“You’re a very big person,” says Reese Witherspoon to Laura Dern, on “Big Little Lies” (the HBO hit miniseries that helped a great many of us escape the onslaught of panic-inducing news for a month.)
Witherspoon’s character, Madeline is right: Dern’s Renata is indeed “big”/ emotionally mature. After publicly ridiculing and shaming Shailene Woodley’s Jane for most of the series, without due cause—and with odious, Type-A, uber-privileged-histrionics to boot—Renata goes where (almost) no woman has gone before her in mainstream, crowd-pleasing, entertainment: She apologizes. Genuinely. To another woman.
And then we behold the radical and surprising final event of the series: Five very different women openly support one another.
If you haven’t seen “Big Little Lies,” see it. I won’t spoil the satisfyingly, twisty, murder mystery plot for you, but the plot isn’t really the point. Yes, the whodunnit framing device kept us watching each week with urgency. But the multitextured relationships between the women kept us captivated, and continues to do so.
That a series with terrific writing is led by five women is alone a rare triumph. That those female characters are each distinct, interesting, layered, and played by top-notch actresses capable of expressing heightened eccentricities, along with grounded, emotional nuances and fierce sharp intelligence, with a sense of grace humor and truth, is miraculous. But the creators of this remarkable television event went even further. They consciously chose to show us multiple examples of women being compassionate to one another, even as their world conspires to make them primal enemies. The result: women and men alike tuned in every week, and were left wanting more.
Think how different the country would be if producers, politicians, and the rest of us, deliberately prioritized and celebrated empathy, curiosity, and connection between women, on screen and in everyday life. Instead of lazily maintaining the status quo of women tearing each other apart to gain the approval of men. (Insert your “Fatal Attraction,” and “Dynasty,” and “Real Housewives,” and “Lifetime Movie Network” examples here.) Really, think about it.
Think how viciously divided America is at the moment, and the role that gender plays in that divide Think how the divisions in “Big Little Lies,” directly parallel the current divisions between American women with regard to the presidential election: Namely, in both cases a male sexual abuser is at the center. On the show, it is only when each of the women finds a way to push back against their own internalized sexism that they can truly see and support one another, and stop the cycle of abuse that had kept them disempowered and at each other’s throats.
Think how much better women and people of color and those of us who are LGB or T would get along with one another, if we refused to tolerate the abuses of power that keep us down. If rather than remaining “small,” by internalizing our own oppression, we named what oppresses us, pushed back against it, and chose to be “big,” by building each other up, we could together consider better alternatives. This would ultimately be better for straight white men as well—and not only the legions of them that were hooked on “Big Little Lies.” The more all men can feel comfortable in our own skins without the pressure to keep women—or anyone else—subordinate to us, in order to validate our own “masculinity,” the less likely we are to “treat others badly.” (O’Connell, 2012; Flood, 1997).
It should be noted that straight white men are often implicated in discussions about oppression, and that is not at all to say that all men are born to be active threats. (In fact, many if not most of the straight men in my life consistently speak out against prejudice, discrimination, or violence, directed at any particular person or group.) But the fact is, straight men, especially those who are white, are born into an abundance of social power and privilege. And those who inherit power easily abuse it. So, it is our systems of power and privilege we must fight against much more than just individual men who abuse women and other minorities. But we can’t deconstruct our systems of power and privilege if we can’t acknowledge our own places in it.
So, check yourself, own how systems of power impact you, and then get out there and produce more stories about various women, and people of color, and those of us who are lesbian or gay or transgender, or who are overweight, or living with disabilities, or any other group of people who are divided by those who abuse their power. And make sure those characters have the internal resources to be “big,” and to openly connect with each other. Sure, it may not always be “realistic” for characters to have the capacity to conquer internalized oppression. But let us see what that looks like anyway—preferably with actors as capable of transmitting truth as Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Zoe Kravitz, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley. And remember the truth is not necessarily “realistic.”
For instance, as the 2016 election made clear, it is not realistic to expect women who have learned to tolerate abusive men to support one another (let alone put one of their own in The White House...). But as “Big Little Lies” show us, it is definitely possible. Many marketing executives will tell you it’s not realistic to expect shows about women to succeed, but the truth is that “Big Little Lies” is a great success.
*This post first appeared on Psychology Today.
Flood, M. (1997, April). Homophobia and masculinities among young men (lessons in becoming a straight man). Presented at the Teachers, Professional Development Training, O’Connell Education Centre, Canberra, Australia. Retrieved from http//www.mensadviceline.org.uk/Files/ Homophobia-and-masculinitiesamong-young-men.pdf
O’Connell, M. (2012). Don't Act, Don't Tell: Discrimination Based on Gender Nonconformity in the Entertainment Industry and the Clinical Setting. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 16:241-255.