From the outside, domestic violence may be something that appears cut and dry. For someone with no experience with domestic violence, it may be difficult for them to empathize with and understand victims who choose to stay with or return to their abuser. In TV shows and films, domestic violence is often portrayed as completely loveless relationships with extremely physically violent men that have no admirable traits. They are strictly a glaringly evil villain. However, often this is not the reality for our clients. Domestic violence is an issue riddled with emotions and other factors that can make the relationship difficult to navigate. These factors have rarely been portrayed in the mainstream media.
One of the most recent examples of domestic violence in the mainstream media comes from the HBO series Big Little Lies. The show is a murder mystery centered around three mothers of young children living in the glamorous Monterey, California. One of the mothers is Celeste, played by Nicole Kidman. Celeste appears to have a perfect life: she's beautiful, has two adorable twin boys, and a rich husband, Perry, who seems to put her on a pedestal. However, as the show unfolds, Perry, played by Alexander Skarsgard, reveals increasingly controlling and violent behavior towards Celeste.
What Big Little Lies does differently than other media examples of domestic violence or sexual assault, is that it portrays nuances that may exist in the relationship between victim and abuser. These nuances make up the cycle of domestic violence that is common in abusive relationships: first the tension building (walking on eggshells), then the violence incident, then the "Honeymoon" phase (apologies, gifts, saying they will never do it again). For example, there are many cases where Celeste fights back against Perry's outbursts, throwing objects or even her own fists in self-defense. Juxtaposed next to these violent scenes are scenes that display Celeste and Perry’s relationship as seemingly normal, Perry’s talents as a caring father, and Perry giving Celeste beautiful gifts as an apology, creating complexity surrounding their relationship, and leaving gray areas for the victim to interpret the health of their relationship. Peppered through the show are scenes of Celeste visiting a counselor to talk about her marriage. She makes the anger and violence in her relationship a plural matter. She tells the counselor, “We both become violent sometimes. I take my share of the blame. I’m not a victim here.”
Let's pause and make a very important note here: Celeste fighting back against Perry does not make her relationship mutually abusive. Mutually abusive relationships rarely exist because abuse is ultimately about power and control. One person making the choice to exert power and control over another. Someone may look at Celeste and Perry and see two people physically fighting, and Perry may try to get Celeste to believe that she is also violent, but the fact remains that Perry is the aggressor with a desire for power over his wife. Protecting yourself against violence is very different than being aggressive in response to the loss or perception of loss of power and control over another person.
Of course, it is evident to the viewer that the main problem with her marriage is Perry’s obsessive need for control over Celeste. The fact that Celeste so adamantly rejects the label of “victim” is shocking to many viewers, but perhaps less so to real-life victims of domestic violence. Celeste’s denial, like many real-life victims, could be because she is afraid of the reality of an abusive husband and what that means for her sons, she is fearful of the implications of leaving Perry, she is fearful for her life and what he is capable of, she does not want to appear weak, or maybe she is even holding on to the good memories and moments she has with Perry. There are endless barriers a victim faces in her journey to safety. We actually wrote about barriers in a previous blog you can read more about that here. We know the most dangerous time in an abusive relationship is when the victim is attempting to leave. In fact, more than 75%* of victims killed by their abusive partners are killed as they are trying to leave or shortly after they have ended the relationship. The danger that goes along with attempting to leave is very real, and victims know it.
Such moments are documented in the show. One scene shows the couple slow dancing alone to a song in a very tender and intimate moment. The viewer is able to see the conflicting emotions running through Celeste's mind.
Big Little Lies shows the cycle and complexities of an abusive relationship from the inside. The viewer experiences the good, the bad, and the ugly, and accompanies Celeste as she navigates her own emotions. The viewer sees Perry be charming, triggered, violent, controlling, manipulative, remorseful, and back to charming again in a cycle that continues to repeat throughout the show. Depictions this candid and realistic of domestic violence are rarely been seen in media. Movies and TV shows with themes of domestic violence rarely depict the muddled and grey areas of an abusive relationship, leaving viewers with a black and white idea of domestic violence that does not represent all of the factors that exist in reality. Big Little Lies certainly does not represent every domestic violence experience, but it does successfully show some of the factors that are barriers victims face with their abusers and even the reasons they may not self-identify as being a victim at all.
Realistic portrayals of domestic violence are a positive step that can help to increase awareness, understanding, and empathy in modern society towards victims. Celeste's story in Big Little Lies is one small step toward awareness that can help change the domestic violence narrative in media. She is giving victims a sense of kinship while giving non-victims a deeper understanding of the emotions and complexities involved in abusive relationships. Now we certainly aren't promoting all aspects of the show, but felt the dynamics portrayed are very real and important to have a conversation about.
If you take anything from that conversation, let it be this:
- No matter what, at the end of the day abuse is a choice someone makes to exert power and control over another person and no matter the circumstance it is never the victim's fault.
- The dynamics of domestic violence are much more complicated and subtle than it seems from the outside. So if you know someone in an abusive relationship- believe them and do not judge them. You truly have no idea what they are experiencing every day.
- If you or someone you know needs help please know Friends of the Family can be a resource. You can access free, anonymous information about how we can help at our 24-Hour Crisis Line: 940.382.7273 or 800.572.4031.
Denton County Friends of the Family is dedicated to providing compassionate, comprehensive services to those impacted by rape, sexual abuse, and domestic violence while partnering with our community to promote safety, hope, healing, justice, and prevention.
*Pictures taken from https://www.hbo.com/big-little-lies?gclid=CjwKCAjw1ZbaBRBUEiwA4VQCIdmReZzq4UMiXUxapxilTHEScn1h0OHYTyDmM1BuMoHhrSdgKFxRoRoCGIMQAvD_BwE .