By Renee Zhu
Celeste Wright, portrayed by Nicole Kidman in the series Big Little Lies adapted from Liane Moriarty’s eponymous 2014 novel, is educated, intelligent, beautiful, and formally a successful lawyer before she retreats to domestic life upon the request of her husband, Perry, portrayed by Alexander Skarsgård. The show recounts the tale of her seemingly perfect marriage, in addition to that of four other women. Consumed with love and passion for one another, Celeste and Perry are blessed with a pair of beautiful school-aged twins and live in a tasteful mansion in the idyllic sea-side town of Monterey, California. An almost surreal portrait of domestic harmony, so to speak, as Perry mischievously plays “monster” in front of the twins over breakfast on the terrace while Celeste sparkles with laughter of genuine joy.
Central to the structure of Celeste and Perry’s relationship, however, is the jarring disparity between its exquisite façade and the currents of violence and darkness that run silently beneath. Perry abuses Celeste, both verbally and physically, yet Celeste cannot bring herself to leave him, let alone allow herself to understand and acknowledge the existence of abuse in their marriage. It is not until they visit a female marriage counselor, and later, as Celeste finds herself increasingly returning to the counselor alone, that she starts to wake up to the holistic reality of her relationship with Perry. Contrary, however, to filmic cliché, Big Little Lies does not pigeonhole Celeste as a helpless victim or Perry as a one-dimensional, diabolical monster. Rather, it recognizes and situates the myriad psychological and physical subtleties and contradictions in an abusive relationship within a psychosexual Hegelian dialectic, which, in turn, allows the protagonist, Celeste, to salvage herself through the formulation of a synthesis, which, in this instance is not so much through the elimination of the antagonist, Perry, but through female alliance, empowering her to rise above victimhood and emerge victorious.
On the one hand, a moment of thesis is formed when Celeste, the abused, seeks to believe that Perry, the abuser, is quintessentially a caring father and a loving husband. Indeed, Perry is portrayed as great with the twins, urging them to eat breakfast while admiring the sound of crunching cereal in the morning or indulging them with bedtime stories at night. He is also a loving husband, genuinely mesmerized by Celeste’s beauty and frequently professing his love for her, both verbally and physically. He even has a rather interesting nickname for her, “Sparkles”, which he uses when he is not violent, suggesting that she lights up his life. However, Perry is a character mired in paradoxes. One minute he embraces Celeste in the kitchen dancing to Harvest Moon, telling her with artless tenderness, “the most beautiful song, with the most beautiful woman.” Another minute he yells at her and slaps her in the face after she calls him childish in an argument, and violently throws her against the wall or punches her furiously in the stomach, telling her, “get up Celeste, you are fine”, as she whimpers on the bathroom floor.
Thus, oftentimes upon reflection, which usually comes after each violent episode, Celeste is compelled to form an antithesis, that she needs to leave Perry and that this cannot possibly carry on. “If you touch me like that ever again, I will leave you”, says Celeste after Perry chokes her violently because he thinks she intentionally excluded him from a Disney on Ice family outing. However, Celeste is, each time, tempted to lapse back into the thesis, precisely because Perry almost always acknowledges his misdeeds instantaneously. For instance, after shoving Celeste against the wall, he goes so far as to drop to his knees to beg for forgiveness. Frequently, to redeem himself, Perry sends her beautiful roses when he is away on business trips, and gifts her a diamond necklace when he returns, promising her that he will get better. Most importantly, he turns the physical violence, every time, into love-making which, then, serves as a mechanism to temporarily “resolve” their conflict, leading Celeste to believe that they simply have unencumbered sex, and that if anything, she is complicit in the violence done onto her, which, somehow, justifies its existence.
