The Sharpest Object: Toxic Femininity

Updated: Feb 29

Or: Why the Yin Always Needs Its Yang

On Sunday afternoon, I wrote a post about martyrdom. On Sunday night, HBO aired the finale of its 8-episode limited series Sharp Objects and I got an eerie sense of where the familiar topic may have come from in the first place.


This post contains spoilers for HBO's Sharp Objects, including its finale. You've been warned.


I didn't read the books, but Sharp Objects, it turns out in the end, is the story of a mother seduced by the love of her child, a child seduced by the love of her mother, and neither one of them actually being capable of love anyway.


Fans of the show, and the book its based upon, have had much to discuss since the series premiered in July. Online group chats, recaps, and think-pieces have flooded the internet each Sunday, sparking weekly post-mortems, feeding ever-evolving speculation about who killed two adolescent girls in a small Missouri town called Wind Gap.


This murder mystery unfolds when Wind Gap ex-pat and newspaper reporter, Camille Preaker, returns home to cover the story after fleeing to St. Louis some years ago. Upon Camille's return to Wind Gap, we meet her self-focused mother, Adora, her avoidant step-father Alan, and her precarious 14-year-old half-sister Amma. This entire cast of characters is, in their own way, projecting quite the charming life.


In between bouts of getting stoned with her friends and low-key bullying the town, half-sister Amma innocently plays with a dollhouse replica of the secluded Victorian-style mansion the family lives in and that's not even the most unnerving thing about her.


Infantilizing Women


Fans in these online spaces share differing theories on who murdered two of the town's 14-year-old girls and tore out their teeth. Could it be John Keene, the brother of the latest victim? Bob Nash, the father of the first? The chief of police? Adora? Amma? Alan? Fame-obsessed Ashley? (She's not really important, just a red-herring of sorts). Who knows! (Well we do now).


But while these spaces harbored many competing theories about the killer, what the voices tended to agree on was how overtly sexist much of Wind Gap is. Leading the misogyny parade is the fictional town's chief of police, Bill Vickery who consistently seems to be missing what (and who) is right in front of him. The chief spends his days blindly chasing after some lame resolution to this murder mystery; one dusty enough to sweep under the rug so he can go on living in the illusion that all is well in his town.


But it's not just the chief. The townsfolk spend so much time trying to sell themselves on the narrative that men are made of brute force and women are made of silliness that they don't see what's skating by right in front of them. They're convinced the killer is a man. They say it so often I don't know how they're not sick of themselves. But spoiler alert: the Wind Gap women kill.


Girls. So predictable, am I right? With their nail polish and squabbles over boys, cat-fighting and rumor-spreading and triple gruesome murders and such.


Wind Gap, representing us all in some way, demonstrates such comfort with the look and feel of masculine violence and the urge to infantilize women that they are negligent in recognizing the bright colored feminine violence seeping in through the cracks in the veneer.


Toxic Femininity


And speaking of veneers...

Our token matriarch Adora tries to appear ever so darling, well put together, and grossly superior. She boasts about her bedroom floors, made out of ivory, something she inherited from her grandparents before anybody even knew what "endangered" meant.


Her chummy relationship with Chief Vickery suggests intimacy, something her husband Alan gets upset about but doesn't do much to address. After cutting her hand on a rose bush and senselessly blaming her daughter Camille for it, she carries on and on soliciting sympathy from others for her pain. In so many ways she uses her femininity, her fragility, and her privilege as sources of power.


We're warned about who Adora is from the moment we learn her name. But the men around her fall prey to her manipulation by underestimating her.


There's something dirty about the way Adora embodies the feminine. So dirty it made me want to explore the feminine shadow and how dangerous it can become. Mirrored in its masculine counterpart, toxic femininity would manifest as an abuse of feminine strengths to cause harm to another. Too rigid in her identity as a powerful feminine archetype, unaware of anything else to be, the toxic feminine wreaks havoc on the souls of those around her through manipulation, guilt, and yes, as we learn from Sharp Objects, too much "love."


