‘Sharp Objects’ Plunges You Into the Conflicted Mind of a Self-Harmer

Sharp Objects is the aptly sinister and revealing title for Gillian Flynn’s first novel. Flynn, of Gone Girl fame, has been praised for her portrayal of complex and nuanced female characters. Sharp Objects, which has recently been adapted into an eight-part TV series by HBO, brings to light another set of such dynamic female characters.

The premise of the show is not unheard of. A journalist, Camille Preaker – portrayed by Amy Adams – returns to her claustrophobically intimate hometown to report on the gruesome murder of two young girls. As she investigates the unravelling murder mystery, she is forced to confront her own gruesome past as well. The plot saves itself from slipping into a clichéd ‘whodunit’ narrative by delving into Camille’s painful investigation of her own traumatic childhood. A childhood marked by the death of a younger sister and the coldness and apathy of a mother whose validation she continues to seek.

Camille, a broken woman, not an instantly likeable heroine, is also a self harmer. By the fourth chapter, she candidly reveals the extent of the harm when she says, “I am a cutter, you see. Also a snipper, a slicer, a carver, a jabber.” She states that her cutting has “a purpose”. Her skin is “covered with words,” she says. “Cook, cupcake, kitty, curls – as if a knife-wielding first-grader learned to write on my flesh.” She further explains that she engraves herself with the words that weigh upon her, words that she believes already occupy a space on her body, but need only to be pinned down to a tangible realm. After the act of engraving is over, she is washed over with relief. “You can really read me. Do you want me to spell it out for you?” she jokes morbidly.

Camille’s desire to pin text to her body is ironically as mutilating and violent as men’s desire to pin women down as either virginal or promiscuous. As she recounts how she had sex with a gang of footballers from her school in the forest to the visiting detective Richard Willis, Camille is worried that she would either be judged as the victim or the slut. “You’re sexist. I’m so sick of liberal lefty men practicing sexual discrimination under the guise of protecting women against sexual discrimination,” she says to him. She is aware that her sexual agency will never be acknowledged by men like Richard.

Perhaps, it is this awareness, this anticipation of judgement, of being forcefully categorised within the binary of good and evil, that fills Camille with the desire to carve text into her body. These words escape the binary of the virgin and the harlot; words that proliferate even as her body gets more grotesque, worn down, used up. Even without her carefully regimented process of self harm, Camille observes the myriad of ways in which women’s bodies are violated by men:

“Women get consumed. Not surprising, considering the sheer amount of traffic a woman’s body experiences. Tampons and speculums. Cocks, fingers, vibrators and more, between the legs, from behind, in the mouth. Men love to put things inside women, don’t they? Cucumbers and bananas and bottles, a string of pearls, a Magic Marker, a fist.”

So what does it mean for Camille to consume and violate her body with her words? Is she, in a grimly twisted manner, re-appropriating her body through the purposeful carving out of her skin? In her essay ‘The Laugh of Medusa’, French feminist writer Helene Cixous elucidates this need for women to write. “Censor the body,” she says, and you “censor breath and speech at the same time. Write yourself. Your body must be heard.”

Camille, hungry for the validation of a distant and cold mother, unaware of the whereabouts of her father, mourning the death of a younger sister, while dealing with the penetrative gaze of the men of her hometown, expresses herself with her tortured body. “My skin, you see, screams,” she says as she explains her need to carve out words on her pre-teen skin. It is this screaming body that she hides under layers of dark clothing, unable to reveal her naked self to anyone in fear of judgement. The body that she enables with text, she also hides in fear.

As Cixous instructs, Camille “writes her body”. Her skin becomes a canvas abound with words; words that cannot be put together to form a coherent narrative. “Cook, cupcake, kitty, curls.” Do these words constitute a slut or a prude? One can only hope that cutting into her flesh isn’t the only way for a woman to break out of the suffocating moulds created for her.

Chahat Rana is a student at Ashoka University and a passionate consumer of good television. Find her on Twitter @chahat_rana1

Featured image credit: HBO