In Big Little Lies: Perfection, Policing, and the Patriarchy

The nerve wracking and immensely satisfying finale of HBO’s enthralling mini-series, Big Little Lies, explores the role of perfection in the patriarchy’s policing of women.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t finished Big Little Lies, there are some reveals ahead.

Big Little Lies is set in the breathtakingly picturesque seaside town of Monterey, California. The homes are huge. The vistas are expansive. And the bank accounts are bottomless.

Through this amalgamation of perfection Big Little Lies explores the lives of five women whose “perfect lives” are “perfect lies”: Celeste (Nicole Kidman), Madeleine (Reese Witherspoon), Jane (Shailene Woodley), Renata (Laura Dern), and Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz). The show subtly urges viewers to rethink how we’ve conceptualized “perfection” and specifically explores the role perfection plays in a patriarchal system of policing women.

The show posits that the patriarchy, as a system, is designed to police women regardless of their class, status, education, occupation, or race, with absurd standards of perfection, and in its finale, Big Little Lies envisions a collective and forceful resistance.

Everyone in Monterey strives to appear ‘perfect’. Yet for women, perfection seems impossible to grasp and achieve. And the show’s characters are presented with constant reminders of their shortcomings in the quest to be perfect.

Madeleine comments that there is a monetary delineation in the town between the working, part-time, and stay-at-home mothers, saying, “The over/under in this town is $150,000. I work in community theater. I’m definitely an under.”

Lest this suggest that there is only stigma for mothers who don’t work full time, in the finale Renata voices her frustration with what she sees as a vicious environment for working mothers, “I’m…getting vilified because I’m a working mom. Worse… a CEO! Which deems me a bitch… If I get shot in the head tonight, half these moms are going to say ‘She couldn’t bother herself to duck? What, she couldn’t, couldn’t get the nanny to stop the bullet?’”

Despite the depictions of discontent and animosity between women throughout the season, the finale revolves around the collective power women have to overcome a violent patriarchy (embodied in the series through the character of Perry (Alexander Skarsgard), Celeste’s abusive husband).

The final twenty minutes of the finale are riveting, and the “murder” that has been alluded to all season is a fraught illustration of satisfying female self-protection and agency, complicated by the threat of legal persecution. Yet the show’s conclusion leaves some things unresolved.

The show’s final scene shot on a serene beach in Monterey County, features the five main women frolicking in the sand with their children. Optimism and smiles abound. The scene feels blissful. The exquisite ocean, the idyllic beach, and the beaming faces of the children are captured on screen as if a funeral had not occurred on screen a few minutes earlier.

It’s a celebration.

They have done it. They have come together and fended off the patriarchy and in doing so, they have shaped the next generation of women and men to be better. The optimistic scene suggests that there is a bright future ahead.

Yet, the show doesn’t allow the characters or viewers to have triumphant closure.

Perhaps it wouldn’t be a true commentary on the patriarchy if it did.

In an apt commentary on the way individuals can participate in a structure that disadvantages their own demographic, Big Little Lies presents the patriarchy here as the woman detective.

The show ends with a view through the detective’s binoculars looking over the women and their children on the beach, with the breathtaking ocean-scape as a backdrop.

They might be jubilant and feel free, but the detective is still watching them. Literally policing them.

Just as the ocean’s waves recede and resurge, the battle against a system of oppression, is constant and not easily won. To say anything else would be the biggest little lie.

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