Why is Big Little Lies directed by a man ? (but also why you should watch it)
I spent my weekend watching Big Little Lies.
I loved the complexity of each women characters and the fact that it goes far beyond all expectations from a show who talks about high-middle class mothers in California.
But while I was watching the credits at the beginning of each episodes, I could not stop asking myself this question : Why is this show directed by a man (Big Little Lies is directed by the talented Jean-Marc Vallée) ?
The story takes place in Monterey, California, among upper-middle class American women. All these women are mothers whose children attend the same public school. The show begins with the murder of someone at the parent’s trivia night sponsored by the school. We don’t know who got killed or by whom and the show takes place mostly in flashback, showing us the weeks leading up to the murder.
Big Little Lies is essentially about the subtle complexity of the lives of each of the characters and their intimate interrogations about what it is to be a woman beyond this particular (privileged and quasi-fantasy) world.
Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) is a warrior and justice-fighter who fears the loss of connection with her children as they grow up and age out of being interested in her.
Renata (Laura Dern) seen as an ice-queen struggles with her controlling nature, which for a woman comes across as “bossy” and angry.
Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz) tries to assert herself among more combative and cynical acquaintances while still retaining her own spirit and values.
Jane (Shailene Woodley) is determined to fight against shame and victimhood while raising her son, conceived during a rape.
Celeste (Nicole Kidman) who is trapped in an ultra-violent marriage had to give up her successful career as a lawyer to become a stay-at-home mom.
"I think it's refreshing to see a story about women that's not just one dimensional. I think there’s a lack of representation in what it means to be a woman and a mother nowadays, so it's not candy-coated. It's not sweet; it's not polite. It's real. I think there was a hole, and we kind of filled that space." Zoe Kravitz
To be honest, I don’t have anything against Jean-Marc Vallée and each of the performances are magnificent. I just don’t get why this show, written by Liane Moriarty (yet adapted for TV by David E. Kelley) and produced by two great actresses (Kidman and Witherspoon) would be directed and adapted by men ? It just doesn’t make sense to me. There are way enough skilled female directors and writers in the world to give them the honor to tell this story.
Of course the show has been very criticized - mainly by white dudes to be honest - and you have to pass through the first ten minutes to realize that this show is not all about stereotypical rich white women in America. It is definitely not a remake of Desperate Housewives. I’ve been so obsessed about this show that I want to share with you five reasons why you should consider watching this show as a real empowering story.
WOMEN OVER FORTY
How often do you watch a show where all the leads characters are women over forty years old ?
Honestly I can’t even find a reference right now.
Big Little Lies is about the very human side of womanhood. It navigates beyond the typical roles of wife, mother, girlfriend and focuses on the substance of the characters. As Reese Witherspoon said “I though that was a really unique opportunity to have so many incredible parts for women in one piece of material.”
Despite the fact that these women are all living in a very privileged world, I feel like they are always very self-aware of it. In fact, even Abigail (Madeline’s daughter) plays an interesting part in the self-awareness of being a rich white girl, as well as having a white savior complex, after she finally realized that auctioning her virginity is not going to abolish sex slavery across the border.
Although these women social status are undeniably linked to some kind of power and the ability to always look “good”, “young”, “dressed well”, they know when they are being ridiculous and superficial. The characters are not good or bad, they are grey like most of us and beyond the size of their mansions, they are looking for the same thing than us : purpose.
THE BAD GUY HAS TO DIE
“I believe that women are chemically incapable of forgiveness.” said one of the dads interviewed by the police in Episode 6.
From the beginning of the show, the story plays with the most annoying habit on screen : the idea that a bunch of ladies all together can’t get along and that they would murder each other.
This is the same stereotypical mean-girl vibes that people associate with feminism and its exclusionary issue. But in Big Little Lies, the bad guy dies because women are capable of banding together when they put aside their differences. At the end, the show is about women protecting women and this is incredibly positive and empowering.
TRANSCENDING WHITE FEMINISM
As Kadia Blagrove said in her article :
“At first, I thought: How am I gonna relate to these rich white wimmenz and their rich white wimmenz problems? While the drama was juicy and the characters were relatable (on a basic human level, anyway), there were moments I found myself going, “Welp, a black person couldn’t get away with that.” Yet Sunday night’s series finale had me teary-eyed and overwhelmed with a spirit of sisterhood I never ever thought I’d feel with a show so seemingly narrow in scope. (…) But in the end, Big Little Lies did a great job of making unlikely characters feel familiar by using their enormous wealth and status as a simple backdrop, rather than a focal point, to their internal lives. (…)
The final episode, “You Get What You Need,” definitely fulfilled our desires: Each big little lie leads up to abusive husband Perry’s (Alexander Skarsgard) death. At the party, Madeline, who’s run off to a secluded staircase (which soon becomes the murder scene), confesses her infidelity to her new bestie Jane ; Renata joins the women to call a truce after learning Jane’s son Ziggy wasn’t the one bullying her daughter Amabella (it was Celeste and Perry’s son Max). When a frantic Celeste joins the women on the staircase after escaping a soon-to-be violent confrontation with Perry, he catches up with her, followed by Bonnie, who witnessed the worrisome argument. Perry assaults Celeste after Jane realizes that he is her rapist; when the other women try to fight him off, BOOM, Bonnie comes in and pushes that asshole to his death. Black woman saves the day!”
MOTHERHOOD IS NOT A FAIRY-TALE
Despite the big mansions and the designer’s clothes, Big Little Lies is one of the few show that portrays the everyday lives of mothers as valuable. Each of the women are fighting for a sense of control over their lives and explore the constant struggle to find balance between motherhood and personal achievement. The show even goes deeper and is not afraid to talk about women experiencing regrets about being a mother. When Celeste says to Madeline “I feel so ashamed for saying this, but being a mother is just not enough for me. It’s just not. Not even close. It’s evil, right ? I said it aloud. I’m evil.” it enlightens again the true patriarchal environment we are all suffering from.
In fact, this show portrays the same problems of inequality between men and women when it comes to children that exists among every social class : men don’t handle much. Even though Ted (Madeline’s husband) is working from home, he never drives his daughter to school. Perry (Celeste’s husband) aggressively complains when he realized he missed the meeting with the teacher. Yet, the only time he gets involved in his children lives is when he plays with them and has a good time… I’m not saying all the male characters are bad dads and husbands, I’m just wondering when will we start to consider that taking care of a child is a real job, and that being a mother doesn’t necessarily comes with the desire of handling all the daily responsibilities of this job. Sezin Koehler's article is really inspiring.
COSTUME DESIGN CHALLENGES
Costume Designer Alix Friedberg’s detail-oriented work guides us into the world of these five female characters in a beautiful California where daily life is all about appearance.
“People often dismiss contemporary work in costume design, even though designers put as much research and thought into it as they would in period,” Friedberg says. It is a hard job to build strong, unique looks for five different women characters who live in the same environment. In the Variety article, Friedberg said the Director Jean-Marc Vallée made a playlist for all the characters. She explains how it helped her getting into each character’s visual influences.
She definitely did a great job creating unique wardrobes that really enhance each body types and personalities of the five women. If you want to read further, Friedberg explains in this article her choices and how she worked on each characters.
and to go futher... In Praise of Big Little Lies’ ‘Ban All Men’ Ending
If you read through all of this, chances are you also watched the show. I'm always very happy to read your comments and I would love to know your thoughts about Big Little Lies in general. Also, what do you think about the f*** lack of female Directors in Hollywood ?