I got into HBO’s Big Little Lies a few weekends ago for a light binge and was pleasantly delighted by four hours of DRAMA. 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.
I was a fan of one of Big Little Lies’s predecessors, Sex and the City, but I never felt emotionally connected to the women or their relationship with each other. I even enjoyed a few millennial moments on Girls. But what has always held me back from truly being emotionally invested in these shows is that they always, inevitably reminded me that the characters are completely different from myself. Their problems all stemmed from their whiteness, access, class, and privilege. 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. (Don’t act like you didn’t want it to happen.) At the party, Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), who’s run off to a secluded staircase (which soon becomes the murder scene), confesses her infidelity to her new bestie Jane (Shailene Woodley); Renata (Laura Dern) joins the women to call a truce after learning Jane’s son Ziggy wasn’t the one bullying her daughter Amabella (it was Celeste—Nicole Kidman—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 (Zoe Kravitz), 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!
In Episode 6, one of the dads interviewed by the police said, “I believe that women are chemically incapable of forgiveness.” The entire series teased the stereotypical catty, mean-girl vibes to make us believe the ladies would murder each other. The finale, though, with its depiction of the women defending Celeste from Perry’s abuse, was both incredibly heartbreaking and proved these women are capable of banding together.
One of the biggest and most truthful criticisms of feminism is that much of it is exclusionary. But in Big Little Lies’ crucial moment, in which the women protected each other, I didn’t think about race, class, or any other category that separates us. I simply saw women protecting women. With the exception of the show’s main squad Jane, Madeline, and Celeste, all of the women had a contentious relationship with each other—yet they put aside their differences and found common ground out of compassion. Domestic abusers like Perry exist everywhere, in every form; that scene could’ve happened with another set of characters who identified differently and would still resonate. This was a battle for survival. Big Little Lies may have transcended white feminism—for a moment.
Now, while I did dig that snippet of solidarity, I can’t deny the many moments where race and class played a major role in making me feel like “Nope, can’t relate.” The show has been praised for showing the very human side of womanhood, exploring beyond the typical roles of wife, mother, girlfriend and focusing on the substance of the characters. During January’s Television Critics Association press tour, Witherspoon said, “I thought that was a really unique opportunity to have so many incredible parts for women in one piece of material.”
This is sweet, but the characters don’t all share the same plights or identities. We see this with Jane, who in comparison to her friends and fellow-mommies, is the “poor one.” Compared to her, the rich gals Madeline, Celeste, Renata, and the like glide through life with ease relative to their situations, while Jane doesn’t move so freely.
However, her white privilege is undeniable, even in the subtlest of ways. This is clearest in the unforgettable scene in which Jane is stopped by the cops. She is speeding down the road with a gun and some weed in her car when a police car sounds its alarm. This scene actually begins at the end of the Episode 5 and I guess it was supposed to be some sort of cliffhanger. I guess viewers were supposed to be left in suspense. But my heart did not stop. I was not worried. I did not think Jane was in trouble or in danger. The conclusion of the scene went exactly how I imagined it would—Jane gets away with it. The cop pulls her over and checks her license and registration while she remains in the car. There is no need for her to get out with her hands up, or even offer further information about herself. She gets away with just a ticket.
Now had this been me or another person on my side of the color spectrum, there’s more than enough evidence that it would’ve gone so smoothly. Okay, fine, it’s “just a show” and “Jane isn’t even real.” In that case, if Jane was a black woman, I would’ve been incredibly worried. My thoughts would’ve been:
Damn, Ziggy done lost his mama now.
Is Jane the one that dies?
Welp. That’s the end of that character.
Is this Big Little Lies’ take on police brutality?
Basically, I would be shooketh, if Jane was a black woman who just was stopped for speeding and also happened to have a gun and weed in her car.
This also leads me to wonder what would’ve happened if Bonnie, the only major black woman character, confessed that she was the one who actually murdered Perry. The women covered it up as an accident, that Perry slipped and fell to his death. In the book, it’s revealed that Bonnie grew up seeing her father abuse her mother, which is why she got involved in the first place. The book version also includes Bonnie (whose race isn’t identified, by the way) turning herself in, but she is only sentenced to 200 hours of community service.
On the TV version, with Bonnie cast as a black woman, I can’t help but wonder—would she have received the same slap on the wrist as she did in the book, if the TV version were to remain realistic? And since the other women went along with the story that Perry’s death was an accident, were they helping her with their white privilege? Is that true allyship? Regardless of these hypothetical questions, it felt good seeing a black woman save the day, because while I was all emotional over this “colorless” feminism, I was struck by the borderline nonexistence of women of color within the show. Monterey is 78.3 percent white per the 2010 census—but its depiction of its residents was a stark reminder of the disparate values and standards held to rich white women as compared to virtually everyone else.
There were a lot more “only a white girl could get away with this lol” moments for me, including Abigail’s (Kathryn Newton) now-defunct “secret project,” which involved her auctioning her virginity in an effort to raise awareness for human trafficking. Abigail’s reasoning is that if it’s okay for children in other countries to be sold into sex slavery, how much more disturbing would it be for a white, wealthy, American teenage girl to have her body sold, too? It was meant to make the viewer uncomfortable, social commentary on Abigail’s point—that most (white) people regard (young) white women as the most delicate, pristine and precious beings that should be protected at all times, with their virginities being the highest prizes in all the land—as well as Abigail’s own self-aware commentary on the self-indulgent white savior complex.
Despite its flagrant white privilege, what makes Big Little Lies tolerable is its character development. Each person is a real, complex human being. With the exception of Perry “the monster” (as he described himself to his children) and Tom (Joseph Cross) who is perfect, no one was actually good or bad. Like with most folks in real life, we’re all a bit terrible and wonderful. Even ex-deadbeat dad Nathan (James Tupper) had some redeeming qualities, as did ice-queen Renata. For the most part, the characters are highly-self aware. They know when they are being ridiculous and petty. They acknowledge their own shallowness and superficial values. Even when they are sitting in their luxury mansions grumbling over whose six-year-old’s party was better, it’s clear that these women are searching for something we all search for, no matter our race, gender, or bank account balance: purpose. That’s what sparks empathy. These characters have it all, yet their pain feels familiar. They lack essentials money can’t buy.
Kadia Blagrove is an NYC-based writer for all things life and culture. She focuses on women, people of color, goodwill, and Beyoncé. You can check out her work on KadiaB.com and catch her tweets @KazzleDazz.