The most poignant image of a woman on TV in recent memory is none other than Reese Witherspoon driving along the Northern California coast, her bright blue eyes—a little tired around the edges—reflected back in the rear view mirror of her car. This motif, repeated frequently in the HBO limited series Big Little Lies, says everything about the exhaustion—the passion, and the sublimation of 21st century womanhood in a way that has not yet existed on the small screen.
The series finale, which has left the world in a collective daze since its Sunday night airing, was satisfying in the way TV shows rarely are. The audience was blessed with answers to the questions the series proposed in its first episode: who killed/was biting whom? The straightforward gratification of this conclusion only points to the fact that the real takeaway of Big Little Lies is meant to be emotional, not physical. While the Monterey sheen and Feminine Mystique/Lana Del Rey sad girl fantasy is very present and accounted for, the show goes deeper into exposing the classless struggle of compartmentalization and internalization that women in general—and mothers, in particular—are forced into.
Far, far away from Monterey is the English city of Bath—the birthplace of Western literature megastar Jane Austen. Though it seems fair to say Austen never drank a soy iced-chai latte or maneuvered a Buick down the Pacific Coast Highway, her works evoke the same sense of bottled-up passion that creates suspense on Big Little Lies. In both the HBO drama and Austen’s novels, there are fleeting glances, dark halls, secrets and the fervent discussion of the secrets themselves, explicit public and private personas, societal goals, and interfamily drama.
The recurrence of these stylistic elements are not coincidences, but literary choices rooted in a style that some old British guy who makes the rules about this stuff have deemed “miniaturism.” In addition to being a key marker of Austen’s stories, miniaturism was also invoked by the Brontë sisters, George Eliot, Edith Wharton and anyone else whose contemporaries would be shelved in the “women’s fiction” section of Barnes & Noble.
Both the term and style of miniaturism are difficult to unpack. Is miniaturism a reaction to female circumstances? Or an ironic trivialization of the female experience? One (me) would like to think Jane Austen clever enough to see the irony evident in her writing—and the many pre-written essays on SparkNotes.com certainly support this claim. Yet, if there’s anything that Big Little Lies illuminates about this dynamic between form and subject, it’s the way that women who attempt to at least manipulate this irony and achieve some semblance of power are often wounded by these efforts.
Big Little Lies tackles relatively untouched miniaturist territory in its depiction of motherhood. It’s an unfortunate truth that when a TV character has a child, her chances for growth outside of that child become almost nonexistent. If we’re working with the statistic that 57.8% of American women have children (and judging by the last season of Game of Thrones) TV writers seem to think that 43 million women all have the same personality.
Sure, motherhood can really conveniently prop up a fictional character (or, you know, provide some of the most one-noted Charlotte-based episodes of Sex and the City), and yet Big Little Lies manages to portray a handful of mothers who are nothing alike—as women or as mothers. Madeline is overbearing and self-righteous, Renata is gentle yet ferociously protective, Celeste is detached, Jane is frank; even Zoё Kravitz’s Bonnie, arguably the least fleshed-out female character on the show, has her own distinct mothering style. There’s also a very present air that being a mother does not define a woman, but is a piece of her consummate being (paging Mike Pence). These are women who have gotten to where they are going; a concept that wouldn’t be so revolutionary were it not for the fact that Hollywood seemingly loves stories about women with big dreams, but not women who have actually achieved some semblance of self-actualization. You can read the network’s hesitation to even do the show in the first place, with a marketing strategy designed to draw in viewers of Desperate Housewives more than those who watched The Night Of.
Big Little Lies, the TV show, is based on the 2014 novel of the same name written by beach read-certified author Liane Moriarty. In the literary world, it’s far more likely to come across a story with this type of emotional demographic (whether that story will win the National Book Award is another tale). I’m just going to go out on a limb and say that’s likely because the publishing industry is run by women while the film and television industry, as made clear by the fact that Iron Fist is a thing Netflix just suggested I watch, is not. Though we may be familiar with the shapes of miniaturism, be it through Austen or other less-imperialist works, our culture dictates it’s jarring to see such a female, emotionally-driven show with such a high production value.
One can hope that the overwhelmingly positive and therefore profitable reception to the TV adaptation of a story like Big Little Lies will persuade at least a handful of industry higher-ups to work on more female-driven stories outside of whatever the male gaze is churning out for the marketplace feminist audience these days. There is a reason that women have been responding to stories with the narrative focus of Jane Austen for literal generations extrinsic to the appeal of Colin Firth or cute dresses. Big Little Lies cuts to the quick with its compassionate and nuanced portrayal of a woman’s emotional experience by creating something big out of something seemingly—no, I’m not going to do it—miniature.
Kate Fustich is a writer living in New York.