Fighting Back Over Leaning In: HBO’s Big Little Lies as a Lesson in Feminist Solidarity

Fighting Back Over Leaning In: HBO’s Big Little Lies as a Lesson in Feminist Solidarity

As powerful men continue to fall in the wake of the viral #metoo movement, and as it has evolved into #TheirTimeIsUp, women are asking how to move forward in order to create a different world. I keep coming back to the critical possibilities of HBO’s Emmy and Golden Globe winning miniseries Big Little Lies. Single, working class mom Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) moves to the idyllic Monterey, California, a wealthy liberal enclave where tech elites can be assuaged by the fact that their beloved children get a “private education” for the “price of public school.” It becomes immediately clear that these “helicopter” parents will do anything for their children, begging the question, even murder?

Assuming it was yet another show about rich white people problems, I avoided it for the longest time. The last episode, however, makes it clear that if you think the show is about a bunch of bitchy women, the joke is on you.

Hiding Behind Beautiful Affluence

Affluence is practically its own character in Big Little Lies, but not uncritically. That’s part of the show’s brilliance. In the face of a litany of allegations against Hollywood elites, congressmen, and even the President of the United States, Big Little Lies flips the script in two major ways and provides a radical opening toward feminist solidarity. The first is the way women of privilege handle accusations that their sons are potential abusers. The second is by providing self-defense and mutual aid.

A group of actors in black evening wear stand on the stage at the Golden Globes. Reese Witherspoon is making an acceptance speech.
Actors from the show receive an award at the Golden Globes. (Big Little Lies/ © HBO)

The basic premise is that someone, whose identity and assailant remain unknown until the end, has been murdered at the extravagant annual fundraiser for the local elementary school. The series then flashes back to the beginning, and intersperses the narrative with sexist statements from the parents given to the detectives on the case. They amount more to gossip and speculation than helpful witness testimony, but this line delivered by one of the mothers stands out: “It wasn’t just the mothers, but the dads, too.” From the beginning, the show sows seeds of doubt about every character, suggesting the violent propensities of every man, woman, and yes, child.

The Power of Believing

The first crime happens during the elementary school orientation. CEO and paragon of Cheryl Sandberg’s “Lean in” philosophy, Renata Klein (Laura Dern), accuses Jane’s son Ziggy of strangling her daughter. Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon) vociferously defends Ziggy, while her best friend, elegant and reserved former lawyer Celeste Wright (Nicole Kidman), also welcomes Jane into their group. This is the first transgression across already blurred frenemy lines because Madeline and Celeste are part of the stay-at-home-mom posse, and yet they befriend working mom Jane.

All the while, we wonder if the three friends really do care for each other, and whether Jane (who sleeps with a gun under her pillow) and Ziggy might actually have skeletons in their closet. In doing so, the entire series plays off of the conditioned expectation that women fake friendship in order to undercut each other. What ensues is an escalation of drama between the moms (and dads), but the real action simmers below the surface with two subplots that will eventually converge.

Three white women sit at a cafe table.
Three of the main characters of the show, played by Shailene Woodley, Reese Witherspoon, and Nichole Kidman. (Big Little Lies/ © HBO)

Importantly, each woman takes seriously accusations of violence against a little girl, and accepts that the guilty may be among their own sons. And with love, each woman resolves to stop the behavior, again crossing enemy lines. Jane reveals her past of sexual assault, from which Ziggy is the product, and her newfound friends resolve to help her work through her trauma and potentially even find her perpetrator.

While Jane can’t help but wonder if Ziggy has violence in his DNA because of his father, she is skeptical that he harmed anyone. Nevertheless, she asks him lovingly several times, letting him know that they’ll work through it together, and she even takes him to a child psychologist to confirm that Ziggy is likely not the perpetrator.

Meanwhile, with the help of a therapist, Celeste gradually comes to admit to herself that her husband Perry is physically and emotionally abusive. Finally, Ziggy reveals to Jane that the abuser is one of Celeste’s twin boys, reinforcing that violence is learned, not genetic. That her son has perpetuated the cycle of abuse is what motivates Celeste to realize the consequences of staying with Perry. When Jane tells Celeste, she tries to reassure her by saying that “they grow out of it,” but Celeste knows that she can no longer live in a state of denial and counters with, “sometimes they don’t.”

