Big Little Lies is, no doubt, one of television’s greatest hits. With a cast full of middle-aged women whom the gays would absolutely die for, Laura Dern’s perfectly pitched screams and Shailene Woodley’s under-developed bangs, the show has managed to attract a loyal fanbase. We all tune in to make memes of Nicole Kidman slapping Meryl Streep, and laugh at Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon)’s pride at being anti-poor.
Of course, that is all just surface level. Big Little Lies places itself within the patriarchal chorus of sexist and misogynistic tropes about women, in order to tell us how wrong they are. From The Good Wife to Game of Thrones, women engage in “catfights” over careers, male lovers, and their children. However, as Big Little Lies slowly reveals, we are always better off together than apart. The Monterey Five, as they have come to be known, may quarrel over trivial things, but all people do at some point in their lives. Ultimately, what we do have is each other and, for women, each other is what we cannot afford to lose. Not when men continue abusing us, not when our bodily rights are being dismantled piece by piece, and certainly not when we are literally dying at the hands of a patriarchal society.
Instead, Big Little Lies – in at least its first season – shows us how much we gain if only we believe each other. A glance is all it takes for Celeste (Nicole Kidman) to believe Jane (Shailene Woodley), and a glance is all it takes for all the women to believe that Perry (Alexander Skarsgård) had abused his wife. A glance is also all it takes for Bonnie (Zoë Kravitz) to recognise Perry’s violent inclinations. The enduring history of male violence against women necessitates our unwavering belief in every testimony of sexual assault. In a brutal patriarchal system, where women are persistently discredited even with concrete evidence, Big Little Lies rightfully demonstrates an ethical encounter where survivors are listened to on the basis of pure faith.
At least, that was the important message conveyed by the first season. In its second, Big Little Lies loses its intended message of solidarity, by virtue of its complicity in marginalising women all over again – both on screen and off. Not only has the show lost its way, it also struggles with delivering plot points which actually further the narrative. Unfortunately, we have to ask: what is the point of using Meryl Streep? Given the anti-climactic ending, what is the point of the ‘big little lie’, or, to be more accurate, the title of the show? Arguably, this misfire could be attributed to HBO’s destruction of director Andrea Arnold’s distinctive vision, in favour of assimilating to Jean-Marc Vallée’s aesthetics of the first season (i.e. basically sexism, misogyny, and unprofessionalism behind the scenes).
Nevertheless, these editorial changes cannot possibly account for the pointless storyline. HBO side-lined Arnold’s talent for in-depth characterisation (see: Fish Tank, American Honey), but this error is not enough to account for the poor and racist treatment of Bonnie’s character development. This is utterly disappointing to see, particularly when the show has executed one of the most empathetic and nuanced portrayals of sexual trauma in media. In this regard, the show’s failure lies in its continuing inability to tackle the intersection of gender and race, opting instead for a faux unity amongst the Monterey Five, barring the fact that Bonnie is a black woman. The first season highlights the empowering nature of silence and faith, but the second season does violence to Bonnie by silencing her altogether from the narrative.
According to Laura Bradley in her article for Vanity Fair, Big Little Lies “has long had a tenuous grasp of how to handle race.” Bradley is spot on in her observation, and we might even say that the show has never learnt how to handle race at all. In the latest season we can clearly see that Bonnie is struggling with the aftermath of the incident – she is depressed, and likely to be suffering from PTSD. She fails to unite with the rest of Monterey Five, but the show does not appear to address why this is so. As a black woman, Bonnie has very legitimate reasons to fear being indicted, not only for what she has done but also for the subsequent cover-up. While the four white women could possibly get off on a lenient sentence, the same does not apply for Bonnie. Belief and faith have never applied to black women within a racist judicial system.
Bonnie’s displacement from white womanhood is also crudely jarring when compared to Celeste and Jane’s tight sisterhood premised on pure faith. Even without words, Celeste has never once doubted Jane’s testimony on Perry’s sexual assault. Celeste even tells Jane: “How could I hate you?”. The fault, as Celeste accurately points out, lies with the patriarchal system which champions violence against women. None of this mess is anyone’s fault except Perry’s. So why is Bonnie left with an insurmountable guilt for pushing Perry down the stairs? More precisely, why is her guilt so palpable, burdened and un-addressed by the rest of the Monterey Five? The fault may lie with the patriarchal system, but the system also ensures that some women experience more blame than others.
Not only does Bonnie’s guilt stems from killing Perry, it is also a result of a racist system which rarely imparts leniency to black women. We circle back to the show’s neglect of race, and how that excludes Bonnie from an idealistic, and white feminist vision of pure belief and faith. As such, while Celeste and Jane are allowed to work through their traumas together, Bonnie is left isolated from a monolithic, white womanhood. The ending of the first season might have spoken volumes about seeking justice outside of a patriarchal legislative system, but the ending of season two is a detrimental oversight as to how race might complicate things for Bonnie.
Big Little Lies succeeded phenomenally with a closed narrative in its first season. Even then, Bonnie always existed at the periphery of a white circle – we never really got a sense of who she was. The second season attempts to fill this void with numerous flashbacks to her childhood, only to make a flimsy connection between childhood abuse and her decision to push Perry. What remains unexplored, however, is what this decision means for a black woman living in a predominantly racist society. And while white grief is put on display for a jury to see, Bonnie’s grief and trauma must be mourned in private, just as her character is isolated from the overall narrative of the show. It is not only an oversight by the writers, it is a crude injustice done to black women, both on screen and off.