Amabella Is Victim-Blamed On 'Big Little Lies'

by Caitlin Flynn
Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Big Little Lies is centered around one murder mystery, but violence is ever-present on the show. Whether it's Jane's constant, intrusive flashbacks to her rape or Celeste's increasingly violent marriage, many of the show's main characters have already coped with life-changing assaults. It's no coincidence that a choking incident in the first grade classroom at Otter Bay School is key to the plot from day one. We still don't know who's bullying Amabella on Big Little Lies, but her situation is a reminder of why it's often so difficult for girls and women to come forward about abuse and assault.

When Renata spots what appears to be a bite mark on her daughter's back in the March 19 episode "Once Bitten," she's understandably beside herself. Amabella refuses to say who's hurting her — presumably because the bully threatened her in some way. It doesn't take long for Renata to lose patience with Amabella and berate her for not being strong enough to stand up for herself. As she storms off, Renata reminds everyone who's listening that she taught herself to be strong and sends a clear message that she'd never allow herself to be victimized. I definitely cut Renata slack here, because she's purely acting out despair that her child is being bullied and she can't protect her. But, unfortunately, her approach comes off as victim-blaming. She makes it seem like Amabella's fear makes her weak, and therefore she's partially responsible for what's happening to her.

As a parent, it must be a painful line — Renata's desire to teach her daughter to be strong and stand up for herself is an important one. But, her approach to to Amabella's situation shows why victims of all ages often feel alone and ashamed. When people behave as though fighting back and speaking up should be easy, many victims blame themselves and become even more hesitant to talk about the abuse.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Amabella's dad Gordon has a far calmer, gentler reaction — but he, too, inadvertently falls into a form of victim-blaming when he tells his daughter the bully may be hurting someone else and he knows she wouldn't want that. This dialogue will likely hit close to home for viewers who have decided not to press charges after being assaulted — many of us have been asked, "but what if he does it to someone else?" as though the possibility never occurred to us. Again, it's well-intentioned and people often think they're empowering survivors when they say this — but what it really does is throw the blame back to the girl or woman who's been attacked. The narrative needs to shift so it's instilled in everyone, female and male, from an early age that a violent bully or criminal is the sole person responsible for their actions.

In many ways, the words Renata and Gordon use when talking to Amabella could just as easily be spoken to Jane or Celeste. Like so many other survivors, Jane didn't report her rape and therefore people may question whether or not she's somehow, just a tiny bit culpable if he assaults another woman. Celeste fights back, but by some people's standards she's a weak person because she stays with a man who physically abuses her. The fact that a six-year-old girl is faced with such severe bullying is a reminder of just how early this cultural and social conditioning begins.

The result is a vicious cycle of silence, self-loathing, and a path for abusers to act without consequences. At this point, it seems safe to assume the person bullying Amabella is either Josh or Max — because, contrary to what Celeste wants to believe, it's impossible that they haven't noticed Perry's behavior. One of the twins interrupted an altercation in the March 12 episode, and Celeste's therapist told her it's likely the children know about the abuse.

Hilary Bronwyn Gayle/HBO

Jane understandably frets that there may be something inherently wrong with Ziggy that she can't fix — all she knows about his father is that he's a violent man who rapes and chokes women. But it's far more likely that whoever's abusing Amabella is mimicking behavior that is normal and acceptable in their own home. The twins adore Perry, and he's been shown choking Celeste multiple times — so it seems like the abuse has already had a deep impact not just on the couple's children, but on at least one classmate as well. And both Jane and Celeste were choked, prompting viewers to speculate that Perry may in fact be Saxon Banks.

Amabella's in first grade, but her plight mirrors that of people like Jane and Celeste. It's a somber reminder that when we're speaking to anyone we fear is in danger, the worst thing we can do is make them feel as though their silence or failure to fight back makes them weak or, in some way, deserving of the abuse.