Content warning: This post contains mention of self-injury and abuse.
Breathtaking, uncomfortable, and timely.
These are the three best words I can find to describe HBO’s eight-episode series Sharp Objects – based on the book of the same title by author of New York Times bestseller Gone Girl, Gillian Flynn.
This psychological thriller abounds with breathtaking and unexpected moments that left me on the edge of my seat throughout the eight episodes and especially during the finale.
It also abounds with uncomfortable situations and emotions that we, the viewers, are forced to face alongside the characters: abuse, fractured relationships, trauma, pain, and death. It is also a timely story which features three women as the main characters: Camille, Adora, and Amma.
However, these women aren’t the Wonder-Woman-type of female characters we perhaps expect to see in today’s #MeToo era — which is exactly why this is an important story to be told in today’s climate.
Patricia Clarkson, who plays Adora, made this point in an interview with HBO:
“It’s wonderful for us, as women, to be portrayed as heroes and warriors … But we can’t forget there’s also darkness … And these are the stories we must continue to tell — these kinds of female stories. The time is now.”
The story takes us, alongside protagonist Camille Preaker, back to her hometown of Wind Gap, a small town in the Southern United States, where Camille, a newspaper reporter, is sent to investigate the death of two young girls. This is not just another assignment for the reporter, but a journey towards Camille’s painful past. In Wind Gap, Camille returns to the place where she’s from, and where her abusive mother (Adora), her stepfather (Alan) and half-sister (Amma) still live, in a seemingly perfect house and perfect life.
But underneath the surface of this ‘perfect’ family lies a long history of female power, abuse, trauma, and pain.
Sharp Objects was Flynn’s first novel, released in 2006, but publishers weren’t exactly “beating down [her] door” about publishing the book, she said in an interview. She was told that “people don’t want to read about women they can’t root for; who aren’t heroic.” For Flynn, however, Camille is a heroic character in her own unique way:
“Sometimes, if you’re in a lot of psychological pain and been through a lot of psychological damage, the most heroic thing that you can do is to keep your head above water, and that’s what Camille does again, and again every single day.”
To me, Camille’s story is important because it’s a story about surviving despite unspeakable pain — even though she survives by engaging in unhealthy coping mechanisms through substance abuse and self-injury. It isn’t a pretty story, but it’s still worth being told, because the truth is, this is the story of many women in real life.
In the era of #MeToo, which has been exposing long-held gender inequalities and men’s power and abuse against women, a story which highlights the abuse women can impose on other women is almost unbearably uncomfortable, but also of the utmost importance. Abuse takes many shapes and forms, and sometimes, it takes the form of a woman and a mother — an uncomfortable realization Sharp Objects forces us to make.
Though the story is fictitious, the issues it explores — such as substance abuse, self-injury, and child abuse — are very real. According to the World Health Organization, 1 in 12 women in developed countries will develop an alcohol dependence in their lifetime.
Data from the United State’s Centers for Disease Prevention and Control indicates that in 2012, 54% of child maltreatment perpetrators were women. About 4% of American adults engage in self-injury behaviors, with skin cutting as the most common method (between 70-90%) according to Mental Health America.
These statistics, are, of course, only glimpses into these and the other complex issues explored in the show, but they highlight that preconceived ideas we may hold — such as women as victims and not perpetrators of abuse — are not always accurate.
Sharp Objects was an incredibly uncomfortable and difficult show to watch, but I believe the conversations that this story have started around female power, abuse, trauma, and pain are timely and needed.
I know for me, this is a story that has touched me deeply, and that will stay with me for a long time to come.
If you’re in the US, you can watch the first episode for free on HBO.
If you or someone you know is struggling with self-injury, substance abuse, or suicidal thoughts, or has been a victim of abuse, please reach out for help. Visit HBO for a list of resources worldwide.