‘Big Little Lies’ and Why it’s Important


I’ve just come from a 6 hour binge of Big Little Lies that lasted until 7AM this morning, and I am an absolute fan of the HBO miniseries.  It’s got a bitterly dark sense of humor, an intensely talented cast, and a tight storyline that doesn’t bore.  In true HBO fashion, the show does not flinch from showing graphic content–in this case, domestic violence.  While HBO does have a tendency to show graphic content just to show it (ahem, Game of Thrones even though I love it), the scenes between Celeste and Perry Wright, played by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgard, respectively, are not only important to the story but important to viewers’ understanding of domestic violence.

It’s a cliche.  It’s been heard before.  And it’s nothing new.  Relationship abuse can happen to anyone.  1 in 3 women have been a victim of some form of physical abuse by an intimate partner in their lifetime.  Abusers operate in a cycle; there are periods of calm and then periods of intense conflict and abuse.

The problem is, when you read that paragraph above, did you really internalize it?  Or did you gloss over it because you already know all of those statistics?

As helpful as statistics are in measuring the breadth of a problem, it often doesn’t contexualize enough for people.  Statistics are rote, boring, and easy to ignore.  Stories like Celeste’s in Big Little Lies make you fear for all women in Celeste’s situation, a function of good storytelling and of the very real circumstances that victims of domestic violence face.

Even that word–“victim”–is given some thought in the show.  When Celeste’s marriage counselor begins to earnestly probe for signs of domestic abuse, Celeste balks and says, “We both become violent sometimes, I take my share of the blame. I’m not a victim here.”  She goes on to describe their relationship as just “volatile” with a lot of “passion.”  To be fair, there are good moments.  Perry seems to earnestly want to change at times, and he is the first to divulge the violence between the two to their marriage counselor.  Celeste, too, sees that Perry can be a good father; he plays with their two sons, pretending to be a monster and chasing them around the table during a poignant dinner scene.  Celeste goes on to tell the counselor, “I think about what we have, and we have a lot.”

People in abusive relationships are usually given little sympathy because “why couldn’t they just leave?”  Indeed, this is a question that Celeste wrestles with at the end of each abusive episode with Perry, and every single time the audience believes she will finally reach out for help or come to her senses, we are abruptly met with her making excuses for her absences from social functions, the physical pains that she feels, and her husband’s behavior.  When people ask, “Why couldn’t they just leave?”, the answer that is usually given is “It’s complicated.”  And that is forcefully clear in Big Little Lies.  Celeste wrestles with the notion that her husband is an abuser, a good father, and a good provider.  In a community obsessed with appearances and keeping up with the Joneses, Celeste’s sense of how she appears to others also prevents her from leaving.  She’s “not a victim.”

Nicole Kidman’s performances in her scenes with the marriage counselor are wrought with fragility, a woman coming to the end of her rope and also coming into her own.  The pleading behind her eyes contradicts the words coming out of her mouth, and you can see the cognitive dissonance becoming more and more apparent as the conversation continues.  In this moment, we as the audience are cheering for Celeste to finally figure it out, to finally get her kids and leave, and that is the moment that should stay with viewers.  Because that is the moment that our lack of empathy–“Why doesn’t she just leave?”–becomes a fervent hope and an understanding of how difficult it is to just leave.  This dramatic tension, the audience’s hopes and fears, becomes an educational tool for viewers of Big Little Lies to not easily dismiss the circumstances of relationship abuse.

The miniseries ends in an idyllic day at the beach among all of the main female characters and their children.  Setting aside their petty Monterey housewife differences, the five women bask in the glow of the sun and in each other’s company, their unspoken friendships cemented through a final climactic struggle.  There’s something to be said about the bonds of sisterhood in this final shot, the women having overcome their largest obstacle–a man bent on exerting control physically and sexually.  Their free flowing hair, minimal makeup also suggests freedom from the bonds of what society expects of them: the doting mother, the bitch CEO, the gorgeous housewife.  The violent assaults on their lives from society, from men, results in a violent, cathartic finale: a release from their trauma and from our ignorance.


