Many of Gillian Flynn’s major works are concerned with what it means to be a woman, and what it means to reject the trappings of femininity—none more so than Sharp Objects. Throughout Sharp Objects, Flynn uses Camille, Amma, and Adora, who each reject femininity both consciously and unconsciously, willfully and passively, to argue that while the unwieldy burdens of femininity and stereotypically female roles and behaviors can actually prove dangerous in the lives of women, rejecting femininity can prove even more dangerous—suggesting that both prescribed femininity and the rejection of it only ever serve to entrap and endanger women.
Camille, the novel’s narrator and protagonist, is locked in a complicated battle with her own femininity—a battle best exemplified by the horrific self-inflicted scars covering her body. Camille’s scars take the form of words—a large percentage of which are highly feminine, such as “cupcake,” “cherry,” “dumpling,” and “petticoat.” Interspersed are other kinds of words—dark, self-hating words such as “tragic,” “duplicitous,” and “wicked.” On the canvas of her body, Camille wages a war with femininity. She indulges her feminine impulses but also berates herself for doing so, and seems unable to either surrender to her femininity or fully reject it. The presence of the scars allows—or forces—Camille to reject femininity in another major way. Her shame about her scars has prevented her from having intimate relationships with men over the years. In Wind Gap, she sleeps with two men—only one of whom she allows to see her scars—and is surprised and even blissful when one of them, John Keene, kisses each scar. Camille’s longstanding rejection of her sexuality—largely, the text suggests, as the result of a gang rape she endured in high school—is yet another way in which she chooses to reject her femininity and wall herself off from the feelings of pain and worthlessness this aspect of womanhood once inflicted upon her.
At thirteen years old, Amma is just beginning to come into her own girlhood—in a very dangerous way. As she vacillates between wanting to embody and escape womanhood, her insecurity and indecision manifest as cold-blooded violence. At home, Amma is her mother’s “doll”—she dresses in frilly, feminine clothes, plays with a dollhouse, and allows her mother to coddle her, even though she knows that Adora is actually poisoning her. At home, Amma does not reject femininity—she leans into it, even at her own peril. Her acceptance of femininity and submissiveness at home leads to a desire for dominance and a more masculine way of moving through the larger world, however. As she explains to Camille, she has had a “weird” realization recently: “After [Adora] takes care of me,” she tells her sister, “I like to have sex.” Outside of the insular, toxic world of her home, Amma subverts and rejects traditional femininity. With her friends, Amma is a dominant, cruel, sex-crazed druggie. She uses sex with boys as a way of feeling empowered and in control. She is the ringleader of her group of friends, both the most physically and psychologically mature and the instigator of their run-ins with trouble. Amma’s unabashed plays at social and sexual dominance are more traditionally masculine traits—away from her mother’s domain, she rejects the femininity Adora has imposed upon her. Amma’s double life goes even deeper than just partying with her friends, however—at the end of the novel, it is revealed that Amma was responsible for the deaths of both Natalie and Ann. Though John Keene suspected her of their murders, and though Amma had established a questionable reputation for herself throughout Wind Gap, she evaded investigators’ interest because of her perceived femininity. The fact that both victims’ teeth were pulled suggested to police that a strong and psychologically detached person committed the murders—Vickery and Willis both outright assume that the killer had to be a man. Amma’s violent tooth-pulling suggests both immense physical strength and a pathologically detached psyche—two traits which are decidedly un-feminine in the public imagination, and which cement in full Amma’s rejection of the trappings of femininity.
Lastly, Adora’s rejection of femininity is tied to her rejection of her role as a mother. It is the duty of a mother to nurture and protect their children—in abusing, poisoning, and even killing her own children, Adora rejects this major tenet of womanhood and marker of her own femininity. Camille was Adora’s first child. Born out of wedlock, Camille presented a threat to Adora’s image of purity and traditional femininity, and Adora seemingly loathed Camille from birth. Adora was never warm to Camille, and never attempted to give Camille her potions and tinctures, seeing how “willful” her firstborn was. At a pivotal point in the novel, Adora admits outright that she never loved Camille—though Adora’s darkest secrets, at that point, remains hidden, this bold statement is her first major admission that she has rejected her role as a mother and a large stake in her own femininity. It is eventually revealed that Adora murdered Marian through Munchausen by Proxy syndrome, a condition in which a person inflicts illness on another for attention. Adora is doing the same thing years later to Amma, and Camille finally catches wise when Adora manages to slip Camille a pill of her own design after Camille has a night of heavy drinking. Though Adora’s ambivalence towards Camille was one kind of abandonment of motherly duties, inflicting harm or even death on one’s child is a wildly different beast. Once the truth of Adora’s actions come to light, it becomes clear both to Camille and to Flynn’s readers that Adora, for all of her Southern-belle gentility and feigned frailty, has rejected her womanhood and femininity in the way she twists her role as a mother.
