ICYMI: Big Little Lies Tells the Truth

This March Christianity Today published my take on HBO’s star-heavy, murder-mystery miniseries, Big Little Lies. In it I honed in not what the series about lies gets right about contemporary motherhood.  


Big Little Lies is a lot of things: an adaptation of one of Oprah’s favorite beach novels, a miniseries produced by its stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, an excuse for innumerable shots of the coastline near Big Sur, a murder mystery unfolding in flashback, a satire of the privileged class and helicopter parenting, a melodrama about midlife crises, and a meta-commentary on how Hollywood’s female roles are comparatively less complex than the series’ characters.

While the plot of this new HBO series is moved forward by intertwined tales of mystery and friendship, its clearest preoccupation is the complexity of women’s identities, especially as they approach midlife. In the second episode, Reese Witherspoon’s character, Madeline, gazes thoughtfully toward the ocean when her first grader asks why Mommy so frequently stares at the sea. She answers, “The ocean is powerful. Mostly it’s vast. It’s full of life, mystery. Who knows what lies out there beneath the surface?” “Monsters?” asks Chloe. “Monsters? Maybe,” responds Madeline. “Dreams. Sunken treasure. It’s the great unknown.”

Their exchange works as a metaphor for how this narrative imagines its female characters: lasting but changeable, teeming with life, but maybe hiding beasts in the depths beneath the eye-catching surface.

Set in the town of Monterey, California, the story puts in motion a series of slights and confrontations that resemble a real-life “mommy war.” Central characters Madeline (Reese Witherspoon), Celeste (Nicole Kidman), and Renata (Laura Dern) are a veritable pantheon of mom types. Witherspoon is the over-involved “alpha” of the stay-at-home mom set. Kidman puts her almost too-polished cool to good use as the gorgeous mom with the gorgeous life. Dern manages an incredibly brittle yet believable performance as the career woman who juggles school events with corporate board meetings. The fourth notable character is Jane (Shailene Woodley), a young single mom just scraping by who is introduced to us in the first episode when she joins Madeline and Celeste for morning coffee. Leaning back from the table and assessing the scene in front of her—the seaside, the two beautiful moms who’ve invited her—she comments that it feels too perfect for her to belong in it. (Sometimes the metaphors aren’t all that subtle.)

A mystery as central to the series as its murder whodunit is how each of the major characters will navigate challenges to their sense of self. Each appears to the outside world as an archetype of a certain kind of female but is also savvy to how she is being perceived. Some of the most dramatic scenes show us (often private) moments when a woman’s actions or dialogue break with the expected cultural script for her archetype. For example, Renata the “C-suite” mom voices deep frustration and self-doubt when she’s alone with her husband. Exasperated by how little acceptance she finds among the other moms, she blurts out what she fears everyone in town thinks about her: “What kind of person chooses to work? Certainly not a mother by any acceptable standards.” In that instant my least favorite character became a woman that I know, even a woman that I have been on certain days.

Read the rest at Christianity Today.

Westworld Needs Christian Fans

Christians Have Good Reasons Not to Watch Westworld. Maybe Some of Them Really Should Anyway.

Early this month HBO launched its newest Sunday night drama. Glittering with big screen stars on horizons as vast as any classic Western, Westworld delivers the sort of small screen spectacle only the most generous pay-cable budgets can provide.

As immediately obvious as the size of its budget, however, are the size of Westworld’s ethical questions about the relationship between humanity and technology. Debuting just a few weeks before Playstation4’s new virtual reality head-set, the series asks how later generations of virtual reality technology will force us to recalibrate our ethics. How will creations a few iterations beyond today’s digital entertainments, bioengineering feats, and artificial intelligence confound our moral compasses? Continue reading Westworld Needs Christian Fans

ICYMI: Farewell to TV’s Most Powerful Single Ladies

This February I wrote an essay for Christianity Today reflecting on the connections and–as one imagine–disconnects between how the late Mary Tyler Moore and Girls’ Lena Dunham represented single women on TV.  Both were revolutionaries, but I argue that the elder path-breaker, despite being the embodiment of “Minnesota Nice” was probably more effective at moving culture in her direction.

Here’s a teaser.  Click at the bottom to read the rest at CT.


Female television fans are saying some hard goodbyes this month. Two weeks ago television icon Mary Tyler Moore passed away at age 80. This Sunday, Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls will debut the first episode of its final season.

