Big Little Lies and the Complexity of Public Personas

Since the #MeToo movement first gained momentum, it has affected the careers of beloved stars like James Franco and Kevin Spacey while bringing the stories of hundreds of women to justice. In the wake of these revelations, the public has been forced to reckon with thorny negotiations between public image and private reality, which beg the question: how could such beloved, seemingly endearing people be such monsters in real life? We’ve seen these debates play out not just in living rooms and twitter threads, but also across every medium of entertainment. But despite the plethora of #metoo era depictions of abuse, one of the greatest deconstructions of the complexities of sexual assault and abuse comes from a show, which premiered before Tarana Burke’s MeToo hashtag went viral in 2017: Big Little Lies.

In its portrayal of the tortured marriage of Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgard), Big Little Lies examines this conflict between the public and private with great nuance. The show places the viewer in a cold, unforgiving vantage point in which we are privy to everything. On the one hand we see the couple’s exterior lives, which fit seamlessly in the well-to-do California community where the show is set. Both Perry and Celeste are ridiculously attractive with a beautiful home and two adorable twin boys. On the other hand, we see their private moments which include scenes of  fist-fights, marital rape, and psychological tormenting instigated by Perry against Celeste.


It’s this depiction of two contradictory halves of a single relationship, which arguably marks Big Little Lies’ greatest contribution to discussions of abuse. By not shying away from this duality, the show challenges the conventions of cruelty. When we think of a “monster”, we tend to think of someone who is entirely and unforgivably evil, but Perry, like most human beings, is too complex for such a simple assessment. He is not just evil for the sake of it, but has his villainy grounded in vulnerability. He recognizes the unhealthy elements of his and Celeste’s relationship, and even suggests that they start going to counseling.  When their marriage counselor asks where his rage comes from, Perry admits that it comes from a “fear of losing” Celeste. This confession humanizes Perry by showing that he interprets his aggression as coming from a place of acute sensitivity, as opposed to maniacal bloodlust.


Being afraid of losing the person you love does not make you a bad person, but beating them up as a reaction to that fear does. The show pulls no punches in making this distinction. Although we might be expected to see Perry as human, the show expects us to neither forgive him nor excuse his behavior. Instead, as the season progresses, it is clear we are expected to fear him. The show’s final judgement of Perry is crystalized in what is perhaps one of the most suspenseful shots of the series, even though it contains no explicit confrontation. Celeste and Perry leave the house to go to an Elvis Presley and Audrey Hepburn themed Trivia Night—the climax of the season—after Perry has just found out about Celeste’s plan to escape him.

In the scene, The Wrights’ twin boys are in the foreground watching television while Celeste and Perry prepare to leave for a school fundraiser in the background. Celeste makes her way toward the car with Perry following  close behind, his menacing figure towering over her as the audience watches from a helpless distance. The shot is so chilling, in part, because it shows that Perry’s violence transcended the physical and contaminated everything—even an act as simple as leaving the house.


Off-screen, the actors and producers of Big Little Lies have remained adamant about the show’s  message of female and survivor empowerment. During the 2017 Emmys, the five lead actors—Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, Zoe Kravitz, Shailene Woodley, and Laura Dern, walked onto stage together, holding hands in an act of solidarity and deep female friendship. And, after the Harvey Weinstein scandal broke, Witherspoon even publicly addressed the show’s connection to issues of sexual assault during a speech at the 2018 Golden Globes. “The show is so much about the life we present to the world that could be very different from the life we live behind closed doors.” She continued, “I want to thank everyone who broke their silence this year and spoke up about sexual abuse and harassment. You are so brave.”


In a world that has such difficulty grasping the complexities of sexual abuse and misconduct, the show provides the necessary antidote—uncomfortable conversations that challenge our preconceived notions of abusers and enforce the notion that we don’t always know people as well as we think we do. At its core, the show is a reminder that people, in their infinite complexity, have the capacity to be ostensibly nice and deeply disturbed. Both can be true, and one fact doesn’t negate the other. This is the simple truth about abuse that the show reveals: abuse is abuse is abuse is abuse —no matter how smooth or slick or privileged a package it comes in.

 

Sophie Hayssen is a freelance writer whose work has been featured in Rookie Magazine, BUST.com, and Women's Media Center. She recently graduated from Wesleyan University with a double major in English and American Studies and hopes to build a career publishing or journalism.