Jessa Crispin’s Why I Am Not a Feminist: A Feminist Manifesto asserts “If by declaring myself a feminist I must reassure you I am not angry, I pose no threat, than feminism is definitely not for me. I am angry. And I do pose a threat.”
The heavily hyped and yet somehow undersold HBO miniseries Big Little Lies begins with a murder. From there we go back to the beginning, when young and relatively poor mother Jane (Shailene Woodley) is introduced as the newcomer to an affluent California beach community and its reigning women: Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), and Renata (Laura Dern). Each woman is the mother of at least one first grader all attending the local (and undoubtedly excellent) school. Madeline is trying to get a production of Avenue Q past the small town censors, Celeste and her husband are just having so much sex, Bonnie is the new sexy yoga instructor in town (and married to Madeline’s ex), and Renata is a very entitled helicopter mom who is convinced that Jane’s son bit her daughter. But there it is again- that splash of violence. It’s at this moment we have to ask ourselves a question: what is the murder doing in here? The presence of the murder is where the genius of Big Little Lies hides. For the first few episodes it can seem jarring to be ostensibly watching a cozy beach read that is interspersed with little pockets of violence reminding you that someone is going to get murdered. Jane’s son Ziggy denies that he bit Renata’s daughter Amabella, leading to a good old fashioned class showdown. You think you are watching an episode about Madeline stirring up trouble to punish her old rival Renata, luring the kids away from Amabella’s birthday party by promising them tickets to Frozen on Ice instead. But someone is actually abusing this six year old and she has the bruises to prove it. We quickly learn that Jane was violently raped and Ziggy is her son from that encounter. Jane has a gun under her pillow and every time Ziggy startles her awake because of a bad dream there’s a moment where she conflates the child and his father.
And so it goes with each woman. There’s an atmosphere laid atop the soapy catfighting and female bonding. It’s like a storm is gathering and heat lightning keeps flashing in the corner of our eye. Celeste’s husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) is indeed a dish and they are indeed having a lot of sex. Every encounter hovers in the liminal space between consensual and rape, catching the audience right as they’re enjoying the scene and dealing them a swift punch in the gut. Perry beats the shit out of Celeste on a regular basis. She goes through the whole gamut of grief trying to find a way to make that situation acceptable.
As a viewer you come to see how constant the threat of violence is in these women’s lives, even as you see how unspoken that threat is. Jean-Marc Vallée, the director, highlights the undercurrent of male on female violence incredibly well. Jane’s rape is presented to us over and over. She imagines herself running after her rapist on the beach, cocktail dress torn, often with a gun in her hand but unable to catch him and unable to remember his face. This first violent act is mirrored in the accusations her son faces and then magnified in the increasingly unbearable scenes between Celeste and Perry. Throughout the series even smaller acts of violence are held accountable for their ubiquity. When one character’s ex lover pulls away from her violently during an argument I visibly flinched. Vallée does not let his characters get away with calling violence “passion,” instead indicting them for behavior that is unacceptable.
By the last episode, the audience must have been begging for the storm to fully break and provide them with relief. A murder seemed inevitable. But just like in S-Town, the murder was the tease but not the point. In fact, I imagine you can guess at each mystery before you start that last episode and if you’ve been paying attention you probably won’t be wrong. The point, it turns out, is that these women are not going to reassure you that they pose no threat. These women live with an undercurrent of male violence running through their lives and we are here to watch them deem that unacceptable. Six year-old Amabella experiences it. Bonnie’s young daughter screams in anguish when she sees it. It’s there when Madeline’s husband Ed complains they don’t have good sex like Celeste and Perry. It’s there when Renata and her husband have loud sex in his office and from the outside, you can’t really tell if they’re screwing or fighting. In the end, Big Little Lies is a meditation on female friendship as a bulwark against unacknowledged violence. And it’s a damn good one.