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Thinking pop culture

Big Little Lies and the Fly in the Feminist Ointment

A couple of years ago in this column I wrote about the happy mistake of downloading the audiobook of Liane Moriarty’s Big Little Lies.

It turned out to be the best book I’d read in 2014.

Initially subdued keenness was my reaction to news of the television show: why not have more of something I enjoyed? It sounded like a wholly terrific idea. At least it did for the thirty seconds it took for me to remember all the heinous book adaptations I’ve suffered through. It sounded terrific until I read about the, like, California relocation and felt suddenly desperately attached to Pirriwee Public School.

I bided my time, the show’s reviews came back positive and friends who tend to have passable-to-even-occasionally-good taste gave it the thumbs up. So I decided on a looksee.

On exiting a screening of Gifted yesterday, I overheard a woman gush to her companion, “I didn’t want it to end!” My list of life experiences that I wish had lasted longer is short; I liked Gifted but 101 minutes was enough. When I reached the seventh and final episode of Big Little Lies, I wasn’t anywhere near ready for an ending. So ill-prepared was I, in fact, that I double-checked the IMDb to confirm that the stupid number of 7 was really the total number of episodes I’d been dealt.

Not only was the show great television but it did something that few adaptations achieve: it took the material further. For the better. Too often films try to condense the 80,000 words of a novel into a two-hour film leaving devotees of the book feeling short-changed. Seven episodes allowed justice to be done to Moriarty’s material, for fringe characters to become more fully formed and for sufficient time to create - and pace - a completely plausible whole new world for viewers. Not to mention excellent writing, high production values and a stellar cast.

American film and television very rarely leaves us wanting more: I absolutely wanted more Big Little Lies.

The show’s final scene - mothers and their children on a beach, the women bound together by both the plot’s secret and the cluster of secrets that link women - meant that the conclusion firmed up a question that had niggled at me throughout: just how feminist is it?

I’ve always been conflicted about the Bechdel test. Not about it being fascinating or useful analytically, but more so, if a film manages to pass, is it necessarily feminist? Equally, even if a film gets the femmo tick, do we actually want to watch it? Because when I think of recent lauded-by-the sisterhood titles - Mad Max: Fury Road and Trainwreck being two films I’ve written about - there are obvious points to be made about a) there clearly being no consensus about what actually constitutes a “feminist film” and b) “feminist film” is no guarantee that it’ll be worth my time (the television series Girls being the perfect illustration of this).

Big Little Lies focuses on the lives of a group of mothers whose children attend the Otter Bay Elementary School in Monterey. Given the nature of most conception, the story of motherhood necessitates that these women’s lives - like most women’s lives - are significantly impacted by the men around them. A fly in the feminist ointment worth unpacking.

Thus far, my three favorite films of 2017 are Maudie, Hidden Figures and Elle. While Hidden Figures is the more obvious candidate for the sisters-doing-it-for-themselves/I-am-woman-hear-me-roar award, Elle and Maudie - in dramatically different ways - centre on women’s personal, intimate lives. On the part men play in their stories.

When feminists call for more media about women’s lives, sure, we’ll occasionally get a Hidden Figures. But then we’ll also get films like Maudie and Elle which not only tell a woman’s tale through her relationships with men, but do so - as transpired in Elle, Maudie and Big Little Lies - via the portrayal of the other stuff that happens to women because of men - devastating things like rape, like domestic violence, like abandonment. The less-than-galactic tales that frequently form the spine of women’s existence.

So are such depictions feminist? In a world where so much media content serves up the abuse of women as an excuse for couch-time and popcorn - Game of Thrones and Law and Order: Special Victims Unit being obvious examples - where is the line between hurt women as spectacle vs. hurt women as feminist story?

Not all women’s stories, afterall, are about helping to get rockets into orbit. A lot of our stories involve the more ordinary wretched realities of abuse. When women are men’s victims. When women don’t manage to get unraped or unbeaten by the end. When there is not necessarily any triumph over adversity.

Film and television exists, primarily, to entertain, to make money. Secondary benefits include audiences getting to hear about the spectrum of stories constituting the human experience. But is any of it feminist? Do we get a step closer to gender equality by getting stories of harm onto the public agenda? I’ve spoken previously about my concern, for example, with consciousness raising campaigns. Beyond the important “you are not alone” message, does anything really change? Do we really move any closer to equality?

Big Little Lies of course, is by no means only about rape or violence. It’s also about the fickle notion of sisterhood. Of how women can sometimes be outrageously brutal to each other, but that it’s also generally women who we confide in, seek solace from and reap our very best counsel. And here was nudge the more treacherous terrain of feminism.

Big Little Lies was an excellent adaptation of a great book. Both are well worth the time if you’re interested in gender politics or just really enjoy a well-executed story.

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