Big Little Lies and the Representation of Women’s Relationships
A few weeks ago, I binge-watched Big Little Lies over the course of one (bad-feeling for unrelated reasons) day. At the end of the day, I was feeling weirder than before, but for an entirely new set of reasons. As far as I can tell, this is the experience many of us have had with the show. We think we may have liked it, but we also definitely feel that there was something off about it.
Big Little Lies is based on a book written by a woman, starring an allstar (if very white) cast of women, and produced by a company founded ostensibly to uplift women-centric stories. Yet, more than anything else, Big Little Lies tells the story of women who, despite being overwhelming rich in access to resources, are still barely surviving the emotional barrage of patriarchal social structures.
In an article in The Guardian, Reese Witherspoon describes Big Little Lies as a story that depicts motherhood and the women who experience it all their messiness. In theory, that is the sort of representation mainstream media does need. In this case, though, very little screen time was devoted to women interacting—whether with their daughters or friends—in emotionally complex or even generally compassionate ways. It might have seemed realistic to some folks’ experiences, but it surely wasn’t the prioritization of the emotional care women can provide each other that I’ve come to expect out of stories by and for women.
This is an underdeveloped theory, more something I can’t help but keep in the back of my mind than something I’m prepared to write an academic paper about. I do, however, consider myself at least a part-time connoisseur of women’s media (for lack of a better term), and I wanted to like this show. I mean, Reese gave us Elle Woods—we owe her. And maybe, just maybe, if I hadn’t grown up a world where our entire media library was filtered through the lens of patriarchy, I may have been satisfied with Big Little Lies as it is.
But the undeniable truth is that it fell short of my expectations. It’s true: I do love a story that ends in the death of a rapist-abuser. More than that though, what I need, what I think we all may need, are stories that depict worlds, lives, moments even, that are free from the confines of the heteropatriarchal dumpster fire that is our reality. I want women characters who develop deep, vulnerable, and wholly emotional relationships with each other. I want daughters who trust their mothers inherently and not in fits and starts. I want disenchanted middle-aged women to kick their selfish, dishonest, leering husbands out and create genuinely safe spaces for themselves and their children and their friends. I want stories that can lead us by example. If our stories aren’t giving us the kind of representation we actually want, are they even ours?
I won’t claim that Big Little Lies doesn’t have anything to offer. However, I will claim that it must get better (hopefully in its recently confirmed second season) if it’s going to become what it set out to be. I know we must give women creators—creators of any underrepresented background, in fact—room to grow. I’m willing to give them that, but I’m not willing to stop demanding the representation we need and deserve.