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Trigger warning: Self-harm

HBO’s on-screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s debut novel Sharp Objects, is the story of a troubled journalist, Camille Preaker, who is forced to deal with her painful past when she returns to her hometown to report on the murders of two young girls.

Still living with the effects of the trauma caused to her by the death of her sister – who was incidentally as old as the murdered girls when she died – and the abuse meted out to her at the hands of her overbearing mother, Camille struggles to finish her work assignment. As she goes around the town investigating and unearthing more of the mystery, we see flashes into her childhood and learn more about her past and the conditions that led to her consequent self-harm.

The Damaged Woman

Gone Girl fame Gillian Flynn is (in)famous for creating imperfect, if not terrible, women. They are deeply troubled, dangerous, and not particularly likeable. Case in point being Amy from Gone Girl, who faked a rape and generally expressed her female rage in a way that is far from socially acceptable.

Camille too isn’t the heroine we normally see or would like to see in our stories. She drinks in the day, has a deplorable work ethic, cheats with someone much younger than her, and she is ashamed of her body due to her self-harm scars.

She has her redeeming qualities, yes. She is kind and considerate to the people she happens to interact with, in an inherent, subtle way. There are no instances where her kindness is overtly displayed just so the audience can be sure she is a good person and hence worthy of playing the central female character in a story. This is because these “redeeming” qualities haven’t been written into her character to redeem her; she has been written that way because that is who she is. A normal human being who is neither perfectly good nor perfectly bad.

she has been written that way because that is who she is. A normal human being who is neither perfectly good nor perfectly bad.

Camille isn’t meant to be a role model, or even particularly likeable. Female characters are expected to fit into a mould of goodness or power for them to be considered ‘feminist’ (male characters do not have the same problems considering how often we see male protagonists being portrayed as violent, often insensitive people or disgusting stalkers). This gives very less leeway for female characters to express themselves as complex, complete people and it is laudable that Gillian Flynn consistently breaks that stereotype – despite all the backlash she gets for her supposed misogyny.

Because if feminism is about equality, how can something that allows women to practise their humanhood the way men do, be anti-feminist?

The Perfect Woman

As opposed to Camille, her mother Adora is the Perfect Woman. She is always dressed in pretty elegant dresses; her silky blonde hair is always impeccable; her lovely blue eyes tear up on command; most importantly, she is a mother who lost her child. She is a beautiful sad woman – the best kind of woman.

Even Adora’s cruelties are perfectly feminine. She does not raise her voice or use physical aggression. She cries and guilt trips you and quietly manipulates you, but she would never swear at you.

[spoilers ahead]

When she is convicted at the end of murdering her own daughter, people do not express the same kind or amount of reproach that is normally reserved for murderers, as is beautifully illustrated by these words in the show, “Prosecution says my mother is a warrior martyr. If she was guilty, they argued, it was only of a very female sort of rage. Overcare. Killing through kindness.”

The most dangerous thing about Adora isn’t that she is a literal murderer. It is that her perfect performance of femininity lets her almost get away with it.

[spoilers end]

Good Woman/Bad Woman

The show has a recurring theme of striking a sharp contrast between these two types of women.

The difference between the kinds of girls Camille and her sister Marian were, is one example. The former had a pixie cut and refused to be the quaint, delicate girl Adora wanted her to be and was consequently despised by her mother. The latter was obedient and vulnerable with beautiful long hair and was adored by her mother.

It delves deep into how women tend to selfishly inflict pain and violence upon each other to survive in a society where only so many women are allowed to exist.

Camille’s half-sister, Amma, is exactly like Marian was, but only as long as she is in her mother’s sight. She is softspoken, maintains a dollhouse and wears frilly dresses, cardigans and ribbons in her hair when she is home. But outside, she is mean and vulgar, wears short shorts and low cut tops, does drugs and flirts with older men.

The women from Camille’s high school cheerleading squad, all of whom have children tell Camille that she “cannot feel the pain (of a young girl dying) the way we (mothers) do”, that “part of your (women who are not mothers) heart doesn’t work”, that they “didn’t feel like women” until they felt their children in their uterus. These women were also the same people who have consistently given Camille a hard time. Jackie, an acquaintance of Adora’s, on the other hand, is a childless woman and is perhaps the only person who has been kind to Camille in her town; not to mention that she was the only one who had even tried to figure out how Marian had died.

Both the girls who were murdered were girls who had not been conventionally feminine – they had a history of physical aggression, had boyish haircuts, and were known to be stubborn. They were not very liked because they didn’t try to be the Good Woman. But after they had died and could not possibly exercise their volition anymore, they were suddenly being described as “angels”. This is connected to the sentiment expressed by both Camille and Amma under Adora’s pressure to perform femininity in a conventional way – they say they wished they were dead, because they would then automatically become perfect.

Depiction of Self-Harm

The portrayal of self-harm in Sharp Objects is laudable, considering how terrible of a job TV, movies, and books tend to do with this (looking at you, 13 Reasons Why).

Not once is her self-harm used for shock value. It is part of the plot because it seems crucial to showcasing the contrast between how Camille internalised her rage and directed it towards herself while Amma externalised it and directed it towards women who were what she wasn’t allowed to be.

None of the shots depicting her self-harm feel glamorised or eroticised. If anything, it only brings a deep sense of discomfort to the viewer. There is no romanticisation of self-harm. There is no knight in shining armour in the story waiting to kiss her scars and make her alright. Self-harm is shown to be what it is – a violent expression of pain, and nothing else.

The careful portrayal of Camille as someone who lives with her self-harm scars and the deep shame attached to it – especially in the avenue of sexual intimacy – is something I am personally grateful for, as someone who also has to deal with self-harm issues. It feels real and truthful and brings with it a strange sense of solidarity and legitimisation of self.

A Feminist Must-Watch

Sharp Objects is a story about women. It is a story about women, not in their relative positions to men, but as the underprivileged co-inhabitors of a patriarchal society. It delves deep into how women tend to selfishly inflict pain and violence upon each other to survive in a society where only so many women are allowed to exist.

Also read: 13 Reasons Why Failed Me As A Person With Mental Health Issues

It is a story about female rage, and the different ways it is expressed. With Jean-Marc Vallee’s artful direction, the show has an eerily surreal quality to its visuals that is a delight to witness. Coupled with the careful selections on the soundtrack, Sharp Objects is a must-watch not just because of its depth and sincerity, but also its beauty.


Featured Image Source: NME

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