Friday, December 20, 2013

Sharp Objects, Gillian Flynn's Women, and Alison Hendrix

I've been wanting to write this post forever, but it always seemed far too intimidating. Like, sometimes I have thoughts and they don't really come together as clearly as I'd like and the post idea just sits there. Also, this is totally the sort of thing you're not supposed to write at the beginning of a blog post, but it's my blog and I'll break the rules if I want to!

Anyway, when I asked for questions about the books I hadn't reviewed from this year, I got two about Sharp Objects!

Here they are:

From Carrie:

Was Sharp Objects as good as Gone Girl?

Well, um, hmm. I've read all three of Gillian Flynn's novels and appreciated all of them, but I'm not sure how I rank them besides Dark Places is my favorite!! I definitely think it's as intriguing and just as much of a page turner, but its thematic considerations are different. I think I might like Gone Girl a bit better, but I did really like Sharp Objects!

One funny anecdote from reading Sharp Objects...I read it with a friend and halfway through I emailed her and I was like, yellow is such a huge motif in this book! Because everythingggg was yellow, even depression was the color yellow, etc. And then like I swear that suddenly stopped! So either I missed the transformation of yellow, or the editing in the first half of the book was off the mark. Perhaps I should read it again sometime and see what ~deep thing I'm sure I missed.

Okay the other question is basically what the bulk of this post is going to be about and it gives me an excuse to talk about the love of my TV life from this past year, Alison Hendrix, and how female violence erupted in her storyline on Orphan Black.

Questionish from Ana:

"I don't have a specific question but I'm also interested in hearing what you think of the Gillian Flynn. I've heard so many contradictory things about her, especially about her portrayal of women, that it's piqued my curiosity. One of these days I'll read her myself!"

Yes, Ana, please do, it's a dream of mine to see a Lady Business discussion of Gillian Flynn! But yeah, I've seen a fair bit of argument over whether or not Gillian Flynn is a misogynist and whether or not her work has merit, etc.

I'm not the most skilled person to discuss this, but I think a lot of it depends on your comfort level with female characters being depicted as awful. I don't find her work to be offensive to me because I can tell that for the most part she is more interested in allowing her female characters to be just as awful as they might be in real life, that is to say, she's not concerned with softening them up to make them more palatable and acceptable to the reader, but rather to depict them as she believes them to really be. And for what it's worth, her male characters are sort of awful as well? But no one talks about that as much because male characters being awful is something we're used to and no one questions it or whether or not she's doing men any favors, etc. I also don't feel any disdain from her towards the female characters for being women or even for being awful! So that's how I feel about it! I personally am interested in female characters of all types and the more edges they have, the more attracted to them I am, and I think it's precisely because there is a lack of them. But I think another thing I appreciate about her books is that they can be kind of shocking in a way, like in Sharp Objects the protagonist has a startling viewpoint on having been sexually assaulted, one that definitely doesn't feel like the "correct message" But after I got over my...almost distaste for this, I realized it's not about whether or not the book is inserting some sort of "this is right" or "this is wrong" attitude towards to it, as much as "is this the way the character would really feel?" And if it is the truth of the character than that's more important than using the book to moralize on this issue. Allowing the character to be themselves one hundred percent and have whatever feelings they have about what happened to them--especially when this is a female character is a very positive thing you can do for women in my opinion. (for what it's worth the idea of aspirational vs. realistic or cynical storytelling is something I've ended up thinking about a lot this year and I think there's value in both) I feel like, for the most part, Flynn is more interested in her female characters than her male characters or like in the case of Dark Places--she subverts your expectations for what happens with the male character in that book.

I do want to say this book is dark and somewhat bleak--and if you have a sensitivity to self-harm issues or parental abuse you might want to avoid it. It is, though, a refreshing break IMO from men being violent towards women and takes the issue of violence against women in a whole different direction.