And the idea that Adora's femininity is toxic only gets stronger as the series progresses.


Underlying the murder mystery plaguing Wind Gap, we learn that Camille had a younger sister, Marian, who was "sickly" and died several years back. Ever the narcissist, Adora has used the death of her daughter to bring upon much sympathy from others. But when Richard Willis, a Kansas City detective brought in to investigate the murders, starts to take an interest in Camille and investigates her family instead, he's the first to discover who dear ol' mama Adora really is. Unofficially diagnosed with Factitious Disorder (formerly Munchausen by Proxy disorder), we discover that Adora was directly responsible for Marian's death.


Adora's love, it turns out, is indeed venomous.


Factitious Disorder, when not imposed on self, is a caregiver's attempt to hold a dependent hostage by making them sicker while performing as a savior. The caregiver will sacrifice their time and effort to loving and healing their sick loved one but secretly infuses them with poison so they can never get better, so they can never not need. This warrants the caregiver empathy and pity as well as adoration and a feeling of usefulness, of being relied upon and important. This is the feminine gone haywire. An extreme example, sure, but an important one to consider nonetheless.


We see the symptoms of this disorder play out in current times when Amma, recovering from a hangover, gets doted on by Adora. Amma admits that her mama likes her better when she's ill and since she loves the motherly attention (has an unhealthy need for it, actually), she willingly plays the part. Fed Adora's signature homemade remedy, which we later find out may include antifreeze or rat poison, Amma's condition only seems to worsen.


Simultaneously Camille finds out Adora killed Marian and realizes she might be doing it again with Amma. She jets back the house in effort to cause a distraction and discover the truth. Adora is in mid-crisis tending to a feverish Amma when Camille interrupts with fake aches and pains. Suddenly abandoned by her mother's grip, and quite confused, Amma looks on as Adora drools at the opportunity to finally tend to her oldest daughter, the daughter who spent a lifetime keeping her at a distance. Camille never took the bait like Marian and Amma did, something Adora never forgave her for, something Adora never loved her for, something that likely saved Camille's life. Until now?


Camille takes the poisoned remedy and it all seems to unravel more quickly than she expects. We later learn that Camille hasn't built up a tolerance to her mother's septic love since she spent a lifetime refusing it. Suddenly both she and Amma struggle to stand, can barely speak. They are dying, slowly, painfully. Thanks to a timely arrival by the cops, the women narrowly evade poisonous deaths by the skin of their teeth.


Warrior Martyr


The police, including their unhelpful chief, are responding to reports of suspicious activity, the details of which we never truly discover. They search Adora's house and discover a pair of bloody pliers, matching the description of the tool used to pull out the teeth of Wind Gaps two known murder victims. They also find the chemicals she used to poison her daughters, including the deceased Marian. Adora is taken into police custody and presumably charged with all completed and attempted murders.


The final word we hear on the matter from Camille is in her last remaining article for her newspaper report. It reads:


"Men get to be warrior poets. What woman is described that way? Not Adora. Prosecution says she was a warrior martyr. If she was guilty, they argued, it was only of a very female sort of rage. Overcare. Killing through kindness. It shouldn't have surprised me that Adora fell on that sword spectacularly. Of course she never did explain the teeth, or that kind of naked rage a person, man or woman, would need to do something like that. It didn't fit. So, as with everything in my mother's world, it didn't exist, except perhaps in some dark place only she knows about. My mother has many years to consider what she's done. As for me, I've forgiven myself for failing to save my sister and given myself over to raising the other. Am I good at caring for Amma because of kindness, or do I like caring for Amma because I have Adora's sickness? I waver between the two, especially at night when my skin begins to pulse. Lately, I've been leaning toward kindness."


Adora was, in fact, a warrior martyr. She showed strength, discipline, and skill in her maneuvers. And underneath her pageantry, she displayed indifference for the lives she sacrificed to win her battles, a trait necessary at war.


