If you thought Meryl Streep’s house-quaking scream in season 2 of Big Little Lies opening episode was impactful, then you’d better hold onto your waterfront balcony rails.
The second episode of the hit show centred around the lives of four affluent women based on Australian author Liane Moriarty's best selling novel, has brought with it more screaming, more provocation, and more threats than the whole of the first season put together.
Though it must be said Streep’s character – matriarch Mary Louise has pretty much kept her composure. Oh sure, there was that bellowing roar of grief last week, but that was more performative than primal. It was a warning shot to her daughter-in-law Celeste (Nicole Kidman) that a mother’s rage is bottomless, and can be weaponised at a moment’s notice to turn the kids against her. It was deliberately unsettling.
Mary Louise’s character depicts the sinister power of passive aggression. The talent certain individuals have for delivering backward compliments and heart-sinking insults with a smile so large you’d swear they’d just proposed marriage. Although just as often, it’s the maddening vagueness of their hostility that leads you to question your own sanity.
Everything Mary Louise does is designed to produce a reaction. Almost nothing is said without forethought. It’s a testimony to Streep’s masterful acting that, though we know she will always provide a sting in the tail we have no idea from where the sting will come.
Like when Mary Louise first meets Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and remarks on the fact that she’s short. It’s not, strictly speaking, an insult, but it’s not something you’d say to a person you wanted to be friends with. It’s gaslighting at its most nimble, and while nobody wants to generalise, it is a curious fact that so many of its perpetrators are, like Mary Louise, mature-aged women.
This is of course not to suggest that #allmiddleagedwomen understand the language of passive-aggression, or that these smiling assassins can’t also be found among groups of men, or younger people. But it seems that the cliché of the mother in-law who crinkles her eyes in affection, only to spit out poison is a cliché for a reason.
But what might that reason be? Perhaps it’s that these women, many of them from the Baby Boomer generation, came of age when women’s contribution and influence - though enormous in terms of both manual and emotional labour - went unacknowledged.
This was a time when women were told to hold their tongues, and place a higher value on keeping the peace and the home fires burning than confronting the truth. They carry their own internalised misogyny, which means their passive aggression is aimed at other women, not men. If you have normalised abhorrent male behaviour in order to “get on with it”, then you’ll never hold men accountable.
Think, for example, of Angela Lansbury, who said in 2017 that women who’ve been sexually assaulted “must sometimes take the blame”. Think of Angelica Houston, who said earlier this year that she’d work with Woody Allen in a second and that Roman Polanski’s rape of a minor was “all part of the playboy movement at the time.”
How many mother in-laws, like Mary Louise, deny the truth of a situation, refusing to see their sons for who they are? How many mothers?
How many mature-aged women write angry emails, but sign off “best regards”? Because if they do say what they mean, someone, somewhere, will find out they’re not a “good girl” and they’ll be ostracised.
Passive aggression is the natural result of being forced to exert subtle power through or around men. Dismissed as “bitchiness”, this behaviour is actually a symptom of female oppression and often a malformed survival mechanism. When people deny your voice and demonise you for speaking up, telling the truth, or even stating your opinion, then you have to find a different path of influence, and this is the unhappy result.
Unfortunately it is so rife that we have downplayed it or worse, we don’t even recognise how damaging it is.
But other women know. The good news is that younger women are less afraid of upsetting the patriarchal apple cart, of being direct, of being ‘not nice’ and holding and exercising direct power in their own right. This means less gaslighting and, in the end, fewer lies.
Natalie Reilly is a freelance writer. You can follow Natalie on Twitter @thatnatreilly.