“We see you, we hear you and we will tell your stories.” –Reese Witherspoon, Golden Globes, January 7, 2018
Prizes rained over Big Little Lies at the 2017 Emmy’s, 2018 Golden Globes, and SAG Awards. The ensemble cast with several lead roles for women climbed the stage at the Emmy’s to proclaim that they were so happy that a series that acknowledged so many women was rewarded and was a statement of female empowerment. Proclaiming that women are empowered does not mean that TV scripts empower women, and the series still evokes important questions about how women are represented. Based on a novel by Australian author Liane Moriarty the plot challenges the harmlessness of “little white lies” that are told in order to not harm someone.
In Big Little Lies, significant screen time is devoted to establishing the heterosexual partners of each of the women—all married with children, except for a single mother who is eventually partnered up. The women live in Monterey, California and their ritualistic meeting place is at an elementary school where they drop off and pick up their children. Afterwards, they meet for coffee and talk about their lives. Most of their activities follow normative heterosexual customs. These norms are often routine more than empowering with daily scenarios of married day-to-day life with children. There is nothing extraordinary about the level of intimacy the women share with one another for it is clearly shown how intimacy is foremost established with their husbands. Problems such as bullying and abuse result in less female bonding in the TV series, than shown among the actresses at the award shows.
The narrative space surrounding Madeline Martha Mackenzie (executive producer Reese Witherspoon) concerns her struggle to bond with her husband and move on from ex-husband Nathan Carlson (James Tupper). His new wife is the younger and hipper Bonnie Carlson (Zoë Kravitz), an African American who is a yoga and health food advocate. Bonnie is a WOC character that in the end steps in to take care of a major problem. As the only woman of color whose hairstyle and wardrobe is oppositional to the traditional western mainstream style worn by her co-characters, she also creates jealousy among the white women of the community, whose white husbands are shown “looking” at Bonnie with desire. She is often dressed in revealing eroticized halter tops and a Boho chic wardrobe that sets her apart from white female characters in the show. This problematic “looking” at Bonnie as “the other” is demonstrated in numerous scenes.1
Celeste Wright (executive producer Nicole Kidman), a former lawyer, is married to Perry Wright (Alexander Skarsgård), who slowly diminishes her space and later begins beating her. They go to couple’s therapy but there is little awareness by the couple of their enmeshment, and believe they have a normal relationship. Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) has come to Monterey to raise her son and is befriended by Madeline—a relationship that quickly develops when Jane confides her secrets of abuse by a predator and Madeleine assumes the role of caretaker. Renata Klein (Laura Dern) who works as a lawyer and is married to the successful businessman Gordon Klein (Jeffrey Nordling) is constantly involved in spats with Madeline, and later accuses Jane’s son of abusing her daughter at school.
Even if the series, which was made for television created by David E. Kelley and produced by HBO, fulfill the basic criteria of the Bechdel Test (and some of the newer criteria for gauging the quality of female representation), the characters seem more like sorority sisters. The representation of women, even if it fills almost every scene, is problematic in terms of their limited agency and how they are often reacting to what men think. The majority of female characters in film represent “empty signs,” or empty characters within a communication system of men. Women as women are unrepresentable but function to complete the three-dimensionality of male characters. They are like paper dolls that acquire new outfits that are later exchanged for a new stereotype. They do not represent believable characters that represent women, but caricatures or highly polished icons. Feminist film theory is important for investigating this enigma and uses tools from established disciplines to tackle the paradox of unrepresentability. These tools when applied to film are illuminating because they look at the symbolic level of film instead of the surface. The surface tells us through dialogue that women are empowered. The symbolic evidence of this, however, is shown through the stylistic system that creates the look and feel of a film—how the film is shot, cut, framed, and sounds. Style shows us how women’s roles are built on recycled tropes. Describing a film in terms of characters and dialogue does not address the expressive options a filmmaker has for representation.2 This is especially important for the analysis of films made by and about women.
The tools used to investigate the symbolic come from established disciplines where feminist film theory acquired its legitimacy: the field of structural anthropology, which pays attention to the kinship structures in the film and how they are symbolically used3; psychoanalysis, which explores the language of the patriarchy and how it is structured as a language4; semiotics, analyzing the language of film as a communication system. These tools look at the dominant discourse of a film—the mechanics of reproduction, and the subtext—where women “assert their own discourse in the face of the male one by breaking it up, subverting it, and in a sense rewriting it”.5 This process called textual analysis is an important foundation of feminist film analysis. It is relatively easy for actors and producers to assert that a film is a woman’s film because women made it or acted in it. It is more difficult to explain how the film gives women agency, the ability to influence the outcome of the narrative structure.
Moreover, feminist film analysis sees through the realism of the film into the imagery and film construction, and the messages communicated. Without this foundation, female representability becomes a “sociological study,” not unlike Molly Haskell’s From Reverence to Rape and Marjorie Rosen’s Popcorn Venus in the early 70’s.
These studies describe women’s roles in film as a mirror of society without addressing how stereotypical roles are created by cinematic style. During the 80’s and 90’s and well into the beginning of the new millennium, feminist film theory challenged the sociological approach of film analysis, which is the bulk of film criticism today in print through online media and is often personal opinion. Feminist film theory uses textual analysis to dislodge the ideological operations behind female representation and make them visible. This process reveals why women have limited agency or are portrayed in perpetual stereotypical roles.
Textual analysis is especially useful for examining the myth of Big Little Lies as a film of female empowerment by demystifying the naturalism in which the series is created. This is evident not only by what is said but how it is shown through the stylistic system.
