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How SHARP OBJECTS Empathizes with Its Women

How SHARP OBJECTS Empathizes with Its Women

Warning: SPOILERS ahead for the final episode of Sharp Objects.

To be a woman is to enter the world with an anger not yet quantifiable; you learn from the outset that things will not be so easy for you. But there is also an inherent contentiousness within your sex, a survival-of-the-fittest ugliness that shouldn’t be and simply is: an unspoken, venomous reality that culture both downplays and overplays. We love each other, but we hurt each other, too, with a knowingness no man can really understand. It is brutal with our friends, but even worse among family.

There has never been such a powerful, important representation of this competitive anger than in Sharp Objects, HBO’s terse 8-episode miniseries that concluded this Sunday, but lives on as a breathtaking meditation of existing in a world that wants only to destroy you. Amy Adams as Camille Preaker, a St. Louis journalist sent back to her hometown in Missouri to report on the mysterious murders of two young, local girls, rings true in a way that is hard to fully articulate. Camille, the broken daughter of an “old money” Southern/Midwestern dynasty (because Missouri sits so comfortably in the middle of those divisions), is a lot of things: a beauty, an alcoholic, a cutter, a purveyor of truth. But she is also a victim of an existence she could never escape, a woman subject to the same dangers as the girls she’s reporting on. She must choose to either comply or rebel–those are the only options. She rebels and is punished for it.

Camille’s pain is the narrative compass of Sharp Objects. Camille returns to Missouri to face an unloving mother, a younger sister who never knew her, and a dead sister who haunts her. She pours vodka into her water bottle to pass as something normal. She hides her scars with long black sleeves. She considers her mother with the same regard as something rotten, disfigured, disavowed – and vice versa.

As we learn in the finale, Camille’s mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), murdered her own daughter Marion at the compulsion of Munchausen by Proxy, a mental disorder that leads a mother or authority figure to inflict illness upon a child by forcing them to consume poison or other materials to make them ill. Adora’s obsession with Marion’s health eventually killed the child; when Adora tried and failed to force the same care on Camille, it ended with a fractured relationship. Adora then focused her obsession on her youngest daughter, Amma, who took to it more willingly, and more destructively. As the coda of Sharp Objects explains, Amma became a serial killer herself. She killed the girls Adora focused her attention on, because she couldn’t live up to their deadly circumstances on her own.

That’s a lot to soak in. But as Sharp Objects pointedly illustrates, the relationships between women of the same family is often as disturbed as that of the Preaker/Crellins. It’s a heightened repesentation, but it’s not without truth, and that is the core of the show’s power. The viewer will think this is surreality, but it is as real, as painful, as harrowing as those relationship dynamics get. We aren’t accustomed to accepting it because we aren’t accustomed to seeing it. Mainstream media loves a disturbed antihero –Don Draper, Walter White, Rust Cohle–but never an antiheroine. What has Camille Preaker earned, by that token?

While watching the adaptation of her book, I remembered Gillian Flynn’s essay, “I Was Not A Nice Little Girl.” The opening segment of that piece reads: “I was not a nice little girl. My favorite summertime hobby was stunning ants and feeding them to spiders.” The father of a murdered child in Sharp Objects says that exact line as he describes his daughter. The implications is that this applies to more people than you might imagine. Girls, women–we have this same disaster. We ache, we inflict ache, and we will continue to be as disturbed and disinclined as the men in our orbit.

 

Images: HBO

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