Despite the subject of domestic abuse becoming increasingly common as a component of TV shows, especially in soap dramas on British television, it rarely features as central to the narrative. However, in the new American show Big Little Lies (based on Liane Moriarty’s novel of the same name), it is integral to the plot. Through an in-depth study of physical and emotional abuse between two characters, played by big-budget film stars Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård, the show targets a range of issues apparent in abusive relationships rarely explored to this extent on TV screens.
I’d heard through media sources of the popularity of David E. Kelley’s brand new HBO television show, exploring the intertwining lives of several women in America with a darkly comedic perspective on suburban life. However, I was unaware of a central domestic abuse narrative until a close friend of mine suggested I watch the show as it links to my upcoming thesis. This weekend, I watched the first episode and proceeded to devour the entire series in one day, becoming absorbed into an incredibly powerful and important depiction of domestic violence, unlike anything I’ve seen on television before.
Celeste and Perry are a wealthy couple with two young children, living a seemingly perfect life in a gorgeous apartment in Monterey, California. In social circles, they are perceived as intimate, loving and stable; a relationship others (including Celeste’s best friends) are envious of. Giving up her career as a lawyer to raise their twins, Celeste is a beautiful and adoring housewife, although she craves the opportunity to return to work in the future. It all appears, to those looking in from the outside, the couple ‘have it all’; love, trust and money. Yet, underneath the surface, Celeste is experiencing both physical and emotional abuse on a regular basis, manipulated into believing her husband’s control and violence is an example of his undying passion and love.
Across the season’s seven episodes, the abuse spirals into a life-threatening pattern of physical assault followed by regretful apologetic behaviour before inevitably reverting into another outburst of violence. Unlike cinematic portrayals (which are limited in reaching narrative depth due to time restrictions), the expanse of the series allows the narrative to develop over a period of time, creating a realistic depiction of intensified abuse. Tackling key issues, from Celeste’s inability to confront her husband’s behaviour during counselling sessions to masking the violence and fear from her young children and friends, it explores how victims are battling complex feelings of love for their partners combined with a desperation to leave.
The violence stems from a range of seemingly non-problematic situations, such as Celeste merely forgetting to clean the children’s Lego to denying her husband’s sexual advances simply because they are running late to an important event. From fiercely grabbing her throat or smashing her against a wall to nearly suffocating her in a pillow, each instance of abuse begins to escalate into Celeste fearing for her life. After one physical alteration, Perry states ‘you’re lucky I didn’t kill you’, and Celeste realises her life is endangered.
Although the representation of physical and emotional abuse is realistic, especially the constant state of denial Celeste exists within, there is a problematic issue of privilege which complicates the content. During a counselling session, Celeste’s therapist suggests devising an escape plan by purchasing a new local flat, allowing her to immediately leave upon the pretence Perry’s violence continues to escalate and refuge is necessary. Unfortunately, the prospect of escaping for millions of women globally is virtually impossible; woman tend to be financially dependent upon their abusers, and the heartbreaking reality is they have no choice but to stay within psychologically and physically abusive relationships. Celeste’s wealth allows her an opportunity most women do not have, and the female character’s financial status makes her escape route unrealistic and unobtainable for the majority of women worldwide.
However, an important aspect of abuse the show does confront realistically is the complicated relationship between physical abuse and sex/intimacy. Discussed during her counselling, Celeste explains how violent outrages enacted by Perry will dramatically develop into love-making, blurring the line between the male character’s violence and passion. The first time we witness Celeste hit by her husband, they proceed to have intimate intercourse, with her reaching an intense orgasm. Kidman’s character struggles to differentiate between love and violence and associates her partner’s intimacy with physical assault. Although Perry isn’t performing an obvious form of sexual abuse as Celeste is complicit in the activity and enjoys the sexual encounters (he isn’t raping her, for example), Perry is using sex as an emotionally manipulative act to coerce his wife into forgiveness through pleasure.
Kidman’s performance is brilliant, showcasing the range of emotions experienced by abuse victims with a necessary sense of realism. It can be difficult to portray why women feel compelled to stay with abusive partners, and many films and television shows can dramatise and romanticise physical assault (such as Enough with Jennifer Lopez). Instead, Kelley’s TV series painfully represents the complications experienced by victims without sugarcoating Celeste’s experience. Although it can be difficult to watch, with Big Little Lies creating an unnerving sense of tension in each scene between Perry and Celeste as audiences will inevitably begin to wait for his next violent outburst, it’s a very important portrayal of domestic violence.
By incorporating two international film stars, especially Kidman’s fame into the lead female role, it allows the storyline to reach a widespread audience and draw necessary attention to a relevant topic in society. Although the privilege creates an issue, there is also an aspect to the narrative which presents domestic abuse as something experienced by everyone; no matter how seemingly happy or perfect their lives ‘should’ be.