Big Little Lies and the Evolution of Female Representation on TV

First screened by HBO in 2017, the Big Little Lies series became an instant and enormous success. It scored a number of Emmys and Golden Globes, dominated social media for its seven-week run and featured an extraordinary cast of Hollywood stars, namely: Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley, and Zoë Kravitz. If you did not see the series yet (which it’s based on the novel by Liane Moriarty) you still have two days to binge watch it just before the release of its second season this Sunday.  

At the opening of the very first episode, the viewer is immersed instantly in the fictional universe of Big Little Lies, lulled by the sound of Cold Little Heart by Michael Kiwanuka. Surrounded by breathtaking landscapes, little by little we are presented to the characters that make up the plot.

The story takes place in the city of Monterey, California, in the United States, having as its starting point a murder. However, the identities of the victim and the killer are not revealed. Following this classic (and mysterious) narrative, the plot begins to unfold. The seven episodes, therefore, become the narrative of the past events and circumstances that led to the final homicide. The opening sequences of Big Little Lies are interspersed with the police interrogations of all the people that can be of help in finding the killer. It is then that we are presented the protagonists of the series, four women seemingly with perfect balanced lives that are dedicated to their children. However, the notion of perfection is deconstructed right from the first episode, as we get to know the intimacy of these four individuals. The dark-toned photograph of the private scenes inside the houses contrasts with the polished plasticity of their daily public life. 

With the unfolding of the story, the murder, which before seemed to be the focus of Big Little Lies, becomes a secondary issue. The more we become intimate with the stories of these characters, marked by dramas such as domestic violence, sexism, betrayal, and bullying, the more we recognize ourselves in the plot. 

Female representation on US TV

The representation of women on television has frequently been marked by stereotypes. In a historical retrospective on the theme, we can point out four important time periods that marked this debate.

The 1950s and 1960s are driven by the stereotype of the housewife who has a perfect simple life always dependent on her husband and children. The women, defined by their family relationships and their ‘female’ occupations, are in constant submission to the male figure, whether as wives or secretaries.

In the mid-1970s a ‘new woman’ figure, as described by Lotz (2006), emerges as a single, childless, heterosexual, sexually active woman seeking her place in the job market. According to the author, this model was used for the representation of female characters on television for many years. It wasn’t until the end of the ’90s that women began to no longer fit into this standard. From then on, they were portrayed as feminists and started actively verbalizing their concerns about sexism.

Finally, from the mid-2000s, American TV and movie productions began to explore, in a more specific way, the feminine protagonist, abandoning the existing sexist model and broadening the spectrum of representations of the characters. We can cite some examples such as Sex and The City (1998-2004), Homeland (2011-present), Gray’s Anatomy (2005-present), Scandal (2012-present), How to Get Away with Murder (2014-present), The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (2017-present) and lastly, Big Little Lies (2017-present).

The fictional universe of Big Little Lies

The construction of the protagonists of Big Little Lies is one of the most complex points of the plot. Throughout the episodes, we follow the daily life of Madeline, Jane, Celeste and Renata as voyeurs, spying and accompanying their problems, joys, pleasures, and anguishes. 

Madeline Martha Mackenzie (Performed by Reese Witherspoon)

Madeline fulfills the perfect stereotype of an upper-class woman, who is in the second marriage and tries to compete, for fun, with the current wife of his ex.

Madeline portrays herself as a careful and protective mother, who watches over the safety of her daughters. Her life is ruled by a monotonous domestic routine interrupted by daily encounters with her best friends. But as the series progresses, we see her perfect life crumbling under the weight of private tensions. Madeline has disagreements in her marriage, fights with her eldest daughter and makes plenty of wrong decisions. The character itself has a striking phrase that materializes this break from the idea of perfection: ‘Sometimes I’m just holding onto this idea of perfection so tight, something has to give.’

Jane Chapman (Performed by Shailene Woodley)

Jane is introduced to the public as a single working mother who has a great relationship with her child, Ziggy (Iain Armitage), whom she cares for alone and independently.

The first episode marks by Jane’s arrival in Monterey and her instant friendship with Madeline.  Throughout the series, as we become more intimate with her story, we find out that Ziggy is the result of rape and the crime left dense traumas in Jane. This internal struggle becomes a recurring subject in almost every episode. The doubt about the identity of the rapist is shared with the viewer – several times we are taken inside of her mind, while she dreams of herself shooting the rapist.

Celeste Wright (Performed by Nicole Kidman)

A successful retired corporate lawyer, a dazzling appearance, a desirable husband, two lovely children, a huge house, and a well-structured family. What could be wrong with it?

Celeste is perhaps the most striking and complex figure of Big Little Lies. She is married to Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård), a younger man (which generates envy and comments from other women) and has two children. The attractive couple appears to have a perfect life, which is soon overturned with a shocking revelation in the first episode. Despite hiding from her friends Madeline and Jane, Celeste is a victim of domestic violence. Blinded by the love she feels for Perry, the character faces the dilemma of abandoning an apparently perfect life or to separate from a violent husband. The narrative becomes distressing for the viewer, making her story the most engaging and thrilling to follow – and perhaps – identify. 

Renata Klein (performed by Laura Dern)

Renata is a powerful career woman who’s at the center of school and city politics. She is a righteous woman that becomes her most ruthless when finding out her daughter is suffering from bullying at school.

What is so interesting about Renata is that while she is a woman who seemingly has it all—the career, the kids, the power, the money — her struggle is not rooted in juggling everything. That’s rare for television. What Renata struggles the most with is her incapacity of protecting her daughter, who can’t receive justice. 

The evolution of the female image in contemporary times

Feminism is a theme that permeates the entire fictional universe of Big Little Lies, partly because of its production team. The actresses Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, in addition to acting, are executive producers of the series. Reese owns Pacific Standard Films, which she founded specifically so she could address the lack of strong female roles in the industry – some of their productions, include the award-winning films “Gone Girl” and “Wild”. However, Big Little Lies was the first production for the television, in the format of miniseries.

As we discussed earlier, the way women are portrayed in serial fictional narratives has evolved in line with the social changes that have taken place in society. The Big Little Lies explores some of the classic stereotypes (e.g stay-at-home mums, submissive housewives). However, each woman is revealed in an honest and profound way, showcasing their flaws, insecurities, and messy lives.

Do you think Big Little Lies is giving an accurate snapshot of the 21st-century women? How close do you feel from the characters? Let us know what you think!

Original text by Luisa Guimarães.

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