Deeper Dive: Sharp Objects and the Female Anti-Hero
A rugged journalist, baring the dark-eyed and slumped-shouldered look from years of hard living, packs a travel bag with candy bars and liquor nips, and fills an Evian water bottle with vodka before climbing into a dusty beater of a car, drunk, and driving to her hometown to report on the murders of two teenage girls, sipping from the Evian bottle the entire way.
So begins one of this Summer’s biggest hits, the HBO limited series, Sharp Objects, based on Gillian Flynn’s book. In a rare moment on-screen and perhaps fueled by the #MeToo movement and push for more complex female leads, Sharp Objects puts the female anti-hero front and center and its success may be a sign that audiences are ready to embrace unlikable women characters.
In an age of television driven by the male anti-hero, there is a shockingly low number of female leads in general but particularly female anti-heroes. Films and television shows led by callous, self-destructive, bad-boy protagonists have become popular staples of American pop culture and frontrunners for award seasons. One of the most celebrated of these characters is Tony Soprano, the mobster-with-a-conscience from David Chase’s iconic TV series, The Sopranos. The hugely popular show ran on HBO from 1999-2007 winning 21 Primetime Emmy Awards including three Emmy’s and a Golden Globe for actor James Gandolfini who played Tony Soprano. Other notable beloved anti-heroes include Walter White, the cancer-stricken chemistry teacher turned drug dealer from AMC’s Breaking Bad. And who could forget gorgeous Don Draper, the boozing, chauvinistic advertising executive from AMC’s Mad Men. These three actors have collectively received dozens of awards for their performances and the characters have endured endless fan loyalty.
Is it that these men with their complex, flawed characters are relatable? After all, we are all flawed. Even superheroes are more compelling to watch when they have layered, complex histories driving their good deeds. Batman: Bruce Wayne, haunted by the memory of his parents death, often straddles the line between right and wrong. Neither Bruce or Batman is particularly likable. He does good things and helps people but let’s face it, he's a bit of a brooding jerk. Yet Batman is consistently regarded as the most popular superhero of all time.
Unfortunately (albeit not surprisingly), when it comes to women, the reaction is stunningly different. First of all, there are far fewer leading female characters with unlikable traits. Second of all, for the handful of female anti-heroes that actually do make it from page to screen, they rarely receive the same level of attention. Audiences criticise these women for the same reasons that their male counterparts receive praise. What gives???
Perhaps this is all about to change thanks to Sharp Objects. Author Gillian Flynn is known for her provocative female lead characters. Her novel, Gone Girl, was on the New York Times Bestseller List for 12 weeks after its release in 2012. Two years later the book was adapted into a film directed by David FIncher starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, who received an Oscar nomination for her performance. Both Sharp Objects and Gone Girl celebrate the minds of complicated, troubled, terrifying women with whom readers and audiences have traditionally found themselves struggling to sympathize.
“I particularly mourn the lack of female villains - good, potent female villains,” said Flynn in an interview with Powell Books in 2015. “Not ill tempered women who scheme about landing good men and better shoes (as if we had nothing more interesting to war over), not chilly WASP mothers (emotionally distant isn’t necessarily evil), not soapy vixens (merely bitchy doesn’t qualify either). I’m talking violent, wicked women. Scary women.”
In Sharp Objects, Flynn does nothing to mask Camille Preaker’s flaws. We watch Preaker concealing hard liquor in water bottles that she drinks on the job investigating the murders. She’s a good journalist, which is probably her most redeeming feature. Her constant pursuit of facts conflicts with the residents’ desire to keep the status quo, particularly the local sheriff and her mother, Adora. More on her later. In addition to the drinking, Camille sleeps around, including with the 18-year-old murder suspect. Throughout the series we see flashes of her memories revealing her dark past of sexual assault and neglect from mother Adora. We learn that Camille copes with her traumas through self-harm, something she began doing after the death of her younger sister. She carved words into every inch of her skin with razors, broken glass, or whatever sharp object she could get her hands on.
Camille is not alone as this Southern Gothic story is ripe with gritty, complex female characters. Topping the list is Adora, Camille’s icy mother, heir to Wind Gap’s hog farm, the town’s predominant source of wealth. Adora is unforgivably cruel to Camille, at one point telling her, "I never loved you." It's such a chilling moment, you have to watch it twice to confirm that's what she really said. Actress Patricia Clarkson's (THE GREEN MILE), portrayal of Adora is the performances of the year, perfectly balancing her duo persona. A woman of many [sinister] secrets, Adora has a lace-gloved-grip over the town, like her paradoxical character: soft, feminine and lacy vs. cold, gripping and sinister.
Coming in at a close second on the creepometer is Camille’s younger half-sister Amma in a standout performance by relative newcomer Eliza Scanlen (Home and Away). Amma, the perfect Southern Belle teenager by day, in frilly white dresses, and bad girl by night, midriff and short shorts, smoking, drinking, drugs, boys. Like her mother, Amma is a master manipulator. Also like her mother, she holds many secrets.
Other notable female characters include Jackie (Elizabeth Perkins), a resigned friend of Adora’s who has always had a soft spot for Camille harbors an ocean of dark secrets, and Ashley (Madison Davenport) , a fame-seeking cheerleader who won’t wear anything but her uniform, even in the summer desperate to have her name in the paper and is dating the prime suspect.
