Sharp Objects Turns a Female Gaze on Women’s Suffering

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Photo: HBO

There are few images TV loves more than that of a brutalized female body. Our crime-centric TV landscape — from Law & Order: SVU to Mindhunter and The Fall, not to mention the new wave of true-crime dramas — rests on raped, murdered, and otherwise abused women.

I thought a lot about this preoccupation when I watched HBO’s moody, affecting new crime drama Sharp Objects, whose first episode premiered Sunday. (I’ve seen the seven episodes provided to critics, out of eight total). Sharp Objects is based on the book by Gone Girl’s Gillian Flynn and directed by Big Little Lies’s Jean-Marc Vallée, working with showrunner Marti Noxon of UnReal and Buffy, and the new show marks a perfect melding of the sensibilities of all three. Sharp Objects follows Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a reporter, as she returns to her hometown of Wind Gap, Missouri, to investigate the death of one young girl and the disappearance of another. Camille confronts her icy town-matriarch of a mother (Adora, played Patricia Clarkson) and meets the half-sister she barely knows (Amma, played by Eliza Scanlen); meanwhile, fragmented reminiscences from her own past blend with the present-day narrative. From the beginning, it’s clear that the Camille’s own psychic mysteries will be just as significant as the one haunting the town.

In predictable crime-show fashion, there are plenty of maimed and murdered female bodies on this show, both those that crop up in Camille’s memories and those discovered in the present day. Yet by far the most important image of a female body is the one that appears at the end of the first episode. Up until this point, Camille has mostly seemed like a female take on a familiar crime-show archetype: the damaged, tough-talking investigator who drinks to forget her troubled past, à la True Detective’s Rust Cohle. But in the show’s final scene, we see the real extent of Camille’s damage: She takes off her clothes and slips into a bath, revealing that her entire body is covered with self-inflicted scars. Her body is a topography of self-harm, with words carved into her flesh like initials on tree bark — words like “Vanish,” the episode’s title, which is scratched into her right forearm.

Flynn has described her book as something of a bait and switch – a juicy crime drama that is actually an exploration of one woman’s pain and the relationships between three generations of women. Now, as a TV show, Sharp Objects takes a genre fixated on harm to women’s bodies and makes it about the harm women inflict on themselves. Where the battered female bodies on crime shows typically serve as clues to the oh-so-mysterious-and-fascinating psyche of a (typically male) serial killer, Camille’s battered body offers clues to her inner life, which turns out to be the show’s real mystery. I’ve seen plenty of horrible things done to women’s bodies onscreen — from the too-artful murder-tableaux of Hannibal and The Fall to Gwyneth Paltrow’s severed head in a box — and yet I was unprepared for the jolt of horror I felt at first seeing Camille’s scars.

While Flynn and Vallée’s fingerprints are obviously all over the project, Sharp Objects’ focus on the female body is particularly interesting to consider in the context of Noxon’s last three projects — To the Bone, Dietland, and Sharp Objects — which she has wryly dubbed her “self-harm” trilogy. Many TV shows heralded as feminist (or shows trying to respond to feminist criticisms) have tried to shift focus away from the brutalized female form to show us something else instead — like images of empowered women, or compensatory dong shots (I see you, Game of Thrones). Yet Noxon seems to be doing something distinctive. Arguably, just as Jill Soloway has made it her mission to pioneer a “female gaze”on women’s sexuality, Noxon sets out to explore a “female gaze” on female bodies and trauma.

Here, women are not merely the objects of harm, but also the subjects and authors of it (in Sharp Objects, quite literally — Camille writes her pain into the body). In To the Bone, we watch a severely anorexic Lily Collins wither away as she attacks her body by starving herself. Dietlanda sweeping fantasia that connects oppressive beauty standards and rape culture — opens with a montage of women hurting themselves to be beautiful: a woman sticking a finger down her throat, a razor blade slicing a breast. Meanwhile, Sharp Objects focuses on cutting, a specifically female form of self-harm (one 2017 study showed that girls are three times as likely to self-harm as boys), and one that has often been elided from our screens. And, in contrast to male showrunners whose emphasis on beaten or naked female bodies can feel voyeuristic, Noxon’s interest feels deeply personal — she has spoken openly about her struggles with eating disorders and alcoholism.

