HBO's new series Big Little Lies has a star-studded cast of badass women: Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern, Nicole Kidman, Zoe Kravitz. Those names alone would be enough to have us watching the show, but we're hooked for reasons that go way beyond the star power of the cast.
Kravitz, who plays Bonnie Carlson, a young mother, has a theory about what it is that has us obsessed with the on-screen drama in this upscale community in Monterey, California. “I think it’s refreshing to see a story about women that’s not just one dimensional,” Kravitz said at a recent event at the Whitney Museum in NYC. “I think there’s a lack of representation in what it means to be a woman and a mother nowadays, so it's not candy-coated. It’s not sweet; it's not polite. It’s real. I think there was a hole and we kind of filled that space.”
Kravitz is not wrong. The dismal and pigeon-holing representation of women on-screen is something that's been noted for quite some time. The issue was given a name in 1985 when Alison Bechdel's comic Dykes To Watch Out For featured a comic giving us a way to measure the heft of a female role. In the years since the Bechdel Test has become a barometer for determining whether there's anything of substance to the female character on screen: do two women talk to each other? About something other than a guy?
Though we've made real strides when it comes to representation on screen since the days when the Bechdel Test was conceived, women are demanding even more. We want to see ourselves in the culture we consume. Not only is it important for equality — when a group of people is not humanised in TV and movies through complex stories and characters, it contributes to their marginalisation in the real world — it makes for more interesting entertainment.
The numbers back that up: in 2014, FiveThirtyEight compiled data that showed that movies that pass the Bechdel test make more money than films that don't. In fact, The Wrap just reported that not only was Hidden Figures — a movie about women NASA scientists that stars three Black female leads in Taraji P. Henson, Octavia Spencer, and Janelle Monae — the highest grossing Oscar movie of the year, it's now surpassed the lastest Star Trek, X-Men, and Bourne films.
Big Little Lies takes the idea of women-fronted entertainment one step further, though: it centres not just the stories of women characters, but their points of view, as well. In BLL, the male characters are secondary — all of them. And while none of the women in BLL are people who are necessarily easy to like, they don't have to be. What the series does is that it goes beyond the stereotypes of bored, bitchy housewives and complicates these characters. They are mothers, they are victims, they are sisters, they are friends. They are flawed and human and real. They are everything we need more of on our screens.