In case you missed it, Big Little Lies cleaned up at the Emmys. The mini-series, based on the book by Australian author Laine Moriarty, and produced by Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman, won eight awards, including Kidman’s for Best Actress in a limited miniseries.
The lure of the show, ostensibly about a clique of (very wealthy) suburban mums, covered powerful topics – such as domestic violence, loss of identity to motherhood and single parenting – in a nuanced and delicate way, giving rise to the idea that in a community saturated by superficial problems, there lies a hidden space, occupied by women.
Big Little Lies could’ve slipped into parody, and it’s a tribute to the cast and crew that it was crafted – and received – as feminist TV.
The winners’ speeches on Monday reflected this, with plenty of nods to the greatness that can emerge when women work together to produce important art. There were also callbacks to the actresses’ dual roles as mothers themselves. But one small, almost-subliminal factor popped up in the feminist-themed speeches, and it showed us just how far we have to go.
When Laura Dern accepted her award for Best Supporting Actress, she thanked “[her] amazing children for their brave big hearts and their patience”.
Then Kidman got up and said: “I have two little girls, Sunny and Faith, and my darling Keith, who I asked to help me pursue this artistic path, and they have to sacrifice so much for it.
“So, this is yours. I want my little girls to have this on their shelf and to look at it and go: every time my momma didn’t put me to bed it’s because of this,” she said, gesturing at her Emmy before intimating with a laugh that her daughters will say, “I got something”.
The implication being that Kidman’s daughters traded their mother’s absence for feminist aspiration – the theory that if you work hard as a woman outside the home, it will bring glory and reward for the next generation. Which, in a sense, is true.
Mother guilt grows
But what’s also true is the stubborn idea that when a woman works outside the home it requires “patience” from her children, or in Kidman’s case, it creates a sense of lack. There is no doubt that children miss their mothers when they are away from them, and that mothers miss doing intimate things with their kids, like tucking them into bed at night. What’s interesting is that when a man wins an award, he may pay tribute to his wife, he may say he loves his kids, but it’s exceedingly rare to see an actor get up and indicate that his work came at the cost of his children.
We know that in Australia, as in much of the Western world, mother guilt has only grown as women have moved up the corporate ladder. Women comprise more than 46 per cent of the workforce, with 24 per cent working full time and 21 per cent working part time. We also know that in Australia, whether they work full time or part time, women do far more housework than men.
But if you read articles on parenting and mainstream news websites, or even listen to the chastisement from self-anointed experts, you’ll garner a theme, which runs along the lines of “Get off your phone/iPad/laptop and start paying attention to your children!”
But with women making up more than 70 per cent of part-time workers in Australia, they may have missed a crucial fact: that screen those mums are staring at? That’s probably standing in for their office. That time spent staring intently at the phone while the kid swings aloft at the playground? It’s probably an email from her boss.
And yet most mothers will confess to how terrible they feel for always being on their device in the presence of their children. “What sort of example am I setting …?” “What effect will this have on them?”
Here’s the thing, though: mothers of previous generations were unlikely to apologise to their children for vacuuming in front of them, or folding the laundry. No woman ever whispered, guilt-ridden, to another woman: “I’m worried about the effect my washing up is having on my kids.” Or, “I’ve been too busy cleaning.” And yet, statistically, parents spend triple the amount of time with their kids than they did a generation ago.
So, the problem is not that kids need to be patient while mum works, and wait for her reward – because mums have always worked, and kids have always survived.
The implication, so granular in our society, that even feminist actresses working on a feminist miniseries about loss of identity to motherhood didn’t notice it in their speeches, is that women are allowed to do only a certain type of work. If they dare to work outside the home to earn money, then they’re skating too close to the male arena, and they owe their children, if not a heartfelt thanks, then at least an apology. And so Dern and Kidman paid their tributes accordingly: “Sorry kids, I was busy acting like a dad.”