In addition to being everyone's latest obsession, HBO's limited series Big Little Lies has been met with well-deserved critical acclaim. Although there are moments of levity (typically courtesy of Madeline's one-liners), the series provides an unflinching, realistic depiction of PTSD, domestic abuse, and rape — issues that haven't received nearly enough onscreen representation. On the surface, each main character fits into a neat, tidy stereotype — but they have one thing in common. In different ways, every character puts up a front to mask her unhappiness, and only viewers are privy to the despair that they display in the privacy of their own homes. Although it's received a great deal of positive feedback, some people have stated that Big Little Lies is about "rich white people's problems."
In an interview with Bustle, Laura Dern, who plays Renata on the series, responds to the white privilege aspect of Big Little Lies: "Some of this will continue to unfold in the storytelling, but like everything else is stereotyped, so are they. And what’s interesting is when you’re telling the story of a life of privilege, the presumption is it’s better than yours, and that would mean there is a plethora of compassion and understanding, deep friendship and respect — not abuse, contempt, trauma and self-hatred."
Dern says the exploration of these themes sheds light on the shared struggles of all women — regardless of how much money is in their bank accounts. "What it’s allowing everyone to see, and certainly women to see, is that it exists everywhere in women and a couple of us are the epitome of wealth and privilege, particularly Nicole [Kidman] and I."
I certainly don't think the level of wealth and privilege in Big Little Lies should be overlooked or ignored — but we can simultaneously recognize this without invalidating the very real struggles faced by the show's characters. The clearest example is Celeste, whose life is in danger due to the violence inflicted on her by Perry. Her financial resources do offer her a life raft that isn't available to other victims of abuse. Not every woman in her situation has the resources to pay for an amazing therapist, and it's highly likely that Dr. Reisman will ultimately save her life by convincing her to leave Perry before it's too late. Celeste's money also allows her an escape route — she's able to buy and furnish a beautiful apartment in Monterey so she can leave with her children when things turn deadly.
But the fact that Celeste doesn't jump at the opportunity to use those resources shows that, like the vast majority of other abused women, her reason for staying with Perry is incredibly complicated. Finances can absolutely keep women trapped in abusive relationships, but it's far from the only factor at play — and it can't be emphasized enough that a person's income bracket has absolutely no effect on the incredible physical, mental, and emotional trauma caused by domestic violence. And, on the flip side of Celeste's available escape route, she has an incredibly wealthy husband who will use all his financial resources to make her life hell during a custody battle.
"What's interesting to me, too, is that these five women in their own way, feel like they represent one woman," Dern says. "You know, there are various aspects to what it feels like to be female." In Monterey, and other wealthy communities, image is everything — and the women in Big Little Lies are keenly aware of the stereotypes they've been assigned. Seemingly everything turns into a competition, and the most obvious example is the rivalry between Renata and Madeline. Who has the most picture-perfect life, home, and marriage? For all these women, the truth is a far cry from their meticulously-created facades.
The friendships between Madeline, Celeste, and Jane have a refreshing dynamic in which they don't compete with one another — for example, Madeline can barely contain her pride when Celeste puts her lawyer hat on to ensure that Avenue Q isn't shut down. Still, they all keep major secrets from each other — Madeline hasn't told either of her best friends about her affair with Joseph, and Celeste doesn't confide in anyone about the abuse. They're certainly highly concerned with projecting a certain image to world (Celeste admits as much to Dr. Reisman), but it seems like they may keep secrets from each other for another reason — they feel that, since they've been blessed with wealth and privilege, they're not entitled to complain about their problems.
Although studies have found there's a correlation between income level and happiness, there's one major caveat — extra money doesn't translate to extra happiness. Unsurprisingly, people who earn enough money to live comfortably are happier than those who don't — but, in the United States, the "comfortable standard" is approximately $75,000 per year, according to Forbes. Once that income level is attained, additional money doesn't affect a person's happiness.
Proving that "money can't buy happiness," Renata and Celeste are the wealthiest women on the show and both women are, for very different reasons, on the verge of a breakdown.
Big Little Lies sends an important message — when it comes to issues like domestic violence and rape, it truly can happen to anyone. These victims deserve every ounce of our empathy and compassion, both on TV and in real life.
Additional reporting by Rachel Simon.