This article by Shane Thomas contains light spoilers for Sharp Objects.
One area where Sharp Objects has left itself open to criticism is in the optics of its cast, which is hugely—if not exclusively—white. In recent years, Western television and film has gradually moved away from using male whiteness as its default perspective to tell stories.
Yet I’m not sure it’s wholly fair to upbraid Sharp Objects for telling a woman-focused story that only concerned itself with its white characters, because it also positioned its black characters—on the brief occasions we saw them—in interesting ways. Ways that seemed too specific to be coincidental.
The narrative surrounded the town of Wind Gap, Missouri and the emotionally wretched state of its citizens. It’s a place that’s archetypal small-town America: mellow southern accents, a sunny climate, a community where everybody knows each other, and good ol’ Southern hospitality. In actuality, it’s a space rife with social deprivation, patriarchy, racism, personal misery, and murder.
In Wind Gap, white women are obligated to be dutiful wives and mothers (note the dialogue; “I don’t think a part of your heart can ever work if you don’t have kids”, and, “I didn’t really feel like a woman until I had McKenzie inside of me”), men intersperse lechery in between bouts of drinking, and the social event of the year paints the Confederacy as a plank of history to be proud of. Anyone who doesn’t subscribe to these social norms will be either demeaned, ostracised or exiled. When John Keene cries, Wind Gap doesn’t only look at him as a failure of a man, but it’s indicative of him being a social deviant.
It’s the legacy of Richard Nixon’s “Southern strategy”. These people spend their time instinctively judging others for the lives they lead, all the while being miserable themselves, finding it easy to aim their ire at anyone they deem as outsiders. One of the best aspects of Sharp Objects was to demonstrate how aligning oneself to the dogma of oppressive structures also damages those who reap its ostensible benefits.
At one point, Jackie says, “We could do what we always do around here and pretend it doesn’t exist.” In this town, alcohol isn’t just medication, but a portal to oblivion.
It’s ironic that nearby Kansas is disdainfully looked down upon by Wind Gap as the cosmopolitan, uber-lefty, politically correct big city. Not just because it’s inaccurate, but consider the most famous work of art to feature Kansas. Thanks to The Wizard of Oz, its place in the wider cultural imagination is as (white) America’s safe space.
Wind Gap is Oz at its most malignant. Intentional or otherwise, Gillian Flynn has given us a story that centres whiteness, but not in order to enshrine it as society’s ideal, instead showing that as it is currently constituted, whiteness in concert with patriarchy contaminates all. It doesn’t have to be spelled out for the audience that Wind Gap votes Republican. We don’t hear the name “Trump” once. No character ever utters the n-word. These signifiers are superfluous in a place where, to quote Christopher J. Lee, “whiteness has been transformed into common sense.”
It’s not tough to read the map of scars on Camille’s body as a cartography for the psyche of Wind Gap. Nor is it hard to read Adora’s poisoning of her own children under the guise of care and love as a metaphor for a diet of white supremacy and patriarchy fed to white Southerners going all the way back to the Lost Cause.
Sharp Objects’ black characters don’t appear often, but when they do, they operate in a distinct way to add depth to the story. Lacking socialised power, they are impotent to stem Wind Gap’s continuum into destruction, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t aware of their surroundings. They are, to quote Reni Eddo-Lodge in her book Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, watching “as an outsider to the insularity of whiteness.“
Note the Preaker’s family maid, Gayla (who was costumed to bear a striking resemblance to Betty Gabriel’s indelible performance in Get Out), especially the couple of moments of unspoken warmth she shares with Camille. It’s not explicit, but she can see the destructive way Adora runs the household.
While Camille’s boss, Frank, periodically checks in with her to see how the assignment is going, Frank’s wife, Eileen, is more concerned with Camille returning to a place that holds so many traumatising memories. Frank can see a great story. Eileen can see just how tender Camille is.
In one episode, Becca—seemingly the only black person of Camille’s age in the town—explains why she doesn’t hate Camille, despite being treated horribly by her when they were younger. Becca recounts the time she noticed that the younger Camille self-harmed. She doesn’t state this in order for exploitative purposes, only to indicate that unlike the rest of Wind Gap’s citizens, Becca can see Camille’s self-destructive tendencies.
Later in the episode, Camille comes across her sister, Amma, and a group of Amma’s friends outside a convenience store. They are heading to a party, and offer to give Camille a lift home. Yet this is a ruse, as Amma plans to drag Camille to the party with her. As Camille reluctantly gets in the car, an unnamed black man pensively looks on. He can see the destruction the white youth of Wind Gap are bringing on themselves.
When Richard walks into Woodberry Hospital—where he’ll discover the truth about Adora’s Munchhausen’s by proxy—two nurses (one black; one white) stand outside. The black one immediately notices Richard, while the white one carries on smoking. It’s as if she can see what Richard’s seismic discovery will bring.
Usually such moments would be nothing more than nondescript cutaways. But it appears deliberate that these moments not only feature black characters, but black characters watching white characters. Fans of Doctor Who will know that the Time Lords are a sagacious race of beings who observe, but never interfere in the affairs of others. With director, Jean-Marc Vallée giving Sharp Objects a visual texture more often found in speculative fiction, it elevates the lesser spotted black characters to more than just bystanders, almost as if they’re Wind Gap’s very own Time Lords, who could do so much for the town if people would listen to them.
If this interpretation feels a bit too meta, a more prosaic analysis would be basic self-preservation. Do Sharp Objects’ black characters have such wary deportment because they are aware of the precarious state of their bodies existing in this town, in America, in the world? Often being black means operating at a heightened level of awareness. And to underscore this, in the show’s shocking reveal, we find out that the one black character who doesn’t have her head on a swivel (which she should never have had to) pays for it with her life.
I’ve increasingly worried that all “diversity” means is that those in charge of our entertainment cast people of colour not to broaden the dynamics of our stories, but to stop the internet being angry. This makes for a very low ceiling for progress, when what’s more important is the quality of fictional depictions rather than just sheer quantity.
This doesn’t inoculate Sharp Objects from criticism, but we should be clear on what terms we criticise it. One can definitely argue that an increased focus on its black characters would have improved the narrative. But I don’t think we should reflexively assume that a minimal spotlight on blackness indicates erasure.