What male critics' dismissal of Big Little Lies says about women's stories
Early on in the premiere of Big Little Lies, HBO's exquisite and expensive drama based on the novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty, a male parent describes the drama unspooling between five mothers in ritzy Monterey, California.
"Women never let things go," the man sneers to a questioning police officer.
This man could be a voyeuristic stand-in for those critics who have been slow to accept Big Little Lies for what it is: an accomplished, nuanced and highly successful portrayal of an under-served topic on television – the interior lives of women "of a certain age" who are also mothers and wives.
Though the series (produced by stars Nicole Kidman and Reese Witherspoon) has earned rave reviews from a portion of critics and a feverish public who've helped the show outstrip the ratings of HBO's last popular premiere series, The Night Of, Big Little Lies still has some sceptical outliers. What a surprise: these unconvinced viewers are, for the most part, male critics.
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For the uninitiated, Big Little Lies follows the fortunes (and barely concealed misfortunes) of a wealthy sorority of mothers whose children all attend the same public school. Someone has been murdered, but so far we don't know who or by whom, and the show takes place mostly in flashback, cataloguing the weeks leading up to the murder (which takes place at a parents' trivia night sponsored by the school). If this premise sounds melodramatic, well, it is.
But beyond the flash of its inciting incident, Big Little Lies very quickly establishes itself as a complex and introspective character piece first, and a juicy murder mystery second. Indeed, the murder itself seems like background drama, a cluey "way in" to the carefully closeted interior lives of its five female stars.
Periodically we track Witherspoon's spitfire Madeline, Kidman's pensive and beautiful Celeste, bolshy Renata (Laura Dern), spiritual hipster Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) and newcomer Jane (Shailene Woodley) from episode to episode. Each woman has some gripping drama or secret that is inextricably linked to her womanhood – so we get five nuanced interrogations of how women in the world (or in this particularly privileged, quasi-fantasy world) navigate just being women.
Madeline fears the loss of connection with her children as they grow up and age out of being interested in her. Renata struggles with her controlling and assertive nature, which for a woman comes across as "bossy" and ghoulish. Bonnie struggles to assert herself among more combative and cynical acquaintances, while still retaining her own spirit and values.
Then there's Jane, who after a horrific sexual assault is determined to fight against the intrusion of shame and victimhood; and Kidman's tragic Celeste, who is trapped in an ultra-violent, hyper-sexualised marriage, and who is introduced in the premiere episode to strains of Charles Bradley singing "I'm a victim . . . of loving you". (On the whole, the show has brilliant and shrewdly executed music selections.)
The performances are magnificent; each of these women are doing some of the best work of their careers in this series. It helps that they are given composite material and complete, three-dimensional characters to work with (a rarity for women actors in general, especially those over the age of 40, as two thirds of these leads are). However, it's not surprising so much as disappointing to discover that the initial reaction to Big Little Lies, from a bulk of male critics who reviewed it, was to dismiss the series as escapist frivolity.
Labelled as "trashy", "soapy", even "a sham", the responses to this series speak worrying volumes about the way male critics (and male audiences) perceive work that chooses to centre itself on women's lives and interests.
Aside from the fact that Big Little Lies is far too real and raw to be considered a "soap opera" – I don't know how many soaps these guys are watching (but may I remind them that Passions, an actual soap opera, includes a doll that has come to life and acts as a sidekick to the show's villain, Tabitha) – these assessments of the show are both condescending and dismissive.
Melodrama, trash, and soap opera are the genres historically marketed towards women and, whether or not this is true, they are generally considered to be soft, silly and indistinct. Big Little Lies is none of those things; it's hard as nails and compellingly specific.
Take, for instance, Celeste's domestic violence storyline, which is portrayed with care and heartbreaking confidence by Kidman and the terrifying (and terrifyingly handsome) Alexander Skarsgard as her abusive husband, Perry. The story has been lauded not just by critics, but also by domestic violence prevention professionals and therapists, for its unflinching specificity and its magnification of issues women face all over the world, across all different social and economic strata.
Big Little Lies is not afraid to "go there" – it addresses the sexual component of domestic violence (an uncomfortable area many people would like to avoid considering); and it asks the big, awkward question: Why doesn't she leave him?
The answer, we find out, is so much more complicated than what we fear when we wonder why victims of DV do not leave their partners: there is love there, there is an element of compulsion, of attraction, even of safety that keeps Celeste from striking out on her own to save herself.
Regardless of privilege, the issues Madeline, Jane, Celeste et al grapple with are shockingly universal. When one in four women have experienced sexual assault in their lives, Jane's history of sexual violence is achingly, uncomfortably familiar.
The truth about critics who dismiss Big Little Lies as a "compendium of clichés about upper-middle-class angst" is that they're uncomfortable or unfamiliar with actually having to give these sorts of stories – women's stories – attention.
Big Little Lies is what's considered "prestige TV": It's produced by a high-end cable network; it features tentpole stars, including four Oscar-nominated female actors; it's directed by an Oscar-nominated director (Jean-Marc Vallee). It's expensive, well-produced and compellingly rendered for television. For men who are not used to women's stories, or indeed female characters, of this high calibre, (because they are so often relegated to "middle brow" realms where male critics don't have to engage with them) the only way to respond is to dismiss it all as "stock characters and situations", or "soapy melodrama that's more annoying than entertaining".
The fact is those definitions simply don't line up to what we're seeing on Big Little Lies. This response from male critics is so disproportionate to what their female colleagues and large enthusiastic audiences are saying about Big Little Lies, which might be a good thing.
The series manipulates its prestige trappings to push a radical agenda, bringing under-served women's stories to the forefront of high-brow criticism, which is closeted by its largely male gatekeepers.
The fact that male critics have responded so negatively to the show tells us two things: first, that criticism needs more diverse voices, and fast; and second, that Big Little Lies' radical approach is having precisely the desired effect.
Big Little Lies is on SOHO at 4.15pm on Saturdays.
- Sydney Morning Herald