Sharp Objects' Calhoun Day Is A Perverse Celebration Of Sexual Assault

Photo: Courtesy of HBO..
If it weren’t for Richard Willis (Chris Messina), the out-of-towner detective who is perpetually perplexed by the customs of Wind Gap, Missouri, we might never have received an explanation for the ritual of Calhoun Day, featured in the episode “Closer” of Sharp Objects. Instead, we would’ve stood before this elaborate ritual like detached and bewildered anthropologists, seeking to understand a foreign landscape.
Luckily, Camille Preaker (Amy Adams), a Wind Gap native, is able to translate the annual ceremony to Richard, and to us. Wind Gap's annual Calhoun Day festivities include a backyard barbecue, Civil War-era costumes (mutton chops included), and — most crucially – the reenactment of a play, which is seemingly rehearsing at the public high school. Given the play’s explicit and disturbing subject matter, that aspect is frankly pretty surprising.
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Calhoun Day is a celebration of Wind Gap’s founding and Confederate history, though as Camille explains, they don't say the "C word" in Missouri. “Ah, so silent racism is best,” Richard says, catching onto Camille’s point quickly. Wind Gap was founded by a man named Zeke Calhoun (or, in Camille’s words, “our founding pedophile”). Adora (Patricia Clarkson), and consequently Camille and Amma (Eliza Scanlen), are as close to Wind Gap royalty as they come. The women are descended from Zeke and Millie, his child bride from a Union family.
As legend has it, during the war, Union soldiers came to collect Zeke from his house. Millie, who was with child, refused to give him up. Here’s where the play comes in. It casts a modern-era high-school girl to depict Millie’s specific form of resistance. “It’s how she resists that people in this town just love,” Camille explains morbidly. “The Union soldiers, they tied her to a tree. Did horrible things to her. Violations. But Millie never said a word. Lost the baby.”
In summary: The play depicts a 13-year-old girl being gang raped by Union Soldiers. The town commends Millie's stoic attitude. As Camille says, "She never said a word." Clearly, the people of Wind Gap equate an outright expression of suffering with shame. Earlier in the episode, Adora is horrified by Camille's body, littered with physical manifestations of her suffering. Adora is embarrassed for her. Better to be like Millie: Suffer the slings of the world without a word.
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This year, Amma is cast to play Millie. At first, as we see during her rehearsals in last week’s episode, Amma tries to rewrite the role to make the scene mildly more empowering. Instead of having Millie resist by succumbing to a sexual assault, Amma’s version of Millie organizes the first-ever female militia. After watching Amma’s revision, the men in the room uniformly snicker. Her drama teacher dismisses her ideas.
So, the play goes on as planned. Amma stands before a rapt audience wearing hats and pastels, and reenacts the violent sexual assault at the center of Wind Gap’s founding. Amma (as Millie) is captured by Union soldiers and tied to a tree. Wind Gap’s yearly ritual of publicly mythologizing sexual violence is carried out; the town can rest easy for another year.
Despite its obvious perversity, the play has been ritualized to the point of normalcy. Small mundane moments threaten to overshadow the actual subject matter. The kids speak stiffly. One of the “Union soldiers” forgets his line. They’re just kids, mindlessly acting out gruesome history without giving thought to its implications. And why should they, when the adults clearly don’t? They’re at Calhoun Day to celebrate the myth and the spectacle — not the truth. Adora gazes at her daughter portraying a rape victim with pride, not with empathetic horror.
Camille and Richard are the only adults in the scene who gaze on the play with appropriate shock. Though Camille was born in Wind Gap, she has deliberately forged a distance from her home town’s idea of “normal.”
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Importantly, the entire Calhoun Day plot was created specifically for the TV show. No similar celebration appears in Gillian Flynn’s book of the same name. Showrunner Marti Noxon told The Wrap that the idea for Calhoun Day initially began as a writers' room joke, and then morphed into an opportunity to showcase Wind Gap citizens’ habits of telling stories, not truths.
“The more we talked about the fake news of the town, the things that they told each other that just weren’t true, the more we kept focusing on the founder’s story, and the joke was that we were going to do Calhoun Day the musical,” she said.
By staging Calhoun Day, the showrunners were able to explore many of Sharp Objects’ core dynamics: The Preakers’ dominance over Wind Gap's social landscape. The town’s socioeconomic makeup. Camille’s status as an outsider. And, seemingly, Amma’s budding discomfort of perpetuating Wind Gap's myths.
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