"Big Little Lies" and the Heart of Womanhood
Eds. note: The following contains spoilers for the recently released HBO series, "Big Little Lies."
Being a woman is complicated--just ask the women of HBO's series Big Little Lies. Set in gorgeous Monterey, California, the show's setting plays a large part in developing the narrative. The crashing waves and rising tides that lie just outside the women’s enormous glass houses testify to the waves of emotion and drama that sweep through both the women and their audience.
Madeleine, Celeste, Jane, Renata, and Bonnie are five women who, though in many ways quite different from each other, find themselves tied deeply together through a series of unfortunate events. The lies they tell, both to themselves and to their families, form a web that catches even the most nimble of them. In a town where everyone has money and privilege, it quickly becomes clear that real happiness is a distant dream.
While the women's various subplots vary in their level of intensity (Celeste, whose husband beats her, and Jane, a single mother of a boy who was the result of being raped, are the most severe), we see that every one of these women has serious issues in their lives. What is interesting, however, is how each of them chooses to deal with it.
On the surface, most of the women have it all—huge houses on the ocean, kids attending a prestigious school, high-powered jobs (or the memory of one), and loving husbands. Jane, being the newest mom, and the only one with no husband and little money, would be an outsider if it weren’t for her immediate friendship with Madeleine, who takes her under her wing. Bonnie, the new wife of Madeleine's ex-husband is also an outsider. She is just a little too perfect for the other women’s liking.
What Big Little Lies does best is reveal the many facets of being a woman. All of these characters are strong, and are, individually, a force to be reckoned with. Celeste was once a brilliant lawyer. Renata is a high-powered CEO. Madeleine is the center of the parenting world and places a strong foot in her community theater program. Jane is forging a new path for her and her son, and Bonnie is a carefree, surefooted yoga instructor who forms a tight bond with her step-daughter. And yet, each of them is plagued by insecurities—about their mothering, their careers (or lack thereof), about what they have and don’t have compared to each other.
Madeleine, though seemingly the central figure of the friend group, is tortured by the fact that her ex-husband seems to have “won” with a younger, more easygoing wife. She resents that her own daughter seeks advice from Bonnie, who seems to have none of the qualities that drove Nathan from Madeleine. Celeste, though fierce in court and a loving mother, is both emotionally and physically abused by her husband. Though she is afraid of him, she defends him to her therapist, and the thought of actually leaving him is utterly preposterous. And, we as viewers can understand both sides of the issue for these women.
The show does an excellent job of showing both the good and the bad parts of Celeste and Perry’s marriage. So, when they go to therapy together and Perry is extremely apologetic, it’s easy for Celeste to point to that as proof that he wouldn’t do anything to really hurt her, and he would certainly never hurt the kids. (Viewers later find out that it was one of the twins who was bullying Annabella, Renata’s daughter, and not Jane’s son Ziggy, like everyone thought, proving that children see and take in so much more than we often give them credit for.)
While Jane’s storyline of trying to remember and find her rapist ultimately comes to a close at the same time Celeste and Perry’s relationship comes to a head, I found Madeleine’s slow moral descent to be particularly interesting. Here is a woman to whom everyone else looks to in some way. She has it all—the loving, stable husband, the huge house, the community involvement, the most popular daughters, and loads of friends and money. But she is torn between the knowledge of her beautiful life, and her dissatisfaction with it. She cheats on her husband, loses touch with her daughter (until closing that gap by sharing her secret with her and dispelling any myth of perfectionism), and though keeping herself busy with parenting tasks, finds herself constantly pushing herself into others’ business, oftentimes stirring up drama (which she then feels guilty about later).
There is a beautiful scene when Celeste and Madeleine are in the car after Celeste, acting as Madeleine’s lawyer, has triumphantly won her case against Renata and the mayor who want to shut down Madeleine’s play. Celeste begins crying, because she felt so good--so herself--in that position of power but she feels incredibly guilty, saying, “It’s not enough for me. Being a mother is not enough for me.” It was that scene that felt like the thesis of the show.
Here are these women who have it all, but feel pressure to give up everything for motherhood. Then they are tormented by guilt when motherhood is not enough. Only in the privacy of a parked car do they feel free enough to admit that they want more from life. That they are not completely fulfilled. That there is more to them than just motherhood.
Being a woman in the 21st century is truly a complicated thing. Between believing we can “have it all” to feeling guilty for trying, women have more expectations placed on them than many of us even realize. We can strive for it all, only to find that we are disappointed with how that life looks. For others, giving up work for children is hardly a sacrifice at all. But to look at women like these five characters, and dismiss them as one-dimensional, does a serious disservice to the complexity of their gender. Because no matter how good life can look from the outside, we all have things we are struggling with. The many facets of a woman’s life determine so much more than we will ever see.