Big Little Lies and the Violence in Women’s Lives

Pop Culture

Big Little Lies and the Violence in Women’s Lives

Illustration: Riya Rathod

I came in late to Big Little Lies, the latest HBO miniseries that has the women of the world letting out a collective sigh over the finale. Big Little Lies is going around the world like a chain secret, passed from woman to woman in the way once Eat, Pray, Love went around and became our talisman of secret things and feelings that only the sisterhood could understand.

Big Little Lies is also the story of a sisterhood (a severely adulted version of it) which could explain why I took my time to come to it. I do believe we’ve outgrown the idea of a sisterhood just like Elizabeth Gilbert has outgrown heterosexuality. It seems a little like a kindergarten construct, that puts girls together in one giggly clique and the boys in another before life happens and we grow up and realise gender boundaries are stupid. In our new brave, new, gender-equal world, girls don’t gang up against boys and boys don’t pull their pigtails.

Which is why, when Renata Klein, one of the least likeable characters on BLL, discovers that her daughter is being bullied by a boy, declares, “Little boys don’t get to go around anymore hurting little girls.” Renata is speaking from a place of certainty. In her world this stuff just doesn’t happen.

Only it does. As the “mothers of Monterey” go to war over the kindergarten incident, we think we are settling in for a nice suburban story of the unfulfilled lives of attractive middle-aged women set against the stunning backdrop of a raging sea. But the mood suddenly shifts.

Nicole Kidman, who plays the role of the ethereal Celeste, arrives on the scene embodying her name by appearing in these almost celestial flashes of thick auburn hair against soft, eternal sunshine. She is perfect, has two gorgeous sons, and inner stillness that go-girls like Reese Witherspoon severely lack. (At 45, Reese is still legally blonde just with more baggage.) Then camera zooms out and brings the rest of her life into focus and we see that she is a woman caught in a hideous cycle of domestic abuse.

Alexander Skarsgård plays the role of Perry, the man we all dream of marrying when we are little girls: Beautiful eyes, beautiful body, fitted tennis whites, and a house by the sea. He’s also the man we grow up to learn does not really exist (and if he does, he comes with a severe manufacturing defect). Behind that perfect face with its Dior glasses, Skarsgård is a monster who worships and whips his wife in equal parts. Suddenly, from being a show about women of privilege having leisurely coffee mornings after school drop-offs, Big Little Lies becomes a show about the interior lives of women and how those lives are invariably marked by violence.

It is like my mother tells me: You girls give up at the first sign of trouble. But emotional abuse is not the first sign of trouble – it is trouble itself and it is reason enough to seek intervention.

I knew a Celeste once – a younger, perkier version of her – in passionate love with an older man for whom she had climbed off her balcony in the middle of the night and flown all the way to London. Gorgeous, confident, and well-dressed, my Celeste lived in her Mayfair marriage that involved houses in two continents, travel in first class, and Selfridges on speed dial. Until one day she flew back to her father’s home in India with broken eyes.

Her parents asked her the two questions that Indian parents always ask of girls who come back home: 1) Is he having an affair? and 2) Does he beat you? The answer to both those questions was negative.

He loved her passionately and kept her well, but he controlled every move of hers. He questioned every decision. He turned from charming to cruel in less than 10 seconds. Sometimes he screamed at her in public. Sometimes he pinched her viciously under the table. Other times, he just froze her out.

But he always made love to her after it all. Crazy, mad, jagged love that was perhaps the best sex of her life that had her turned on but shaken to the core. It is the kind of sex that Celeste and Perry have after he’s done choking her or kicking her in the stomach. It is not rape but it looks a lot like it.

In the show, Perry’s brand of brutal violence has no nuance. It is a determinedly physical thing that advances from choking to tossing his wife around like a rag doll but it needn’t be. The emotional toll he takes on Celeste when his personality splits is enough. The brutal sex is enough. The tightly held wrist and the rough push is enough. I wish the makers of Big Little Lies had pushed themselves to show us how violence does not always reside in the raising of the hand. That abuse is not always black and white and can sometimes be an insidious, emotional, visceral thing that can break your soul without kicking you in the stomach.

My Celeste could never articulate this violence to her parents and the world at large. She forever lived under the faint suspicion of perhaps not having tried hard enough to make her marriage work. It is like my mother tells me: You girls give up at the first sign of trouble. But emotional abuse is not the first sign of trouble – it is trouble itself and it is reason enough to seek intervention.

We all know Celestes in our lives. Shiny happy women marked by violence and abuse in some fundamental way. We have all been Celeste ourselves, if not with the men we are married to, with the men we have dated, or the men we have grown up with in our houses. The tales of violence and women, no matter how privileged and Instagram-filtered their lives appear, is something we’re all intimately familiar with. And we know now, at our age, that no woman reaches the other side unscathed. In the series, Celeste had a man beating her, Madeline has a man threatening her, Jane has had a man rape her, and even Renata’s little six-year-old daughter, has a six-year-old boy choking and biting her.

Violence has always been part of our narrative whether we file it under “passion” like Celeste, or under “maybe he was having a bad night” as Jane does. In the dénouement of the series, there is a moment when the women realise that the man who is abusing Celeste is the one who had once raped Jane and the knowledge passes between them like a secret, scorching energy. It doesn’t take a confession, it doesn’t even take words. All it takes is a look, and the women come together to take down the monster, and, for the one who takes him down for good, it does not even take that.

Big Little Lies

Big Little Lies is the story of a sisterhood. A severely adulted version of it.

Courtesy: HBO

Bonnie, who has lived until now on the fringes of the series, unaware of Perry’s crimes, comes crashing in and throws him down the stairs to his death. We are not given the backstory of her own abuse in BLL (although the novel on which the series is based, offers it). But we don’t need it just the way she doesn’t need the backstories of the women Perry was abusing. As a woman, she knows, intimately, the language of violence and that is enough for her to come to the rescue.

Big Little Lies made me wonder if, perhaps, I was too hasty in brushing aside the idea of sisterhood. The close of the series has five women on a beach, with wine, picnic baskets, and their children frolicking in the sea. The sea is no longer the angry monster it has been. It is calm, it is serene and sunlit. It is a world without men, it is a safe space where they appear to be happy but their eyes carry stories of the men they have loved and lost, the lives they have lived, and the secrets they have borne. It is a world my girlfriends and I have often imagined as a place we will all escape into, to grow old together.

I guess the sisterhood still thrives and in the end, maybe life comes back full circle. From being a kindergarten construct, to giggly wine-laden escapades, perhaps the sisterhood does evolve into an unspoken pact to always have each other’s back against the men. Maybe it really is us vs them. Maybe it always has been.