Comment: Big Little Lies proves that there is no 'type' of woman to whom domestic violence occurs
I watched the opening credits to HBO's Big Little Lies through a series of eye-rolls and sighs.
A glossy ensemble cast featuring Reese Witherspoon, Nicole Kidman, Laura Dern, Shailene Woodley and Zoe Kravitz, all running barefoot through a Californian beach. A story that mainly focused on rich, white women and the problems associated with being a rich, white woman. I wasn't too hopeful.
But it soon became apparent that this wasn't just Desperate Housewives for the Breaking Bad generation. Yes there were a lot of rich, white women drinking wine and staring at sunsets from the candlelit decking of their beachside mansions but the problems they experienced are universal to all women. The fluffy expectations I had experienced at the beginning were quashed as the show evolved into a thoughtful reflection of trauma and domestic violence.
In Big Little Lies, a story of domestic violence creeps up on the viewer in the first episode. It's delivered through standout performances by Nicole Kidman and Alexander Skarsgård as a glamourous couple whose passionate chemistry is the envy of their Monterrey town.
They're wealthy, successful and madly in love. Both of them dote on their twin boys and spend a lot of time kissing and staring into each other's eyes. Kidman's Celeste is a former attorney who floats about the couple's glass house in elegant turtlenecks and long, sweeping dresses. The type of woman who spends a generous part of her pre-bedtime ritual rubbling expensive creams all over her face and body.
Her younger, attractive, high-flying businessman husband Perry (Skarsgård) is a devoted father to the couple's twin boys. He's passionate about his wife. But it's soon revealed that Perry's passion frequently boils over into rage and and physical violence and his wife is the victim of his disturbing mood changes.
Celeste isn't just wearing the turtlenecks and the floating dresses for fashion, they're used to disguise the bruises inflicted on her by her abusive husband. The expensive creams are her way of nourishing a broken and damaged body that has been pushed, pummeled, scratched, choked and humiliated by the person who claims to love her.
But Big Little Lies does what so many TV shows fail to do. It flips the domestic violence narrative on its head and shows how it can be played out in a number of unsettling ways. It's much more complicated and nuanced than your typical Hollywood portrayal. It's real.
In Ireland, one in five women are affected by domestic violence - which means the uncomfortable domestic violence scenes portrayed on the show are tragically commonplace for a lot of women.
Margaret Martin, Director of Women's Aid explains: "Domestic violence occurs in every social and economic grouping of society, all ethnic groups and cultures and among people of every educational background. There is no 'type' of woman to whom it occurs, and there is no 'type' of home in which it happens. Sadly, domestic violence is a feature of contemporary Irish life."
Perry isn't the typical, alcoholic abuser that we're usually presented with on-screen. He's a successful businessman who's devoted to his wife and children. He recognises that he has a problem and he seems intent on fixing it. He's the one who suggests relationship counselling. And he seems genuinely pained when he sees the bruises on his wife's battered body, sickened by his monstrous capabilities.
And Celeste doesn't play the stereotypical victim. She doesn't always cower away from his fists. She fights back. She threatens to leave. She calls him out.
Their sex life and abusive dynamic seem to intertwine. It's not always clear if Celeste is consenting or being coerced. And she isn't as repulsed by Perry's violent sexual advances as you'd expect her to be. An explosive argument is always followed by sex. Rough sex. Kidman's Celeste always gives in to Perry's physical pressue. From the outside it seems consensual but then you realise that Celeste gives in because she doesn't have a choice. She plays along because she knows that if she resists Perry is likely to continue. And then she'll have to face the fact that what they're engaging in is something much worse. Something much more horrific. It's rape.
Martin says that for many women living with domestic violence "one of the most difficult challenges is to make sense of what is happening to them and to speak up about the abuse".
She adds: "Their partner may be the most outwardly sweetest, kindest and respectable person to their families, friends and colleagues and social circle. However, with her and the children he can be manipulative, controlling and dangerous. The abuser can deliberately build up this picture of himself as the pillar of the community to intentionally create a situation where women are not believed if they do tell. Abusive men know how to behave well in public but feels entitled to terrorise his family behind closed doors."
In the show Celeste admits to a counsellor that she hasn't confided in her friends about what's been happening in her home because so much of her self-worth is tied up in what people think of her. And deep down you know that she loves Perry and believes that he is a good man who is capable of change. She reasons that if he could be so devoted to their children then there must be a part of him, a good side, that will eventually help him overpower his demons.
In the end, she can't deny the damaging effects of her husband's dangerous behaviour when she discovers that one of her son's has adapted his father's violent traits. She rents an apartment as a safe haven; stocks the fridge and furnishes the space so she can flee there with her boys the next time Perry is away on a business trip. Her leaving him is emotionally difficult but financially easy - a luxury that not a lot of women can afford.
Margaret Martin says that while a lot of women don't have that same financial independence, they need to understand that there are options available to them and when they seek help their complains will be taken seriously and their rights will be enforced.
"They need to be supported to make safe changes for themselves and their children," says Martin.
"Resources and support they will need to leave safely include: money, housing, help with moving, transport, ongoing protection from the police, legal support to protect her and the children, a guaranteed income and emotional support. If a woman is not sure if these are available to her, this may also prevent her from leaving."
She adds: "Many women are afraid that they will not be believed or that they will blamed for the abuse. Others struggle to find the words to describe their situation. All too often, women feel alone and isolated, unaware that help is available or unable to make sense of what is being done to them."
In the end, Celeste found her freedom but some women never do.
Women's Aid 24hr National Freephone Helpline is open seven days a week: 1800 341 900
For more information visit www.womensaid.ie