Big Little Lies:
Shining a Light on Domestic Violence.
In Aristophanes’ comedic play Lysistrata, the woman of Greece, led by Lysistrata, combine forces with the women of Sparta and those of surrounding areas to wage war on their husbands. They hope that by withholding sex they will be able to convince the men to sign peace treaties, bringing the devestation of the Peloponnesian War, a war that, in the setting of the play, has been ongoing for twenty years to an end.
From a broad perspective, Lysistrata suggests that recollecting the universality of human nature and thus our kinship to one another regardless of nationality will lead to peace. More specifically, Lysistrata is about human passsion or eros. While our desires can be directed at multiple ends, Lysistrata knows that the intensity of the passion associated with sex, if misdirected, can easily lead to war. In other words, the desire that ought to lead to birth, can also lead to death. By abstaining from sex, Lysistrata hopes to reveal to the other women as well as their partners the emptiness that results from ceaseless rage, and remind them of the satisfaction and potential fruitfulness that can occur when our eros is guided by love rather than hate. Importantly, while the argument speaks to the universality of human nature, Lysistarata’s focus is on the satisfaction of an individual’s particular desires and their love for particular people. By satisfying the particular, the universal is revealed.
By the end of the play the men have conceded and the war is ended. The play, while absolutely funny, is a comedic both because of the happy revolution of its diverse parts, but also because we are to understand that it is in some real way preposterous. While sex has a natural and definitive end point, there is no such clarity in war, unless you happen to be the victor and all your enemies are dead or you are among the casualties.
It might seem strange to compare an HBO television series to an Ancient Greek comedy, but Big Little Lies takes up where Lysistrata leaves off. A series that focuses on the trials and tribulations of mothers and wives in Monterey, California — what could easily just be another version of Housewives of … turns into a sharply written dark comedy about love, sex and violence, specifically sexual violence perpetrated against women. While Lysistrata focuses on a war between states, in Big Little Lies the wars occur in the protagonists’ personal relationships, where men, who should be loving, are instead brutal and violent. And while there is only one character we meet who is explicitly violent, we are given suggestions of previous assaults, and witness less-violent, but still corrosive, acts of manipulation. Like any good Greek play, a chorus of gossipy townfolks appear throughout the series, shedding light on themselves, but also, on our own tendency to take pleasure in the pain of others. Upon reflection, the viewer is in the position of the victims in the series, but also the perpetrators of the violence.
In Lysistrata , the women and men are finally reconciled; however, in the final scene of Big Little Lies, there are no men present. The women have overcome their own petty differences recognizing instead their shared plight, as individuals whose relationships can at any moment turn to violence or against whom sex can easily be turned into a tool of oppression. While Lysistrata ends in peace (and we presume a lot of sex), the conclusion to Season One of Big Little Lies is the violent, albeit defensive, death of an aggressor at the hands of one of the women.
In the final scene we see the women dancing on the beach with their children as though they have attained a kind of harmony, yet we also know that a police officer, importantly, another woman, is still investigating the crime. Violence doesn’t have the same natural end as sex, and, while the death of this man, who we know is brutally violent, is a form of natural justice, the truth of the events that have taken place must be objectively understood, if any movement forward in the community is to be attained. In other words, what has been been a big, little lie is the presentation of these women’s lives as perfect. The private violence that they have experienced must be broadly understood, if love and peace are to be more fully enjoyed. The children they dance with are only possible if men are somehow brought back into the picture.
Lysistrata asks us to consider the the similarity in the nature of the passion involved in both sex and war, and the conclusion of the play serves to highlight the danger of violence — for once a war is started, there seems to be no easy end point. After all, once these men are home, there are no guarantees that the passions that led them to war won’t be similarly directed in their households. Big Little Lies draws the questions closer to home. And just as the detective, in pursuit of a wider justice, seeks to make public what has been secret and private, Big Little Lies works to reveal what so many women secretly endure, hopefully achieving the same end.
Originally published at sara-macdonald.com on April 5, 2017.