Sharp Objects: The Sickness and Death of the Southern Belle

photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Author Gillian Flynn has been a trailblazer for crime writers, not necessarily by bringing female villains to the forefront of the genre (as they were always there), but by giving them complexity and depth. Her crime fiction offers more than just a whodunit; instead, she utilizes her female characters in a way that asks readers to ponder questions much greater than the crime depicted. All three of Flynn’s novels are set in rural contexts, and all of them involve a re-visiting of the past, exploring what is real and what isn’t. In Dark Places, Libby Day begins to doubt her memory of a crime done to her family, and large parts of Gone Girl are dominated by a forged diary detailing the time before the main character vanishes. In Sharp Objects, protagonist Camille Preaker travels to her hometown in the South to report on a crime and discovers a past crime in the process. Each of these novels – and their screen adaptations – draws upon common tropes, such as the demands of a traditional marriage, single motherhood, or the complicated relationship between mothers and daughters, and utilizes these to interrogate memory and history.

In Sharp Objects, which premiered on HBO on July 8, 2018, the South and its crimes are coming to haunt not just Camille Preaker (and by extension her hometown of Wind Gap), but also us as viewers, raising important questions about our contemporary social fabric. Like Camille Preaker, the series asks us to return to the scene of the crime, acknowledge it, and ask how we can do better; from the trail of tears to the plantation to the contemporary exploitation of undocumented field workers.

Returning Home

[Contains Spoilers] Fresh home from a brief stay at a mental hospital, reporter Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), is sent to her hometown of Wind Gap to write about a murdered and a missing girl. Wind Gap, as Camille describes it, is “at the very bottom of Missouri, in the boot heel. Spitting distance from Tennessee and Arkansas.” She not only locates the town geographically, but also historically and culturally, by declaring that it has been there “since before the Civil War.” And indeed, as in any Southern Gothic, the South, its history, traditions, language and food emerges as more than just a setting, but as a central character.

Camille returns to Wind Gap reluctantly, in part because she is still haunted by the death of her sister Marian – an event that happened on Camille’s 13th birthday, and caused her to turn to self-harm: her body is covered in words that she has etched into her skin, one of many semiotic messages in the series, hinting at a grisly subtext. Shortly after her arrival, the missing girl, Natalie, is found dead.

Henry Czerny, Patricia Clarkson, Eliza Scanlen, Amy Adams. photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

While the town is ostensibly calling for a quick solution of the case, they are also in denial of the fact that it was one of them. Instead they close ranks against those they perceive as threats — outsiders. Richard Willis (Chris Messina), the detective from Kansas City who was called in to help is getting the outsider treatment — nobody talks to him. Police chief Vickery, in one of several expeditions into casual racism, is convinced that the killer is a “Mexican trucker”; in the mind of the small-town law enforcement official, the non-white outsider is always the first suspect. Camille herself is getting the outsider treatment from her distant mother, Adora, who dotes on Camille’s 13 year old half-sister Amma (Eliza Scanlen). Amma appears like a chimera: when she is at home, she is dressed child-like, playing with a replica doll house of Adora’s Victorian manor. Outside of the house, she is well-aware of the power of her name and her beauty, and bullies her friends. Camille and Amma form a strange connection: they compete for Adora’s love, but bond over constantly trying to please their mother.

As the series unfolds, it is revealed that it was Adora who killed Camille’s sister Marian, slowly poisoning her (a condition known as Münchhausen by proxy syndrome). Camille realizes that Adora is now doing the same to Amma. In an act that is equal amounts undergoing penance for failing to save Marian, trying to save Amma and one last attempt to win her mother’s love, Camille drinks poisoned milk and then is rescued by Richard Willis. In the end, Adora is arrested, tried and convicted for killing Marian, and she pleads guilty to killing the two other girls.

Patricia Clarkson. photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

The final episode (“Milk”) shows Camille and Amma living in St. Louis. Camille settles into her role as mother by proxy, and Amma is making friends with Lily Burke, a girl in the same apartment complex, who goes missing shortly after. As Camille is picking up the apartment, she looks into Amma’s dollhouse, and, realizes that the floors of Adora’s room, made from elephant ivory in the original house, are made from human teeth. She looks up and meets Amma’s smiling face whispering “don’t tell Mama.” In the closing credits, we see a montage that tells us it was actually Amma who killed Ann and Natalie, and after that, strangled Lily. She was jealous of the attention Adora paid to Ann and Natalie, and then killed Lily to finish the ivory floor in the doll house. The series ends with a brief frame showing Amma leading her friends into the woods dressed in white.

The Southern Gothic and The Southern Belle

The series is saturated with Freudian imagery – the doll house, teeth, biting, the poisoned milk, and perhaps most significantly, the forest – a place outside of civilization, where the id can roam free. lt is also a locality straight from German Romanticism, the Southern Gothic’s older sibling. Southern Gothic, literary critic Allan Lloyd Smith writes, is “about the return of the past, of the repressed and denied, the buried secret that subverts and corrodes the present, whatever the culture does not want to know or admit, will not or dare not tell itself.” In Sharp Objects, this repressed past is in part the family’s history, including reference to there actually being three generations of poisonous mothering. As we learn, Adora’s mother Joya is the first Münchausen by proxy mother.