I don’t want to say too much about the rest of the show, but I do think it’s important to note that Camille’s scars don’t exist in a vacuum, nor are they used simply for shock value; rather, the way in which women’s self presentation does or does not reflect their inner lives continues to be an essential thread throughout the story. We see this with Amma in the first episode, as she transforms from a rebellious, cigarette-puffing cool-girl in Rollerblades to the prim little mistress of her mother’s house. (She warns her sister not to tell their mom: “I’m just her little doll to dress up.”) Camille, on the other hand, is the “failed” daughter, who refused to play the assigned role in her mother’s household and the community it oversees. Once the local Queen Bee, Camille fled Wind Gap and its expectations, resisting the pressure of its old-fashioned gender norms and twisted small-town hierarchy. Throughout the series, while Adora and Amma are decked out like pageant queens, Camille sports a uniform of a long-sleeve gray shirt and black pants, which are presumably not just a style choice but also a way to cover her scarred arms and legs. In a later episode, Adora pressures Camille to try on a revealing dress for a party she’s throwing, which Camille is unable to wear because of her scars. As Adora’s actions take on an increasingly sinister cast, the viewer wonders too if Camille’s self-harm can be read as a twisted act of resistance against her controlling mother and the woman she wanted Camille to be.

And yet, if we do read Camille’s scars as an act of resistance, doesn’t that take us into dangerous territory — into making self-harm seem somehow empowering or glamorous? As critics have noted of shows like Game of Thrones and Westworld, there’s a difference between depicting the realities of violence experienced by women and making that violence objectifying, exploitative, dehumanizing, or normalizing. The same concern applies even to ostensibly feminist shows (like The Handmaid’s Tale, which often feels like torture porn) or those rare shows that do deal with female self-harm. (As Elizabeth King wrote for the Cut, plotlines on shows like 7th Heaven “taught her” to cut herself.) Can Noxon succeed at creating some sort of feminist aesthetic of self-harm, or is that ultimately an impossible project? When To the Bone came out, it received a glut of criticism for allegedly glamorizing anorexia; images of Lily Collins’s waifish form were passed around pro-ana forums online. (And how does a nebulous goal like “awareness” weigh against a risk of triggering vulnerable viewers?) On an artistic level, the film also never seemed to fully penetrate its protagonist’s subjectivity in a way that could offer any real new insights about ED sufferers; as Emily Yoshida of Vulture pointed out: “there’s such an opportunity for a film about anorexia that goes past the ribs and cheekbones of its subject into something more interior and subjective,” and yet “the filmmaking is as polite and clinical as a junior-high health class.”

Sharp Objects comes with a PSA at the end of each episode directing viewers to a self-help hotline, suggesting that Noxon learned something from the mental healthy community’s response to To the Bone. And Sharp Objects feels like an evolution in other ways, too; At least from an artistic standpoint, there was nothing about Camille’s maiming that I found gratuitous, glamorous, or eroticized. When the scars are first revealed, the camera does not linger upon them — it’s just a glimpse; you have to squint to fully decipher what you’re are seeing. When we see Camille’s body fully exposed later in the season, it’s a moment that makes viewers feel acutely that they’re trespassing on someone’s private trauma. And, as the show’s creators make very clear, the scars on her body are nothing compared to the scars on her psyche. In crafting a narrative that prioritizes Camille’s subjectivity (props to Vallée’s beautiful flashback-filled and dreamlike direction here), and delves deep into the roots of her pain and her attempts to heal, she becomes much more than a two-dimensional victim of violence.

Making women both the harmers and the harmed, Sharp Objects elides the easy lesson of most crime shows, which is that men are predators and women are victims. (Though, of course, that’s a familiar lesson for a reason.) It also risks leaving Noxon and the show open to criticisms, both artistic and ethical, which I’m sure will trickle out in time. But perhaps that’s the risk necessary for a full, rich, and real depiction of women’s pain — and the ways it goes far beyond women’s bodies.

Sharp Objects and the Stories Scars Tell