Set against the scenic backdrop of Monterey with a Youtube trailer that stars Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon, and Shailene Woodley jogging on a beach, Big Little Lies looked set to be the spiritual sequel to the OC. But in fact the series has been garnering praise from viewers and critics alike for its nuanced treatment of what is perhaps one of the most shocking and uncompromisingly realistic portrayals of domestic violence ever seen on television.
Nicole Kidman plays Celeste, a mother of twins and wife to a wealthy businessman Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgard. “She’s a lot older than him,” we’re told. “Perry and Celeste? Honestly? I’d sleep with either,” someone else informs us.
From the very beginning the plot unfolds through snippets of police interrogations with school parents in the aftermath of a murder – we don’t know who did it nor who’s dead. The device of visiting each central character through the observations and suspicions of people who know them in passing serves to shroud both the murder and the characters themselves in further mystery while creating the show’s central preoccupation – the difference between what appears and what is.
The dichotomy of appearance and reality is at the heart of the terrifyingly abusive “so perfect” relationship between Celeste and Perry. More than any other television series there’s a level of detail and specificity to the violence – which spans from rape to emotional abuse – that makes it hard to watch at times. Speaking to the Hollywood Reporter, Skarsgard said that the scenes “were emotionally and physically so draining. They're incredibly hard to shoot.” As in the case of real domestic violence, the abuse happens in a liminal space, a grey area where we the viewer, as well as Celeste the victim, aren’t certain that it’s really happening. It is not a conventional depiction, but one I identified with and recognised as my own experience with domestic violence.
Big Little Lies captures the murkiness inherent in identifying domestic violence for what it is. It does so first and foremost in its creation of the highly volatile abuser Perry. A mound of muscle topped by a pair of icy blue eyes who formerly played Tarzan, Alexander Skarsgard, is not what the mind conjures when we think of a stereotypical abuser. We learn that Perry is a good father, a successful businessman, and above all that he really loves Celeste. He burps to amuse his children and cancels a business trip to be present for their first day of school. He’s nice to the nanny. Even the abuse seems, at times, excusable. Every instance of violence is followed by deep remorse and there’s even a willingness to seek help. He’s a charming and seductive abuser, a sort of Humbert Humbert of domestic violence that draws both the viewer and Celeste into excusing his troubled behaviour or hoping it would go away – because If it weren’t for that one thing he’d be perfect.
Every instance of violence is followed by deep remorse and there’s even a willingness to seek help. He’s a charming and seductive abuser
From fragments of the police interrogations, we learn too that the community of school parents believe that Celeste and Perry have a wild and fulfilling sex life – there are rumours of them being seen in the middle of the day. At one point, Celeste herself addresses the subject directly with Madeline Mackenzie (Reese Witherspoon): “Sometimes I think he likes to fight because it leads to sex. Sometimes I think I like it too.” Confusing the abuse by adding what appears to be consensual and often violent sex deepens the murkiness around the question of whether it is really abuse and what is Celeste’s role in it.
It’s a devastatingly accurate portrayal. The largest obstacle to women leaving abusive partners is often their inability to recognise the abuse. A volunteer for the Women’s Aid hotline, an Irish charity that helps victims of domestic abuse, tells me that the question she hears most often over the phone is “Is this abuse?” even when the caller’s circumstances are so terrible as to make the question seem absurd. “Most callers just need someone to talk to and to help them come to terms with behaviour that is abusive.” The main struggle is admitting that you’re being abused.
In Big Little Lies, Celeste never appears to be a victim. It’s not only through the eyes of the Monterey community that she isn’t one, but even in her own private thoughts and with her closest friends. She goes out, invites people over to their house, returns to her job, has sex, laughs at her abuser’s jokes. While preparing for the role, Nicole Kidman spoke to survivors of domestic abuse and based her performance largely on their testimonies. Celeste lives out the denial and internalised guilt of the battered wife, but what she cannot give up on is the outward appearance of perfection that an admission of abuse would shatter. To me identifying as a victim was doubly disenfranchising, a second violence after the abuse. Having pride in the midst of abuse seems almost a blessing in this case.
On Twitter, women have shared their own experiences as well as their reactions to the abuse Celeste suffered. The portrayal of domestic abuse in Big Little Lies sets a precedent, albeit fictional, for women to identify with. The subtlety of its portrayal makes the viewer question the parameters and prevalence of abuse of this sort. It allows for a deeper and more complex understanding of domestic violence and in a small way Big Little Lies has contributed to a more varied and better understanding.