*Spoiler alerts for season one of Sharp Objects. Content warning for discussions of self-harm, sexual violence, childhood abuse, and murder.*
America’s morbid fascination with dead (white) girls as a narrative hook continues in HBO’s Sharp Objects, this summer’s slow-burn Southern gothic murder mystery directed by Big Little Lies’s Jean-Marc Vallée and featuring the incomparable Amy Adams and Patricia Clarkson.
Adams stars as Camille Preaker, traumatized, alcoholic, cutter, and journalist—in that order—who returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri to cover the unsolved murder of one young girl and the missing status of a second. Coming back to the source of many terrible traumas, including the death of her beloved sister Marian (Lulu Wilson), brings self-harming Camille into a state of (psychic) crisis as she (poorly) attempts to do her job as a writer who is both insider and outsider in a town she despises.
In a blood-curdling performance that will surely sweep award season, Patricia Clarkson plays Adora Crellin, Wind Gap’s sartorial matriarch and Queen Bee who owns the town’s one main source of employment: the area’s largest hog farm. Adora wields different versions of her Southern femininity and undiagnosed narcissistic personality disorder as weapons to control everyone from her other surviving daughter Amma (Eliza Scanlen), her doting husband Alan (Henry Czerny), Sherrif Vickery (Matt Craven), to the gaggle of town ladies headed by Jackie O’Neil (Elizabeth Perkins). Unlike Camille who self-harms in private, Adora enjoys calling everyone’s attention to her pain, be it the pain for her dead daughter Marian, or a scratch on her hand from her prized American Beauty rose thorns.
Sharp Objects director Vallée is growing a distinct aesthetic in his body of work: dysfunctional white women, some of whom are committing subversive acts of survival. Camille drinks, has sex with inappropriate men, and fantasizes about cutting herself to get through the day. Adora is so filled with poison she makes her own recipes and feeds them to her children. Amma abuses drugs, her friends, and ultimately murders. Unlike Camille, Amma doesn’t internalize the violence done to her.
This is a horror story about the power and shortcomings of female rage, as well as how cycles of family violence create intergenerational traumas that feel like they are passed down in genes and blood, not just from learned abusive behavior.
The landscape of Wind Gap, a town that celebrates Confederate pride in its yearly Calhoun day picnic and Civil War reenactments, firmly situates Camille and her family in the context of white supremacy. When Detective Richard Willis (Chris Messina) comments on the Confederate flags Camille responds, “We don’t say the C-word around here.” “Oh, silent racism,” he retorts. “My favorite kind.” This is a story about a white community, which makes it even more important to talk about how race factors in.
While there may only be a handful of Black characters in Sharp Objects, there is no shortage of Black-created music as a soundtrack to all this white pain. Tupac’s Dear Mama playing while Adora and Amma dance is particularly unsettling.
Living Black people, however, are actively marginalized in the story. From Adora’s maid Gayla (Emily Yancy) to Camille’s editor’s wife Eileen (Barbara Eve Harris), Black women exist to help and heal struggling white people. One of the worst examples of this tokenization was the “Intake Nurse” (Stacie Greenwell) at the rehab center where Camille spends time. The character isn’t even given a name although she is a vital part of how Camille’s experience in rehab begins and ends. Black music, and Black people, become like Adora’s handpainted vintage wallpaper: fundamental to the story, yet relegated to the background. In a tale about the South, we cannot ignore the underlying racism and racist structures that Vallée and writer Gillian Flynn perpetuate in Sharp Objects.
It is certainly problematic that most of the Black women in Sharp Objects are easily reduced to “the help.” But what this also signals is the willingness of white women to take advantage of them. And worse, white women are the criminals in this story. Adora killed her own child. Amma and her friends tortured and killed their classmates. Amma kills a Black girl on her own.
Sharp Objects gives us an entry point to talk about white women as a protected class, in particular in socially, culturally, and politically regressive areas of the United States—places that see segregation and pre-Civil Rights as the good old days and wish to return to them. Before Dylan Roof shot up the church in Charleston, he said he was doing it to protect white women from being raped by Black men. More recently, the white Iowa woman killed by an immigrant has been disgustingly politicized by right-wing Trumpers, while these same people have no problem with families being separated at the border and children being locked in cages like Nazi concentration camps.
Fictional women like Adora Crellin who uphold patriarchal, racist, and misogynistic social structures mirror real-life women like Sarah Huckabee Sanders, Kristen Neilson, and Betsey DeVos who manipulate the American public daily, spreading fake news to their base of increasingly rabid white supremacists.
Arguably one of the worst moments in Sharp Objects is when Adora’s best friend Jackie reveals she knew that Adora killed her own daughter and said nothing. “Who the fuck was gonna believe me?!” Jackie shouts after a horrified Camille stumbles from Jackie’s home. But here’s the thing: White women are always believed first. Look at all these Barbeque Beckys and Permit Pattys calling cops on Black folks, hoping they’ll get killed. And nothing happens to those white women. If there was anyone in Wind Gap who could have disrupted Adora’s abuse and saved Marian, it would have been Jackie.
The theme of protecting white women from their crimes continues even through to the final credits where the real murderer(s) are revealed. Through a series of quick flashes, we see Amma and her friends brutally killing Ann and Natalie. We see Amma killing Mae alone. And while this certainly was the only ethical way to show teenage girls on a killing spree—through brief, obscured cuts—I can’t help but imagine how the ending would play out if they were instead Black girls. Would their crimes have been treated so respectfully and with such grace? We can safely say no. Young girls of color are often criminalized for their hair, their perceived hypersexuality, and their anger. In fact, many (racist) people probably wouldn’t have found an ending where young girls of color were the perpetrators even all that shocking.
Another problematic issue in Sharp Objects is the use of known sexual abusers Led Zeppelin’s music to punctuate a story that also has at its core the long-term effects of extreme sexual violence and gang rape. So gross.
Still, Sharp Objects has still accomplished something vitally important: it opened a door to talking about mothers’ violence against their own children. It’s sexist to think mothers are incapable of cruelty toward their children because of some benevolent magical power bestowed through motherhood that means they are only able to love and protect their children. It’s just not true. Mothers are as able as anyone else to perpetuate systems of abuse and violence, as we saw through the intergenerational trauma of the Crellin/Preakers.
What’s an unfortunate nuance to this discussion in Sharp Objects is that Adora’s disease of Munchausen by Proxy is quite rare. But mothers who hurt their kids are not as rare as we’d guess from their existence—or lack thereof—on screen. And for this, Sharp Objects has done an entire world of traumatized children a huge favor. I hope it encourages survivors of mother’s violence to come out of the shadows and know they will be believed.