrate how pivotally Big Little Lies uses sequencing. From Episode One the events of the story unfold non-linearly, we jump back and forth from the pre-crime timeline to the post-crime one, but in the ‘after-the-fact’ scenes, we only ever receive the P[oint]O[f]V[iew]s of third parties, those not directly involved. These ‘objective’ members of the community report to us that ‘So-and-so hates so-and-so because of this this and that’, and ‘Everyone knows she‘s a fake bitch and she‘s a manipulative schemer and she‘ll do whatever it takes to get her way’, influencing thereby the theories we the viewers are in the process of concocting… Their hypotheses, like ours (probably), are ultimately proven to be at direct odds with the truth (and reflect our own ignorant complicity with toxic inaccurate stereotypes, but more on that later). But in the meantime, these outside observers brought in for questioning, serve as a kind of Greek chorus, gradually corroborating or inspiring the automatic presumptions we ourselves make. And so we observe another dramatic trope the show relies on, and then reverses, to get across a point within a point:
Every person’s private life is far more complex, nuanced and inter-connected than they appear, than what surfaces, and fiction, usually suggest. And as spectators speculating beyond the ‘advantage’ of the fourth wall, we are still as fooled and foolish as the gossips and ‘extras’ spectating and speculating from within that fourth wall.
And this pattern in BLL, of reinforcing that which it subsequently disproves, extends beyond dramaturgical constructs to offer a discourse on the constructs built into society itself… All kinds of familiar social scenarios are laid out for us to root our guesswork in, and range from extra marital affairs, to domestic abuse, to child custody battles and masculinity projection battles, to maternal jealousy to spousal/romantic jealousy to fiscal jealousy to career jealousy*. The audience takes the bait, becomes convinced that the answers to the mysteries must lie within the parameters of these traditional social/cultural constructs we already know so well, which BLL has firmly installed its story in. Of course the grain of truth is contained in one of these constructs as much as it is in all of them, but never (obviously) in the predictable way (the constructs are there to be deconstructed). And, pertinently, the majority of the theories we’re encouraged to back, concentrate on the relationships and drama that fall under the umbrella of female rivalry, i.e.:
• Maddie ‘the full time mom’ VS Renata ‘the working mom’ in schoolyard politics
• Jane ‘the struggling single mother’ VS Renata ‘the married mother w. the husband, petition-peddling sycophant, and clout of money and status, for support’ in classroom/parent-teacher battles
• Maddie ‘the other woman’ VS Tori ‘the wife’
• Bonnie ‘the young sexy second wife’ VS Maddie ‘the uptight scorned first wife’
• Bonnie ‘the young sexy second wife’ VS every married woman in the community who’s noticed the connection between Bonnie’s presence and a ‘room  full of erections’
• Celeste the ‘ideal woman in the ideal marriage with the exciting sex life and young handsome husband’ VS every envious, petty, and insecure woman in the community
By setting up all of these potential motives revolving around women turning against their fellow women, Big Little Lies exploits the ingrained sexist stereotypes that many of its viewers inevitably harbour. And like the members of the community interviewed by the police symbolize the dubious yet standardized voice of the masses, every suspicion-rousing scene of female rivalry contains a denunciation of an unsound bias, failing, or derivative/incorrect view society holds in regards to gender. All of the little details and moments by which everyday sexism exists and feeds off of, often needs to be pointed out before most of us see/recognize it for what it really is, before we can actively begin trying to eschew and correct them with our own words, choices, actions, behavior, etc… And so that’s exactly what BLL does. For as soon as the conclusions jumped to by us and ‘them’ are proven false, the show has alerted us of the myriad of misogyny we participate in without noticing, every single damn day, in a dozen different ways.
Thus, by banking on its audience’s preconceptions of genre, that genre’s pre-established format, and that format’s corresponding subject matter, BLL is able to highlight on a multi-dimensional level (dramaturgically and viscerally), what is arguably at the heart of any good/truthful mystery; things are not always what they seem, in either form or content. And with a single stroke- the scenes of various female characters at the throats of other female characters for various predictable reasons- red herrings are planted, inculcated everyday sexism is called out and overturned*, while realism is maintained all the while.
