‘Big Little Lies’ captures the problematic masculinity of 2017. Give it all the Emmys.
Television’s finest will once again be celebrated at the Emmy Awards on Sunday, and there’s no shortage of relevant, politically astute TV in the mix this time around. Setting aside the usual sort of snubs, the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences will have multiple opportunities to reward work that feels especially urgent in a year dominated by terror and tragedy, whether it’s Atlanta’s commentary on race and class in America or The Handmaid’s Tale’s frighteningly familiar dystopia.
Near the top of the list of shows made for the moment — and completely deserving of Emmy gold — is HBO’s Big Little Lies. The miniseries’ name not only captures the reality of nine months with Donald Trump in charge, but the show’s women-centric critique of white men in power feels like a necessary counter to the culture the U.S. president now oversees (and gleefully perpetuates). And though it’s still a mostly white show, as we continue to face the threat of violence from disgruntled white men in Trump’s America, the series’ take on the ubiquity of patriarchy deserves another, deeper look.
Unlike most of HBO’s programming, Big Little Lies — which scored 16 Emmy nominations across a slew of categories — doesn’t shy away from the everyday complicity of men in the oppression of women. Though it’s ostensibly a murder mystery, like fellow limited-series nominee The Night Of, the show is less concerned with the whodunit and more with the portrayal of “violence as an ordinary part of women’s lives,” as the New Yorker’s Jia Tolentino wrote in April.
The seven-episode series primarily focuses on the lives of rich, white, middle-aged women in Monterey, California — Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman play the two female leads, Madeline and Celeste, respectively — and how their facade of perfection slowly crumbles as personal secrets are revealed. And while The Night Of tackles racial inequity more directly and the Emmys-ignored Insecure is more intersectional in its investigation of gender bias, the precision with which Big Little Lies dissects the entitlement of white men in this world is a welcome addition to the TV landscape.
Television in general is still centered on the lives of powerful white men, but like Hulu’s The Handmaid’s Tale — which has 13 nominations of its own — Big Little Lies is not only a show intentionally about women, but also about the way men dominate everything. And when Lies does explore the lives of powerful white men, it goes beyond the surface to confront how harmful ideals of masculinity converge with other privileges in the lives of these men.
Take, for example, a short scene at a yoga studio in the fourth episode. Bonnie, played by Zoë Kravitz, steps out from her class to speak with Ed (Adam Scott), a man married to the ex of her current boyfriend, Nathan (James Tupper). Ed is lurking outside, peeking through a window, but has ostensibly come here in a show of solidarity — their respective partners can’t stand each other but need to reconcile for the good of their children.
Ed, so practiced in playing the role of “the nice guy,” discusses an upcoming dinner party and suggests he and Bonnie work together to keep the get-together “civil.” But he can’t help but assert his dominant role before he leaves, asking Bonnie to not go overboard with her cooking. On the surface, he just wants her to be sensitive to Madeline’s self-consciousness about being replaced by a younger woman. But in execution, it’s really a demand for Bonnie to follow his lead.
The show conveys this through both dialogue and subtle cues. For instance, Ed openly comments on Bonnie’s body during the exchange in the yoga studio, strangely sharing that he “loves sweat on women.” But later, once she’s left the scene, the camera catches him also ogling a nameless woman passing by. No one sees Ed do it, and that’s precisely why it captures the performative nature of a certain kind of benevolent masculinity — the pose of decency by the men who “get it,” but who deep down aren’t willing to give up their privileges at all.
In this way, Big Little Lies’ critique of men is surprisingly wide, and focused on power in a way that discussions of misogyny on TV rarely are. It doesn’t just stop at the obvious evil of Perry (Alexander Skarsgård), who beats and rapes women, or even the creepy entitlement of characters like Ed, who believe they are owed the affections of women due to their “good” behavior. Using the structure of a whodunit, the show paints all men with suspicion; they all seem capable of horrendous things in a society that grants them unearned power at every turn.
Of course Ed can’t help but say something about Bonnie’s body or, in another scene, threaten Nathan with physical violence when they discuss his wife. What makes Ed’s hypocritical performance of masculinity so recognizable and real — contrary to the bluster with which some men reacted to hearing Trump’s “locker-room talk” in 2016 — is that his actions are precisely the kinds of things men internalize after witnessing throughout their lives. This includes both the creepiness around women and the need to assert one’s manhood when challenged. As Floyd Mayweather said in a recent interview with Hollywood Unlocked, Trump apparently speaks how “real men” should — a comment that reinforces the importance of the challenging conversation Big Little Lies is capable of inspiring.
Ed’s specific discomfort with Bonnie also mirrors Madeline’s in that it expresses a need to objectify black women, something with which the show itself also struggles. But it’s worth noting that Bonnie knows about Ed, too. Though she may not catch him doing anything specific, she feels his gaze and quietly reacts to his awkward comments (“What about you?” she asks him rather directly after he criticizes Nathan’s aggression toward him). Throughout the series, women notice the behaviors of men and the ways they put women in danger.
Bonnie picks up on more than the white women, ultimately saving them from Perry’s wrath, but all the women at one point or another are made aware of the ability of straight men to turn toward anger and violence. For instance, Jane (Shailene Woodley), herself a rape survivor, worries her son, Ziggy, already displays aggressive tendencies as a result of who his father is. Meanwhile, Ziggy’s father — Jane’s rapist, whose identity is a mystery to her for most of the series — is oblivious to what he’s passing down to the first-graders he’s helping raise with his own wife. In fact, none of the leading men are very self-aware of their own capacities for hurting others.
Similarly, rather than leading to a much-needed conversation about the prevalence of hypermasculinity, Trump’s lewd comments on the infamous Access Hollywood tape led many men to distance themselves from the future president’s gross disregard for women, with more than a few defensively asserting “not all men.” And while we’re now more than willing to point out the hilarity of a conservative leader like Mike Pence expressing opinions on the rights of women while refusing to be alone with them, men all across the political spectrum still appear unwilling to see themselves as part of the patriarchal problem Trump’s persona lays bare.
Many still stand in disbelief at the news of a man walking into a football party in Plano, Texas, to murder his ex-wife and friends, rather than seeing it as yet another example of the systemic issues women of color have been pointing out for so long. What Big Little Lies can show us, then, is that all men participate in the culture that creates monsters like Perry. All men have been perpetrators, accomplices or silent witnesses to patriarchy — even if, in the light of day, we still pretend this isn’t the case. As it intersects with the denial of white supremacy, this continued evasion is what allows men like Trump to retain power. By pretending we don’t recognize “locker-room talk,” we allow it to flourish.
One of the few joys of major awards ceremonies is the outside chance that a powerful piece of work gets recognized at exactly the right time. At the 2017 Oscars, that was part of the magic of Moonlight’s historic win, which opened up significant conversations about race, gender and sexuality while many were still unpacking what happened in November.
And though there are perhaps more potent (read: less white) shows nominated for Sunday’s Emmy Awards, a larger spotlight on Big Little Lies might somehow help reframe how we talk about men like Trump in the future. Or, at the very least, it might inspire Hollywood to take notice. Because perhaps making more shows like Big Little Lies is one way to nudge American men toward finally engaging in an honest conversation about American masculinity — and all of its falsehoods.