There are four major female characters who speak to each other and meet with each other but do not effectively communicate with each other. More screen time is used to establish and portray their lives intertwined with their husbands and children rather than individual character development. On the surface, the series purports to expose “lies” but instead the female characters are embedded within a system of representation—a subterfuge that dilutes their agency. The series is less about the beliefs the women consciously hold than it is a showcase for a predominantly white urban upper-middle-class lifestyle, where children are driven to the Monterey’s Otter Bay Elementary school in corpulent SUVs by women married to wealthy and powerful husbands. The women live in a patriarchal culture despite the notion of a matriarchal bond. There is a notable anxiety in all of the women to please their husbands and keep them interested. They enjoy the benefits of male privilege and almost seem to be on a leash during their time spent with one another away from their domestic life.
Big Little Lies showcases women who speak to each other about something other than men in a heteronormative lifestyle, where the secrets that produce the erratic behavior in their children, their husbands, and in each other, emerge. Children learn abuse from their parents through scenarios they may not see or even hear but still repeat the cycle of violence. It takes many coastal rides and shots of primetime tourism to uncover important truths buried in the Monterey lifestyle.
In terms of film style, the made for TV series has a distanciation brought about by an omnipresent camera and seamless editing that focuses on the dialogue between the actors and incessant product placement. There are frequent shot reverse shots of the women speaking with each other or to their children, usually always on the move to another activity. Most of the scenes are at the elementary school pickup and drop-off lane, in restaurants and cafés along the coast, or at each other’s homes. There are long takes of the Monterey coastline from the women’s fashionable cars and the expanse of the palatial coastal homes owned by their husbands—with the exception of Jane who lives in a small one-story A-frame home in town.
The mise-en-scène, the composition of the frame, comprises costume, makeup, the movement of figures and lighting. The majestic California sun shines in many scenes, casting glittery light on the surf of the ocean except during coastal fog. Designer clothing functions as both costume and product placement. According to the costume designer, Alix Friedberg, the characters are established through their wardrobe. Examples include Madeline, casual in J.Crew; Celeste in Max Mara; Renata dressed to the nines in Gucci; Jane in rugged Gap; and Bonnie’s bohemian spirit draped in Free People. Cars also function as part of their wardrobe. Madeline drives a Buick Enclave; Celeste, an Audi; Renata, a BMW; and Jane, a Prius.
The stylistic use of sound in the TV series is chiefly recognized in a constant parade of music hits, including favorites of the children. One can argue that the eclectic mix functions as a music video soundtrack to dramatic enactments. Many of these songs are introduced in the scenes by the children’s electronic devices. The bittersweet theme song played before each episode is Michael Kiwanuka’s “Cold Little Heart.” Each song distinguishes one episode from the other. Jane’s son Ziggy has a vision of his absent father and creates a choreography for “Papa was a Rollin Stone” by the Temptations. Intriguing Bonnie plays the sultry Sade at a dinner with Madeline and her ex-husband. Jamaican reggae vocalist Dawn Penn’s “You Don’t Love Me” is heard, which calls on a fear that many of the women express to their husbands. Agnes Obel’s “September Song” accompanies road trips along the coast. Haunting, soulful, and evocative tunes such as Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s “Helpless,” Stevie Nicks and Fleetwood Mac’s “Dreams,” Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon,” Bill Withers “Ain’t No Sunshine,” and Janis Joplin’s “Call on Me” are classics. If all else fails in the series, the music will take you on a drive. The writers even throw in an Elvis impersonator theme night for the Monterey residents and the male leads use it as a way to thrill and surprise their wives. The series ends on the Rolling Stones’ “You Can’t Always Get What You Want.” For some of the oldies that are classic California covers, scenes from one of the episodes in the modern saga Big Little Lies can be recalled and faces of the fairly hip and likeable cast. It’s not really hard to remember what was happening during Bobby Womack’s 1969 cover “Fly Me to the Moon,” or the late Dave Brubeck’s “Take Five” in the series. Music immortalizes the times and even TV miniseries.
Therein, significant attention is paid to commodifying the series and the characters through music, fashion, drive-by scenic views of Monterey in designer cars, and lavish coastal interiors. This both grants a reprieve and also eclipses the themes that the series investigates but this is not unusual for TV series that depend on economic tie-ins for financing. Celeste is abused by her husband dressed in elegant business clothes in their spacious home filled with fashionable furniture, wearing a designer turtleneck to later cover up the marks. It is difficult to create empathy with characters that seem to have it all and live in such a coastal paradise with privileged children of abundant economic well-being, though we know that abuse does not respect class, gender, race or lifestyle. These women become empowered by finally coming together to address the elephant in the dining room but there is a lot of California dreamin’ to wade through.
Next season Big Little Lies will be directed by Andrea Arnold, director of several provocative, female-centric films: American Honey (2016), Fish Tank (2009), and Red Road (2006). It will be interesting to see how the series evolves and how Arnold uses the stylistic system and symbolism to represent women. Witherspoon and Kidman remain as executive producers and the actors have all received a major salary increase due to the award shows.
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1E Ann Kaplan in Looking for the Other: Feminism, Film and the Imperial Gaze, Routledge, 2012.
2David Bordwell and Kristin Thompson: Film Art, Eleventh edition, New York: McGraw-Hill, 2016.
3Elizabeth Cowie: Representing the Woman: Cinema and Psychoanalysis, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1997, 17-26.
4Laura Mulvey, “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”: Screen, Volume 16, Issue 3, 1 October 1975.
5Claire Johnston: Work of Dorothy Arzner: Towards a Feminist Cinema Paperback, 1975.