Big Little Lies is one of television’s greatest hits. With a cast full of middle-aged women, Laura Dern’s perfectly pitched screams, and Shailene Woodley’s under-developed bangs, the show has managed to attract a loyal (gay) 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 misogynistic tropes about women, only to tell us how wrong they are. As Big Little Lies reveals, we are always better off together than apart. The Monterey Five 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.
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. Within the context 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 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 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. What is the point of using Meryl Streep? Given the anti-climactic ending, what is the point of the big little lie? Arguably, this misfire could be attributed to HBO’s executive team sidelining Andrea Arnold in favour of Jean-Marc Vallée’s visual aesthetics – a classic case of misogyny behind the scenes.
These editorial changes, however, cannot possibly account for the pointless storyline. HBO may have chucked Arnold’s talent for in-depth characterisation aside but this error is not enough to account for the racist treatment of Bonnie’s character development. This is disappointing to witness, particularly when the show has executed one of the most nuanced portrayals of sexual trauma in media. The show’s failure lies in its 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 silences Bonnie’s trauma from the narrative altogether.
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. 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 points out, lies with a system which endorses sexual 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? 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 the 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 a white feminist vision of pure belief and faith. While Celeste and Jane are allowed to work through their traumas together, Bonnie is left isolated. The ending of Big Little Lies’ first season might have spoken volumes about how justice must be sought outside of the law, 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. 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.