Hey everyone! The good Drs are here for our third and final installment of our Women in TV series covering the Emmy Award winning (and now Golden Globe Nominated) HBO’s series Big Little Lies. We’ve already discussed performativity and motherhood, but in today’s post we’re going for the heavy topic of domestic violence.
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. Furthermore, if domestic violence, sexual violence, or abuse is triggering for you, we advise you to consider that before you continue reading - this post will be discussing the specific representations of domestic violence in the show. We will endeavor to handle the material as sensitively as possible.
This was a particularly difficult aspect to the show, but one that both Drs Donnelly and Hinson feel is extremely important to discuss.
EH: So with a background (and degree) in social work, I know you’ve had much more experience dealing with the horror of domestic violence than I have, so I’m looking forward to your professional contributions. To get us started, I think for me the most difficult part about Celeste and Perry’s relationship was that I didn’t hate him. The first episode hints at violence in their relationship, but even the first time we see him hit her, we see Celeste hit him back and then they continue to take out that anger via sex. For me, I knew that there was domestic violence in the show, but I wasn’t really sure that’s what we were watching till later episodes.
I’m not sure if a level of empathy or humanizing Perry was the goal of the show, but it certainly showed the level of complexity in all relationships, specifically when violence is involved. With most of the other relationships on the show we jump right into their issues, but I felt like with Celeste and Perry they wanted to take their time exposing the damage that their relationship was causing to Celeste and eventually to their children. It was difficult to watch because you didn’t realize how much of a threat he was right away, which is maybe reflective of being a woman in an abusive relationship. What did you make of how they portrayed Perry? Of how they slowly revealed the depth of the abuse?
KD: My first social work job was in a domestic violence shelter. I met so many women like Celeste that I will admit I clocked to it immediately. Her violence was always instigated by him, and I would term it as self-defense more than anything - if she hit him back, he would stop hitting her and they could just move on to the sex. His control was off the charts as well - that whole thing with the first day of school made my stomach drop.
Alexander Skarsgard gets all the snaps in the world for his portrayal, because I thought it was SPOT ON. Perry’s charm is at the center of his ability to manipulate women and to control them was an excellent visual description of an abuser. Even though Perry’s abuse was tied to sex, it wasn’t actually about that for him. Instead, he needed to be in control at all times. This is why he could rape Jane and then probably come home and coerce or seduce Celeste into sex immediately. If you get one takeaway from this whole show, sear this into your brain: abuse is about control.
For leaders who are thinking, “well, what if one of my team members is living like Celeste? How do I help?” First of all, that is a fantastic question and second of all, the answer is going to frustrate you.
You can’t do much.
What you can do is the following three things:
Know the shelters in you area and have their literature available in your workplace. Post the number to the hotline in the break room, and place it in the employee handbook as an available resource.
Create an anti-harassment culture in your workplace. Make it clear that you value people as humans, believe that they have dignity and worth, and allow them to retain control of their projects. Collaboration is very healthy.
If one of your employees/friends/family members discloses to you that this is happening, first of all, believe them. Second of all, help them formulate a plan. The plan should be clear, and practiced, and should always include food/shelter. Third of all, encourage them to get in touch with the shelter to see about resources in the area. Your support is invaluable but limited and putting them in touch with professionals is the kindest thing you can do.
If you are looking for charitable organizations to partner with, your local shelter is a great place to start. Host a diaper or tampon drive in your office and drop all the offerings off to the shelter. If they have a gala event, sponsor a table. These are small, yet concrete ways to demonstrate to everyone at your place of business that safety, respect, and dignity are things you value.
EH: I think for me one of the more difficult aspects of the season was gradually realizing the likelihood that Perry was Jane's rapist, and waiting for that to unfold. The moment when Jane communicates to Madeline and Celeste that he assaulted her was extraordinarily powerful and hammered home for Celeste the scope of his destruction as an abuser. Excellent advice from Dr. Donnelly there and I think that her comprehensive response covers so much, we’ll just leave it there.
That wraps up our latest Women in TV series. Both Drs believe that art is a window into society, and we can learn so much about ourselves from how people are portrayed and what stories are told. We commend Big Little Lies for telling difficult stories, and for giving voice and space to women who are victims and survivors. Join us for our next series soon!