Separated as they were by years and their approaches to, well, just about everything, it is easier to imagine these two actresses as poles on a spectrum from “purposefully disturbing” to “calculatingly genial” rather than as co-laborers for a common cause. And yet it’s hard to name any two women who have influenced the way television portrays single women more than Dunham and Moore.

As creator, writer, and star of Girls, Dunham has represented the unique challenges of millennial women—from reconciling high hopes in a crappy economy to understanding one’s relationship status in a hook-up culture.

Over the life of the show, Dunham has exploited HBO’s reliance on nudity for her own ends and in so doing served up a feminist critique of unrealistic images of women’s bodies. In a recent interview, Dunham recalled how her insistence on frequent nudity almost spoiled her effort to recruit series regular Allison Williams: “She said, ‘I don’t want to do nudity.’ I was like, ‘We have to get back to you. I’m gonna be naked, people are gonna be naked—that’s a big part of what this show is.’” The sexually explicit encounters on the show, however, strike me more as gritty renderings of broken dating culture than the refreshingly realistic explorations of sexuality that Dunham no doubt intended.

For all Dunham’s boundary-pushing on pay cable, it is unlikely that her show’s confrontational aesthetic will become the norm. Girls attempts to move culture like a tug boat pulls along a ship. The vanguard series has won tons of praise from the cultural elite but can only claim between less than one million and five million viewers an episode. Girls has influenced the influencers, but its niche popularity suggests that it’s no barometer for whether Americans are ready to recalibrate gender norms.

Mary Tyler Moore, on the other hand, seems to have been more deft at knowing how to nudge the machinery of culture-making in a women-centered direction. Her cheerful ’70s sitcom is widely acknowledged as a crucial pivot in our culture’s acceptance of both single and working women. From 1970–1977, The Mary Tyler Moore Show won 29 Emmys and was consistently rated in the top 20, if not the top 10 programs on television.

The Mary Tyler Moore Show debuted in 1970 with a simple but totally novel premise: It featured a single, working woman as its main character. Mary Richards is a 30-year-old journalist who moves to Minneapolis for her career. She doesn’t live with or near any of her family, nor is she hoping to find a husband and start a family of her own. Instead she forms deep, supportive relationships with other women and her work colleagues. The show de-centers men or motherhood as the central sources of identity, conflict, or comedy for Moore’s character. In fact, Richards does not date much at all—a decision (by the writers) that closed down any need to comment on the ongoing sexual revolution.

By generally ignoring its main character’s love life, Mary Tyler Moore’s series produced seven years of episodes that all pass the Bechdel test (which requires that a story have two female characters who speak to each other about something other than men).  Read the rest.

 

The Crown: Balancing Family and Calling Is a Royal Pain

The Netflix series focuses on the pressure around the monarch’s marriage.
I recall sitting with my mother in my childhood living room and watching Diana Spencer—about to be Princess Diana—walk slowly down the aisle toward the altar and her prince. The year was 1981, and despite my tender age, the princess fantasy did not take hold. Nor did I become a “royals watcher”… at least not until Netflix released its Queen Elizabeth II bio series, The Crown, earlier this month.

Why the change of heart? Maybe it was the promise of seeing Elizabeth, now the longest-reigning monarch in British history, as a young woman. Maybe it was the heady feminist air as the series debuted, just days before the US—it seemed—might elect its first female president. For others, maybe a love for British period dramas is enough to pull them in.

Since I’ve been aware of the royal family, of course, but not particularly interested before, the effect of the series has been something like moving a piece of furniture in your grandparents’ house only to find that behind that bookcase, the wallpaper you’d taken for granted your whole upbringing had at one time been far more bold and colorful than you’d ever realized. It’s enough to make you question the assumptions you’ve made about what sort of stories the walls would tell if they could talk.

The Crown attempts to tell those almost forgotten bits of the queen’s life that transpired before she ascended the throne and took on a relentlessly public life for the next 64 years. It begins with her marriage to Prince Philip Mountbatten, Duke of Edinburgh, in 1947 and is chiefly concerned with Elizabeth’s life during her 20s, including her coronation at a mere 25 years old and finding her footing with Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

The Crown brings into focus how much the story of Elizabeth’s transition into leadership is also the story of refining her marriage. Much like the images of gold being poured out and cast into a new shape that accompany the opening credits, the union of Elizabeth and Philip is remade in dramatic fashion. […]

Read the rest online 

originally published at ChristianityToday.com December 2, 2016.