Scenes depicting abuse and sexual violence are par for the course in dramas, but never have two characters so closely mirrored the abusive relationship that dominated my early 20s.
By the end of the second episode, I felt sick.
My friend Zach and I had been awaiting Big Little Lies months before its February premiere. It promised a strong female cast (Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley), achingly gorgeous Monterey scenery, and the throwback blues and soul soundtrack (Janis Joplin, the Temptations, Alabama Shakes) of our dreams. But Zach had read the book and I had not, leaving me completely unprepared for the next turn.
Celeste (Nicole Kidman) and Perry (Alexander Skarsgard) are “rage…inside [a] perfectly aligned house,” a couple who fights and fucks and then calmly drinks wine on the terrace. We know that something is off. But in the second episode, an argument over their twin boys’ schedules escalates (Celeste was told to stop practicing law so that she can stay home full-time), and Perry viciously slaps Celeste “with a terrifying clarity of purpose.” He holds Celeste down by the wrists and forcefully penetrates her, despite her hesitance.
Later, while Perry is away on a business trip, Celeste opens Skype to say good night. “You need to help me help myself,” Perry orders, and Celeste performs a slow striptease. In her eyes, I saw a familiar former sadness.
At the episode’s end, I told Zach that I didn’t want to talk about what we’d just watched. Scenes depicting abuse and sexual violence are par for the course in dramas, but never have two characters – Celeste stripping for Perry in an effort to subdue his anger and atone for her disagreement – so closely mirrored the abusive relationship that dominated my early 20s. Zach volunteered to screen future episodes and let me know if they might be too much, and with this security, I slowly waded back into the show. I’m glad that I did.
My relationship fortunately never turned physically violent, but in a way, this made it harder for me to spot abuse in its other forms. Like Perry, my partner was entitled, controlling, and fiercely competitive, degraded my career and related interests, and turned sex into a manipulative struggle for power. Like Celeste, I walked on eggshells for fear of inciting anger, lied to my friends and family about the nature of the relationship, and leveraged sex as a way to keep him content. Even though I finally saw things clearly and ended contact, there were plenty of moments when I refused to use the word “abuse” because I felt complicit in what was happening.
Maybe this appearance of complicity is why multiple reviewers have downplayed Big Little Lies’ depiction of abuse. Mike Hale of The New York Times criticized this subplot as “as unoriginal as the other storylines, but it keeps you watching” thanks to its “creepy energy.” The New York Post’s Robert Rorke bemoaned being “subjected to” (!!!) the Celeste and Perry scenes, deeming Big Little Lies “the Sunset Magazine version of Kidman’s other sex game movie, Eyes Wide Shut,” – a film that similarly examines a troubled marriage, but never a violent one.
“[C]ritics seem to find the domestic violence plot involving Kidman’s Celeste and Alexander Skarsgard’s Perry boring or cliché and assume that it’s consensual. The Times critic described this storyline as entering ‘Fifty Shades’ territory, while the Post called their interactions ‘S&M sex games,’” Sarah Seltzer wrote last week after the airing of episode five. “Neither of these flippant phrases reflect the reality of abuse…It’s an absolutely bonkers misreading of the show’s tone, and it shows how deeply ignorant so many people remain about what abuse can look like.”
Vulture’s Hillary Kelly asked all the right questions of episode 2: “Is she channeling his rage into sex to save herself? Is he raping her? ‘Don’t,’ Celeste told him seconds earlier, but was she talking about the hitting? The sex? Both?” While watching this scene, the word “rape” flashed through my mind alongside our understanding of what constitutes it – a consensual grey area also recently explored in a poignant episode of Girls. When the two have sex after Perry slaps Celeste, it is Celeste who tugs at Perry’s waistband and unzips his pants. This could serve as evidence that Celeste desires Perry on some level, but during silent flash-forwards to Perry roughly holding Celeste’s head down as he slams her against the wall and she winces, it’s likely not the kind of sex she wanted.
When Perry isn’t abusing Celeste, we are still clued in to his behavior by the “games” he plays with his children. Throughout the series, Perry sneaks up on his sons (and sometimes Celeste) by pretending to be a monster, scaring them and then playfully chasing them around the house. The abuse in my past similarly started out as a flirtatious game. But over time it became a cycle: incessant sexual demands and degrading verbal tirades, a tearful apology to the tune of “You’re so good to me; I don’t know why I do this to you,” and finally a light dismissal of the situation’s seriousness so that the cycle could start again. “You love it when I’m bad,” Perry playfully whispers to Celeste, exemplifying the conflict between staying and leaving at the heart of these relationships.
The nature of abuse dictates that the victim adapt to survive, whether that survival is physical, mental, or both. For Celeste, this means attempting to redirect the violence for her own safety, so much so that she attempts to convince herself (and others) that everything is fine. “Passion is not our problem,” she tells the marriage counselor in episode three. “If it is, maybe that there’s too much of it.” I made similar comments to my friends about my former partner, gradually reworking the reality into a narrative about too much desire. It was a story I told them, and told myself, because the alternative was too much to bear. If I chose to go out for the night and my partner lashed out at me for not being sexually available to him, I’d text him on the sly to keep his anger at bay while spinning his control as a hot-and-heavy, can’t-live-without-each-other romance to my friends.
During a candid talk about his behavior, my former partner once asked me, “Why didn’t you put a stop to it?” I think that this language speaks not only to the responsibility our culture assigns to the victim rather than the perpetrator, but the assumption that if they stay (or stay silent), there must not be a problem. “I’m trying to decide,” Celeste tells Perry in a moment of quiet despair, “whether I’m happy or sad.” I was encouraged by the release Celeste has after seeing her therapist for the first time alone. I’m hopeful that she will taste the freedom I enjoyed after the first time I said, “No.” Celeste never needed Perry, but we certainly need Celeste.
Chelsea Cristene is a communications associate and English professor based in Washington, DC. She has been published by the Good Men Project, Salon, xoJane, and MamaMia, and runs a film review blog, Catch Up, with fellow Role Reboot contributor Telaina Eriksen. Find her on Twitter.