Image made by Laura Elizabeth Hand, CC’19
Content Warning: sexual assault
As everyone reels from the news about Harvey Weinstein, the question of inequality for women in Hollywood finds itself once again at the forefront of conversation. Behind the camera, women are coming forward with stories of sexual assault, and we’re finally engaging in a conversation that should have begun years ago. But… what about in front of the camera?
In her acceptance speech at last month’s Emmys, Best Actress winner Nicole Kidman explained that she and Reese Witherspoon produced Big Little Lies to create “more great roles for women.” She was met with thunderous applause acknowledging her role in Lies as “great.” But I was lost.
Over the summer, I binged-watched probably hundreds of episodes of television and saw every movie in theaters. And there were, indeed, great female roles. Elisabeth Moss’s Offred was a strong feminist, Kimmy Schmidt made her way to college, Wonder Woman dominated at the box office, Anne of Green Gables made a triumphant return to television, and the women of This Is Us, Veep, The Crown, and so much more were complex and inspiring.
But when I turned to Kidman’s Big Little Lies, I couldn’t help but gasp at the tireless repetition of sexist tropes and same old plotlines. For those who don’t know, Big Little Lies follows four different mothers in an upper-middle class suburban town. Madeline, played by Reese Witherspoon, is the town gossip and an overbearing and self-centered mother. Jane, played by Shailene Woodley, is a single mom, new in town, with a troubled past. Her son, Ziggy, gets into trouble with Renata Klein, the hard-working businesswoman whose daughter claims Ziggy hurt her. And Kidman’s character, Celeste, is a stay-at-home mom who’s hidden the truth about her abusive husband for years.
If you look at the logline, you may buy Kidman’s claim about “great roles for women.” Save for perhaps Witherspoon’s one-dimensional character (who’s literally portrayed as if Elle Woods just grew up a tiny bit), the rest of the women indeed seem complex. But rather than focusing on the crux of the women’s troubled stories, the show spends the bulk of its time rehashing the fight fight between Jane and Renata’s children. While the fight begins with a serious accusation, before long it becomes clear that Ziggy didn’t hurt Renata’s daughter, and that the fight has spiraled into an all-out war over who works harder: the working moms or the stay-at-home moms. By the end of the first episode, everyone in town has taken sides, and suddenly it’s like you’re watching a glorified version of a middle-school cat fight, but with birkin bags instead of friendship bracelets.
The subplots are equally uncompelling, and wouldn’t pass the Bechdel Test if you gave them all the leeway possible. Madeline can’t seem to get her new husband to get along with her old one, or convince the town to let her put on a production of Avenue Q. These are ridiculously privileged problems, yet the show makes them out to be as dramatic as the abuse Celeste is experiencing at home. Madeline finally connects with her teenage daughter by admitting that she cheated on her new husband. Oh great, isn’t that wonderful motherly guidance? Meanwhile, Renata doesn’t have sex often enough with her husband, and her poor daughter can’t get enough kids to come to her million-dollar birthday party.
But while all this is happening, the only two characters with the possibility for a compelling subplot also fall short. A few episodes into the series, we learn that Jane was raped and she fears that Ziggy will inherit his father’s violent tendencies, but this intriguing storyline barely gets any airtime. Celeste finally works up the nerve to go to a therapist, and the show’s only truly “great” female moments are in Kidman’s painfully accurate portrayal of a woman struggling to come forward about abuse. When Celeste finally decides to leave her husband, the depiction of women on the show finally feels empowered.
But within one episode, everything swings back again. In the final scene, at a ridiculously over-the-top school function, Celeste’s husband discovers she’s leaving and starts to hit her. Coming to her defense, Madeline, Jane, Renata, and one other woman hit him back, and we learn that Celeste’s abusive husband was the man who raped Jane all those years ago. Finally, the women accidentally push him over a cliff and kill him. It was an act of self-defense, and the audience breathes a sigh of genuine relief and hope for Celeste’s brighter future.
But then, they deny the murder. In talking to the police, not one woman comes forward with the truth. He simply fell, they say. In talking to the police, not one woman comes forward with the truth. Why? I’m not sure. In their silence, the women of Big Little Lies end their show not with a message of the importance of speaking out for victims of abuse, but of the harmlessness of staying silent. Suddenly, everything about the show—Kidman’s character and even Jane’s intriguing subplot—seems far too convenient. For Jane, the question of her own PTSD and her son’s violent tendencies are suddenly resolved. And true, it seems like Celeste was about to finally stand up and leave, but by choosing to kill off the abuser, the writers eliminate the incredibly difficult period abused women struggle through, physically and emotionally, to take that step away. If this were a real woman, Jane’s and Celeste’s struggles would not be over with a timely shove off of a cliff and a promise to never speak of it again. Abuse lives with people forever.
The show ends with a reconciliation. Like they’re in middle school again, Madeline, Jane, Celeste, and Renata are suddenly friends, joined together with a secret. But let me put it plainly: abuse is not a cute little secret you share with your friends. Abuse is not a problem that deserves less screen time and the same dramatic emphasis as does the question of whether to put on Avenue Q. Abuse is real, abuse is terrible, and abuse doesn’t resolve itself that easily.
Big Little Lies took home five Emmys this year. In her acceptance speech, Nicole Kidman said that the show helped “shine a light” on abuse. Maybe, but the small light the show shines is not enough. The women in the show aren’t “great”: they’re simple, naive, entitled, and don’t reflect the true complexities that women like Celeste and Jane (or even real-life Madelines) face every day. And in an industry where actresses experience sexual harassment every day and a world where men like Harvey Weinstein find success, Hollywood needs to do better.
So yes, Ms. Kidman: you’re right. Hollywood does need more great roles for women. But I’m afraid this wasn’t it.