But as the chilling final "don't tell mama" scene confirmed, Adora was guilty of only one murder. In fact her youngest daughter, Amma, was responsible for the grim murders of her peers; harboring the very naked rage required to destroy and disassemble two... or three... familiar faces.


Amma, it turns out, was a warrior in her own right. When she noticed her two friends receiving motherly affection from Adora, she became so enraged with jealously that she strangled the girls, her former friends. She pulled out their teeth and used them in her dollhouse to replicate her mother's ivory bedroom floor. Later, when she moves to St. Louis with Camille to start a new life, she imprints her motherly affections onto her sister. We see her grow angry at a new friend for trying to impress Camille. Its eluded to - and later shown - that Amma kills again in effort to preserve Camille's affections.


I always knew Amma was a killer. I didn't always know she was the killer, the one Wind Gap searched high and low to avoid, but her lack of empathy and emotionality was always a concern. She never behaved in a way that suggested life had any meaning. Shape-shifting from the moment we met her until the moment we left her, Amma was capable of being anyone she needed to be in given a moment. And she treated other people as frivolously as her own personas, as though they were pieces on a chess board or dolls in a dollhouse, there for her to rearrange at whim. Amma hardly ever spoke in a way that wasn't wildly creepy and inappropriate, boundaryless in the most dangerous of ways.


I believe we all would have seen Amma as the indisputable killer by episode 2 if we didn't watch Camille become endeared to her throughout the series. From the beginning, we watched Camille try, however unimpressively, to improve her discernment of others. But she never seemed to take too seriously any of the blatant warning signs about her adoring little half-sister. Perhaps we hoped she was right.


It's hard to blame Amma, though, when you consider she grew up with a vampiric mother who nursed her on antifreeze and rat poison so frequently that she developed a tolerance for it. In many ways, Adora really did kill all 4 victims, and then some.


Adora doesn't lack for a traumatic childhood either. And like most tend to do, she convinced herself she was able to just buck up and move on. This is what I mean when I say you can't out-run your shadow. Not to say that homicide is always the result, but generally speaking, when you spurn your darkness, it finds somewhere else to live.


The Feminine Shadow


Nurturing is a trait of the yin, the feminine, the mother. So to slap a "female rage" label onto the act of poisoning one's daughter to remain needed, pitied, and heroic as a caregiver, well, I can't argue.


All archetypal energies have light qualities and shadow qualities, which is why neither the yin nor the yang can exist independently.


Nurturing is typically a good thing. The mother archetype provides nourishment, unconditional love, and patience. But what happens when she oversteps her bounds, bestows guilt upon her children for becoming independent, or literally poisons them so they remain reliant on her? Her shadow is at work.


The yang can be helpful here as the masculine's penchant for setting boundaries could create a life-saving balance between love and separateness; recognition that, in order to love, one must be other from the object of one's desires; two independent and individuated people, lest it get convoluted and deadly.


Adora and Amma could not find that separation. Adora's identity was intertwined with her motherdom, therefore whichever daughter worshipped her enough to lie back and take the poison was her most prized projection of her self. It was Amma who endured that the longest. But perhaps Amma was all too aware of the potential of the separation and feared it desperately, which is why she violently murdered anyone who could spark that divide.


If overcare and slow poisoning are female rage at work, we might consider the way in which Amma murdered to be a masculine one. She wasn't interested in being a savior, instead she was fueled into aggression by fear and jealousy, engaging in hand-to-hand combat, pulling off 3 neck-breaking murders, never batting an eye. She sought control in a different way. I'm not sure if these are symptoms of Antisocial Personality Disorder or all the antifreeze in her diet, but she even amuses herself by mocking and harassing Chief Vickery's prime (and very wrong) suspect, John Keene. Amma knows she's the cause of John's suffering but instead of showing a hint of remorse, she revels in the fact that his sister's been murdered and he may get the death penalty for it.