It is important to note, however, that the oscillation of Celeste’s reality between the moment of thesis and the moment of antithesis is occasioned by Perry’s constant oscillation between his two polarizing sides. One could easily argue that Perry is simply a sociopath, that he does not love Celeste and only manifests affection in between “episodes” as a means of manipulation. Indeed, lots of signs could support that interpretation. For one, Perry is furious, and indeed, frightened about the idea of Celeste going back to practicing law, and does not truly want her to have any friends. He seems, as she terms it, “jealous”, “possessive”, and “controlling”. However, this interpretation downplays the complexity of Perry’s psyche. That he goes to counseling with Celeste and reveals, in desperation, that his anger comes from his persistent fear of losing her and that she will simply, “go through him” and stop loving him, showcases that he is not only madly in love with her but also exceedingly insecure. In other words, Perry is not necessarily a sociopathic monster. He is, potentially, simply a troubled soul.
This, then, is the Hegelian dialectic that underpins their relationship, and more broadly, domestic abuse. The tragedy, as well as the irony, lies in the very coexistence of hope and despair, respectively the product of the thesis and the antithesis. The former leads Celeste to believe that Perry is fundamentally good, and that the evil side of him is only symptomatic of his illness and will be eradicated with the right counseling. For instance, she assures the counselor that Perry was by her side every step of the way when she could not get pregnant as well as after the twins were born early, “a tough time” they weathered through together. Thus, she cannot, at first, even entertain the idea of breaking away from him, precisely because she sees primarily the good in him. The latter, however, as it occurs more frequently and intensely, convinces her that nothing will ever change, and that it is only a matter of time until he hits her again. As the thesis and antithesis battle for power, Celeste and Perry are caught in an infinite, vicious feedback loop, unable to see the light of day.
What is clever of Big Little Lies, then, is that it creates a framework that allows for self-salvation, both physical and philosophical. Indeed, Celeste is able to formulate a synthesis – a resolution that transcends the seemingly unresolvable, cyclical Hegelian dialectic – through female alliance.
This is achieved, on the one hand, through Celeste’s relationship with the female marriage counselor. As Celeste visits the counselor increasingly by herself, she starts to realize her self-delusion. A pivotal moment occurs when the counselor suggests that she should “rent an apartment, stock the refrigerator, and be ready to take the kids”. This rather Woolfian suggestion, which Celeste at first terms “alarmist”, exacerbates her awakening. For the first time, Celeste comes face to face with another reason that curbs her from leaving Perry – she does not have an abode of her own, a career of her own, nor, ultimately, a life of her own. That the female counselor not only helps Celeste become fully cognizant of her reality, but also goes beyond the professional ethical boundary of counsellorship to alarm Celeste of her endangerment is a moving portrayal of female alliance, accentuating the notion that certain predicaments are inherently gendered, and that only a fellow woman could grasp, for instance, the complex intersectionality of womanhood and abuse.
On the other hand, Celeste never informs her close friends, Madeline and Jane, of the abuse, let alone Madeline’s archenemy, Renata, a successful career mom, or Bonnie, the bohemian current-wife of Madeline’s ex-husband. However, in the climactic scene at the Hepburn and Elvis fundraiser, these women, different yet united in a sense of shared womanhood, come together as one when Perry seeks to hit Celeste on the balcony after she informs him that she is going to leave him. In that moment, Perry’s violence towards Celeste is, metaphysically, no longer particular but universal – it is symbolic of the gender violence done onto women by men, which is why it merits a universal reaction, as the women all essay to prevent Perry from hitting Celeste, striking him either directly or indirectly. The Hegelian death struggle, here, is also emblematic of the larger gender struggle that underlies our society today. Indeed, though it is Bonnie who pushes Perry over the fence and effectively kills him, his murder is a collective act. It is paramount to note that the synthesis is formulated not through Perry’s death. Rather, it is through female alliance vis-à-vis domestic abuse, as it enables Celeste, as well as all women, to overcome the particular nature of her victimhood and obtain universal victory over gender violence.
Indeed, while Big Little Lies captures the exterior of domestic abuse with unequivocal candor, it is even more laudable for its implicit yet intelligent analysis of the broader philosophical and social implications of gender violence and the transcendent power of female alliance. In the closing scene of the series, the five women play joyfully with their beautiful children on the beach. They stand together gazing at the waves in silence, shoulder to shoulder. Despite their differences, they are united by the secret they guard, but most importantly, the singularity as well as the universality of the shared female experience of the living of life itself.