Legacy & Ivory: Sharp Objects‘ Thorny Relationship with Its Southern “Heritage”

TV Features Sharp Objects
Legacy & Ivory: Sharp Objects‘ Thorny Relationship with Its Southern “Heritage”

On the morning of Calhoun Day, the annual celebration of Wind Gap’s “founding pedophile” and his “child bride,” their pale, melancholic descendant, Camille Preaker (Amy Adams)—the fount of those jaundiced descriptors—crouches on the family estate’s pièce de résistance, a parlor floor made from elephant tusks. As she glances across the room, her eyes fix on a framed spread in Southern Home, to which the camera cuts for a lingering close-up: “LEGACY + IVORY,” the cover reads, as Camille’s mother, Adora (Patricia Clarkson), smiles up from one of the accompanying photographs. “Together in Perfect Harmony.” The pairing’s a striking one, and not simply because Sharp Objects’ director, Jean-Marc Vallée, draws our attention to it: After all, replacing “ebony” with “legacy” is central to the neo-Confederate project, to the long life of the Lost Cause, and Sunday night’s episode, “Closer,” sees the miniseries consider the subject at length. As it turns out, though, acknowledging and addressing the past are not one in the same: Sharp Objects’ relationship with its Southern “heritage” is as thorny as Adora’s blood-red roses, its painful barb more put on than real.

Located in Missouri’s “Bootheel” region, at the southeastern corner of the state, the fictional burg of Wind Gap has been imprecisely coded as “Southern” from the series premiere, a place of sweet tea, syrupy drawls, and sultry weather. “Closer” changes that. Calhoun Day comes with men in fraying Confederate uniforms, women in hoop skirts holding intricate parasols, and bouquets of red, white, and blue bunting alongside the territorial “X” of the rebel canton; its centerpiece is a playlet starring Camille’s adolescent half-sister, Amma (Eliza Scanlen), as the aforementioned child bride, pregnant martyr Millie Calhoun, whom, local legend has it, Union soldiers tied to a tree, raped, and finally set aflame for refusing to reveal her Confederate husband’s whereabouts. Suddenly, Wind Gap no longer seems so generic: It has a history that predates the characters’ personal ones, a connection to the memorials and museums and battle re-enactments that comprise the “heritage” of which certain white Southerners are so protective. “Today celebrates what is unmovable about this place,” Adora’s husband, Alan (Henry Czerny), explains in the episode’s first line. “About us.”

This, in itself, is not terribly noteworthy: The cult of the Lost Cause—a form of “Confederate nostalgia” that willfully misinterprets the South’s role in the Civil War as the noble defender of states’ rights, and which has been one of the ideological underpinnings of white supremacist thought in the region since the end of Radical Reconstruction—figures, whether as point of admiration or object of scorn, in countless cultural artifacts, including D.W. Griffiths’ The Birth of a Nation (1915) and David O. Selznick’s Gone with the Wind (1939). Nor are Camille’s contrasting critiques of the festivities: To her traditionalist mother, she says, politely, that it’s “an odd thing to celebrate,” not wishing to rock the boat; to Richard (Chris Messina), the Kansas City detective brought to Wind Gap to help investigate the murders of two teen girls, she’s more caustic, calling Millie Calhoun her “great great great great grand-victim.” No, far more conspicuous is Sharp Objects’ own replication of Calhoun Day’s most significant absence, raising a question familiar from the discourse surrounding Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri and The Beguiled: Is it possible to confront the intertwined matters of race and racism when all your characters are white?

In fairness, not all the characters in Sharp Objects are white: Gayla (Emily Yancy), the family’s longtime maid, silently freshens Adora’s amaretto sours and tidies the kitchen between meals; Eileen (Barbara Eve Harris), the wife of Camille’s editor at the St. Louis Chronicle, lingers in doorways as her husband calms his cub reporter over the phone. (In an upcoming episode, Camille apologizes to a black high-school classmate for mistreating her when they were teenagers, though her race is never specified as the reason.) The point is, though Sharp Objects recognizes the “silent racism” (Richard’s phrase) of a place that commemorates the wife of its Confederate founder but refuses to utter “the ‘C’ word” (Camille’s), the series is in fact full of telling silences. The closest we come to an understanding of Wind Gap’s racial divide is near the end of the fourth episode, “Ripe,” when Camille asks Gayla why she’s remained in Adora’s challenging employ so long. “Not a lot of choice in Wind Gap,” Gayla replies, in one of the handful of times she speaks aloud in the entire series. “You got domestic work, you got the hog farm. I don’t like pigs.”

My earlier question isn’t meant as a straw man: Whiteness is as much a social construct as blackness, and Calhoun Days are part of the edifice. (In fact, the keenest insight in “Closer” is the rendering of Calhoun Day as utterly unremarkable, at least to Wind Gap’s white residents.) The problem isn’t that Sharp Objects identifies as “Southern,” or that it doesn’t do enough to critique the racist pageant it depicts. It’s that Sharp Objects, based on Gillian Flynn’s 2006 novel, very consciously chooses “the South” as its locus and then refuses to grapple with the implications of that choice. It’s not until the penultimate episode, when Camille stops in at a roadhouse popular among the hog farm’s workers, that the series—set, mind you, on the edge of the Mississippi Delta, one of the rural regions with the highest concentration of non-white residents in the United States—offers a glimpse of the Wind Gap to which Gayla alludes, populated by white, black, and Latino workers just scraping by while Adora swans across her ivory floors. By that point, of course, it feels like an afterthought, to the extent that Sharp Objects seems culpable in the same erasure it means to critique: “We don’t have a lot of happy stories around here,” Camille observes to Richard after relating the tale of Millie Calhoun, and of Wind Gap’s many unhappy stories, it’s those Sharp Objects fails to tell that constitute its most glaring flaw.

This isn’t nitpicking, either. For a series to so self-consciously engage with white supremacist mythmaking and sexual violence, only to allow the systematic rape of black women in the South from long before the Civil War through the era of Jim Crow to go unmentioned—only to allow the three black women that appear in it a combined 12 sentences or so of dialogue—is, at best, an act of self-sabotage. (“Closer” even connects Camille’s rape, as a teenager, to that of her ancestor, Millie Calhoun: The long-sleeved white dress with a ribbon at the waist that she reluctantly sports for the occasion neatly mimics the one Amma wears as Millie on stage.) The Southern Gothic tradition in which Sharp Objects operates, especially in its modern form, is meant to dredge up the sins of the past in order to deconstruct those tenacious myths, those repressed memories, those family secrets, and yet, in largely excluding black women from its stories of Wind Gap’s patriarchal terrors, the series ends up burying as much as it exhumes. As The Ringer’s Lindsay Zoladz rightly notes of the series, it’s “asking larger, albeit more open-ended questions” than simply “whodunit”: “What is it about the town—and by extension this country—that makes something like this happen again and again? Why do we act surprised when the pattern repeats? Is Wind Gap quietly condoning subtler acts of violence that are harder to see?” The problem isn’t that Sharp Objects is posing such questions, though. It’s that it prefers not to see the answer that’s right in front of its eyes.

Sharp Objects airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO.

Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.

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