The depiction of women’s anger in “Big Little Lies” is accurate and refreshing

Cate Sevilla
Jun 20 · 6 min read

There are a lot of angry, unlikeable women on TV — but none like the Monterey Five (contains spoilers)


**This post contains spoilers for Big Little Lies season one and the first two episodes of season two.**

Women hold a lot of anger. And yet, it’s one of the main emotions we’re not supposed to show. Our anger turns us into tropes and renders our opinions obsolete. Female rage makes us “psycho” and “out of control” — while male rage is a signal of power and conviction, whether its used to score goals or win elections.

The women of Big Little Lies are, on the outside, the sort of women you would tend not to give much sympathy to. They’re (mostly) white, they’re (mostly) all financially well-off and live in one of the most beautiful and expensive areas of northern California. They have children, they almost all have partners. But they are petty, they are rude, and they bicker over wealthy, suburban bullshit that for most of us, is hardly relatable or even palatable.

However, despite all this, the unique writing and portrayal of these characters’ complex internal workings — their relationships with others and themselves, the abuse they endure, their trauma, their anxieties, their desires — is almost enough to make you forget the sheer cost of their respective, beachside properties.

Giphy / HBO

Even if nothing else about the their lives is relatable, it’s the anger that is so familiar.

Anger at friends. Anger at mothers, at best friends, daughters, and sons. Anger at husbands, daughters-in-law, mothers-in-law, ex-husbands. The wife of an ex-husband. The nameless rapist.

And then there’s the anger at perfect strangers who look at you the wrong way, or cut you off in the parking lot — the innocents caught in our line of fire. We’re angry with other people and other things in other places, but a random shopper at Whole Foods catches the brunt of it, instead. The rage bursts outwards, in all the wrong directions.

Or, it’s held silently, inwards. Rather than being spat out, it’s swallowed deep. We try to contain it, we turn it inwards, but it writhes. It fights back. It comes out in strange, punishing ways and self destructive behaviour.

Grief, loss, guilt and shame can all signal and display as anger and anxiety. Even depression. They are the things that make us angry.

As of June 2019, we have the second series of Big Little Lies and it does not disappoint. At the time of writing this, the second episode (“Tell-Tale Hearts”) has just been released in the US and the UK, and the amount of rage seeping out of every inch of that show is incredible. That rage is perfectly summed up by the song of the summer, Meryl Streep’s scream:

This season, the entire cast is FURIOUS.

And our leading ladies, our Monterey Five, all show it in different ways:

Celeste keeps her rage close to her chest, and acts it out in dangerous, self destructive behaviour (and maybe even self destructive patterns). Even when we see her in therapy, she’s lying. She’s covering up. All things considered, legally she might have to lie, but for a woman that is so deeply traumatised, to not even be able to be honest with your therapist is incredibly alienating.

Meanwhile, Renata lets her rage fly high and loud, and throughout both seasons has behaved in bizarre, entitled, aggressive ways that are cringe-inducing but also very satisfying to watch.

Madeline’s fury is childlike. She’s clearly angry over the things and opportunities she wasn’t offered as a child, which is best displayed in her arguments with her teenage daughter. She’s a neurotic Type A with wild jealousy and a mean competitive streak — all while being incredibly selfish, outwardly rude, and constantly teetering on the verge of a tantrum.

Bonnie is an extreme example of suppressed rage and guilt that signals as depression — but clearly Bonnie has a different existence to the rest of the women in BLL. She’s the only black or mixed race woman we see regularly (which was finally acknowledged in a conversation with her mother) and she’s also the only step-mother, and young, second-wife in her friend group. She’s also the one who pushed Perry off the ledge, so obviously there’s a bit of guilt (and mixed feelings) there, too. Murder is complicated, I suppose.

And then there’s Jane Chapman who, interestingly, was initially introduced to us as being “other” and portrayed as the damaged outsider — and yet, she actually seems to process her rage in healthier ways that the others. She cries, she runs, she draws. She also respects her son’s emotional tenacity and intelligence by being as honest with him as is appropriate, and she behaves well socially — no mater what that co-worker of hers says, dancing on the beach really isn’t that weird.

Giphy / HBO

When you take the rage of the lead five characters, and then add in the screams of a grief-stricken mother-in-law, another mother-in-law with a drinking problem, an angry husband or two, a rebellious teenager and a handful of confused and emotionally burdened schoolchildren — the combined result is so chaotic and so incredibly messy, that it actually manages to mirror the complexities of our own lives.

We may not all be covering up murders with our friends (or maybe we are?) but the feelings of shame and grief and loss are all the same. And we have the same, absurd reactions in our everyday lives: Renata being furious that the metal detector kept going off at the court house. Madeline laying on the horn when someone cut her off. Every door that’s slammed. Every furious run fuelled by a raging playlist. Every furious sip of wine. Every glare across the dinner table.

In “Tell-Tale Hearts”, after Bonnie storms out of a restaurant following a tense, semi-drunk argument her mother, her father sighs and asks why they can’t just have dinner like a “normal family”. Bonnie’s mother replies and says, “We are having dinner like a normal family.” And, really, they are.

The authenticity of the combined rage of all the women in Big Little Lies is cathartic. It goes beyond the complicated nature of being a likeable woman on TV. There is something about seeing women who don’t have super powers or super strength be angry. They’re not surreal or overly dramatised figures. They’re not assassins or working for MI5. Sure, they’re privileged. Sure, they’re thin and conventionally beautiful. But, when Renata kicks her husband out of her car and screams “WILL SOMEBODY GIVE A WOMAN A MOMENT?!with both middle fingers flying in the air, you know what she is saying. You feel it. And to see that on TV is both remarkable and refreshing.

Giphy / HBO

Cate Sevilla

Written by

Editor + Writer. Previously I was editor of The Pool, and also worked at BuzzFeed and Google. I’m now an editorial consultant and love TV, podcasts and my dog.

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