By Mia Abrahams
The finale of Big Little Lies on Sunday night had me dramatically stage gasping, wide-eyed, hand over mouth, IN SHOCK (aka, good TV, ppl). The show that has set your timeline on fire went out with a serious bang. #No #spoilers, but those seven episodes of television were some of the best I’ve seen.
At first glance, it was a show about beautiful rich mothers with designer dresses, amazing houses, and quippy one-liners (and to many (male) critics, it was trashy, cliché, and soapy). But, like many of the show’s own characters, one only had to scratch the surface of Big Little Lies to find something much darker lurking.
In a show squarely about the experiences and strength of women, with sublime performances (Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz, oh my), what stood out to me was Big Little Lies’ depiction of violence, trauma, and its aftermath.
Nicole Kidman’s Celeste is beautiful, composed, perfectly put-together, and married to Alexander Skarsgard’s Perry (using his size and nordic good looks to a chilling effect). They have, it seems, the perfect marriage. The town gossips about their obvious sexual chemistry and Perry’s youth and good looks. Perry works, while Celeste has given up her job as a lawyer to look after her children (adorable twin boys) in their seriously beautiful mansion (I mean, I would watch this show for the houses alone). But, out of sight of the town and their children, Perry is violent, physically abusive, and manipulative.
What Big Little Lies does so well is show the nuance, the grey area, the uncertainty in Celeste’s (and many women’s) experience with domestic violence. She struggles with the idea that perhaps Perry is, ultimately, a good man and father. Perry admits he has a problem and he needs to work on it. There is a very real sexual chemistry between them. Celeste is hyper-aware of the fact that sometimes she hits back. There are good moments, like when Perry plays with the children or gifts Celeste expensive jewelry (the scene where Perry presents a bruised, naked Celeste with an outrageous diamond necklace made my skin crawl off my body). Celeste is ashamed, she is hesitant to tell her friends, she is fighting to keep up the facade of her perfect life. We see this play out in an intense conversation with her therapist, (played by Robin Weigart) who will not budge on the fact that Celeste, despite her protestations, is a victim.
A study in Austin Journal of Psychiatry found that 1 in 4 women in the US has experienced domestic violence. However, the depiction of domestic violence and abusive relationships in the media isn’t always as thoughtful as Big Little Lies. 50 Shades of Grey and Twilight present potentially abusive relationships wrapped in “romantic” packaging. Or, often, as in the case of Lisbeth Salander from the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, the victims of violence and trauma end up as part of an elaborate, violent, revenge plot.
In the media, stories are told a particular way, to fit the narratives we have created for domestic violence. When Amber Heard, the ex-wife of Johnny Depp, came forward with accusations of abuse, the Internet was flooded with stories that positioned Heard as a gold-digger, liar, and manipulative opportunist. Her pledge to donate her settlement sum to the ACLU and a women’s hospital was blown up by negative stories questioning why she had yet to do so (until Depp finalized the settlement, she didn’t have the money to give). In response, Heard recorded a PSA explaining that domestic violence can, and does, happen to anyone (even a beautiful, successful young actress with a famous movie star husband): “It happens to so many women. When it happens in your home, behind closed doors with someone you love, it’s not as straightforward,” Heard says. “If a stranger did this, it would be a no brainer.”
Famously, Rihanna has watched her abusive ex-boyfriend’s career skyrocket since the news of her abuse broke, and I would be veryyyyy surprised if Depp’s career suffered a real significant blow due to Heard’s allegations.
The stigma around domestic violence is real and pervasive. We hear it all the time: “Well, why didn’t she leave him?”; “Her husband is always nice when we’re around”; “She never said anything to me”. We need to work harder on our depictions of abusive relationships in the media so that women can more readily recognize the signs in themselves and their friends, have open conversations, and break the stigma.
"The only way we're going to eventually end domestic violence is when we're having conversations and taking away the stigma of talking about it," says Cameka Crawford, Chief Communications Officer for the National Domestic Violence Hotline.
So... let’s talk!If you are experiencing domestic violence, please call the National Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233 or TTY 1-800-787-3224 for confidential support.