We are a culture obsessed with dead girls — so much so that the trope is now a wildly popular sub-genre.
The misogyny of Dead Girl narratives is evident in recent additions like Twin Peaks, True Detective, 13 Reasons Why, The Night Of, and countless others. Most use the corpses of beautiful young women as a vehicle for the growth of male characters.
And that’s just the surface-level issue.
I myself am guilty of an irresistible attraction to the Dead Girl genre. But I’ve always been baffled by its failure to engage with the reality and trauma of everyday violence against women.
Until the new must-watch HBO mini-series Sharp Objects came along, that is, and featured one of the most hypnotically compelling reversals of that cliché.
Starring Amy Adams in a raw and Emmy-worthy performance, the show isn’t just a slow burn. It’s the kind of mystery that festers inside you, like the half-remembered memories of girlhood trauma, boiling under your skin in the unforgiving Southern heat.
It’s the latest adaptation of another bestseller from Gone Girl author Gillian Flynn, brought to the screen by Emmy-award winning Big Little Lies director Jean-Marc Vallée. Add the craftsmanship of creator and showrunner Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer), and you’ve got a story that deals equally in entertainment and profundity, in unrelenting dread and an ineffable aliveness.
The first seven episodes given to press unravel its well-controlled murder mystery, revealing the much more unruly underbelly at its core. Each episode adds to your mounting suspicion that something rotten lies beneath the white lace frills of Wind Gap, a small town in Missouri.
At the heart of that mystery is a single question, asked with faux concern by a gaggle of gossiping mothers: “How can someone hurt little girls?”
Or, in truth – who doesn’t hurt little girls?
Our introduction to Adams’ Camille Preaker finds the reporter drinking vodka in a beat-up car, face slick with sweat and some unknown horror, as her editor urges her to return home for an investigation. The brutalized bodies of young girls are piling up in Wind Gap, and Camille is the only one for the job.
Meeting her estranged mother, Adora Crellin (Patricia Clarkson), is our first clue into what’s behind Camille’s mascara-smudged thousand-yard stare. The mother welcomes back her daughter by immediately trying to shut the door in her face, hiding behind the lavish walls of her mansion.
The Queen Bee of Southern high society, Adora created a new family after their first one fell apart following the tragic death of Camille’s little sister, Marian. Camille is treated like the mangled corpse of whatever the cat dragged in, an infuriating blemish on Adora’s perfect reputation of Southern values and affluence.
We follow Camille as she tries to uncover the story, descending into the personal hell of Wind Gap’s suffocating social circles. The townsfolk (most of all her own mother) treat her like a pariah, as a journalist airing the dirty laundry of their quaint lives for all the world to see.
But it’s the townspeople themselves that eat each other alive, while smiling politely.
We’re given glimpses into Camille and Marian’s childhood through disorienting jump cuts to her wordless memories, a characteristic of Vallée’s visual style. It’s in those that we see evidence of the feisty It Girl who Camille used to be in high school, before she started coping with her trauma through self harm.
Camille has cut and carved words into every inch of her own skin, producing scars that serve as evidence of the pain no one else is willing to acknowledge. Each represents a different facet of that pain, and lend themselves to the titles of episodes like “Vanish,” “Fall,” “Dirt,” and “Cherry.”
Her younger half-sister Amma haunts the house and the story like a ghost – an omnipresent force that’s everywhere, but always kept out of focus. Amma’s an uncanny echo of the sibling Camille lost, but also an embodiment of the picture-perfect daughter Camille could never be for her mother.
Amma straddles the Madonna-whore dichotomy that all the women and girls of Wind Gap must live within. At home in front of mommy, she’s all satin bows and dollies. Outside, she prowls the streets on rollerblades with her gang of mean girls, drinking and doing drugs and and learning how to weaponize her sexuality to survive.
Sharp Objects builds a world where shadows hide in the plain light of a glistening sun. It’s a gothic tale perfect for our cultural moment, when people continue to struggle with myths of female victimization – like the idea that women and girls somehow deserve the traumas inflicted upon them.
Under the voyeuristic gaze of male-centric Dead Girl Narratives, men are celebrated as the heroes of women’s pain, while also literally burying and silencing it. Worse still, it justifies the very real violence against women by painting a world where good girls survive and bad girls wind up in body bags.
This is for your own good, these exploitative narratives seem to say, we just want to protect you.
But in Sharp Objects, there are actual consequences to women’s pain. There are no heroes, because no one can protect us. The best it can do is read the scars that cover our bodies, help us face what we ourselves almost wish would stay buried.
It’s hard to watch a Dead Girl narrative that actually gives voice to women’s trauma. It isn’t pretty. It’s messy, and unflattering. But that’s the point.