Through Adora, Camille, and Amma’s violent rejections of their femininity, Flynn suggests that in a world where femininity is compulsory and restrictive, the only way to break out of its bonds is through violence—and even then, the dangers and misery associated with prescribed femininity can never really be escaped. Femininity presents such a danger to these women—danger of losing their identities, danger of having their bodies weaponized against them, danger of being ignored or unappreciated—that they violently reject womanhood, and yet find themselves imperiled by other, even deeper dangers. Life as a woman, Flynn seems to argue, is full of dead ends; a woman is damned if she submits to prescribed modes of femininity, and she is damned if she doesn’t.
Rejecting Femininity ThemeTracker
Rejecting Femininity Quotes in Sharp Objects
When I was still in grammar school, maybe twelve, I wandered into a neighbor boy’s hunting shed, a wood-planked shack where the animals were stripped and split. Ribbons of moist, pink flesh dangled from strings, waiting to be dried for jerky. The dirt floor was rusted with blood. The walls were covered with photographs of naked women. Some of the girls were spreading them selves wide, others were being held down and penetrated. One woman was tied up, her eyes glazed, breasts stretched and veined like grapes, as a man took her from behind. I could smell them all in the thick, gory air.
At home that night, I slipped a finger under my panties and masturbated for the first time, panting and sick.
Alan, Adora, and Amma were all gathered in the living room when I returned. The scene was startling, it was so much like the old days with Marian. Amma and my mother sat on the couch, my mother cradling Amma—in a woolen nightgown despite the heat—as she held an ice cube to her lips. My half sister stared up at me with blank contentment, then went back to playing with a glowing mahogany dinner table, exactly like the one in the next room, except that it was about four inches high.
“Nothing to worry about,” Alan said, looking up from a newspaper. “Amma’s just got the summer chills.”
I felt a shot of alarm, then annoyance: I was sinking back into old routines, about to run to the kitchen to heat some tea, just like I always did for Marian when she was sick. I was about to linger near my mother, waiting for her to put an arm around me, too. My mother and Amma said nothing. My mother didn’t even look up at me, just nuzzled Amma in closer to her, and cooed into her ear.
When I was a child, I remember my mother trying to prod me with ointments and oils, homemade remedies and homeopathic nonsense. I sometimes took the foul solutions, more often refused. Then Marian got sick, really sick, and Adora had more important things to do than coaxing me into swallowing wheat-germ extract. Now I had a pang: all those syrups and tablets she proffered, and I rejected. That was the last time I had her full attention as a mother. I suddenly wished I’d been easier.
I am a cutter, you see. Also a snipper, a slicer, a carver, a jabber. I am a very special case. I have a purpose. My skin, you see, screams. It’s covered with words—cook, cupcake, kitty, curls—as if a knife-wielding first-grader learned to write on my flesh. I sometimes, but only sometimes, laugh. Getting out of the bath and seeing, out of the corner of my eye, down the side of a leg: babydoll. Pulling on a sweater and, in a flash of my wrist: harmful. Why these words? Thousands of hours of therapy have yielded a few ideas from the good doctors. They are often feminine, in a Dick and Jane, pink vs. puppy dog tails sort of way. Or they’re flat-out negative. Number of synonyms for anxious carved in my skin: eleven. The one thing I know for sure is that at the time, it was crucial to see these letters on me, and not just see them, but feel them.
As a child, I don’t remember ever telling Adora my favorite color, or what I’d like to name my daughter when I grew up. I don’t think she ever knew my favorite dish, and I certainly never padded down to her room in the early-morning hours, teary from nightmares. I always feel sad for the girl that I was, because it never occurred to me that my mother might comfort me. She has never told me she loved me, and I never assumed she did. She tended to me. She administrated me. Oh, yes, and one time she bought me lotion with vitamin E.