But as the second-wave feminists taught us, the personal is political. During most of Joya’s lifetime, the Jim Crow laws were in effect. Moreover, she must have grown up during a time when the myth of the lost cause (that the Confederacy was fighting to preserve states’ rights and the “Old South”) had been consolidated as dominant narrative among white Southerners. Women, in this narrative “were loyal to the Confederate cause and sanctified by their loved ones.” In short, they were Southern Belles.

The Southern Belle is the trope of the American South. The most famous incarnation of course is Margaret Mitchell’s character, Scarlett O’Hara, immortalized in film by Vivian Leigh (who would later also play Blanche Dubois, another famous and troubled Southern Belle). Flirtatious, yet chaste, “the modern Southern Belle is a paragon of conservative values, warmth, light, quiet strength, and happiness.” Adora excels at being a Southern Belle. Walking around in 4 inch heels, long, flowy, pastel-colored dresses, and perfectly manicured hands, she barely ever raises her voice, yet rules the town.

Patricia Clarkson, Henry Czerny, Amy Adams. photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

She strategically uses her vulnerable femininity — both police chief Vickery and her husband Alan vie for her attention and dance to her tune, and even Richard is briefly fascinated. Other women automatically defer to her authority — such as Vickery’s wife in the series, who never even addresses her personally, or even Betsy Nash, Ann’s mother.

Her name, containing both “adore” as well as “adorn”, reveals a lot about her character. Adora adorns not only herself, but, as a Freudian extension of herself, her home, pointing out its tapestry and her pride and joy, the ivory floor of her bedroom. “The Ivory Toast: Southern Living from a Bygone time” as a fictional magazine describes it a bit too aptly in the novel. The adornment, in turn, needs to be adored — by admirers and visitors alike.

The Southern Belle is connected to another clichéd trope, Southern hospitality. “Whether hosting a few friends for book club or planning her daughter’s wedding for 500, her grace allows a belle to make her guests feel at ease”, writes Kate Spears for Deep South Magazine. She is the heart and soul of the home. Adora is the perfect hostess on Calhoun Day, a local holiday to celebrate her ancestor and founder of Wind Gap, Zeke Calhoun. The festivities are on her grounds, and the heart of the festivity is a play. Calhoun Day may ostensibly look like just another Southern small-town event distorting and re-writing history, but the play, in which Adora, Camille, and Amma’s ancestor Millie lets herself be gang-raped to occupy the marauding Yankee soldiers while the other women escape, is a form of apotheosis of the Southern Belle, as is evidenced on Adora’s glowing face as she watches her daughter Amma tied to a tree on stage. Through the performance, the historical myth becomes embodied, and thus real — at least for the citizens of Wind Gap.

Emily Yancy, Patricia Clarkson, Henry Czerny. photo: Anne Marie Fox/HBO

Further, just as the historic, antebellum Southern Belle could exist because of the exploitation of black lives, Adora’s wealth and grace is built on blood, death, and the labor of mostly people of color. Her household is run by Gayla, the black maid, who, when asked by Camille why she never left, declares that she can’t stand the smell of pigs. That is, the only other job for her in Wind Gap would be on the local pig farm, which is also owned by Adora. Hence, Gayla doesn’t have much of a choice. Neither do other people of color in Wind Gap. Most work on the pig farm, where “the Mexicans get the shittiest, most dangerous jobs”. And while the show spares us a slaughter scene, it is easy to imagine the toll of killing animals and wading in blood all day. Likewise, Adora’s prized ivory floor is also built on the blood of another living being, African elephants, and the work of black slaves that laid the floor. Yet, as we start to see, the colonial ground she’s standing on is shaky — underneath lurks a nasty swamp of lies, pain, and trauma.

The femininity of the Southern Belle that Wind Gap (and by extension – the South) requires of its female inhabitants, inextricably interwoven with violence, labor exploitation, and racism, slowly kills them: most women in Wind Gap are either alcoholics (which is tolerated as long as you keep up appearances), mentally unstable (Adora, Camille), or plain psychopaths (Amma). The one woman who sees through everything is Camille’s black high school classmate, but not being at the top of Wind Gap’s power structures, her perspective goes unacknowledged.

Making Amends

Flynn’s third and most famous novel Gone Girl made fun of the tired trope of the “cool girl” and exposed it for the male fantasy it really is. Her first novel, and even more than the TV series, takes down the idea of the Southern Belle. The show is less about female rage than it is about exposing what is behind the veneer of respectability — something that is rotten to the core. Camille, who mutilated herself to escape the demands that Wind Gap made on its women, does not receive catharsis in the show, she has instead becomes an accidental accomplice to Amma’s and Adora’s twisted crimes. There’s no hope for her, and by extension the viewer.

The book on the other hand offers redemption for Camille: Amma ends up in a high security facility and Adora in prison, while she is taken in and cared for by her editor and his wife. At the end of the novel she says, “I am learning to be parented. I am returning to my childhood, the scene of the crime.” Being parented and returning to her childhood is a learning process for Camille, but a necessary one if she wants to escape the spiral of intergenerational violence, both personal and structural. Whether she will succeed we don’t know. But here’s to trying.

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Verena is a writer, educator, editor and lover of cats and dogs. She hails from Germany, and came to Portland, OR by way of Aotearoa/New Zealand, Minnesota, California (where she received a Phd) and Indiana. She is interested in tattoos, body culture in general, and pop culture.