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Girls will be girls | "Sharp Objects" allows women to be violent for the sake of violence

2 Sep 2018

Photo Courtesy of IMDB

 

**This article contains spoilers for Sharp Objects**

 

At first glance, it is easy to dismiss Sharp Objects as another small town, dead-girl whodunnit.

 

But over the course of its eight episodes, the HBO series, adapted from Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel of the same name, burns slowly, menacingly, into something much more twisted.

 

The story follows Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), an alcoholic, mentally ill reporter who is sent by her editor back to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to report on the mysterious deaths of two young girls. Haunted by a traumatic childhood and still transitioning from a recent stay in a mental hospital, Camille is reluctant to return to where she grew up.  

 

At the heart of Camille’s homecoming anxiety is her ice queen mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson). Presiding over Wind Gap from her large estate, Adora fits every expectation of the traditionally feminine, and is quick to scorn women who do not, including her own daughter. After Camille’s younger sister Marian (Lulu Wilson) died as a child, triggering Camille’s mental illness and self-harm, Adora distanced herself from Camille, who became a topic of petty gossip among the women under Adora’s pecking order. Now remarried, Adora is raising her daughter Amma (Eliza Scanlen), Camille’s half-sister, to be the ideal of femininity that Camille never could.

 

As Camille investigates the murders of the two Wind Gap girls, the story becomes less and less about the bloody, graphic violence that has suddenly plagued Wind Gap and more about the quiet violence that has been slowly sickening the city, under the guise of feminine innocence. Nearly every woman is guilty of this violence, while the men are simply secondary characters in an ultimately female narrative.

 

But what makes Sharp Objects so inherently different from most other female-driven stories is that the characters do not fall into the same personality pitfalls that have previously allowed women’s stories to be told on screen. Flynn’s women are not strong, independent, successful women, the superheroines we want our daughters to look up to; nor are they damaged goods, “ruined” by a man and seeking revenge for their pain. Her characters are complex, with dark and ugly pasts, but they are written as evil for the sake of an evil existence, rather than one of revenge or retribution, which feminine violence is often reduced to.

 

When it is revealed at the end of series that Amma is Wind Gap’s mystery killer, it does not come as a shock. Amma’s violent tendencies and erratic behavior have been hinted at throughout, but the male detectives and police officers are completely clueless until the very end. Flynn treats her male characters as an afterthought: limp, one-dimensional, and insignificant, these characters stumble through their roles in the narrative with very little impact on the events in Wind Gap, deeply underestimating the true ringleaders of the town’s violence and death.  

 

  

The treatment of women in Wind Gap seems an eerie metaphor for the way women are treated both on screen and off by a society that forces them to conform to a simplistic and familiar mold, and the way they are underestimated for conforming to such a mold. Camille, struggling with mental illness and alcoholism, is not a victim of past trauma, but a “crazy bitch” archetype who gave up her femininity because she was not strong enough to handle reality. Amma, the picture of childhood innocence, could never be more than the sweet girl who still plays with dolls. The psychopathic violence that she is capable of is completely masked by the facade of feminine purity that Amma has learned to hide behind. And when Adora, the nurturing matriarch holding the town together through everything, is discovered to have poisoned all three of her daughters (including Marian, which led to her death) in a case of Munchausen by proxy, her role of caretaker and mother — the highest calling of femininity — becomes her murder weapon.

 

Sharp Objects does not find its feminism in strong, successful, or even particularly likeable female characters. Instead, the show rips apart everything patriarchal society wants us to think about femininity and womanhood, and creates women who are distinctly feminine, but fail to adhere to the stereotypes associated with femininity. Flynn’s characters destroy one misconception — that violent, evil, and damaged women are always the result of the actions of some man — and point out another, one that permeates deep into the psyche of the men of Wind Gap: that women, and femininity, are discountable, harmless, and inherently good. In Sharp Objects, the trope of the innocent and virginal female victim is turned on its head, replaced by the sharp and jagged weapon that femininity can become.

Carolyn Ford is a Copy Editor at The Rational Creature. They study English, Journalism, and Gender and Sexuality studies at NYU with a particular interest in queer coming-of-age narratives.

 

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