For a while I convinced myself that Adora’s distance was a defense constructed after Marian. But in truth, I think she’s always had more problems with children than she’d ever admit. I think, in fact, she hates them. There’s a jealousy, a resentfulness that I can feel even now, in my memory. At one point, she probably liked the idea of a daughter. When she was a girl, I bet she daydreamed of being a mother, of coddling, of licking her child like a milk-swelled cat. She has that voraciousness about children. She swoops in on them.
I have one memory that catches in me like a nasty clump of blood. Marian was dead about two years, and my mother had a cluster of friends come over for afternoon drinks. One of them brought a baby. For hours, the child was cooed over, smothered with red-lipstick kisses, tidied up with tissues, then lipstick smacked again. I was supposed to be reading in my room, but I sat at the top of the stairs watching.
My mother finally was handed the baby, and she cuddled it ferociously. Oh, how wonderful it is to hold a baby again! Adora jiggled it on her knee, walked it around the rooms, whispered to it, and I looked down from above like a spiteful little god, the back of my hand placed against my face, imagining how it felt to be cheek to cheek with my mother.
When the ladies went into the kitchen to help tidy up the dishes, something changed. I remember my mother, alone in the living room, staring at the child almost lasciviously. She pressed her lips hard against the baby’s apple slice of a cheek. Then she opened her mouth just slightly, took a tiny bit of flesh between her teeth, and gave it a little bite.
The baby wailed. The blotch faded as Adora snuggled the child, and told the other women it was just being fussy. I ran to Marian’s room and got under the covers.
Most sows are repeatedly inseminated, brood after brood, till their bodies give way and they go to slaughter. But while they’re still useful, they’re made to nurse—strapped to their sides in a farrowing crate, legs apart, nipples exposed. Pigs are extremely smart, sociable creatures, and this forced assembly-line intimacy makes the nursing sows want to die. Which, as soon as they dry up, they do.
Even the idea of this practice I find repulsive. But the sight of it actually does something to you, makes you less human. Like watching a rape and saying nothing. I saw Amma at the far end of the barn, standing at the edge of one metal farrowing crate. A few men were pulling one pack of squealing piglets out of the stall, throwing another pack in. I moved to the far side of the barn so I could stand behind Amma without her seeing me. The pig lay nearly comatose on its side, its belly exposed between metal bars, red, bloody nipples pointing out like fingers. […]
The piglets in the stall were swarming over the sow like ants on a glob of jelly. The nipples were fought over, bouncing in and out of mouths, jiggling tautly like rubber. The sow’s eyes rolled up into her head. Amina sat down cross-legged and gazed, fascinated. After five minutes she was in the same position, now smiling and squirming. I had to leave. I walked, first slowly, then broke into a scramble to my car. Door shut, radio blasting, warm bourbon stinging my throat, I drove away from the stink and sound. And that child.
“Camille, open the door.”
“What’s wrong with Camille?” Amma chimed.
“This won’t work.” The side zipper was sticking. My bared arms flashed scars in deep pink and purple. Even without looking directly in the mirror I could see them reflected at me—a big blur of scorched skin.
“Camille,” my mother spat.
“Why won’t she just show us?”
“Momma, you saw the dresses, you know why they won’t work,” I urged.
“Just let me see.”
“I’ll try one on, Momma,” Amma wheedled.
“Camille . . .”
“Fine.” I banged open the door. My mother, her face level with my neckline, winced.
“Oh, dear God.” I could feel her breath on me. She held up a bandaged hand, as if about to touch my chest, then let it drop. Behind her Amma whined like a puppy. “Look what you’ve done to yourself,” Adora said. “Look at it.”
“I hope you just loved it. I hope you can stand yourself.”
She shut the door and I ripped at the dress, the zipper still jammed until my furious tugs yanked the teeth apart enough to get it to my hips, where I wriggled out, the zipper leaving a trail of pink scratches on my skin. I bunched the cotton of the dress over my mouth and screamed.
“You were always so willful, never sweet. I remember when you were six or seven. I wanted to put your hair up in curlers for your school picture. Instead you cut it all off with my fabric shears.” I didn’t remember doing this. I remembered hearing about Ann doing this.
“I don’t think so, Momma.”
“Headstrong. Like those girls. I tried to be close with those girls, those dead girls.”
“What do you mean be close with them?”
