In her recent book of essays Dead Girls: Surviving an American Obsession, Alice Bolin describes the characteristics that define the Dead Girl Show, a TV series kickstarted into motion by the untimely demise of at least one young woman. “The Dead Girl Show’s notable themes are its two odd, contradictory messages for women,” Bolin writes. “The first is that girls are wild, vulnerable creatures who need to be protected from their own sexualities.”
“The other message the Dead Girl Show has for women is simpler,” she later notes. “Trust no dad.”
Sharp Objects is, without question, a Dead Girl Show. Like several other examples that Bolin cites — Twin Peaks, Veronica Mars, The Killing, Top of the Lake, The Night Of, True Detective — the inciting incident in the HBO series involves the murder of a young woman. (Two in this case, three if you also count the long-deceased Marian Crellin.) The notion of girls as wild, vulnerable, sexually charged creatures who need protection is also omnipresent in Wind Gap, Missouri, the setting of this slow-burn drama.
But Sharp Objects completely subverts the second message that typifies a Dead Girl Show. Instead of “Trust no dad,” the conclusion one draws after watching all eight episodes is: “Trust no mother.”
One could argue that Sharp Objects doesn’t quite pass the sniff test as a thoroughly feminist work. As noted above, it focuses a fair amount of attention on young women as the victims of brutal acts. Its protagonist, Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), is not exactly the ideal representative of the empowered working woman: She drinks way too much, she’s terribly (albeit understandably) damaged, and as a journalist, her work ethic leaves a great deal to be desired. But if feminism is about equal treatment of men and women — and, by the way, it is — then Sharp Objects is definitely a feminist series because its female characters have permission to be as complicated and potentially destructive as the male ones. Nowhere is that clearer than in the radical way the show addresses motherhood.
The idea of the mother who abuses her children, particularly her daughters, isn’t novel. Margaret White, the mother in Carrie; Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest; Betty Draper in Mad Men; Allison Janney’s LaVona in I, Tonya; virtually every stepmother in every fairy tale and/or Disney cartoon in history; and hundreds of other bad moms from TV, film, and literature: All of them punished their little girls under the guise of protecting them or pushing them to better themselves. What’s unique about Sharp Objects is the way it explores that archetype within a contemporary American genre that, to Bolin’s point, usually casts men as the depraved killers and rapists of young, innocent women. It leans into that trope nice and hard by initially pointing to Bob Nash (Will Chase), a potentially untrustworthy dad, as one prime suspect, and John Keene (Taylor John Smith), a brother so openly devastated by the loss of his sister that his reaction seems feminine. But in Sharp Objects, it’s the mothers who are most worthy of suspicion.
Society, in this series and in reality, trains us to believe that every girl wants to become a mom and that selfless, maternal instincts naturally kick in for every possessor of two X chromosomes. But every major female character on Sharp Objects proves what a fallacy this is.
Let’s start with Camille, who, within mere minutes of arriving in Wind Gap, is asked if she has children. The cheerleading crowd Camille used to run with — the “vipers,” as Jackie (Elizabeth Perkins) calls them — are completely fixated on procreation. They’re either complaining about being pregnant again or weeping because their husband doesn’t want a fifth child. When the subject of Ann’s and Natalie’s deaths come up in episode six, they condescendingly assume Camille can’t possibly experience the same anguish over the murders.
“Camille doesn’t have any children and I just don’t think you can feel the pain the way that we do,” says Katie Lacey (Reagan Pasternak), the ringleader. Another woman adds that “part of your heart doesn’t work” if you’re not a mother, then Katie chimes in to say that she “didn’t feel like a woman” until she felt her daughter in her uterus. The implication could not be clearer: A woman is not complete or capable of caring about others unless she’s experienced childbirth.
But the finale exposes the lie in all that, and not just because Adora (Patricia Clarkson) gets hauled off in handcuffs. Camille may not officially be a mom, but she does a pretty good job of mothering Amma (Eliza Scanlen) in St. Louis, redecorating her apartment, putting her in school, and giving her a stable environment in which she can recover. Camille, as well as Jackie — who, in a change from Gillian Flynn’s novel, doesn’t have kids — may be flawed, troubled, and flaky. But of all the women from Wind Gap, they demonstrate the most compassion for those in need. It’s Jackie who makes Camille feel welcome and who tried to investigate Marian’s death, even if she didn’t follow through. It’s Camille who takes Amma under her wing and tries to nurture her back to some semblance of stability. Actually, in another subversion of stereotypes, the most genuinely caring figure in the entire series is Camille’s editor, Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval), whose warmth and intervention on Camille’s behalf flies in the face of the notion that all newspaper editors are crusty, old grumps constantly barking for copy. (I mean, a lot of them are. But not all.)
On the other hand, Adora is able to maintain the appearance of being a respectable, proper mom because she ticks off all the key boxes that suggest as much. She’s a grieving parent, a role that is basically unimpeachable. She dresses her daughter in flouncy floral dresses and cardigans. She dotes on her Amma, like the dearest of mothers do. The one daughter she’s seemingly cut off is Camille, and she’s a grown woman with no interest in having a family, so of course she’s an outcast. Even when Adora’s Munchausen by proxy is revealed alongside her role in killing Marian and nearly offing Camille and Amma — not to mention casting suspicion about her role in Ann and Natalie’s murders — there’s still a sense that her crime can’t possibly be that heinous.
“The prosecution says my mother is a warrior martyr,” Camille writes in the piece that Frank reads aloud in the finale. “If she was guilty, they argued, it was only of a very female sort of rage. Overcare. Killing with kindness.” In other words, even when a mother is a killer, she isn’t really a killer because being a mother absolves her of the crime. Trust no mom, the show tells us, but not everyone gets that memo.
As for Amma, she isn’t a mother yet, obviously. Yet she’s learning the same way all girls do: by copying her mom, and through play, caring for dolls and futzing with her dollhouse as if it’s her own home. Part of her heart definitely doesn’t work, but like Adora, she’s canny enough to know that the best place to hide evidence of her female rage is in the faux floor of her mother’s bedroom.
In a Dead Girl Show, the last place most people would look for proof of a crime is in the ground that a beloved mother walks on. Sharp Objects tells us that’s exactly where to look, but in its final moments, the series also reminds us how sturdy our ideas about gender and the tropes of the Dead Girl Show are. They’ve trained us to see a mother and look the other way.