The Performativity of Personhood
Well, hello again folks! It’s Drs Donnelly and Hinson joining forces for our second foray in analyzing representations of women in popular culture. (If you missed our first Women in TV series on The Handmaid’s Tale, catch up here.)
HBO’s production of Big Little Lies swept through the television award season, winning Emmy Awards for acting, directing, and Outstanding Limited Series. Based on Liane Moriarty’s #1 New York Times Bestseller, the show predominantly follows the lives of three women, Madeline (played by Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (played by Nicole Kidman), and Jane (played by Shaleine Woodley), as they deal with the trials, both petty and serious, of upper class, white, suburban life.
Quick plot is as follows: the story is told in both present tense and flashbacks, as we’re informed of a gruesome death at a school fundraiser. The cops spend the series trying to figure out who killed the victim, and we spend the series finding out who the victim is and the circumstances behind that death.
Warning: spoilers ahoy in this series. We’re going to assume you’ve either read the book or seen the show, or are okay knowing the ending. You have been warned.
Rather than analyze each episode, we’ve decided to tackle the shows three biggest themes -- the performativity of personhood, the perception of motherhood, and domestic violence -- in three conversations. Join us as we delve into the secrets, lies, and scandal that drive the series to its dramatic conclusion.
EH: Right, so, fundamentally this show focuses on relationships -- how we navigate them, manipulate them, start and end them, and perhaps most interestingly, how we behave in them. We all have different ways we behave in different scenarios, with different people and groups, effectively performing versions of ourselves. This is masterfully demonstrated in the shows dynamic and complicated webs of relationships.
We start out the show with two incidents of violence that end up bookending the first series, one at the school fundraiser where we learn that someone is dead, and one at the first day of school, where a child is assaulted by a classmate. Off the bat we then get dumped into a world where people are performing versions of themselves they feel are appropriate for the given setting and group dynamic. So we get flashes of all the fundraiser attendees, performing for the investigators, and we get all the parents, performing ‘parenting’ in front of the teachers, the other parents, and the children.
I think I quickly identified with the characters, even though I’m not a mother, because we can all identify with the self-enforced pressure of performing up to others (and our own expectations). Though it wasn’t said until the 6th episode, I felt that Celeste telling her therapist that, “Perhaps my self-worth is made up of how other people see me,” encapsulated this idea of performativity that each character was grappling with in all of their relationships.
What did you make of the way the women defined personhood? What struck you about how their performativity evolved throughout the series?
KD: The idea of “performing” really is at the core of this show, I totally agree. Celeste’s quote struck me as well, but largely because of where she was when it was said. We’ll get into Celeste more in a future blog, but let me say this for now: that therapist’s office was the only place in Celeste’s life where she was truly seen, even though she attempted to keep up the perfect wife performance. The therapist kept calling her on it, calmly but firmly pointing out the cracks in the facade that Celeste had constructed so carefully. When she admits that about her self-worth, I think that’s the first time Celeste has been herself in a long while.
I valued Madeline’s husband, Ed (played by Adam Scott and his pretty impressive beard) in this idea of performance. He raised the idea of marriage being a series of events where each party pretends - which is not the word I would have chosen, but as a married lady I see his point - but at the same time, he is desperate for Madeline to stop performing and be herself. He is constantly reminding her to trust him and to trust herself - acts which are difficult for her. This is especially true in the dynamic with her teenage daughter from her first marriage. They dance around each other throughout the series, but their relationship is so grounded in history they have together, that every once and awhile the performance stops and they’re each willing to be seen with one another. It’s my favorite mother/daughter dynamic on screen in quite some time.
If I was going to take lessons from people in this, it would be that performing is exhausting when you have to do it all the time. At the end of the show, the five central women are all forced to be vulnerable with each other and the closing shot of the series is their newly formed tribe. Performances may be necessary outside that group, but there’s no hiding within it. Having folks we simply are with is essential.
What’s your takeaway?
EH: That’s an excellent point about Celeste and the safe space she finds with her therapist, to stop performing (or pretending) for the first time in her marriage. I think what struck me so much with all the relationships was how fragile our performances are and how we balance the tensions of those performances as we navigate through each relationship.
For a relatively short show (only 7 episodes) I thought they did a remarkable job of showing that fragility and tension, in each relationship dynamic - mother/daughter, husband/wife, friend/friend. Though the trauma of the violence at the end of the show ultimately brought these five women together, we caught glimpses of it starting throughout the show. For me, one of the most powerful moments was when Jane trusted Madeline enough to tell her about her rape, to be that vulnerable and stop performing.
My biggest takeaway on this concept of performing is how important it is to be gentle with yourself and others, to acknowledge that everyone is performing all the time, attempting to live up to the expectations they or others have placed on them. Bearing that in mind as we interact with people, personally and professionally, helps us lead with empathy and strive for understanding.
That’s a wrap on our first installment for Big Little Lies. Stay tuned for our next blog where we tackle the perceptions of motherhood!