After I finished watching the Girls finale (this is the first time in ages I’ve actually watched a series almost live), I had to fill the void with something. So I turned to Big Little Lies that has been getting a fair bit of critical acclaim. Even the hyper critical feminist site I read approved.
Early in the first episode, however, I started getting uncomfortable. The show focuses on over-involved moms at a California school, and don’t I know this kind well? However, the portrayal of the intrigue, malice and general bitchery seemed to me a bit over-the-top. I am happy to say that while I have had glimpses into this kind of personality, fortunately at the schools my kids attend, the full-on PTA mom type is the rarity. This may be because the schools are more (upper) middle-class (so the majority of the moms work and don’t have that much time for school involvement), a lot of local parents (who probably have their own politics that I’m oblivious to), or maybe I’m just lucky. From what I’ve heard about other schools, there is a culture of mothers (and I almost never hear of dads being that involved which also irks me) pitching in a lot and the associated drama. This really seems like a Western thing. I have noticed that at Nene’s school, the PTA activities are driven by Western mothers. I did briefly get into some drama at the beginning of the year with one super annoying woman, and I have basically retreated from the whole thing.
Nevertheless, the Big Little Lies kind of competitive parenting is not something I have witnessed. I was a bit annoyed at this cliche of the women-can’t-get-along stereotype. However, as the show progressed, it became apparent that each of the central characters was shown to be more than the facade she presented at the school drop-off. Reese Witherspoon’s character Madeline was almost scary in her upbeatness (which is basically so Reese but edged with a sinister air) but at home they showed her vulnerability and also her intelligence. So that was nice. When Reese, Nicole Kidman and Shailene Woodley go for coffee together, it took me back to the three-mums group I was part of in Nene’s kindy and I immediately tagged myself as Shailene, the outsider who was not well dressed enough.
What got to me though was the vulnerability of the children who get caught up in the politics of their parents. In the very first episode, one kid is singled out on his first day at school and it really broke my heart. I guess this is one of my not-so-secret fears as a mom and the way it plays out was so unfair. The teacher actually publicly talks about a bullying incident at school and then asks the bullied girl to point out the person who hurt her. I was actually gazing open mouthed at the screen, appalled at how stupid this was. I hope that if I were in this situation, I would just speak up before it went further and insist that the ‘investigation’ not be conducted this way.
This incident splits the mommy crowd more rigidly into camps. And when the singled out boy is not invited (understandably) for a party of the girl he allegedly bullied, Madeline decides to draw a line in the sand and refuses to send her very popular girl either. When I watched that scene, something in me snapped and I realized I couldn’t watch anymore. The whole thing was too intense, and I ended up reading up on Wikipedia what happens in the end.
[BIG SPOILER ALERT]
I’m relieved to note that all’s well that ends well. The series does not end with one massive catfight but with the women actually acting in solidarity. This rescues it for me, and although I didn’t watch till anywhere close to the end, makes me feel better.
It’s a beautifully shot series, tackling some serious issues and with great performances so it’s worth a watch. I just don’t know – even though I know the ending – if I can go through with it.