*in the BLL world at least, and even there only for now, until Meryl Streep[‘s character] presumably uses Meryl Streep’s super powers to restore chauvinism to fictional Monterey. I’m really hoping not though, or if so, for the ‘greater good’ of exemplifying: this is how messed up the patriarchy vortex is, one big little step towards progress and everything that is right and good and true, is vacuumed up by the vortex because one of our own betrays us, because an epic smart badass woman with loads of the force in her, was chewed up by the system and turned to the dark side (being smarter and better than our male enemies can help us beat them, but we still can’t beat the system).. but also this is pure speculation here, not anything resembling ‘spoilers’ (unless I have gifts which have heretofore remained latent).
As already mentioned, the show tackles problems faced, and experiences lived by actual women, that are widely ignored by the media and entertainment industries in their representation of women. The most imperative of these (according to me) is the illustration of how beautiful and formidable female fidelity can be, and BLL manages to portray this without ignoring the foremost obstacles the system has in place to thwart women supporting one another. Furthermore, BLL takes advantage of those obstacles, permeating its context with an accurate facsimile of the problematic prejudices present in the real culture of the real world, that then allows them to expose those very prejudices to a powerful and staggering final effect.
For, at the end, we discover that it is not, in fact, female rivalry that explains the murder, but its opposite; great, sincere, and serious female friendship (as pertains to men only in woman’s emancipation from, rather than desire for/attachment to, them). And that’s pretty cool. And also another iteration of the refrain: Big Little Lies augments the problematic belief systems and discriminations still infecting so much of the Western world, so that when they undermine them, we are all the more poignantly confronted with our own misguided subscriptions to these misguided ideologies, as well as reminded of our own impressionability.
And it is, of course, also in the final reveal, that the series’ penchant for subversion is most effectively and integrally emphasized. Our ‘victim’ is actually the indisputable villain, while our ‘perpetrator’ is a courageous, unlikely yet undeniable, hero. Only with this revelation is a new and better light shed, and veritable doctrines expressed, on everything that has come before. Most importantly, the depictions of the power of female partnership and the triumph of self-empowered victims are now attached to loud and clear messages; an implicit promotion of the former and a condemnation of the necessity for the latter. But the added dimensions affect other topics as well.
Take the policewoman’s character as an example- For six and a half episodes she is pretty void of connotation, she is neither good or bad, a seemingly impartial archetype who inspires nothing but apathy, or that little twinge of resentment some people (myself included) feel towards American law enforcement (or just any figure of authority really) in general. Of course that all changes as soon as we’re told what’s up in the final episode… I doubt that, after ‘the cat’s out of the bag’, that I was the only viewer who passionately loathed her, was enraged at this FEMALE police officer’s determination to identify, and thus ultimately punish, those responsible for ridding civilization of one more rapist and wife-beater, AFTER the case was closed… Neither do I think I was the only one who extrapolated that this character intentionally and appropriately represented the skewed logic and backwards ‘morality’ of many members of our law enforcement, the criteria they’re instructed to follow, and just our current broken justice system as a whole. But that partisan implication was waiting in the bud all along, its pollen imperceptibly releasing into the atmosphere until the flower bloomed in a couple of spectacular minutes.
It is also the final revelation that of course definitively unravels everything we thought we knew about mystery, stories, structural social and cultural norms, (ie everything I’ve just gone over) and, to a certain extent, in certain cases, ourselves. I know I personally was guilty of considering some solutions to the mystery based on fundamentally sexist notions, over the course of watching the show, ie; Maybe Renada did it, she can get ‘hysterical’. Maybe it was Jane, she ‘can’t control her emotions’. Even though my intuition tells me she’s a good and sensitive person at heart who, for all other intents and purposes I’d never dream capable of killing if push came to shove, well, she does have a temper… Though I’d of course NEVER blame her for doing it- the adjectives I boxed her complex character in is what reeks of sexism, the way I let BLL puppeteer me to ignore my own femalepower scruples, is how I disappointed myself there.
So, to sum it up: Big Little Lies plays on the expectations built into our psyches by the canon of fiction, the gender schemata embedded into our ways of perceiving/processing by the patriarchy, and the harmful ideologies cultivated in our psyches by social conditioning. The last episode thusly leaves us, hopefully, triumphant yet unsettled, questioning our vulnerability to external influences (the media, the establishment, ideological pretexts, peer pressure), and totally inspired. I use the word ‘inspire’ in two senses. The first; the passive kind experienced when we witness something exceptional that rouses our admiration because it is so rare/good/awesome and/or sublime. The second; the active kind experienced when you learn about something that’s really freaking scary, urgent, and/or messed up, that motivates you to get your ass into gear ASAP to try to stop, change, and/or DO something about it (‘An Inconvenient Truth’ anyone?). And I really felt like BLL accomplished all that (though to an admittedly lesser extent than Al Gore).