Anyway! Gillian Flynn actually ends up talking a bit about the violence of women on her website:

...we still don’t discuss our own violence. We devour the news about Susan Smith or Andrea Yates — women who drowned their children — but we demand these stories be rendered palatable. We want somber asides on postpartum depression or a story about the Man Who Made Her Do It. But there’s an ignored resonance. I think women like to read about murderous mothers and lost little girls because it’s our only mainstream outlet to even begin discussing female violence on a personal level. Female violence is a specific brand of ferocity. It’s invasive. A girlfight is all teeth and hair, spit and nails — a much more fearsome thing to watch than two dudes clobbering each other. And the mental violence is positively gory. Women entwine. Some of the most disturbing, sick relationships I’ve witnessed are between long-time friends, and especially mothers and daughters. Innuendo, backspin, false encouragement, punishing withdrawal, sexual jealousy, garden-variety jealousy — watching women go to work on each other is a horrific bit of pageantry that can stretch on for years.

It was this idea of the violence of women that made me think of my dear and wonderful Alison. I feel like this particular female brand of violence pops up in her storyline on Orphan Black and she exemplifies how women can have these sharp edges to them. Of course it's really easy to watch the show and kind of dismiss the things that happen (until the finale obviously) because Alison is so funny and adorable and charming and cute, but the gravity of her life situation and the means she ends up using to wrestle control of her life back are really serious and kind of disturbing? What follows includes MAJOR SPOILERS FOR ORPHAN BLACK.

When we first meet Alison, she definitely seems like the prickly one, with little patience for Sarah and her questions and a desperate desire to keep her life intact. But as is so often the case, it's not too long before we realize she's a soft touch--she is easily persuaded to fill in for Sarah with Kira and we learn she provided the funding for the group's research. That she cares about her fellow clones is evident, even if it's not something she wants to readily show. Appearance not being reality is a theme in Alison's story, though. It seems from the outside she really has it together and a nice life, she's married and raising kids and living in an affluent suburban area. But look a little closer and it's easy to see the strain of her life...her children are adopted and the show hints at how much she wanted her own children, the realization that she's a clone and someone is messing with her life fills her with anger, even her friendships seem fraught with the kind of the complications Gillian Flynn describes above. And I think it's evident that Alison suffers from anxiety, a need to maintain control of her life, and present a certain image to the world--all of which begins to unravel when the events of Orphan Black takes place.

What does Alison do? When she suspects her husband is her monitor, she hits him with a golf club and proceeds to torture him with a glue gun. When she feels like her life has careened out of control, she tries to act like it doesn't matter by sleeping her with her best friend's sleazy husband. When an opportunity arises for her to almost..."painlessly" get rid of the woman she suspects of the ultimate betrayal, she takes it. And she feels terrible, but she also feels relieved. This kind of violence and ruthlessness bubbling beneath the surface of the facade of a well put together life is more interesting to me personally than the raw anger and physical violence of Helena. (which is also interesting and heartbreaking, it just doesn't interest me in the same way)

I remember a great many fans turning against Alison after the finale and I understand why. Alison was much more an "everywoman" than Helena ever was, our expectations for her behavior are higher. The kind of insidious darkness that exists in her is uncomfortable to think about and easy to condemn, but I can't feel anything but love and sympathy for her, even if I condemn her actions. Her relationship with Ainsley was never the kind of ideal best friendship we imagine...Ainsley sorted through her things, kept a close on her, gave her no privacy, publicly humiliated her, and privately rejoiced in her downfall. This is a hint of the kind of mental violence Gillian Flynn describes above. I feel like Alison almost felt a sense of profound relief to believe Ainsley was her monitor and to be able to deal with the situation all at once. And I have no doubt she will suffer big time for the things that have happened and for signing her life away :(

One of my favorite little touches of the show is right before Ainsley's death when Alison goes to confront her. Ainsley grabs a Christmas ornament, a homemade angel that Alison made for her. It's so representative of what has happened to Alison, that the image she's crafted for herself and given the world gets tossed down the garbage disposal. No more innocence, either, she's now fully culpable for her own actions as a result of the things that have been done to her.


Anyway, if you read this and didn't watch Orphan Black, just a reminder that there is so much more to Alison than this and the show presents her issues with love and affection. For some reason, I just thought of her storyline when I read the above on Gillian Flynn's website and feel like Orphan Black did a great job of giving us a story about female violence in various manifestations without being utterly bleak or patronizing. Also, Alison is my favorite and I'm glad to talk about her more if anyone wants to! Hit me up in comments.


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