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.

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.

 

#TBT Film Rec: Brewsters Millions

In honor of tonight’s ridiculous double header 7-person then 10-person Republican debate, a quick reminder to put Richard Pryor’s Brewster’s Millions on your film bucket list.  The film combines minor league baseball, electoral politics, venture capitalism, and class-divide comedy.

It’s not high cinema.  And (okay, okay), it’s not Eddie Murphy in Trading Places.  But as a charming trip back to the 80s stand-up star-driven comedies, it delivers while also supplying one of my favorite election time admonitions, “Vote None of the Above!” Continue reading #TBT Film Rec: Brewsters Millions