On SHARP OBJECTS and Not Demanding That Our Women Leads be Perfect
The small screen adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s Sharp Objects is in its final week. The book itself is gritty, emotionally challenging, and proffers horrifying surprises—as befits a murder mystery, I guess, but also in a way that is quintessentially Gillian Flynn.
The HBO miniseries has hewed closely to that material, drawing out the heart-wrenching reveals, complicated family dynamics, and manifest pain of Camille Preaker’s life in quietly eerie ways. It’s Southern Gothic at its most gripping, and this fan is very much looking forward to the final episode.
The most gripping quality of the book and the show? That it’s layered. Flynn builds pain upon darkness, draws revelations out of the most shadowed portions of individual memories, and revives fears that her characters have tried hard to squash. Her heroines are always complicated, and never perfect—that’s their draw.
Camille Preaker is no exception. She works as a writer, but that’s almost incidental to her character. It’s her private life that holds attention. She grew up the pedestaled daughter of one of her small Southern town’s richest and most established families, but one who went home to a mansion that was a place to anything but luxuriate. Edges were plenty, and dangers were constant. Camille is the troubled daughter of a deeply troubled woman, Adora, who herself grew up under the imposing presence of the dark and vicious Joya—evil matriarch to the umpteenth degree.
Here’s what the readers/viewers slowly learn about Camille: she lost a sister to an undiagnosable illness—actually, worse than that, but she represses memories well—when she was young; she survived a gang rape shortly thereafter. Her mother was pretty clearly not available to her, ever, and she had no one to turn to. She turned the pain inward, self-harming in a way that left her permanently scarred, everywhere. (She wears long clothes throughout; she can’t bear to have anyone see her.) She wrestles with alcoholism and self hate. But beyond all of this, she is also good. She worries about her little sister; she wants to prevent innocent people from harm. She’s a struggling but determined protector.
Oh, and she also works for a newspaper. I guess if you totally want to miss the meat of Flynn’s story, you can focus on that. It’s really not super relevant except that it forces her home and gives her a reason to interview all of those with knowledge of the recent murders in the town; but Camille’s quest is never really about telling THAT story. She’s always fighting to face and reconcile herself to her own deeply disturbing past.
If you read Sophie Gilbert’s recent piece in the Atlantic, you wouldn’t know any of that, though. All you get from “The Lazy Trope of the Unethical Female Journalist” is that Camille is bad at her job. Which: way to stick it to someone who survived a rape and whose mother tried to murder her, I guess. She’s tougher than most of us will ever be asked to be—but could she pass Journalism 101? That’s what really matters.
The gift of Flynn’s books has always been that she doesn’t ask her women leads to be superhuman. They don’t have to be unparalleled survivors AND put forward a perfect front at their 9–5s. They are allowed to be sad, to be angry, to be inquisitive, to be devious—to prioritize things far more interesting than how they pay their bills, and what their annual performance reviews might look like. That’s not the point of their stories.
It’s exhausting to constantly try to live up to the “have it all” myth imposed upon the women who first entered the work force, and it’s not realistic. Maybe the most relevant thing about us is NOT what we do to make a buck, but who we choose to be beyond that, in all of our dynamism. This Protestant work ethic lens for evaluating the worth of a woman’s story is reductive, and demeaning, and myopic.
It was impossible for me to read Gilbert’s piece and not feel like she was asking Camille to deal with her troubles in her private time—just tie it up neatly for work, dear, put on a brave face, and make sure dinner is on the table by five. Gilbert is right that Camille isn’t great at her job—but she never claims to be. She’s openly barely hanging on. She’s not self-harming any more, though, and she’s forming relationships, and those things are far greater accomplishments than opening her notebook during a private interview (Gilbert—she closes it because the conversation is off the record, for gods sake!) might have been.
Camille’s boss—who is, more significantly, a mentor and friend—outright acknowledges that she’s not a great journalist. And, really: that’s okay. That’s not the point of Sharp Objects—which is about surviving megalomaniacs and cruelty and finding some way to be decent and kind despite a dark family inheritance. It’s a novel about pain and perseverance—not an instruction manual for being the perfect reporter.
And if you enjoy it that way: it’s kinda brilliant work. I’m sorry for Gilbert that she’s missing out on Camille’s fascinating world, which exists just beneath the veneer that Gilbert’s piece decided to concentrate on.