Last stray thought: My favourite part of the show is far and away its celebration of how badass and gorgeous the female support system can be when afforded the chance. And there’s an implicit highlighting there, of the unbalanced double standards gender homogenous friendships are beholden to, that I really appreciate as well. What I mean by that is; where there has always been a culturally ubiquitous concept of brotherhood, there has never been an idea of sisterhood in place.
To elaborate, while continuing on topic (television), I’ll reference another of TV’s recent bests.. There’s a scene in season two of The Crown that touches on exactly this phenomenon. Princess Margaret’s husband basically assumes Prince Philip came up with a poor excuse to cover marital infidelity, and tells the Queen’s husband to turn to him the next time he needs an alibi as he’ll readily provide a superior one due to “boys club” and all that. These two men are not friends, have nothing in common besides having married into the royal family (ie inferiority complexes), this is their first one-on-one scene together, and yet at least one of them is unquestioningly ready to throw his queen and his own wife under the bus for a brother-in-law he doesn’t even particularly like or respect, simply because he has a penis too. With two words, ‘boys club’, an entire institution of automatic male collusion, a long history of unspoken male complicity, is instantaneously conveyed. And it’s as normal as can be, translated across five and a half decades because, duh, it’s so obvious and universally understood, no one bats an eyelid at it until… unless…. you actually THINK about it. And then you’re like… Seriously?!
There is literally an institutionalized concept of men covering one another, even when they hardly know each other. No prior knowledge of character or proof of integrity required because lack of character in certain respects is expected, and actually sort of one of the main points of the ‘boys club’… There is an unofficial contract and account of loyalty the majority of men more or less have signed and almost all men can draw on at will, by default of their gender. And what do girls have? Well, let’s just take one tiny example from 2018 to diagnose the level of female fidelity us women can depend on…
I finished Big Little Lies a few days after the Golden Globes (again I’m late to the game- at least with BLL I’m being somewhat timely considering Season Two filming is now underway…), and quickly learned via instagram about the #whyiwearblack and #timesup movements that had used the awards ceremony as a platform and loudspeaker to promote messages of female solidarity. Excellent. More than that actually. Tears genuinely came to my eyes I was so moved, and I proceeded to google search the golden globes so I could read full length articles on how the event played out. Imagine my dismay to see the very first thing that popped up was a Huffington Post article entitled ‘Angelina Jolie throws shade at Jennifer Aniston at Golden Globes’.
W.T.F. This is the headline I get, when looking up what was supposed to be a landmark event for feminism in the entertainment industry?! I was so flabbergasted at this insane level of irony; an article ostensibly ‘reporting’ on an occasion intended to celebrate women supporting women focuses on pitting women against women… that I could barely spare a moment to disparage the editors apparently so incompetent and mentally deficient as to miss said irony entirely. But that is how deeply embedded misogyny is in the collective consciousness, even manifested in the most blatant form, it is not only propagated, but goes unnoticed. But guys get their ‘boys club’, and that’s just a given, yet another perk/bonus of having balls. Unfair doesn’t even BEGIN to cover it….
And BLL touches on all this in a really lovely way, saying; Look, girls are not preconditioned as boys are to have each other’s backs, and so it often takes extreme or unusual circumstances for them to really trust/get behind one another, but if/once they do, they’ll be bonded for life.. Female loyalty is an untapped power source, not just in the battle against sexism and assault but in life, that desperately needs to be taken advantage of. And it’s the duty of women and victims alike to integrate this (practically foreign) concept into standardized behaviour until it becomes the new norm.
