The Female Gaze: ‘Big Little Lies,’ abuse and ‘The Feminine Mystique’

In Arts & Entertainment, Columns, Film & TV
(Courtesy of HBO)

SPOILER WARNING: Details on the episodes of “Big Little Lies” that have broadcast thus far are discussed below. 

She applies makeup on her neck. She wears long-sleeved blouses and sweaters to cover up the bruises on her arm. But nothing can cover up her paranoia. Nothing ameliorates Celeste’s growing fear of her abusive husband in the latest episodes of HBO’s new miniseries “Big Little Lies.”

This melodrama unwinds the lives of three women living in Monterey, Calif. Each woman is living with a skeleton in her closet. Eventually, they all wind up being connected to a murder. Who gets murdered remains a mystery, but members of their community do not shy away from revealing all the gossip around Madeline (played by Reese Witherspoon), Jane (played by Shailene Woodley) and Celeste (played by Nicole Kidman).

A blonde, a brunette and a redhead, they are no Powerpuff Girls. This trio of mothers do seek power in their own way. What this series lacks in ethnoracial diversity it makes up in its portrayal of various forms of sexist oppressions—most disturbingly, different forms of abuse. Each woman has an intriguing storyline, but none tears the viewer’s heart as much as watching Celeste living with domestic violence, sometimes being aroused by it.

Celeste knows her abuse is wrong, but she hides her fears and anger under a powerful delusion. It is the delusion of how a perfect family is supposed to look like. The dominant narrative of the perfect American middle-class home is so powerful that it is one of the reason’s Celeste finds it difficult to even talk about her situation.

This is evident during a scene in the fifth episode of the series “Once Bitten,” where she explains to her therapist why she doesn’t leave her husband Perry, whom she still loves. A reason that stops her from leaving is everything they built together, their twin sons and their elegant home with the shoreline view.


But that view only illustrates the surface of their home. Underneath the view of this beautiful married couple are tides of aggression and pain. This episode does a phenomenal job in depicting the horrific nature of her abuse through quick flashbacks.

These short silent waves of violent outbreaks are long enough to incite gasps and short enough to allow distraught viewers to catch their breath. As Celeste continues to cover up her husband’s aggressive behavior, more brief flashback scenes appear. Scenes of him swinging at her and strangling her are silent waves that drag viewers in an emotional reel.

When her therapist asks her if she ever fears that he will kill her, she responds by saying, “never.” But a scene of her struggling to breathe as Perry pushes her head on the couch and chokes her is what viewers see. Any second longer and I was about to turn off the television at that moment.

But people living with domestic violence do not get the luxury of simply turning it off if it gets too intense. Sometimes unforeseen circumstances makes it hard for the person to leave.

What the series does well is portray how abuse can happen to anyone regardless of race, socioeconomic status or level of education. It happened to Celeste: a successful lawyer, a loving mother and a beautiful person. It is a beauty that agitates her husband Perry as he tries to control her every move.

In the episode “Push Comes to Shoves,” Celeste helps her friend Madeline in a legal battle to allow her community play to be featured. After the meeting, Celeste said in her last six years of being a housewife; she had not felt so alive.

Staying at home does not fulfill her as much as practicing her profession, a predicament that reminds me of Betty Friedan’s “The Feminine Mystique.” A book about the deprivations of middle-class white women who stayed at home. Friedan argues that encouraging women to exercise their full potential through education and careers will abolish this issue. However, Celeste did all that, and she forewent her career for her family.

What does it say about our culture to see this quandary keep appearing? An issue women faced during the 1960s (when “The Feminine Mystique” was published) arises in a story that takes place in the present. Problems that stirred up second-wave feminism have yet to be absolved. Though Celeste does not seem to have any plans to overthrow this idea, her abusive relationship adds a complex layer to this obstacle.

Celeste is too afraid to tell her husband about her wish to return to work, and too petrified to see his reaction. She is too nervous to reveal that she is drowning in a sea of abuse as she maintains the appearance of her family being like a beautiful ocean view.

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