Image: Credit HBO

Intense, languid, and darkly atmospheric: HBO’s Sharp Objects has been the show of the summer. Adapted from Gillian Flynn’s novel, the show follows Camille (Amy Adams, extraordinary as always), a journalist who returns to the sleepy Southern town of her childhood to cover the murder of two young girls. But this mystery takes a back seat in Jean-Marc Vallée’s slow-paced adaptation as the show explores Camille’s own past, including the death of her younger sister and her difficult relationship with her mother Adora (played to perfection by Patricia Clarkson).

Central to the show is Camille’s experiences of self-harm; Camille has spent years cutting words into her skin, which remain visible as raised scars covering her body. These words are built into the very structure of the show; each episode title is a word which can be read on her body. Self-harm is an increasingly common practice, and yet one which is rarely portrayed or discussed in popular media. Despite the prominence of the practice in the storyline, the absence of such discussion was apparent in the show’s reviews, in which self-harm emerged as both a ‘troubling’ behaviour, and a point of trouble in understanding or evaluating the show.

Several reviews entirely failed to mention Camille’s self-harm and her scars, suggesting discomfort or uncertainty with either the practice itself or talking about it. Discussions of self-harm in the promotional interviews for the show tended to either draw broad generalisations between self-harm, eating disorders, and alcoholism, often grounded in ideas of distinctively female darkness and damage, or to focus primarily on the practical challenge of depicting a “horrifyingly” scarred body, detailing intricate prosthetics and the “extreme sacrifices” made by Adams in her physical “transformation”. Thus self-harm appears as a topic about which there is difficulty in finding common ground for genuine or nuanced discussion.

In contrast, reviews which did mention self-harm were often confident rather than hesitant in their assessment of it, and its meaning. Television critics comfortably read into Camille’s scars a history of trauma and pain, a loss of self-control, or a specific sort of female violence. The ‘meaning’ of self-harm, its cause, and what it reveals about the character of Camille, were presented as straightforward, and self-evident. This aligns with what Kesherie Gurung describes as the dominant academic approach to self-harm: one which pathologises, searches for the ‘reasons’ behind the behaviour, and struggles to ascribe agency to individuals who engage in self-harm. Gurung suggests that rather than emphasising shame or disgust, it might be valuable to consider self-harm as a form of “embodied emotion work”, which can be symbolic and meaningful for the individual. It is striking how much the ‘meanings’ of self-harm described in reviews are in fact read into Camille’s character, and important to compare them with what we are shown and told.

In Vallée’s adaptation Camille does not articulate a view of her self-harm as traumatic; rather the memories and flashbacks which continue to plague her are concerned with her unhappy childhood, the death of her sister, and the death of a roommate in a psychiatric facility. Camille herself does not seem uncomfortable with her body and the evidence of self-harm it bears – she takes long baths, running her fingers over her skin – and yet when she is in public she ensures her body is always covered, wearing long sleeves and having sex without taking off her trousers. This suggests a concern with the discomfort which she assumes will be the reaction of those around her, rather than her own feelings about her body.

The show repeatedly explores how the people around Camille struggle to talk about her self-harm; characters are left looking for the right words, or any words at all, resulting in dialogue made up of empty euphemisms and half-finished sentences. They are frequently unable to name the practice; Camille’s sister apologises awkwardly saying “I didn’t know about your …”, her sentence trailing off into nothingness, while her mother says more bluntly “it’s worse than I remember”. And while a school-friend can now refer to the “cuts” she saw many years ago, simplistically reading into them a pain that Camille was “taking out on herself”, at the time she didn’t say anything, choosing instead to let the moment pass.

In addition, the sight of Camille’s body when revealed to others is itself often treated as a traumatic event. When Camille steps out of a changing room in her underwear her mother and sister stand stock still, unspeaking, mouths agape; her sister flees outside while her mother declares her to be “ruined”.  The detective with whom Camille has had an informal sexual relationship stares aghast when he sees her body for the first time; although the situation is urgent as Camille is gravely ill, he is unmoving, stopped in his tracks by Camille’s unclothed body. Later, he tells Camille that he is “Sorry for your –”, the pause apparently encompassing both her abusive, murderous mother, and her self-harm, lumping the two together as if there was no point in distinguishing between them.

This difficulty is not limited to a fictional setting; there are low rates of help-seeking among adolescents who self-harm perhaps due to the lack of suitable support services and the undoubted stigma surrounding self-harm and difficulty of finding ways to talk about a practice which is so rarely discussed or portrayed. Unfortunately, rather than identifying the show’s representation of this difficulty and engaging with it, reviews have tended to fall into similar traps of avoidance and stigmatisation. By unhesitatingly reading pain and self-loathing onto Camille’s body, journalists leave unquestioned the wider social discomfort with practices of self-harm, and privilege their own interpretations and expectations over Camille’s actions. They ignore her refusal to characterise or analyse her self-harm, confident that her body speaks for her, confident in their ability to read her flesh. The words inscribed on that flesh apparently speak so loudly, that Camille, despite her profession as a journalist, has no need for a voice at all.

Sharp Objects is available on Amazon Prime

About the author: Veronica Heney (@VeronicaHeney) is a PhD student at the Wellcome Centre for Cultures and Environments of Health, at the University of Exeter. Her research explores cultural representations of self-harm, as experienced by people who have self-harmed.