Daniel and I recently had a conversation about our childhoods/grade school, and if/how bullying factored into them at all. What we discovered was, that while he’s had experience with minor actual/tangible bullying (kids ganging up to tease/make fun of him) where I don’t, I experienced a more abstract, sinister kind. Girls are often cattier and subtler than boys; to their credit, they (or the ones I associated with) didn’t usually belittle kids that were ‘uncool’ or ‘weird’ really, mainly because they reserved their nastiness for other girls/those within their social circles. And although I personally couldn’t tell you one bad thing that was said about me by friends or friends of friends, I can sure as hell tell you there were absolutely occasions when I knew these girl’friends’ were saying negative things about me… Which is especially crappy when you consider that our guesses for this kind of thing are often much worse and more demeaning, and always more plentiful, than whatever the truth is.. Upon getting some rendition of this, Daniel remarked that he couldn’t imagine how crappy and unsettling having pals gossip/bully him would have been, that that was something he had never had to worry about. His friends had always been his friends, had always been there for him, and were part of what helped him get through the couple cases of bullying he’d dealt with.
Girls don’t have each other’s backs we talk behind one another’s backs.. And if girls can’t trust each other, then they automatically are inclined to trust men, who usually will always trust/put each other first and should therefore be automatically less worthy of our trust.. but you eliminate yin early on and unfortunately you’re left with the yang. So fuck the rivalry, bring on the sorority (while we’re at it, can we also emancipate this word from its connotations as a pretext for binge drinking/partying/brain-cell killing, and elevate it to what fraternity meant back when an education alone was enough of a privilege and incentive to attend university, ie before popularity took precedence brains, wit, talent, kindness, bravery, etc.?? Thanks.) Now don’t get me wrong, I’ve been as guilty as the next lass of wrongly antagonizing women, and I’m trying my best not to write this from a Clydesdale (as Madeline would say) or any raised elevation whatsoever, but rather, to remind myself, and the family member and/or friend who might have the patience to read this and get this far:
•why we must stay on top of these problems
•why we can’t keep putting off and deferring the women’s cause to the pressing little articles of every day life maintenance
•why we need to call ourselves out on our slips, mistakes and each occasion in which social conditioning gets the better of our true individual minds/thoughts, opinions, and emotions
•why must be incessantly vigilant, against ourselves most of all
•why we must always always always remember to be on our fellow woman’s side…
Okay. That’s ‘all’. For now.
As such, at the end of the day I’m grateful that BLL was advertised as something too conventional to trigger my intrigue initially, otherwise the show would likely not have garnered the audiences they did, some of which, in truth, were/are more necessary to penetrate, and expose to, the messages espoused. Moreover these messages also wouldn’t have been as pleasurably received even to myself/the choir being preached to, had the show announced its glaring statements from the get go.
To clarify, when I refer to feminism in this I’m technically discussing first world feminism, as the atrocities and grotesque hardships faced by many non-Western women and girls more accurately fall under the territory of feminism mixed with (fundamental) human rights..
Women of the western world are profoundly lucky not to have to contend with the most heinous effects of sexism that most third world women do, to name a few; the fear/possibility of being abducted, forced or sold into sex slavery or murdered by a family member in the name of ‘honour’ or being violently raped and then punished for it, everything that being a citizen of a country that sanctions domestic and gender-based violence and child marriage results in, illiteracy, limited to nonexistent civil liberties and divorce/inheritance/child custody rights, etc- and that absolutely needs to be acknowledged.
But that shouldn’t diminish or trivialize the chauvinist-riddled plight of the modern Western woman, even though it does pale in comparison to the generally substantially severer plights of third world women. Yes we are so privileged and so much better off in terms of gender equality than these beyond tragic and unjustly treated women, but we are also still vulnerable to the full panoply of violence and rape men can and do physically inflict upon us. And just because those acts are legally crimes where we live, does not mean the many of the perpetrators won’t get away with those crimes scott free.
To address BLL’s blindingly white cast: unfortunately, Hollywood still consider white women to be the face/totem of the group this brand of Western feminism applies to, despite the fact that western women exist in a spectrum of colours and skintones. However Big Little Lies has at least a modicum of justification for this in that it (again) eventually punctures the very stereotype it initially upholds. Our one non-white female character (and one of two non-white actors in the whole cast listed during the title sequence) is established in a generic ‘token’ character capacity, but ultimately has the most pivotal and active role in the finale’s climax (which could conceivably excuse some of her semi-offensive one-dimensional characterization; in that BLL was trying to siphon some conjecture away from her yoga-toned shoulders?).
And let’s also not forget that #firstworldproblems are, for most of us (and by ‘us’ I mean those with the leisure time to write and/or read essays like this, or watch shows like BLL), the only kind of problems we’ve probably encountered/experienced firsthand (lest we become hypocrites or succumb to white savior complexes)..