This post contains spoilers for the entire season of Sharp Objects.
It‘s telling that, in Sharp Objects, the most gruesome scenes are not images of dead little girls with their teeth ripped out. The more haunting violence is seen in the way a mother cuts down her own daughter, eviscerating her with words spoken in nothing louder than a whisper.
“I think that‘s why I never loved you,” Adora tells Camille, point blank, in a moment where both Camille and the audience are lead to believe Adora might actually show a modicum of warmth for once after she had rescued Amma.
But this and more overt forms of woman-on-woman violence define the story Sharp Objects is trying to tell.
Namely, a tale of women desperately seeking power and agency, and seeing no other avenue than to harm themselves and each other.
While others in the genre, like True Detective, focus on why men hurt women, Sharp Objects shows the reality of why women hurt each other. Some have criticized Sharp Objects and Gone Girl author who hurt other women.
Amma learns to weaponize both versions of herself
But this is what patriarchal society looks like: turning women against each other, valuing them based on adherence to gender norms, and making them do the work of policing one another for “correctly” performing femininity.
In Wind Gap, every woman gets her nasty label, Camille informs Richard. Slut, lesbian, virgin, whore good girl, tomboy. You are put into a box that evaluates women‘s worth based on how well you submit to your place as “the second sex.”
If you refuse to know your place as a woman or girl in Wind Gap, you are cut down — both literally and figuratively. Often by other women.
The story of Millie Calhoun isn‘t a celebration of a harrowing town legend. It is a clear message to the women and girls of Wind Gap: Good ones are subservient, child-rearing, self-sacrificing wives. More importantly, they suffer their torment in silence until their dying breath.
But women like Amma and Adora have learned the secret to gaining control and power while still perfectly playing the part of acceptable femininity.
Adora knows that the performance of worry over her daughter is the key to her mask
Adora‘s defense claims her crimes are one of “over caring” — killing with kindness. But her crime is one of needing to embody the image of martyred motherhood, selfless and self-sacrificing. She would rather kill her daughters, keep them in eternal infantilization, than let them outgrow and stop needing her, robbing her of the only social value she has left as an older woman.
In contrast, Amma‘s violence is coded through her need to be Mama‘s perfect little girl: compliant at home, working diligently on her dollhouse. She obsesses over every detail of it, like a miniature version of Adora seeking complete control within her socially acceptable feminine domain.
But it‘s not enough.
At night, Amma stalks the streets of Wind Gap, seeking true dominance. She targets the tomboys who refuse to conform to their gendered roles, painting their nails and defanging them before strangulation.
Tellingly, it is Amma who attempts to reclaim the story of Millie Calhoun, which, by rewriting it to incorporate the violence she‘s taken to as a twisted form of empowerment. She invents the story of an all-female militia created. No all-female militia ever existed in Wind Gap, her male teacher insists.
But Amma can only smile because little does he know that this bloody, female-led rebellion does exist. And she‘s the leader.
Detective Richard might have refused to consider the possibility that the murderer was a woman, but his assessment of the motivation behind the murders is exactly right. Amma, despite all her wealth and popularity, still ultimately feels powerless.
What Amma is killing in Ann and Natalie — what drives her to a murderous rage — is her own need to escape this prison of femininity. She wants to be more than Mama‘s doll. So she inflicts the violence enacted on her onto other girls, taming their wildness (which, deep down, she shares) by turning them into the macabre dolls Mama wants her to be.
Fitting the ideals of femininity makes you acceptable in Wind Gap. But it robs you of all agency too.
So Adora and Amma learned to weaponize their femininity, turning infantilization into camouflage or motherhood into a mask.
Adora and Amma learned to weaponize their femininity
While Adora and Amma misdirect their anger over the confines of their gender roles at other women, Camille turns her violent rage onto herself. The brutality she experiences at the hands of Adora for failing to live up to her standards of feminine compliance do not leave any physical marks.
She is not beaten. She is not poisoned. But she needs to see an externalization of the attacks she endures everyday for not living up to Adora‘s ideal of what a daughter should be.
Camille cuts the words she cannot scream into her skin. Even in her defiance, she remains silent through her torment, almost until her dying breath — just like the beloved figure of Millie Calhoun.
Cutting and munchausen by proxy, two phenomenons almost exclusive to women, show how women in the real world also find more “acceptable” ways to express the aggression that gender norms do not allow them to express directly.
We give boys and men the excuses, waving away their violence and aggression as “boys will be boys.” But violent women, on the other hand, are viewed as abnormalities outside the realm of possibility.
All the Preaker women have complicated relationships to violence and femininity
Yet despite what men want to believe, women are just as prone to the darkness that leads human beings to hurt one another. Only while young boys can express their rage in physical violence, young women often turn to the kind of that colors nearly every female relationship in Sharp Objects.
In the episode “Cherry,” the reunion between Camille‘s old school girlfriends feels like a snake pit.
Each woman breaks down, admitting to feeling unfulfilled by the roles ascribed to them as mothers. Yet even then, they misdirect their resentment toward Camille and Becca, the outcasts who refused to submit. You‘re not a real woman, one of them says icily, until you‘ve fulfilled your biological duty.
All the blood spilled in Sharp Objects represents the deadly consequence of expecting women and girls to reflect ideals of femininity
Becca later summarizes the contrast between how girls and women are idealized, versus how it feels on the inside by explaining the significance of the word “cherry” that Camille cut into her thighs as a young girl.
“We were so shiny,” Becca recalls of themselves as young girls. “Lucious on the outside, but on the inside there’s that dark hearted pit.”
In the eyes of a society like Wind Gap, it‘s true that you are not considered a woman until you fulfill you feminine duties. But being a “real woman” is still something far less than being a human being.
All the blood spilled in Sharp Objects represents the deadly consequences of expecting women and girls to reflect ideals of femininity rather than allowing them the full spectrum of womanhood. And while the show focuses on the consequences this has on women, gender norms harm the men, too.
No one wants to believe the Wind Gap killer is a woman. Not just because it‘s a horrifying prospect, but because it is a frightful confrontation of women‘s power and humanity.
It requires the town to recognize that women are not the docile creatures put on this earth to make babies. Women are people, capable of great evils, just like men. Women are powerful, capable of dealing great damage, just like men.
Regardless of whether or not the women of Wind Gap conform to their acceptable feminine roles, the pain of being treated as less than human remains. Infantilized or slut shamed, it ultimately makes no difference when neither affords you the power you crave.
The Wind Gap murderer was Amma, yes. But it is only a symptom of the disease that has festered inside Wind Gap for generations: misogyny. The girls who don‘t survive the town are tomboys. The boys who are outcast from the town cry too much about their dead sister.
Sharp Objects isn‘t a condemnation of women. It is a demonstration of the deadly cost of a community that refuses to see one another, especially its women, as people.