Perceptions of Motherhood
Greetings, all! Welcome to our second installment of our Women in TV series covering the three main themes of HBO’s hit drama Big Little Lies. Catch up with our opening discussion on performing personhood here.
In case you are just joining us now, here’s a quick plot: 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.
Today we’re going to talk about how the show unpacks varying perceptions of motherhood. As all three protagonists Jane, Madeline, and Celeste are mothers (as well as the other main women Renata (played by Laura Dern) and Bonnie (played by Zoe Kravitz)), motherhood is a central arc of the show. Consequently, differing perceptions of motherhood shape many of the performances of personhood, both as mothers and as women/friends. Let’s jump in, shall we?
KD: So let’s put our cards on the table here; neither of us are mothers. We both have mothers and have friends and family who are mothers, but we currently are not. However, because we are women in professional spaces, we have been privy to a lot of “having it all” conversations and motherhood vs. career stuff. And I, personally, as a married lady who gets asked about every day regarding my reproductive choices, am sensitive to the portrayal of the situation in culture.
So, what I found most interesting was that Madeline made comments about how Renata and the other working mothers viewed her, but we never heard Renata talk about Madeline like that, and vice versa. Madeline wasn’t volunteering at the theater because she necessarily liked it, but because she wanted the “working mothers” to not look down on her. But when we hear Renata talk to her husband about how she feels like she’s cracking under the pressure, she makes zero reference to the fact that she thinks of Madeline as less than for not working. (She thinks Madeline meddles and hates her personally, but that’s different.) They had both decided what the other woman thought of them without actually conversing about it. How often do we do that?
EH: I think it is amazing how much internalized shame there is surrounding whether or not you have kids, want kids, are a working mom. I think we do it all the time, especially when we are constrained by the gender norms, not only imposed on us from society, but that we impose on each other. It is so deeply ingrained in us that without anyone ever telling you directly, you can feel shame over not performing up to those standards. Which I think what is so interesting about the differences between Madeline and Renata, and how they have internalized this narrative without (from what we see) much reinforcement from society.
What struck me so much in this series was how delicately the show dealt with women as complex humans, and another theme that came through on the idea of motherhood was a sense of loss, and how that manifests in different ways. Madeline was (at the same time) grieving for her loss as primary figure in her daughters lives and grieving for her lost sense of individuality. It’s difficult for me to say, as a non-mother, but I often hear mother’s speak about how being a mother is the most important part of their life, and what we are exposed to with Madeline is how emotional it is when the dynamics of that relationship change (which they always do).
For all of the women in this show, we see them balancing multiple facets to their identities, or performances of personhood. It’s a fascinating insight into how gendered those performances are, and how different gender norms and expectations shape both our internal narratives and our external performances. As a piece of art it is so valuable because we never really get a male perspective or narrative, it is fundamentally storytelling with a female gaze, which allows us as viewers to explore the nuances of their performativity. Certainly, their characters seem to revolve around their roles as mothers, as primary carers for their families, but it also allows for them to struggle with that role in a profoundly human way.
KD: Such great points. Taking it down to a more pragmatic level, I think the lesson we take from these women is to pay attention to other women in our spaces.
A few quick points of consideration for our readers: If you run the HR department of your organization, do you know it’s maternity policy? What about parental leave for kids getting sick? How do you speak about “working moms” or “stay at home moms”? Do you make assumptions about other categories of women that mean we’re automatically excluding them?
As you chew on those questions, we’ll be prepping our final conversation, on the toxic secrecy at the core of domestic violence. See you then, readers!