“Sometimes that’s what happens. No cigarette burns, no bone snaps. Just an irretrievable slipping.”
― Gillian Flynn,
I am still processing Sharp Objects as a cultural piece and still incapable of finding what I want to say about it as a series. However, in trying to force out some words, there is one moment of the show that has lingered in my mind for weeks now.
In one episode, dissatisfied with her daughter’s clothing in the face of an upcoming neighborhood event that requires a display of carefully maintained artificiality, Adora takes her daughters shopping. Nothing in the store will work for Camille, who covers herself from neck to toe to hid her private pain and after trying to demure or avoid her mother’s gaze, Camille finally flings open the dressing room door in a fit of anger to reveal her body. Adora sees Camille’s self-harm scars, the physical manifestation of Camille’s trauma and pain, and after a horrible pause to take in the tapestry before her the first words out of her mouth are a devastating summary: “You’re ruined.”
That line actually landed on my chest like a punch. I nearly started crying, it felt so quiet and harsh and all encompassing all at once. As Adora quickly shepherds her younger daughter away from her older’s bad influence and bared scars (and delivers a few final cutting comments for effect), Amy Adams’ Camille muffles a scream and sinks to the floor.
This is a deeply personal take, but in considering why I’m still thinking about it weeks later, I think it’s because almost every negative thought or rejection about women (at least as objects or concepts, to say nothing of people) can be boiled down to some element of that idea: you’re ruined. You’ve either done something or had something done to you that has made you less in some way.
You don’t have to look hard to find “ruined” women, we’re in every genre of literature–heck, it IS a genre–and almost every pop cultural narrative you can find. Eve ate the apple and ruined everything. Being ruined is the worst thing that can happen to a woman. Think of Lydia Bennett running off with Wickham and her mother’s hysterics on the ruination of the family, the fall of Madame Bovary, the secret of Lady Dedlock that she will go to extraordinary efforts to keep. When men declare, “I’m ruined,” they are almost always speaking in financial terms. When women say it or it is said about them, it is usually indicating some kind of permanent social death or devaluation that impacts every aspect of her life.
Having consensual sex for the first time? You’ve lost your virginity. Been raped? Don’t get me started on the horrible work society does to convince itself that the woman must have earned or deserved it in some way. Women who cut their hair too short? Insufficiently sexy. Women who try to attract the male gaze? Slutty. Relationship break up? You lost your man. Stay with a guy you shouldn’t? You don’t have any self respect. Cried at work? Couldn’t tough it out. Showed insufficient femininity? You’re a bitch. Make a parenting mistake? You’re a bad mother. Too involved as a parent? You’re an unnatural mother. In every case you’ve “lost” something of value in the eyes of the beholder. Your perfection, non-existent to begin with, has been tarnished and you are the less for it.
It’s not just sexual, even though that’s the easiest route to police and punish women’s transgressions. I think back to the Sunday School lessons I had on chastity and virtue in church with their object lessons. Emphasis on the object. My body and soul were portrayed as gum that once chewed or cupcakes once bitten into were less desirable and holy. God could repair the spiritual damage for sexual transgression, of course…but you can’t unchew gum.
It’s alarmingly easy to be “ruined” as a woman. We might not tar and feather them anymore (at least not everywhere…plenty of woman are still whipped or stoned to death, or raped in punishment), but Sharp Objects also did a deft job of showing how women can be excluded, gossiped about, antagonized, denied support or compassion, or ostracized for their failures too. Affection can be removed, respect can be withdrawn, punishment can be meted out in the court of public opinion, or even just in the dark recesses of our own minds.
I’ve been ruined–in mostly small ways, thank god. I’ve been deemed insufficiently feminine and too deviant for my community in ways that produced isolation and even once made me fear a job might be on the line. I’ve been called a bitch and gossiped about. I’ve left a faith. As an inveterate Type A personality, I have failed at things and felt my self of self and self-worth absolutely crumble. Whether from other people or self inflicted, the concept of being ruined is a powerful one. Rational or not, I fear it.
Less toxic by far, the memory that immediately sprung to mind at Adora’s words were from my own mother when I got my ears pierced at 13. She cried because, as she told me, we put holes in “something perfect.” I remember being really confused and even a little unsettled by her reaction. As an adult, and through this lens, it makes more sense to me now. I was just growing up and this was a normal rite of passage for most girls. It was a small kind of imperfection or change–a little ruination. But my mother still cried over it. It’s impossible not to internalize a life lesson like that.