Madeline navigates a tense co-parenting relationship with her ex Nick and his beautiful, bohemian wife Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz). The mounting conflict is not actually due to Madeline’s presumed jealousy, but to her resentment over Nick’s newfound dedication to parenting his daughter with Bonnie. Having sacrificed her own goals to carry the ‘mother load,’ Madeline now struggles with feelings of regret and self-worth. Bonnie is good natured, and also one of the only women of color, exoticized by men several times throughout the series as a sexy fitness instructor and reviled by other women.

Zoe Kravitz and Reese Witherspoon face eachother next to a blue Jeep, talking.
A scene featuring Kravitz and Witherspoon. (Big Little Lies/ © HBO)

The Seaside Matriarchy

The climax of the show is, of course, during the night of the fundraiser. Perry finds out that Celeste is planning to leave him, and although she manages to escape to the gala and find her friends, he eventually catches up to her. At this point, communication takes the form of unspoken words and furtive glances: Bonnie picks up on Perry’s abuse, taking it upon herself to hide behind a bush, and Madeline and Celeste realize by the look on Jane’s face that he is her rapist. When Perry realizes he has been found out, he lunges toward Celeste, and then it cuts to police lights. This silent communication indicates that #metoo was less a revelation to or between other women, but a collective and deafening cry to break the silence of what too many women know to be true.

One of the final scenes captures this odd group of women as they share a bucolic picnic and their children play together on the beach. It then cuts between images of crashing waves and Perry savagely beating the women, who fight back to stop him but are no match to his rage. Bonnie is more than something to ogle over or lust after, and instead, capable of saving lives. She charges Perry — a man at least twice her size — and decisively shoves him down a steep flight of stairs to his death. Far from victimizing or making a spectacle of violence against women, this otherwise horrifying scene is somehow rendered beautiful by the cinematography that reveres these women as they fight like hell to protect each other.

Finally, the viewer sees but cannot hear the women give their statements, except for Celeste saying that Perry tripped and fell. The detectives suspect that Celeste pushed Perry, and cannot understand why she wouldn’t admit to self-defense: “Involuntary manslaughter. Twelve months community service, she’s out in 6, good behavior, maybe 3” … “Why lie?” they ask incredulously.

Zoe Kravitz wears a silvery gown and tiara and sings into an old fashioned mic.
Kravitz’s character sings on stage in an evening gown on the night of the school fundraiser in the climax of the show. (Big Little Lies/ © HBO)

The camera then pans up to the detective smoking and observing them on a promontory. It ends with her continued confusion over the situation, made even more incomprehensible given the previous testimonies by the other parents. Working against essentialism, the show emphasizes solidarity across race and class outside of the police state. The notion that a woman should serve any time at all for defending herself is frankly absurd. Further, Bonnie might not receive the same treatment by the court system as a woman of color had she been revealed as the murderer.

Even though the detective is also a woman of color, the police state she operates within is founded on white supremacy and patriarchy. This goes without saying among the women who tell a “Big Little Lie” in the name of solidarity and autonomous self-preservation. In doing so, the women reappropriate silence to protect each other. It also reverses the white savior complex (always loud and boastful), for it is Bonnie who saves the white women in the most material way possible. This silence also nods to the work women, especially women of color, have always done in the background to ensure their own survival.

Watching the children playing together, it occurred to me for the first time that the children share parentage — especially paternity. Ziggy and Celeste’s twins share a father, Bonnie is a stepmother to Madeline’s oldest daughter, and Bonnie’s daughter with Nick and Madeline’s youngest play together as sisters and friends. And yet, the dads are inconsequential when it comes to women forming bonds of not just self-defense, but mutual aid and community.

These women would do anything for everyone’s children, not just their own. This amounts not to covering up the crimes of their husbands and sons, but radical honesty and early intervention to stop the cycle of abuse. The series definitively tells us that until rich white women stop protecting the abusers among them, (I’m looking at you white women, from liberal Lena Dunham to conservative Trump apologists), not much is likely to change. By the end, the line asserting that it was “the dads too,” takes on extra significance. The root of conflict between the moms was, in fact, the men, who inflict both minor and serious forms of violence. These mothers have forged unlikely friendships directly from the pain caused by men in their lives, but also from their commitment to each other and to raising feminist daughters and sons, together.

Initially intended as a stand-alone miniseries, HBO announced plans for a second season on November 9, 2017. Production is to begin in Spring 2018.

Paige Andersson is a PhD candidate in Romance Languages and Literatures at the University of Michigan. Her research focuses on ideologies of race and nature and their material effects in Mexico from the colonial era to the present. Her dissertation is titled, "The Only Way: Congregación and the Construction of Race and Land in Mexico, 1521-2017."