Tragedy and Comedy

If there’s one thing you need to understand about my (and in fact, a lot of Vietnamese people’s) sense of humor, it’s that most things–ESPECIALLY tragic things–are up for grabs in terms of jokes.  If your relationships, your career, and your life is falling apart, now’s the time to make a funny, dry comment that poorly masks how dead you’re feeling on the inside.  *finger guns*

Looking back on Vietnamese history, you can find plenty of terrible, awful, tragic events: 1000 years of Chinese rule (literally named the “Chinese domination of Vietnam” on Wikipedia), French colonization, the Vietnam War (and its litany of human rights violations at the hands of both the Northern/Southern Vietnamese armies and the American government), extreme corruption within the present government, intense economic inequality…the list goes on.  Honestly, what the fuck can you do when you feel and are also made helpless by your current circumstances?

You make a shitty joke about it.

Is this a poor coping mechanism?  Not according to psychology.  A study from Yale University posits that we laugh and smile through the pain in order to regulate our emotions because oh gee!!!!!, “regulating emotion is important to your work, relationships, and well-being.”  My parents lived through French colonization, the Vietnam war, and the loss of their country to starvation and labor camps post-Vietnam war.  With that much sadness in their lives, it’s a miracle they managed to stay mostly sane.

The funny thing is, a lot of Americans–mostly Caucasian Americans–are very uncomfortable with the idea that you laugh in the face of tragedy.  And some of the shit that I laugh at is dark. Like, very dark.  Examples:

  1. My family and I were visiting Paradise Cave in Vietnam, and it’s situated near this very rural, very poor village in the mountains.  All of the workers in the Paradise Cave tourist attraction were from the village, and without fail, worker after worker kept telling us how their lives are khổ, a.k.a. unhappy, miserable, tragic.  One young woman told my family and the tour group we were traveling with: “When I was younger, I thought my life was khổ because I was poor, so I decided to get a husband.  But then I found that once I got a husband and children, my life was even more khổ.”  Cue boisterous laughter from the tour group.
  2. My tour guide on this same trip was taking us through the city of Huế, and there’s a certain stereotype about the people in this region of the country that you have to understand.  In the words of my tour guide: “The people of Huế are very mild-mannered, soft-spoken, and sweet.  It’s also very sad in this region.  There’s nothing to do here, and there is constant rain for most months of the year.  The river floods from the the monsoon season, and people very regularly throw themselves into the river.”  Chuckle.  “Now if you look over to the right-hand side, you can see the temple that we’ll be visiting!”

The even more fucked up part is that Vietnamese people just loooooovvvvvveeee that tragic shit.  My parents and others of their generation are huge fans of French New Wave cinema, which almost always ends with some poignant, ineffable thesis statement on the absurdity of human existence.  My dad likes to joke that all of the French songs Vietnamese people like have the words “pleurer (to cry), oublier (to forget), crier (to yell),” without fail.  My parents’ affinity for old French singers Christophe and Enrico Macias does little to disprove this statement.

It’s entirely possible that Vietnamese people like tragic film/story/song because it’s an emotionally accurate reflection of their daily lives and not because they actually, you know, like the subject matter.  I mean, does any “healthy” or “well-adjusted” or HappyTM person gravitate towards intensely sad media?…I’d have to get back to you on that.

So, I think we laugh at our tragedy partly because we can’t think of any other way of dealing with it and also partly because we relish in it.  But if you have a Vietnamese friend, you can probably count on them to cheer you up (and also have you really think about the depths of your despair and pathetic existence) all in one pithy punchline.

Asian Logic Always Wins

Today at lunch, I asked my parents how old my aunt Bác Loan was.  They discussed among themselves:

Dad: She’s 12 years older than your uncle Bác Hoàng, so she’s 62.
Mom: What? No, she’s tuổi sửu.  So, she must be 68.
Dad: Hoàng is 74, and my brother Sơn told me that there’s a 12 year difference.
Mom: No, no, think about it.  She’s an ox, right?  I’m an ox.  So there is a 12 year difference between me and her.  If I’m 56, she must be 68.
Dad: Shit, you’re right.

It’s hilarious to me that my parents think in terms of the zodiac, and my mother manages to get someone’s age without fail because of their zodiac animal.  Though really, if you think about it, you only have to think in terms of chunks of 12 and you don’t have to fuss around with knowing someone’s exact year of birth.  Especially when you consider the fact that a lot of older Vietnamese immigrants purposefully changed their birth certificates to avoid being drafted into the army.  On paper, my father was born in 1954, but he’s definitely the year of the snake.

Asian logic always wins.