Let’s talk about Big Little Lies—because who isn’t? HBO’s newest star-studded mini-series wrapped up this month, but talk of the show’s addictive storyline and characters has been reverberating in articles, blogs, social media posts, and coffeeshop conversations since the first episode aired in February. With Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley as the leading ladies, a killer soundtrack that’s already been analyzed by the Atlantic and Esquire, and a storyline that revolves around deception, sex, beautiful moms, and their adorable little kids, it was probably safe to say from the get-go that the show would be a success (for what it’s worth, it holds a 92-percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes). But as viewers settle into these familiar TV tropes, it becomes clear that the cat fights, extramarital affairs, and even the murder mystery take a backseat to what’s quickly revealed to be the show’s core: Underneath the glitz and glam of the characters’ everyday lives, fresh wounds are created and old ones re-opened as the women’s narratives are threaded together by sexual violence—and for female viewers, these secrets may unfortunately be the most relatable part of the series.
Before we go any deeper into this, I’d like to make clear that major spoilers follow. So if you haven’t done so yet, go ahead and binge for a few (or seven, no judgement here) hours—this article will be here when you get back.
On the surface, Big Little Lies portrays itself as another soap opera centered around wealthy, mostly white women who, whether they’re stay-at-home moms or high-powered executives, spend a lot of time worrying, gossiping, and fighting over drama that always seems to circle back to their children’s school in picture-perfect Monterey, California. There’s a whodunit murder mystery, the incredibly beautiful moms are hyper-competitive and classic “mean girls,” the guys are pretty much clueless, no one wears the same outfit twice, there’s a little karaoke here and spontaneous dance party there, and it’s HBO, so there are obviously some sex scenes thrown into the mix. But as Kidman, Witherspoon, and Woodley’s characters learn more about each other, the viewers become privy to what’s actually going on behind closed doors.
Nicole Kidman’s Celeste is one-half of a fairytale marriage. She’s a former lawyer who stays at home (a beachfront mansion, to be exact) to care for their little towheaded twin boys, while her younger, attractive, PDA-prone husband Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) jets off to important meetings around the world. As the story unfolds, however, viewers learn that Celeste is a victim of constant marital rape by Perry. Their marriage seems to suffer from the highest highs and the lowest lows, as power constantly shifts between the two. After weeks of suburban marital bliss, the pattern goes, something will set Perry off, he’ll spark an argument, and then begin to brutally beat his wife. Before the fight is finished, it’ll usually turn sexual, and as Emily Nussbaum’s piece in the New Yorker points out, Celeste appears to consent, at least in part, so that she doesn’t have to admit to herself that her lack of consent wouldn’t stop her husband in the first place. In time it’s made clear that this sexual violence is a cyclical, terrifyingly integral part of the couple’s marriage.
Jane, Shailene Woodley’s character, is a young single mom with a mysterious past. She displays a clear, unconditional love for her young son Ziggy. But when rumors spread that Ziggy is physically bullying a girl in his class, Jane is distraught that events from her past are re-surfacing in her son’s behavior. Although Jane openly shares that Ziggy’s father was never really a part of her life, she reveals to her female friends that this one-night stand was actually rape, and her one and only interaction with her aggressor was the night her son was conceived.
As the series progresses, Celeste’s growing fear over Perry’s violence moves to the forefront of the storyline, and Jane seems to become increasingly concerned about how her past abuse may be affecting her son’s behavior. The women’s fear, aggression, and intense desire to regain control of their own lives comes to a head in the final episode. Over the course of a few moments, Perry grows violent toward Celeste in public (the first time we see this happen), Jane discovers—and reveals—that Perry is her rapist as well as Ziggy’s father, and a fourth and otherwise peaceful female character, Bonnie, on witnessing Perry’s vicious attack on Celeste, pushes Perry over a ledge and to his death.
In a show where the female characters exert a good bit of energy drawing lines in the sand and making their friends pick sides, the series’ climactic scene is an undeniable display of female solidarity. This unity over something as ugly and destructive as sexual violence is where viewers’ empathy for these dynamic, troubled characters is at its peak. There’s Jane, the survivor of one brutal night of sexual assault, who has recurring nightmares of her own son turning violent, and fantasizes about killing her rapist. Celeste, who lives in a constant state of denial and fear: denial that the rape woven into her marriage is more than just a manifestation of her husband’s passion for her, and fear of the triggers that will set him off. Madeline (Witherspoon’s character and the ladies’ third musketeer), who empathizes with Jane over her pain, but remains in the dark about the dangerous secrets of her best friend’s marriage. And then there’s Bonnie, a woman outside of their circle of trust who, regardless, makes one of the most decisive and important decisions in the show.
With this complex narrative, Big Little Lies rings with an eerie, at times cathartic familiarity among female viewers. We watch the show to escape to a world of beautiful people in a beautiful place behaving scandalously, and we’re brought back down to reality as we see our sisters, our friends, and ourselves in the characters’ never-too-distant proximity to entrenched gender expectations and sexual violence. Big Little Lies’ viewers are exposed to a group of women for whom sexual violence transcends class, age, and socio-economic status in devastatingly destructive ways. And we’re reminded that this sort of violence can monopolize women’s thoughts—burrowing down and manifesting as our darkest of secrets.
Yet it’s also clear that while sexual violence may be something that transcends traditional boundaries and connects otherwise separated women, that is no consolation. Big Little Lies does not present finding common ground in sexual assault as a kumbaya moment of campfire unity. For instance, even though Celeste has secured her own apartment and is ready to leave Perry, and even though Jane is finally beginning to move forward romantically, the scars of their experiences can’t be so easily stitched up.
We’re living in a world where contemporary notions of womanhood seem to exist in near-exact opposition to one another. While millions of women in January felt compelled to march together in pink knit hats to display to our president that “pussies fight back,” the dominance/submission and sadism/masochism of 50 Shades of Grey still fuels people’s sexual fantasies and rakes in hundreds of millions of dollars in book and ticket sales. Yet with Big Little Lies, we finally have a strong, successful pop-culture example of a show that gives viewers the opportunity to be absorbed in a TV world—and also be reminded of a reality where gendered violence can leave the deepest of wounds and cause the most expansive of ripples in every aspect of someone’s world, no matter how hard they may try to subdue it. I, for one, applaud Big Little Lies for curating a compelling narrative around a group of strong female characters who lean on each other for support and ultimately fight to regain control of their own lives—all without belittling or sugarcoating what is, at its core, a tale of the complexities of womanhood.