The Passive Masculine


Of all the wounded creatures polluting Wind Gap with their pain, Alan was sometimes the hardest to watch.


He witnesses Adora in her most intimate delusions. Throughout 8 episodes, we catch glimpses of recognition wash over his face. At last, he remembers the horrors around him! we think. But he quickly moves on and forgets.


He looks at Adora with astonishment when she spews ridiculous orders and we think yes! Sass her right back!, but instead he carries out what she requested of him.


He broods under his headphones and ominously stares down a letter opener and some part of us thinks finally! He's going to do something about this! But he doesn't. He just takes another sip of his drink and dances with his misfortune, seemingly paralyzed from agency.


And then you remember he's not the hero here. He's succummed to his own poisoning at the hands of Adora and he can't bring balance to her mighty force.


Alan does try to set boundaries with her, telling her to leave the girls alone so they can heal from their illnesses naturally. He says it as though he believes it, as though he's tired of her savior complex and wants this to stop, but he never persists in his requests. He never even inquires about the girls' illnesses at all or asks why Adora feels equipped to diagnose and treat them with her blue-bottle elixer and no real medical attention.


Adora stirs up poison in the kitchen while Alan drowns himself in drink - much like the rest of Wind Gap - and tries to escape her through booming French standards the way Camille and Alice (Camille's rehab roommate) tried to escape therapy via Led Zeppelin.


Alan seems oblivious, but really, he's apathetic in his behaviors. Which I think is his way of surviving. He's a victim in his own right, manipulated and abused in the very invisible way toxic femininity confuses and controls its prey. The unspoken agreement clouding their marriage is obvious. What's also obvious is that it's an agreement stronger than his ability to question it. I so wanted Alan to simply be oblivious, but in the finale when he lies to Richard about Camille being out with friends instead of upstairs sick, we discover how battered he truly is. He knows only how to guard the seal that protects his tormented family from the outside world.


Seeking Harmony


Sharp Objects has more to offer than even the lengthy report I've given it here. I don't even mention how Adora's toxic femininity manifested in the self-carving of Camille's skin, the way words seem to pop up in the oddest of places, or how music and lyrics prove as haunting confirmations that, despite the character's best attempts at manipulating us, we're not misreading what we see.


If I talk elsewhere on this blog about the repressed feminine and how in a male-dominated culture, we need some balance, it would only be fair to explore what the shadow of these energies have the potential to hold. With masculinity our current focus, we can see easily where it's pure and where it's toxic. We can name it, blame it, and shame it and hope that does the trick. It won't, but that's besides the point.


What's more alarming is that we're so unfamiliar with the feminine at all that, just like the folks in Wind Gap, we don't respect it for its good nor fear it for its evil.


We also don't understand that what's dark in the masculine can be illuminated by the feminine and what's dark in the feminine can be illuminated by the masculine.


For the yin's receptiveness and openness, the yang's detachment and objectivity can maintain safe and appropriate boundaries. This would be Adora learning how to express love with some distance, or perhaps trying to source it from within herself. For the yang's detachment and objectivity, the yin's receptiveness and openness can prevent abandonment and a loss of connection. This would be Alan's attention coming back into focus, allowing him to be a loving and doting father.


And wouldn't that have been a happier ending.


Of course it wouldn't have been as intriguing a story to tell.


It goes without saying, I hope, that I use this story simply to illustrate concepts. I don't highlight feminine and masculine balance as actual remedies for this particular drama. But this story can serve as a metaphor for the less severe instances of it we face throughout our lives. Despite the individual struggles with wellbeing present in Wind Gap, one of the biggest problems was the town's illusions of itself and the ease with which it turned the other cheek. That is something we can all get better about.


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If you or someone you know struggles with self-harm or substance abuse, please seek help by contacting the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) 1-800-662-HELP (4357). For support outside the U.S. or additional resources please visit www.hbo.com/sharp-objects/resources



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