It seems that Gillian Flynn is not interested in any more stories of angels or martyrs. In fact, if you have been watching Sharp Objects with a sharp eye, you will pick up on the myriad of times Camille suggests that a woman of Wind Gap could be a suspect. This idea continuously dismissed by Detective Willis (Chris Messina), Chief Vickery (Matt Craven), and even Camille’s own editor and confidant Frank Curry (Miguel Sandoval). When Camille tells Curry that law enforcement isn’t looking at the women, he replies: “‘cause it doesn’t fit the profile. Women don’t kill like that… that violent.”
Though fewer and farther between, recent years have seen the rise of a handful of strong yet unlikable female leads. Among this small group includes the 2011 film, YOUNG ADULT, starring Charlize Theron written by Oscar winner Diablo Cody (JUNO) and directed by Jason Reitman (UP IN THE AIR). Theron plays Mavis Gary, an abhorrent and irredeemable writer seeking to reclaim her former boyfriend, Buddy Slade (Patrick Wilson) who is now happily married with a baby on the way. After being publicly rejected by Buddy, Mavis shows up drunk on the doorstep of her former schoolmate Matt Freehauf’s (Patton Oswalt) house. I’m no psychologist, but it becomes abundantly clear that Mavis is a true narcissist and possibly a sociopath. She used to make fun of Matt, a victim of a hate crime, but that doesn’t stop her from seducing him. She has no self-awareness and is incapable of empathy. She takes no responsibility for the harm her actions inflict on others. All the things we love about Tony Soprano and Walter White! Despite being incredibly well written and downright entertaining, the film received lukewarm critical and box office success largely because audiences struggle to embrace such a horrible female character.
Another example is Keri Russell in the critically acclaimed FX thriller, The Americans, set in the 1980s amidst the backdrop of the Reagan-era cold war. Russell plays Elizabeth Jennings, a KGB agent undercover as an American who would sooner throw herself over a fire then betray the motherland. Elizabeth and her double agent partner/husband, Philip (Matthew Rhys), are parents to two teenagers, one of whom is oblivious to his family’s double life. In a reversal of stereotypes, Philip has the parental instincts whereas Elizabeth often places her responsibilities as an agent ahead of motherhood. This has long been seen, culturally, as an unforgivable trait for a woman. This is what I love about The Americans. Elizabeth is one of the leads in the series. She’s not the bad guy, or the supporting wife character, she’s the lead in the series. And she’s not so likable. I love it. But not everybody does.
Why is it so much harder for audiences to empathize with these women than the Drapers, Sopranos, and Whites? Is it merely cultural--women aren’t bad, they're good! Or is it that there simply aren’t enough examples of lead woman anti-heros. Many of the female characters in American pop culture that fit the anti-hero formula have been confined to supporting roles. Perhaps if there were more, everyone would be a custom to it and not question it.
Sharp Objects is the bulldozer we need in a forest of flat, underdeveloped female characters. Women who are: traumatized, dangerous, defensive, clever, conniving, desperate, and strong, and Flynn is unafraid to scour every inch. I submit that it is not the crimes or the behavior of female anti-heroes that makes viewers uncomfortable. It is the fact that women are the ones committing them. In life, nobody wants to see or deal with unlikable women. Look at all the powerful women who have had to contend with being called a bitch, when their male counterparts have done far worse and called strong. Do I have to invoke the 2016 election? Let’s not go there. But you get the point. The female anti-hero rattles viewers because it unnerves them to imagine women holding not only the power, but the desire to carry out such heinous, ruthless, horrifying acts. It loosens the white-knuckle grip that we have on the idea that women are innately good, moral, or nurturing creature that will always “do the right thing.
Sharp Objects released the final episode of the series aired Sunday, August 26th. Female anti-hero aside, Sharp Objects is a brilliant television; powerful performances, great writing, suspense and a big reveal that nobody saw coming.
Here’s hoping that Sharp Objects success ushers in a new era of female anti-heroes on-screen. If for nothing else than they are real. If we can fall in love with a disgusting character like Tony Soprano, why can’t we fall in love with Camille Preaker? Well happily, audiences have fallen in love with her, and she’s far from a disgusting creature. She’s real.
Footnote: 8/27 - Spoilers Ahead for the finale of Sharp Objects
I think anyone who stuck with Sharp Objects through the finale would agree that the show, while a deliciously compelling story, was certainly a slow burn. Things moved very slowly in the Wind Gap universe, and most of what kept the audience engaged was not a turn in the investigation, but the revelation of Camille’s past, shown through director Vallee’s trademark moments of flashbacks. Throughout the series Camille experiences flashbacks, memories that help piece together clues to her past. I found myself re-winding those flashbacks to confirm what I had seen as it was such a shock. While I wasn’t holding my breath for a grand explanation, a lot of strings were left untied in the final episode. The real identity of the killer is only revealed in the very last minutes of the show when (Spoiler alert) Camille discovers the dead girls' teeth within Amma’s dollhouse. Amma’s chilling admission, “Don’t tell Mama,” is what we are left with as a conclusion, as justice? Then if you stayed through the end credits (as, thanks to Marvel we're a custom to doing), we see what happened in one last blurry: a fifteen second memory reel of Amma murdering the girls including the new murder of her St. Louis friend Mae.
The ending was abrupt and violent, giving very little time to process the hows or whys of the killings before the credits rolled. The two images that stay with me are the closing shots of Amma and Camille: the former bearing her teeth in an ecstatic, deranged grin, and the latter looking up at her half-sister without fear or disgust but disappointment. I don’t think viewers were surprises that Amma was the killer. The real surprise and lasting, gut-wrenching impact is the that, in her attempt to do good, Camille only saved a murderer to kill again. As Detective Willis said, "It’s always the family." Devastatingly, Camille remains a fallen apple from that tree.