Adora-ble: Gendered Communication in HBO’s Sharp Objects

While not my favorite television show, HBO’s Sharp Objects (2018) is one of my favorites currently airing. It follows Camille (Amy Adams), a reporter for a St. Louis newspaper who is on assignment in her rural hometown of Wind Gap to write about the murders of two young girls. The show is more cinematic because, unlike most TV shows, all episodes were directed by one director, Jean-Marc Vallée (Big Little LiesDallas Buyers Club). It is based on the novel of the same name by Gillian Flynn (Gone Girl). Vallée’s style of deploying short, quick crosscutting between the current action and Camille’s memories to highlight the connections to her past and indicate her mental turmoil and anguish at being back among the ghosts of her childhood allows viewers greater access to how the character’s gender identity affects her relationships. Camille has a female gender identity, but in her small Southern hometown many of her traits are considered abnormal and masculine, especially by her intense mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson).

Adora performs femininity to the extreme and insists that her daughters do likewise. It seems that none of her daughters are naturally inclined to follow after her gender performance except the one Adora lost to a grave (as yet unknown to the viewer) disease in childhood, Marian. The memory of her dead daughter’s archetypal “precious little girl” femininity is forced into personification in the being of her youngest daughter, Amma (Eliza Scanlen). Through a tacit terrorism, Adora enforces Amma’s cloyingly sweet feminine gender performance by making her wear old fashioned floral dresses with big white collars, constantly brushing and braiding Amma’s hair, and prominently displaying a grand dollhouse that appears to be the only approved hobby available to the 13-year-old.

In truth, Amma is nothing like the precious little girl persona enforced by her mother. To the world outside her parents, Amma is a wanton, puckish, recalcitrant Lolita. She is a living cliché not of the doll but of the sexualized child: rollerskating around town in overalls cut short and rolled up even shorter leading a pack of similarly 13-going-on-16-girls, often with lollipops hanging suggestively from their mouths. Amma’s speech pattern skews quite feminine, filled with personal disclosures, matching experiences, invitations and prompts for the other person to share. This is clear in her conversations with Camille, such as when she gets home drunk and her much older half-sister tries to get her safely into the house without waking their mother. Even a drunk Amma pries Camille for insight into who her mysterious older half-sister is and offers comparisons of how they are similar, often exposing her clandestine exploits to get a reaction and forge a bond with the black sheep Camille. Amma is also aggressive in traditionally feminine ways, using language as a weapon to wound invisibly by manipulating, spreading rumors, and provoking people to anger. This is the moda operandi for the Southern ladies of Wind Gap–as the father of one of the murdered girls, Bob Nash (Will Chase), says, “Women around here they don’t kill with their hands. They talk, you’re dead” (0:21:00).

Camille appears to be the black sheep of the family specifically because she communicates in a more masculine style. Her speech is forthright and decidedly instrumental, only speaking to achieve some specific aim. Highly sparing in her personal disclosures and loathe to express emotion in front of others, Camille’s minimal response cues only abate when she avails herself of feminine speech patterns to coax information out of reticent sources like Detective Willis (Chris Messina) and Chief of Police Vickery (Matt Craven). Limiting her communication allows her some independence and power as she is thought of as unpredictable, even dangerous in a town where there is safety in stereotype. This masculine speech pattern could have developed in a similar way to that of many men, according to psychodynamic theory of gender, as an opposition to the maternal feminine. It seems possible that a gender identity opposite from the cold mother that clearly found her second-rate would be appealing to Camille. This could be doubly true for the mother, Adora, whose dislike for her daughter pushed Camille to be more independent.

Adora’s language is extremely feminine, using supportive, responsive, and inviting language when she speaks, particularly to men. When Adora is angry (essentially anytime she interacts with Camille), she cuts with words, very likely where Amma learned this skill. Like her mother, Amma stabs at Camille in the same way, using the sharp objects of her past to reopen old wounds.

Sharp Objects. Season 1 Episode 3: “Fix” (2018, July 22). Directed by Jean-Marc Vallée. Written by Alex Metcalf.

It airs Sundays at 9 pm on HBO, HBO Go, and HBO Now.

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