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What it means when the women of Big Little Lies go running

There’s an aspirational appeal to women running on screen.

Celeste, Jane, and Madeline running along the beach in Big Little Lies. HBO

Among Big Little Lies’ many motifs — waves crashing along the Monterey coast, Leon Bridges crooning, Laura Dern (in her role as maniacal rich lady Renata Klein) shrieking — is sending its female characters for a run. HBO’s melodrama, which concluded its second season on July 21, loves to depict its female stars in motion — a signifier of their refusal to yield to the forces conspiring to control them.

The women of Big Little Lies live in a state of constant conflict, dealing with abusive, or recklessly feckless, husbands, and meddling mothers and mothers-in-law, all while attempting to shield their children from the fallout from all the bad behavior (which they’re guilty of, too!).

But they never acquiesce to their opposition, whether that means standing up to a vile mother-in-law in court, taking a baseball bat to the man cave, banding together to say that Perry “fell” on trivia night, or hiding an affair with the theater director. When the women are shown running, strong and swift and determined, the viewer is meant to recognize their persistence as a testament to their spirit and stubbornness and commitment to moving forward, no matter the cost.

A physically strong woman onscreen is an agent of resistance

An active woman onscreen is a powerful image, and one that is inherently resistant, even radical. We’re more inured to watching men exert themselves physically onscreen as an expression of their power, whether it’s Rocky scaling the steepest steps in Philadelphia while clad in full sweats, or a blond, gaunt, and cocky Jared Leto smoking the competition in the three-mile in Prefontaine, the biopic about middle-distance track prodigy Steve Prefontaine. These are memorable moments within sports-centric films that nonetheless set us up for them.

When it’s a woman showing impressive endurance, however, it comes across as subversive, and more empowering for it. Take Jennifer Lawrence charging after Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, a moment that makes literal the attempts by Cooper’s lovelorn Pat to run from his feelings for Lawrence, while Lawrence’s empowered Tiffany propels herself toward him, making her thoughts plain as she moves. And the entirety of Run Lola Run is based around a woman, Lola, running against the clock. She is an action hero without a weapon; Lola is armed only with an incredible amount of stamina. Both characters command our attention through their endurance, emotionally and physically.

“If a female character is jogging — rather than, say, sitting and moping in her kitchen or a bar — she is actively resisting victimhood,” says Annette Insdorf, a professor of film at Columbia University, and author of Cinematic Overtures: How to Read Opening Scenes. “The more active the heroine is onscreen, the more control she is likely to maintain. Mobility is both literal and figurative — the opposite of stasis, which suggests entrapment.”

Watching women move across the screen with grace and power is as aspirational as it is cathartic. “They’re maintaining their physical health in a manner that the camera loves: we watch movies or TV because they are, after all, motion pictures,” Insdorf says.

Whenever there’d be a running scene on Big Little Lies, I’d get a craving to lace up my shoes and head out the door. This is partly because I’m a running addict, and partly because I’m incredibly impressionable. But I’m also drawn to the controlled chaos of the way they run, how they harness that raw emotion and use it to propel them forward, and fast. Knowing that I can channel a spiral into something that seems productive makes being an emotionally erratic person feel more manageable.

In Netflix’s political drama House of Cards, scenes featuring Machiavellian babe Claire Underwood (Robin Wright) jogging became so iconic, they inspired Spotify playlists and workout outfits. Other shows that pair a covetable look with physical prowess, like GLOW (glam 1980s women body-slamming in the ring, sporting big hair and neon polyester and glitter) and Jessica Jones (Krysten Ritter as a bad-ass, leather jacket wearing, emotionally damaged superheroine-turned-PI lifting cars and shooting whisky) have a similarly inspiring effect: We, too, want to perform these feats of strength, and look cool while doing it.

Running isn’t just stress relief — it’s a way to process trauma

As powerful as these women appear while in motion, their exercising, and running in particular, is often used as a coping mechanism. In Big Little Lies, Jane Chapman (Shailene Woodley) runs for the mental and physical catharsis, in an effort to process the trauma of her sexual assault by Perry (Alex Skarsgard). As she races down the sand, or charges at bluffs overlooking the sea — moving too fast, she stops short of going over — the drama of the Monterey landscape is a fitting backdrop for her heightened emotional state.

Her mind races with flashbacks to the night of the incident, and revenge fantasies in which she tracks down her abuser and shoots him dead. When she comes home, she’s out of breath, but temporarily relieved, dancing and singing along to the music out of her headphones (in one vivid scene, to “Bloody Motherfucking Asshole” by Martha Wainwright).

