There are times when my critical/professional pop culture consumption runs headlong into my personal pop culture consumption (kinda like this). The end result is a dash of kismet that, to my writer’s brain, feels endlessly important to explore. Case in point: the day I finished binging HBO’s excellent Sharp Objects, one sage-like AiPT! editor suggested I review Perdy. While varying wildly in overall tone, aesthetics, and narrative approaches, these two properties share one crucial element: an exceptional depiction of female leads. Thanks, David!
First, some background. Perdy is the worker of French illustrator/storyteller Kickily, who is behind the Angoulême Award-nominated Musnet. The titular Perdy is released from a Yuma prison after 15 years, and immediately begins tearing through the desert on a mission to get back into the villainy game. Along the winding Wild West road, she threatens people, swears up a dust storm, beats up a whole saloon full of fellas, and eats a horse. Seriously.
More importantly, though, Perdy comes into contact with her long-lost daughter Rose (f/k/a Petunia), and the two engage in the book’s central tête-à-tête – Perdy (thus far) failing to recruit her offspring for that next big scheme, which only serves to unearth years of bad history leading up to volume one’s intriguing cliffhanger. On the one hand, their interactions seem almost stereotypical: angry parent and adult child going at it, at one point even vying for the affections of the charming Dr. Jean-Luc. Yet there’s so much more there than surface-level fictional constructs.
Writing for Mashable, Jess Joho discusses how Sharp Objects expertly highlights the battles (both internal and external) women grapple with daily. Specifically, this idea of how women in the show – mainly Amma and Adora – respond to this warfare by “weaponiz(ing) their femininity, turning infantilization into camouflage or motherhood into a mask.” Both Perdy and Rose achieve the same, albeit in different ways. The former is aggressive to a near comical degree, using her sex like a battle axe to get what she wants (in one instance literally suffocating a man with her ample bosom). The latter, meanwhile, is more coy, but there’s no denying her vast beauty serves as a mechanism in perpetuating a certain lifestyle (highfalutin owner of, ugh, Rose’s Roses).
Regardless of their methods, both characters have moved into positions of power and influence not always afforded to women (especially in comics). They’re strong and powerful, and are more than capable of fending for themselves. Even as they momentarily compete for a man, it’s not in a way that empowers the fella. If anything, it’s another demonstration of the lethality of their femininity, rendering a strong and handsome doctor into another plot device. Each character feels strong because they know how to use their essential woman-ness in a way that services greater ends, and they seem to spit in the face of convention. Perdy, especially, is more akin to a force of nature, and she has a bravado and charm about her that blasts apart your sensibilities regarding acceptable behaviors (especially given the era).
At the same time, you may be thinking about other shows/books/etc. that have strong female leads. And while there are plenty, they don’t quite accomplish Perdy-level feats. There’s another great Sharp Objects deep dive from Nerdist. The whole thing’s worth perusing, but the end truly drives it home: “Girls, women-we have this same disaster. We ache, we inflict ache, and we will continue to be as disturbed and disinclined as the men in our orbit.” Which is to say, women can be as twisted and grimy as any man, and so much of literature and culture finds another way to contextualize a woman’s inner darkness. (That is changing, though). Yet not with Perdy – she’s mean and crass and doesn’t mind physically or emotionally abusing people to achieve her ends. Her grit and intensity get to exist not as something quaint or a sideshow amusement – she gets to be wildly flawed and imperfect in the same way a falcon soars or a peacock struts – it’s who she is, and damn entertaining and compelling at that. A freedom of flawed relatability that bad men are afforded in spades.
To a large extent, the artwork helps perpetuate this very point. All these crooked, ugly lines help create a world that’s alluring in its ugliness. Perdy, especially, is both appealing and repulsive at times, and this complex mix of emotions mirrors a lot of the larger issues at play here. The ever-shifting attention to details can be abrasive, confronting you with truths and ideas you may not have wanted.
Whereas Perdy has long since come to terms with her villainy, Rose is far less willing to accept her origins. She’s changed her name, built a new life, and just wants to be happy outside her mother’s roguishness. If nothing else, Rose’s arc seems to be in line with yet another essential Sharp Objects connection (via Salon): protagonist Camille Preaker (Amy Adams) is able to forge a “palpably dark parable about history’s impact, and how failing to confront its lasting damage traps us.” Rose is much the same, having spent her life running away from her multitude of baggage.
But in the end – when she’s set up for an eventual confrontation with mama dearest – she starts to change in the readers’ eyes. Not only physically – resembling Perdy more and more via a clever artistic device – but also in how she perceives herself. Tired of being a victim, she realizes she has to get dirty to defeat her mom and claim her happiness. In this way, her new outlook mirrors her mother’s M.O., which perpetuates their bad blood and expands their respective roles as powerful examples of meaningful, effectively grounded characters.
I’m eager for what volume two has to hold. Even if the big showdown between Rose and Perdy proves to be a bust, volume one is a grand enough achievement. Dazzling character development and an interesting addition to the ongoing cultural representation of women, all while retaining loads of silliness and humor. Beat that, my next book/TV show combination.