Beware. There are spoilers in this article. Watch the series before reading.
I have binge watched all of HBO’s miniseries, "Big Little Lies", and I was very impressed by it. It is a very well observed and nuanced presentation of feminist themes. Here we have rich women living in beautiful Monterey, California. (The view from that wonderful bridge near Big Sur and other shots of dizzying cliffs in the area serve very well as both metaphor and plot device.) The three main families are quite different: a single mother, a remarried divorcee living in the same community with her remarried ex and so having to negotiate about children and mutual jealousies; a seemingly perfect couple where the husband won't allow his wife to work. The last two live in fabulous houses while the first is just getting by. What happens in their lives is very gripping.
The series starts off in a comic mode. The women worry about an overly intrusive first grade teacher, about childhood bullying, about defending a community theatre production of "Avenue Q" as a matter of free speech, about where the line is between frisky sex and domestic violence, all matters of real substance rather than there just to show that these women have nothing better on their minds. They struggle with everyday events such as the pick up line after school, which school monitors work to keep everyone moving even as parents want to gossip with one another about anyone not part of the immediate conversation. All school managers understand the difficulties of transition times, whether it is moving students from one class to another or making the start and close of the school day go smoothly. Parents get preoccupied with this, especially when they think of school personnel as servants rather than as peers. The town mayor is less sophisticated than any of the parents with whom he meets and the school principal seems over his head even though he is convinced he is taking the progressive side of every issue. School and community activities, which are intertwined, as in fundraising for the school, take up a lot of time and create a lot of stress for the women who carry the brunt of the load of handling these activities..
Then the narrative turns dark, when the possibility of death enters the picture. I didn't think it was necessary to foreshadow that with the police investigation of a death right at the beginning. The movement from comedy to drama would have taken care of itself, but then again I never favor flashbacks except when they are done by Jane Austen. Most of the issues turn out to be, not too deeply down, to be issues about violence against women. What is inappropriate touching when it concerns a six year old? Infidelity is also inappropriate touching. The issue with “Avenue Q” is whether manikins imitating sex is also inappropriate touching. The single mother had been brutalized by a man she was willingly to go to bed with but who became unromantic and forceful, and so she decided the encounter was a rape even though, as she says, maybe he was only having a bad day.
Most of the conflicts that might lead to murder are handled with normal narrative techniques. The single mother doesn't murder anyone even though she has a gun and has bad flashbacks. The two women divided by the question of whose child assaulted whose is resolved by a heart to heart talk and they become friends. The woman on her second marriage, who began as an intemperate harridan, learns to accept that she is only passingly interested in sex with her husband-- and maybe that is what got her in trouble with her first husband. The wife abuser is the only one who winds up dead and that is because, at the last moment, when he is going to harm his wife, all the women bind together to protect her. A very satisfying ending because, as the last scene shows, the women stand with their children on the beach, having persevered.
The series does flirt with the primitivist feminist conceit that men are not much good for anything other than sex. The school principal is passive; the mayor is a fool; the re-married woman’s husband is ineffectual and needy; the wife batterer can’t control his demons. Women in this community can manage very well on their own, without men, filling their lives with friendship, child rearing, and self-improvement. That is to forget, of course, that these men are also making the very substantial livings that make their wives’ way of life possible. The women blame the men for having something important to do with their time, when it is they who mostly have chosen to dispense with work and live this kind of life. Well, at least the series concedes that only some men are really bad sorts even if the women are far more interesting people than their spouses and may well lead richer lives than their husbands, though the women are not aware of that.
The set decoration, especially for a television series, is masterful, and one of the many highlights of the last episode, which moves very quickly to its climax in that an awful lot of material gets covered. Everyone shows up at a fundraiser where they are costumed as either Audrey or Elvis. The couples enter the gigantic community center through a pathway of torches. These people know how to throw a shindig. The women, each in their own way, look great, dressed like Audrey in one or another of her roles. The actors who sing do very credible jobs by not belting out the Elvis hits they sing. It isn’t immediately clear who will wind up dead. Nicely done, not to speak of wonderful acting by Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman and all the other leads. Very memorable series.
That there is a chasm between the lives led by men and women and that it is very difficult to shout over the intervening space and so communicate is a theme that much concerned Jane Austen, who shows how many levels of misunderstanding Darcy and Elizabeth must overcome so as to declare their true love for one another. These are more than differences in social class or in personality. They have to do with what is essential to men and women. Darcy has a sense of honor that leads him to arrange the marriage of Kitty Bennet to George Wickham. The women in the novel, including Elizabeth, are not bound by a sense of honor, which we would refer to as a sense of justice, but to a sense of propriety, by which we would today mean a sense of the balance of forces or, as Carol Gilligan would put it, finding a way to reach a settlement that takes all sides into account, justice be hanged. Women and men just understand the world differently.
This theme is elaborated in “Big Little Lies”. All the members of all the couples lie to one another in self-defense, to hold up their own sides in their relationships. The woman try to manage things while the men try to stick close to their sense of themselves, not wanting to betray what they are, however accommodating they are to their wives and despite the fact that the women have been the accommodating ones, just keeping their own betrayals of themselves to themselves. The wife who was beaten had given up being a lawyer, which she rediscovers to be something very important to her. The harridan admits that she has nothing to fill her life. The single mother has nothing in her life except protecting and nurturing the son of her brief encounter. Maybe it has always been that way between men and women. Did Eve lure Adam to eat the apple or was she only the more adventurous of the pair? In the first case, she was playing the role of the manipulative woman; in the second case, she was being true to herself and to an idea of justice which might declare that there was no reason for the prohibition against eating from the tree of knowledge.
The theme of justice versus accommodation has always informed the women’s movement, however much that was overlaid, quite appropriately, by the attempt to provide a level playing field on which the two sexes could contest with one another: abortion rights, the right not to be touched, non-discrimination in employment. Men and women are, however, something more than their political rights, which is different from the case of African Americans and other minorities, who were different from white people mainly for political reasons. But men and women are like two different species destined to coexist, and there is an endless argument about which one is the parasite and which one is the host when the truth may be that all couples and both sexes are codependent, whether they like it or not. It is very easy to overlay these deep psychological and philosophical matters with political issues because political issues are easier to grasp, as slogans, than are the subtly felt whiffs of the human condition which is, for its part, always there, always elusive. “Big Little Lies” offers a taste of those deeper matters. (See also The Role of Women and "Lady Agnew": Portrait of a Beauty.)