Troubling TV: Domestic Violence in HBO’s ‘Big Little Lies’

During spring this year, HBO launched a seven-part miniseries called Big Little Lies, based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same title. The show was incredibly popular, earning high-ratings and winning several awards, but this is not simply down to the cast. Refreshingly, Big Little Lies is based around the lives of three female protagonists. The show explores in detail their marriages, friendships, and relationships with their children, all the while hinting that these storylines will lead to the death of a main character.

It is clear from the opening episode of Big Little Lies that violence is prevalent in the lives of these characters, and it permeates the plot in three significant ways. The story begins with the arrival of single mom Jane Chapman and her young son, who seek a fresh start in Monterey, California. Jane quickly befriends Madeline Martha Mackenzie and Celeste Wright, as all of their children attend the same school. As she opens up to them, it transpires that Jane is a rape survivor; this is the first form of violence. The second surfaces when, on his first day of school, Jane’s son Ziggy is accused of bullying (more specifically choking) a little girl named Amabella Klein. This initiates a parental conflict which endures throughout the season.

Despite all of this, the most harrowing scenes to watch are undoubtedly those which relay the third form of violence- the unstable relationship between Celeste and her husband Perry. As is so often the case, they are externally perceived as the catalog couple, yet within their home, Perry is a disconcerting mixture of manipulation, insecurity, affection, and violence. His attacks are shocking and volatile, usually triggered by the smallest verbal incidents. These physical altercations often morph into aggressive sexual encounters, which in turn lead to remorse and forgiveness. As the audience repeatedly witnesses this cycle, it becomes steadily more traumatic, and harder for Celeste to ignore.

Is this a problematic representation of domestic violence?

In a myriad of ways, Perry Wright is an accurate portrayal of the archetypal abuser. Indeed, Moriarty has stated that she based Perry’s character on a previous partner of her own, which is perhaps why his manipulation seems so realistic.[1] He exerts control over every area of Celeste’s life; it is Perry that convinces her to retire. Celeste has given up her occupation as a lawyer to be mother and wife, and within these roles, Perry is able to supervise her. When Celeste decides to help Madeline with a minor legal matter, Perry bristles at the idea of her returning to work and therefore having a small portion of life outside of his influence. He disguises his panic as husbandly concern for her ‘stress level’, ultimately presenting his attempts to discourage her as a form of care. He expertly maneuvers Celeste, coercing her with accusations of exclusion and intentional guilt-tripping, before diminishing her resolve by catching her off-guard with spontaneous affection and intimacy. These techniques are widely recognized by victims of intimate partner violence and the organizations which battle to prevent it. [2]

This being said, there are some elements of the portrayal of their relationship which prove troubling. The entertainment industry is notorious for its tendency to glamorize violence. Indeed, the extreme beauty of the couple and their immense wealth somewhat romanticize their relationship, as though their marriage transcends normality. Celeste and Perry are supported by childcare and have access to a highly qualified marriage counselor. On the advice of this counselor, Celeste decides to rent and furnish a separate apartment in Monterey, which she is able to pay for alongside her beautiful family home. She has a refuge from Perry should she need to leave him suddenly, but unfortunately this is not the case for the majority of those who experience domestic abuse. According to statistics provided by NCADV, ‘victims of intimate partner violence lose a total of 8 million days of paid work each year.’[3] This puts them at a financial disadvantage that makes leaving their abusers considerably more difficult. While Celeste’s situation is undoubtedly horrific, it is her privilege that enables her to escape, and this does not reflect the reality of domestic violence for most victims.

Why do we need shows like Big Little Lies?

It’s desperately important that stories of domestic violence continue to be told through every available avenue. The NCADV state that every minute 20 people are physically abused by their romantic partners in the United States. It remains a leading cause of death for women between ages 15-44, yet the proportion of cases reported to police remains as low as 25%.[4] The stigma surrounding domestic abuse is undeniably present, but charities and organizations worldwide are working furiously to diminish it. In Big Little Lies, domestic violence is not only an element of but central to the development of the storyline. Problematic components aside, the inclusion of such uncomfortably visceral scenes gives this epidemic some much-needed exposure. The power of such media should not be underestimated. In 2015, popular British radio soap The Archers launched a controversial storyline featuring explicit intimate partner violence; according to the BBC, this caused a 20% increase in calls to the National Domestic Abuse Helpline.[5] They may be distressing to consume, but shows like this raise awareness about the prevalence of domestic violence across the globe and are therefore crucial to the progression of the movement against it.

 

[1]To read the interview, please go to: https://www.wmagazine.com/story/big-little-lies-author-reveals-inspiration-alexander-skarsgard-character

[2] To see more ‘Individual Risk Factors’ in Intimate Partner Violence, please go to: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/intimatepartnerviolence/riskprotectivefactors.html

[3]For full statistics see: https://ncadv.org/statistics

[4]For full statistics see: https://www.cdc.gov/violenceprevention/nisvs/

[5] http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-35961057