“They reminded me of you, running around town wild. Like little pretty animals. I thought if I could be close with them, I would understand you better. If I could like them, maybe I could like you. But I couldn’t. […] And now you come back and all I can think of is ‘Why Marian and not her?’”
Rage flattened immediately into a dark despair. My fingers found a wood staple in the floorboard. I jabbed it under my fingernail. I would not cry for this woman.
“I’m not so pleased to be left here anyway, Momma, if it makes you feel any better.”
“You’re so hateful.”
“I learned at your feet.” My mother lunged then, grabbed me by both arms. Then she reached behind me and, with one fingernail, circled the spot on my back that had no scars.
“The only place you have left,” she whispered at me. Her breath was cloying and musky, like air coming from a spring well.
“Someday I’ll carve my name there.” She shook me once, released me, then left me on the stairs with the warm remains of our liquor.
"[Natalie] had serious problems. We looked for my earlobe, see if it could be stitched back on, but it was gone. I guess she swallowed it.” [Meredith] gave a laugh that sounded like the reverse of a gulp of air. ”I mostly just felt sorry for her.”
“Ann, was she as bad?” I asked.
“Worse. There are people all over this town with her teeth marks in them. Your mother included.”
“What?” My hands began to sweat and the back of my neck went cold.
“Your mom was tutoring her and Ann didn’t understand. She completely lost it, pulled some of your momma’s hair out, and bit into her wrist. Hard. I think there had to be stitches.” Images of my mother’s thin arm caught between tiny teeth, Ann shaking her head like a dog, blood blossoming on my mother’s sleeve, on Ann’s lips. A scream, a release.
A little circle of jagged lines, and within, a ring of perfect skin.
“She gave me something that made me feel really groggy and sick,” I said.
“Yeah, she likes that one,” Amma mumbled. “You fall asleep all hot and drooly, and then she can bring her friends in to look at you.”
“She’s done this before?” My body went cold under the sweat. I was right: Something horrible was about to happen.
She shrugged. “I don’t mind. Sometimes I don’t take it—just pretend. Then we’re both happy. I play with my dolls or I read, and when I hear her coming I pretend to be asleep.”
“Amma?” I sat down on the floor next to her and stroked her hair. I needed to be gentle. “Does she give you pills and stuff a lot?”
“Only when I’m about to be sick.”
“What happens then?”
“Sometimes I get all hot and crazy and she has to give me cold baths. Sometimes I need to throw up. Sometimes I get all shivery and weak and tired and I just want to sleep.”
It was happening again. Just like Marian. I could feel the bile in the back of my throat, the tightening. I began weeping again, stood up, sat back down. My stomach was churning. I put my head in my hands. Amma and I were sick just like Marian. It had to be made that obvious to me before I finally understood—nearly twenty years too late. I wanted to scream in shame.
“I was friends with them for a while,” she said finally, talking into her chest. “We had fun, running around in the woods. We were wild. We’d hurt things together. We killed a cat once. But then she”—as always Adora’s name went unsaid—“got all interested in them. I could never have anything to myself. They weren't my secrets anymore. They were always coming by the house. They started asking me questions about being sick. They were going to ruin everything. She didn't even realize it.” Amma rubbed her shorn hair harshly. “And why did Ann have to bite . . . her? I couldn’t stop thinking about it. Why Ann could bite her, and I couldn’t.”
She refused to say more, answered only in sighs and coughs. As for the teeth, she took the teeth only because she needed them. The dollhouse had to be perfect, just like everything else Amma loved.
I think there is more. Ann and Natalie died because Adora paid attention to them. Amma could only view it as a raw deal. Amma, who had allowed my mother to sicken her for so long.
Sometimes when you let people do things to you, you ’re really doing it to them. Amma controlled Adora by letting Adora sicken her. In return, she demanded uncontested love and loyalty. No other little girls allowed. For the same reasons she murdered Lily Burke. Because, Amina suspected, I liked her better.
You can come up with four thousand other guesses, of course, about why Amina did it. In the end, the fact remains: Amma enjoyed hurting. I like violence, she’d shrieked at me. I blame my mother. A child weaned on poison considers harm a comfort.
Sometimes I think about that night caring for Amma, and how good I was at soothing her and calming her. I have dreams of washing Amma and drying her brow. I wake with my stomach turning and a sweaty upper lip. Was I good at caring for Amma because of kindness? Or did 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.