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Big Little Lies Was, Above All Else, a Commentary on Gender Bias

Zoë Kravitz and Reese Witherspoon.

Big Little Lies was a little series (only seven episode, which is limited even by limited-series standards) about very big things: domestic abuse, the nature versus nurture aspect of violence, the psychological damage caused by rape, the burdens and blessings of motherhood, and the way women can be each other’s worst enemies and greatest boosters. But perhaps more than anything else, this show was about the natural human instinct to pass judgment on others, especially when those others are female. Every element of the series, from the behavior of its birthday-party-sabotaging principals to its basic narrative structure, spoke to the pervasiveness of gender bias.

The very first images we see in Big Little Lies are flashes of the aftermath of the incident at the fundraiser. We don’t know the details of what occurred but it’s obvious someone died. Having watched a lot of TV, we immediately assume: murder. We then assume that this show must be a whodunit, which means it’s up to us to assess the potential innocence or guilt of each major character. In essence, Big Little Lies, a show in which everyone makes knee-jerk assumptions about each other, immediately invites us to make knee-jerk assumptions, too. But those assumptions, on our parts and within the series, often turn out to be wrong. (I wrote in a previous piece that the murder framework was a narrative device primarily used to draw viewers into the story. I’m rethinking that assumption, too.)

As I’ve noted before, a lot of critics and writers (mostly, though not all, male) jumped to conclusions with regard to the entire show, describing Big Little Lies as a prestige-y version of a vapid nighttime soap even though each episode provided increasingly strong evidence that it was something deeper and more nuanced. Apparently you didn’t have to look too far to find a real Greek chorus as predisposed to throw shade as the members of the Otter Bay community.

Speaking of which: Even though the observations offered by the members of that gossipy Greek chorus often felt redundant or disruptive to the show’s flow, they also served an important narrative and thematic purpose, too, by reminding us how society skews our biases with regard to women.

In the first few minutes of the first episode, some of the people in that PTA peanut gallery — who are actually being interrogated by police investigators — initially say some reasonable things about the parents caught up in the case. “It wasn’t just the mothers,” notes Gabrielle (Sarah Burns), one of the Otter Bay Elementary School mothers. “It was the dads, too.”

But within seconds, the tone shifts against BLL’s main circle of moms, with two men accusing an entire gender of being unable to “let go of things” — “They’re like the Olympic athletes of holding grudges,” says Stu (Larry Bates) — and one woman coming to their defense. “It’s sexist how the women always get blamed,” says Thea (Sarah Baker of Louie and Better Things). But pretty soon, Thea’s climbing the blame bandwagon, too. By the finale, she’s all too happy to point out that the Breakfast at Tiffany’s ensemble Madeline wears to the fundraiser is “inappropriate and desperate.” Way to fly that feminism flag, Thea!

Some of our main characters are no better. Renata and others immediately vilify Ziggy for hurting Amabella and shame Jane in the process, perhaps, in part, because she’s a young, single mom and therefore couldn’t possibly be raising her child with as much care as older moms in two-parent households do. As for Madeline, she can barely walk a few feet in broken heels without stating her own opinions as the law of the land. The “career moms” think they’re better than the stay-at-home moms, she tells Jane the first time they meet, with Renata clearly on the front burner of her mind. When they arrive at school on day one, Madeline has a nice little chat with Gabrielle, then immediately says to Jane out of the corner of her mouth, “Gabby is such a gossip. We don’t like her,” emphasizing the “we” and seemingly unaware that she’s being a gossip herself. Madeline makes assumptions about Celeste, too, seeing every signal flare of Celeste’s victimization as evidence of her hot sex life and general perfection.

The three women who tend to be less quick to judge are Celeste, Jane, and Bonnie, all of whom, we eventually learn, are connected by one thing: They’ve all been victims of rape or abuse. (Big Little Lies the series very subtly implies that Bonnie may have been victimized, while the book explicitly states that she was abused by her father.) They know even more acutely that women often suffer in silence and, perhaps as a result, make an effort not to perpetuate more suffering.

But the rest of society is not so forgiving. The Greek chorus as well as the four central mysteries of the series — Who really hurt Amabella? Who raped Jane? Who died at the fundraiser, and who is responsible for that death? — remain consistent threads in this narrative not merely as gimmicks or hooks, even though it sometimes feels that way, but as reminders of our collective need to point a finger at someone. That need exists in the Otter Bay community, for the detectives, and for us, as audience members. Human instinct compels us to seek clear-cut answers to every question and to often arrive at those answers using bias and wrongheaded shortcuts as our guides.

Clear answers to every one of Big Little Lies’ key questions are ultimately provided, with the exception of that last one: Who is responsible for the death. The five women who were there — all of them fighting off Perry and therefore, in a way, contributors to the pushing that comes to a shove — agree to say it was an accident. Which, in a way, it was. When Bonnie pushes Perry, her intention is simply to get him off of Celeste, not to send him down that flight of stairs.

Characterizing this as an unfortunate tragedy not only protects Bonnie, it allows the school and the parents to absolve the women — it’s unseemly to outright blame them when Perry was clearly attacking Celeste — while still, as the Greek chorus commentary suggests, maintaining the misbelief that their behavior is what caused all this to happen in the first place. Their running dialogue throughout Big Little Lies is really a more complicated take on, “Yes, he was guilty. But also: She was asking for it.” The fact that those interludes become so irksome is a legitimate criticism about the show, but it should also make us stop and think about why they’re irksome, and how maddening it is to be a woman and hear this sort of thing all the time, out of the mouths (or social-media accounts) of those who see a pair of X chromosomes as a bull’s-eye.

Of course, we, the audience, know the truth: Bonnie is technically responsible for Perry’s death. The practical reason that we keep hearing from all those interviewed “witnesses” for so long is because one of the detectives, who happens to be female, refuses to accept the story offered by the women who were right there when Perry fell. To be fair, she’s right: They are hiding something. But she’s also missing the bigger picture: That while Perry died, in the wider scope of things, he committed far more heinous crimes than anything these women did. But the detective can’t understand that, partly because she’s seen other people concoct a shared alibi before and knows how to recognize the signs, but more to the point, because she’s a woman. Like all those moms at Otter Bay, she recognizes a duplicitous female when she sees one.

It’s harder for her to accept that these five mothers, four of them white and protecting the one black woman who has never been anything but nice to the rest of them, might actually be working together to save one of their own. She can’t see it, not even through those beach binoculars she uses in the last shot of the finale, because society has conditioned her to be blind to it. Women taking care of each other instead of taking each other down? That’s not how the story is supposed to play out. And that’s the biggest little lie of them all.

Big Little Lies Was an Incisive Commentary on Gender Bias