**Be warned, this article reveals details and spoilers about the series finale**
If you want to get to grips with the misogyny of the film and TV industry, you needn’t look further than Big Little Lies.
When the TV series was unveiled at the beginning of the year along with its female-led cast, it was pretty quickly dismissed as a cross between Desperate Housewives and The O.C. The Hollywood Reporter opened its review by calling it a “soapy melodrama [that] is more annoying than entertaining” and gave it a one-line round-up of “Rich white people problems, badly told”. The Daily Beast named it a “splashy, trashy thriller” about “the world of these horrible, vapid people”. All male writers FYI, but also three of the only publications who left their rather unevolved views up online.
And they probably left them up because that was kind of the point of the show. Perhaps we were supposed to question the motives of the gossipy “Greek chorus” of interviewees that (sometimes irritatingly) cut into each episode, who made wild and contradicting accusations about the female leads. But the truth is, these skewed representations of women we don’t know are so normal to us, that we (and the reviewers) immediately took them to be true.
In the first episode, the career moms are pitched against the stay-at-home moms, and, on a few occasions, it’s claimed that these women can’t let things go and are “like the Olympic athletes of holding grudges”. And we all thought “Okay, I know these women” – Celeste is the beautiful, haughty one, in this fiery, passionate relationship with her mysterious husband Perry; Madeline is the snapping pitbull who’s constantly looking to get in everyone’s face; Renata is the high-powered working mom who, as a result, has neglected her family. But really, we only know the stereotype of these women.
And that’s what the show’s writers were relying on. That we’d take the inane gossip, from both the preliminary reviews and the chatty Cathys in the police station, as fact.
About half way through the series, I kind of had an inkling about the two big twists – that Perry might be Jane’s rapist (they never had any scenes together and Jane was basically describing Celeste’s sex life when discussing her assault) and one of the twins was probably bullying Annabelle. And when they both transpired my first reaction was… disappointment.
But then I considered that final scene where we see all the female leads together in one shot, tied up in a murder. And it hit me. The twist wasn’t that Perry raped Jane and was shoved down a staircase by Bonnie as he kicked his wife repeatedly in the head. The twist is that these women are not the one-dimensional female caricatures that their neighbours, colleagues and the audience had them boxed in as. They’re vastly more layered than that. The series is an education on the perception versus reality of women and the bonds of female friendships.
This is most obvious with Nicole Kidman’s character, Celeste. From the outset, she looks to be in this fabulously erotic relationship with her husband, her colleagues and friends expressing different levels of jealousy at their steamy love life and beautiful home. But as the story begins to unfold, their relationship gets darker and the layers of intimacy, love and violence are revealed. Nor is it a cut and dry case of “he beats her, why doesn’t she just leave him?”. Both Kidman and Skarsgård give such a visceral, real account of an abusive relationship that we can’t help but instinctively empathise with both of them.
Celeste’s therapist tells her to get an apartment ready because they both know she’s “going to need it”, and the audience knows that too, but we’re also aware of the elemental pull the relationship has on Celeste and the grey area created by blame and guilt. It’s a depiction that has forever changed the on-screen representation of domestic abuse, a multi-layered relationship whose truth you can’t un-see or easily compartmentalise.
Had we seen a shot of all the female leads together at the scene of the murder in the show’s opening, we might have thought that one of them killed another in a fit of jealous fury. But the reality is that these women came together, tied by bonds that weren’t obvious but no less strong, at a time when they most needed one another. Even though you might have guessed details of the “major plot points” from early on, it was these complex, confounding, enthralling women who kept you coming back. They cannot be boiled down to their female typecast and the friendships they form are equally as powerful, vulnerable, honest, and profound.
This TV series is a shot into the heart of Hollywood’s portrayal of women as catty, competitive and superficial creatures, from which we can only hope there’s no turning back.