“The Over/Under in Monterey is $150,000”, announces Reese Witherspoon in Big Little Lies, while driving from her beachfront house to a school cleansed of non-white children. By Monterey, she means Carmel.
Nobody works in Big Little Lies, except for Laura Dern, who does something in finance. Axiomatically she is the villain. People manage to live without exertion in a world of wall-sized refrigerators, walk in closets with backlit three-tiered shoe racks, and terraced lots descending to the sand. Because, $150,000.
No, seriously. This is the number HBO inserted into the script for American consumption: see, this is how we live in California. P.S., everyone here is white. (Except for Zoe Kravitz, who is there to provide Otter Bay elementary with a single mixed race child and a deus ex machina plot device) Apparently Reese’s husband manages to support the immense architecture of her life doing digital piecework, part time, in the living room, I kid you not.
There is no class struggle on HBO. There is a single mother character, Jane, who is seen, briefly, soliciting bookkeeping work for a local coffee house (again, piecework) but we never discover whether she gets the gig. She’s altogether indifferent to money because she’s contending with issues from her past, which trumps any need to pay bills. We know she’s “poor” because she’s consigned to live in a Craftsman bungalow without landscaping.
Her parlous state does not prove inhibitive to friendships with women who could park her entire house inside their family room, and elicits not the slightest glimmer of envy of her part, (nor condescension on theirs) when she enters their lives.
So if no one is working, how does anything get done?
Hattie McDaniel, really? Oh c’mon, that’s not the world we’re living in any more. Too far.
No? Okay, how about her? This make you feel more comfortable?
Coastal California runs on Third World labor, full stop. For every canyon-tucked, cliffside household a small army of floor scrubbers, hedge-trimmers, diaper-changers, maintenance people and tradesmen emerge from their dingbat apartments, climb into their beater cars and make the long schlep from distant communities to Brentwood and Carmel. Miraculously, they leave no carbon footprint on anyone’s ledger, least of all Mamacita’s.
Not a single Latino appears in Big Little Lies, which is set in Monterey County, which is 55% Latino.
Look to any Bette Davis-era drawing room drama, and you see thankless Mammy/servant roles filling in the background, mute, but for demeaning dialogue, but nevertheless present in the frame. Old Hollywood in its most propagandistic depictions of American life was not so far gone it dared deny the existence of working class people and their place in the structure of things.
When you do a Google search for “maids, Monterey” you get images like this:
None dare call them servants. Our liberal self-conception precludes it. We’d rather think of them as animated pictograms or portrayed by white models than glimpse a truthful mirror which suggests California is moving closer to Jackson, Mississippi, 1964…
…but with none of the noblesse oblige of that earlier time.
Reciprocal obligations in millennial California take comical forms. Reese Witherspoon’s teenage daughter threatens to auction her virginity on the internet to raise money for exploited women around the world. Her parents counsel against this, but commend her for her social consciousness.
They don’t tell her to clean her room.