Study Guide

Big Little Lies Women and Femininity

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Women and Femininity

A glittery girl. Older than Jane but definitely still glittery. All her life Jane had watched girls like that with scientific interest. Maybe a little awe. Maybe a little envy. They weren’t necessarily the prettiest, but they decorated themselves so affectionately, like Christmas trees, with dangling earrings, jangling bangles and delicate, pointless scarves. They touched your arm a lot when they spoke. Jane’s best friend at school had been a glittery girl. Jane had a weakness for them. (3.2)

Madeline presents as hyper-feminine, with lots of jewelry, makeup, and high heels. She loves that stuff. Jane is more minimalist, but she really values and admires Madeline's femme-ness.

"Well, I hope I’ll be forty,” said Jane. She’d noticed before how middle-aged women were obsessed with the topic of age, always laughing about it, moaning about it, going on and on about it, as if the process of aging were a tricky puzzle they were trying to solve. (4.39)

Jane's young, and is still mystified by the fact that older women are so preoccupied by the fact that they are…older. In a society that prizes women's youth and beauty, many aging women in this novel (like Madeline) are a little upset.

Gabrielle: It wasn’t like it was just the mothers, you know. It wouldn’t have happened without the dads. I guess it started with the mothers. We were the main players, so to speak. The mums. I can’t stand the word “mum.” It’s a frumpy word. “Mom” is better. With an o. It sounds skinnier. We should change to the American spelling. I have body-image issues, by the way. Who doesn’t, right? (1.23)

Gabrielle is a minor character defined by one thing above all others: her obsession with her weight. She even thinks of words in terms of how fat they sound. Of course, this is brought on by society's preoccupation with women's weights but we will say this: Gabrielle needs a crash course in body positivity.

Watching them brought back a flood of memories from the years when she was a single mother. For five years it had been just her and Abigail. They’d lived in a little two-bedroom flat above an Italian restaurant. They ate a lot of takeout pasta and free garlic bread. (Madeline had put on seven kilos.) They were the Mackenzie girls in unit nine. (16.16)

Madeline defined herself for a long time by her status as a single mom. Those days were super-hard, but now that her relationship with her daughter is strained, she yearns for the days of being the "Mackenzie girls."

Madeline was being assaulted by a vicious bout of PMS on Chloe’s first day of school. She was fighting back, but to no avail. I choose my mood, she told herself as she stood in the kitchen, tossing back evening primrose capsules like Valium. (She knew it was no use, you were meant to take them regularly, but she had to try something, even though the stupid things were probably just a waste of money.) She was furious with the bad timing. (18.1)

Facts of (female) life: PMS sucks. It's a hormone hurricane that leaves women vulnerable, angry, or a combo of both. And Madeline is having a particularly nasty bout. Side note: shoutout to Big Little Lies for not shying away from such a "female" subject.

There was the feeling that it was a rite of passage. Part of her was already looking back on this time from afar. The first time my heart was broken. And part of her was kind of curious about what was going to happen next. Her life had been going one way, and now, just like that—wham!—it was heading off in another direction. Interesting! Maybe after she finished her degree she’d travel for a year, like Zach. Maybe she’d date an entirely different sort of guy. A grungy musician. A computer geek. A smorgasbord of boys awaited her. (31.5)

Jane, having been dumped, is already imagining her future. She's compiled a sort of movie of her life-to-be: a collage of things she's going to do now that she's been A Young Woman Whose Heart Was Broken.

She went back downstairs in the glass bubble elevator.

“Would you like a taxi?” said the concierge, and she knew he could barely contain his disgust: disheveled, fat, drunk, slutty girl on her way home.

After that, nothing ever seemed quite the same. (31.24)

Jane, having been verbally assaulted and called fat, thinks of herself in appallingly self-hating terms. This is the power of insults: they can alter self-perception in a deep, traumatic way.

“I mean a fat, ugly man can still be funny and lovable and successful,” continued Jane. “But it’s like it’s the most shameful thing for a woman to be.”

“But you weren’t, you’re not—” began Madeline.

“Yes, OK, but so what if I was!” interrupted Jane. “What if I was! That’s my point. What if I was a bit overweight and not especially pretty? Why is that so terrible? So disgusting? Why is that the end of the world?” (32.13-15)

Yes, Jane. Preach. She's cutting the quick of society's obsession with beauty and weight—that it's deeply sexist and evidence of a massive double standard.

“It’s because a woman’s entire self-worth rests on her looks,” said Jane. “That’s why. It’s because we live in a beauty-obsessed society where the most important thing a woman can do is make herself attractive to men.”

Madeline had never heard Jane speak this way before, so aggressively and fluently. Normally she was so diffident and self-deprecating, so ready to let someone else have the opinions. (32.16-17)

Jane keeps on preaching. Here's the tragic part: Jane obviously knows that what was said to her on the night of her assault is totally bogus. But that didn't stop her from losing a ton of weight in order to avoid being called fat, and compulsively chewing gum to make sure her breath smells good 100% of the time.

“Fine,” said Nathan. He spoke in a rush: “Abigail is auctioning off her virginity to the highest bidder as a way of raising awareness for child marriage and sex slavery. She says, um, ‘If the world stands by while a seven-year-old is sold for sex, then the world shouldn’t blink an eye if a privileged white fourteen-year-old girl sells herself for sex.’ All the money raised will go to Amnesty International. She can’t spell ‘privileged.’” (57.4)

Oh, Abigail. Her heart's in the right place, but this is just not the way to go about ending sex slavery. Even though Abigail is right to be incensed about child marriage (and right about her privileged position in the world), selling her virginity online ain't going to change things. Two wrongs don't make a right.

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