Sharp Objects: a Story of Female Power, Abuse, Trauma & Pain

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.

‘The Bachelor’ Group Date that Nobody is Talking About

The Bachelor contestants get ready to ride tractors in the bikinis in downtown Los Angeles. Image c/o ABC.
The Bachelor contestants get ready to ride tractors in bikinis in downtown Los Angeles. Image c/o ABC.

Okay, I have to confession to make. I watch The Bachelor and I admittedly *guiltily* enjoy it. With my glass (bottle?) of wine beside me, I go into these episodes with an understanding that what I am about to witness will be completely sexist and will inevitably stereotype its female cast members as backstabbers, crazy, drunkards, airheads, damsels in distress, and/or the I’m-here-for-the-right-reasons-and-am-innocently-looking-for-my-one-true-love girl. (Why else would anyone ever want to be cast on a high ranking national television show? Certainly not for the five minutes of fame.)

However, a portion of last Monday’s episode was a little harder to stomach than usual.

Chris Soules, dubbed the handsome and perfect bachelor (a.k.a. Prince Farming…because he lives on a farm, get it?), invited a group of six girls on the season’s first group date with a date card that read, “Show me your country.” The date aimed to show Chris the girls’ so-called ‘country side.’ So how did The Bachelor’s producers tackle this difficult task? Why, by making the contestants strip down to their bikinis, walk around downtown Los Angeles, and ride tractors through the streets, of course! Because what could be more country than women walking around in bikinis?

Let me repeat. The show’s producers (two out of three of whom are men, along with the show’s writer) equated ‘being country’ to women parading around downtown Los Angeles in only their bikinis while straddling tractor seats (no sexual innuendo there or anything). Not only this, but ‘being country’ also meant being subjected to street harassment as cars honked at them and men whistled at the nearly naked women – moments that have been conveniently edited out of the clip on YouTube.* Additionally, seeing as how Chris wore a zip-up sweatshirt on the date, one can assume that the weather was not conducive to swimsuit attire. Television at its finest. (Stay classy, ABC.)

With all the recent steps forward in building awareness to end street harassment, from Twitter’s #YesAllWomen trending hashtag to The Daily Show’s Jessica Williams’ plan to end catcalling to the viral video of a woman being catcalled for ten hours while walking in New York City, last Monday’s episode was a major step in the wrong direction. Even Emily Maynard-Johnson, a former contestant, agreed that the show had taken a step too far.

I’m sure some of you reading this will say, “If the group date was so bad, why didn’t the women stay home or put on some clothes?” That is easier said than done. For starters, the contestants do not know what the date entails until the moment arrives. As a result, the women are put on the spot and expected to agree with whatever the producers have arranged. With millions tuning in and their chances of getting a rose (i.e. advancing to the next round) at risk, there is incredible pressure to just go with the flow. Nobody wants to be characterized as the lame girl who wouldn’t participate in a ‘fun’ little game (except me, but I guess that’s why I’m not on the show) and nobody wants to go home early. (Free luxury vacations, amirite?)

Even the group date’s description on ABC’s website is incredibly cringeworthy:

Description of group date c/o ABC
Description of group date c/o ABC – Click to enlarge

The producers, by not only merely creating this group date, but by also airing this group date on national television, seem to condone the idea that gawking at women in the street is A-Okay.

https://twitter.com/ProseccoAndPups/status/555086190874202112

https://twitter.com/ash_and_witty/status/555088949652512771

If you think street harassment is harmless, think again. There have been countless reports of women being killed or seriously injured after rejecting their harasser’s advances. In Michigan, a mother of three was shot and killed. In New York City, a 26-year-old woman‘s throat was cut. In Florida and Washington respectively, a 14-year-old girl and a 33-year-old woman were run over multiple times by men in cars. Shoshana B. Roberts, the woman featured in the aforementioned viral street harassment video, received countless rape and death threats. There is an entire Tumblr dedicated to stories of violence inflicted on women who reject sexual advances.

Sexism on television and in film is nothing new. We’ve witnessed it time and time again, as women are more often than not portrayed as sex symbols, objectified, and treated as if they are subordinate to men. In fact, sexism, for so long, has been so closely intertwined with media in pop culture, that many viewers may not even realize it exists.** (And in case you missed it, advocating against sexism and gender inequality in the media was a major theme at this year’s Golden Globe awards.)

“These girls are looking smokin’ hot on these tractors, it’s incredible. I’m the luckiest dude with two thumbs [shows thumbs up sign], right here.” – Chris Soules

For those of you who will argue that ABC’s The Bachelorette objectifies men the same as The Bachelor objectifies women, I say to you that until the day comes where a man feels the constant threat of a woman potentially threatening, raping, or killing him as he walks down the street at night (or day!), these two topics cannot be compared.

We all know that media plays a powerful role in influencing pop culture, and misogynistic shows that continue to live in the dark ages must not be tolerated. As for me, you won’t find me watching The Bachelor next Monday night – at least not without a big bottle of wine.

PS – If you currently watch the show but do not follow along on Twitter using #TheBachelor, you are doing it wrong.

*You can watch the sexist group date in its entirety here beginning Monday, January 19th.

**The Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media exists solely to promote gender equality in the media.