In season one, there’s a great montage of Madeline (Reese Witherspoon) and Celeste (Nicole Kidman) joining Jane on a run together. Their fierce expressions and vigorous strides convey that they’re each mentally engaging with their respective conflicts (for Madeleine, what to do about her infidelity; Celeste, what to do about her abusive husband, Perry; Jane, whether she’s going to hunt down her abuser and kill him). We see them run up to the end of a pier and stop short at the water — pushed to the edge, at the limit of what they can handle.

Jogging as a method of exorcism has appeared in other shows of late, too; it’s become a trend. In the first season of the British tragicomedy Fleabag, Fleabag (show creator and writer Phoebe Waller-Bridge) runs every day in the graveyard where her mother and best friend are buried. It’s the perfect analogy for how Fleabag deals with her grief: Yes, she’s mourning, but she keeps moving forward. Fleabag is something of a spirited goth, too, and her choice of running spot speaks to her sense of humor and her disregard for social norms. When her uptight sister Clare tells her that “it’s really inappropriate to jog around a graveyard,” Fleabag merely looks bemused. She wears her depression (and stylish outfits) without shame.

Hulu’s new season of Veronica Mars also plays with the running trope. Veronica runs early in the morning, before it’s even light out, an attempt to get some space and blow off steam over her strained relationship with her boyfriend Logan. She turned him down after he proposed to her, and now they’re stuck bickering and resentful in a cramped apartment. While jogging, she gets jumped, but easily tasers the guy and nabs his knife, stolen wallets, and cell phones, yelling, “Go on, get! This is my alone time!” Veronica has always been a stubborn loner, but the season’s grown-up version, while still flawed and reluctant to address her issues, is more self-assured than we’ve ever seen her before.

What unites all of these depictions, though, is their connection to emotional and psychological trials that the women are fighting against. According to Katrina Anderson, a trauma specialist and psychotherapist practicing in Manhattan, running can be a tool to reprocess trauma.

“Because the physiological response that happens with running is similar to an activated trauma response — increased heart rate, difficulty breathing, muscle tightening, pumping of adrenaline — if patients go back into the environment they were in visually, while running, they can use the running to complete the trauma response,” Anderson explains. “The body is no longer hanging onto this material, and has released it in a mindful and therapeutic way.”

Anderson compares the left-to-right footfalls of running to EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing), a trauma reprocessing tool that uses bilateral stimulation to change the way trauma is stored in the body and memory. Exercising, and exorcising, out your demons isn’t just spiritually satisfying, then; its positive effects are physiological.

But TV shows must remember that running is a short-term fix, not a long-term solution

With the literal outrunning of traumatic pasts at the show’s core, Big Little Lies regularly puts its characters in therapy through fitness, and they find relief through keeping themselves active. But running isn’t a silver bullet; it can be draining on the body and mind. We see this in the latest season of Showtime’s Billions, as Wendy Rhoades (Maggie Siff) begins running compulsively at night to cope with her agita over power struggles with both her husband, Chuck Rhoades (Paul Giamatti), and her abusive boss, Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis). When she runs, it’s with the intention of clearing her head of the hurt, but instead, she ends up exhausted and crying in the dark.

“Exercise is a short term fix, a quick hit of endorphins,” says Anna Shults Held, a longtime runner based in San Francisco. “Running helps me be a person who can manage my mental health, but it’s never solved a problem for me or made any trauma go away.”

In Big Little Lies season two, as Jane begins to recover from her PTSD, she doesn’t seem to need those runs like she did before. Since his death, Perry’s memory doesn’t haunt her in a way that requires daily confrontation; instead, we see her dancing on the sand, or surfing, or drawing on her couch.

This shift away from running could be a natural progression on the path to healing, according to Anderson. While initially, “sometimes people have more body stress that’s stored, and need a more immediate active release,” she says, in time, running might not provide the same sensation, because they’ve already processed some of the PTSD. “Stillness might become more available to them, when that might not have been accessible during the early stages of trauma, when sitting still can be quite uncomfortable,” she says.

Instead of Jane, in season two, it’s Bonnie (Zoe Kravitz), the ever-controlled, chilled-out yogi, who requires more than the mat to grapple with her guilt and panic over killing Perry. She hits the trails in the woods near her house, wandering with a lost expression on her face, replaying the night of the murder in her head. Running is also a way for her to hide from the reality of her situation, and to further withdraw from her husband Nathan (James Tupper), in whom she can’t confide. In a desperate attempt to connect with her (and probably also to keep her close), he buys her a treadmill. In the season finale, she tells him she doesn’t love him anymore, and maybe never did: All of those hours running and ruminating in swift solitude propelled her to action.

Running in real life can feel cinematic, especially when you have a soundtrack in your ears and an awe-inspiring view ahead of you. When we see it modeled for us by complex heroines on screen, it starts to seem possible that we, too, can use running to regain control of our own narrative — even if it’s only for the half-hour or so that we’re out tromping around; even if we’ll have to lace up again and again to face the emotional challenges of each new day. I call that a big little win.