Celebrating the Radical Female Gaze of Amazon’s I Love Dick
Kathryn Hahn and Kevin Bacon.
I Love Dick streams on Amazon starting Friday, May 12
I Love Dick, the epistolary novel, is an obsessive confessional story from a woman — a version of the author Chris Kraus — who, in her letters, lusts for an English art critic named Dick. He barely returns the affection. Yet … she persists. The story is almost like a gender-flipped Lolita. The woman humiliates herself for love, while her female gaze strips Dick of his humanity and transforms him into a coveted object, a shapeless dumpster into which Kraus can deposit her meandering thoughts: how she’d like to fuck Dick, why female artists aren’t taken seriously, how reading is better than sex. What begins as an admission of passion becomes the author finding her own voice, simply by expressing her desires — as bizarre and unrequited as they may be.
In the hands of Jill Soloway, I Love Dick has been adapted as an ostentatiously ovaries-to-the-wall comedy series for Amazon, one which so thoroughly explores that female gaze — in dialogue both self-aware and silly as well as in cinematic technique — that it’ll likely become scripture for the feminist filmmakers of the future.
In the series, Soloway has turned Dick (Kevin Bacon) into the rugged artistic equivalent of an Ernest Hemingway, one who has founded an artists’ residency on the plains of Marfa, Texas. Dick’s art is a collection of gigantic boulders and erect steel beams that conquer the desert landscape; with his phallic progeny, he owns this world. (He claims to be “post-idea.”) So when Chris Kraus (Kathryn Hahn) accompanies her Holocaust-historian husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), to the residency, neither she nor her quiet feminist art feels exactly welcome in Dick’s land.
During an ill-fated dinner on the couple’s first night in town, Dick tells Chris that most women can’t be great filmmakers because they’re burdened by having to think first about what it means to be a woman. Men, he says, simply exist. Chris doesn’t even wait for Dick to finish his sentence before she rapid-fire spits out the name of every woman filmmaker she can think of before dashing to the bathroom in fury. Thus begins this unlikely one-sided romance: Something about Chris’ passion to prove Dick wrong turns into a psychosexual obsession that can be exorcised only by writing him lurid letters about how she imagines their love affair unfolding. At first she keeps the missives to herself, but her obsession deepens until she is literally plastering them around town. Quiet woman no more, like Glenn Close’s Alex Forrest, Chris will not be ignored, Dick.
What Chris doesn’t know is that her only real desire is to be seen. Through most of the series, she’s treated as if she doesn’t even have a name. People, including Dick, call her “the Holocaust wife.” (Frustrated by Chris’ developing affection for him, Dick growls, “We’ve gotta get rid of the Holocaust wife!”)
You see, Chris is “a distraction,” and what Dick despises most are distractions. He likes clean lines and simple narratives. He doesn’t like Chris, a married woman, caressing his hair while he’s trying to read. Hahn doesn’t go for subtlety in this moment — she reaches out like a grubby child grabbing at candy, her desire sloppy and dominating, a far cry from either the naïf or the sexy siren doomed to snap.
One of the most intriguing characters that we don’t often see on TV is the Hispanic genderqueer Devon (Roberta Colindrez), a townie who lives in a silver airstream trailer in front of Chris and Sylvere’s residency cottage. When Chris meets her, she’s shocked to find that Devon is (gasp) a local, as though it’s impossible for someone to be from a place like Marfa. Later when Chris is pacing in her apartment, riled by Dick’s brushoff (“I don’t find you interesting”), she opines on the plight of the female artist, and Devon interjects with a barely audible whisper: “Yeah, I know. I’m an artist too.” Chris, who’s been treating all of Marfa as her monologue audience, hasn’t considered that a townie could also be an artist. And Marfa — home to the fabled Chinati Foundation — is the perfect locale to explore the divides between art’s haves and have-nots.
When Devon inquires around town for space to rehearse a play, for instance, she’s consistently shut out, even by her own sister. Devon retorts, “This town is nothing but space, but it’s all for rich cowboys.” Like Dick. But as Devon, and other female characters, boldly express themselves in public, the town becomes less and less his.
Soloway has long demonstrated a nuanced understanding of women and sexuality but seems to have been listening to criticism of her show Transparent, specifically that its POV of rich white people can suffocate. She smartly places Devon and two other women — African-American curator Paula (Lily Mojekwu) and pornography artist Toby (India Menuez) — together in an episode all their own. We learn their stories: how all the girls practiced their kisses on Devon when she was a child, how Paula fell out of love with her mother when she saw a tampon string dangling from her crotch, how Toby fought not to be quarantined in a women’s studies department.
One of the most striking moments comes when Toby strips herself naked at an oil camp in front of all the men. Toby broadcasts herself on a Facebook Live-like feed as the men surround her — not with lust but with confusion and fear. Devon finds her there and confronts her: These men have work to do to earn money, and Toby is just using them like props for her art project. But even with all these self-aware criticisms of class and race, of privilege and gender, the adaptation can’t escape that it’s made primarily for a college-educated audience and thus is disconnected from the rural, working-class world the creators are attempting to embrace. But maybe that’s just the problem with all art.
The show’s most redeeming, encouraging aspect is its lackadaisical attitude toward female nudity. Nearly every female character sheds her T-shirt and bra, yet there’s no lurid framing of the female form, and the actors don’t position themselves in an audience-friendly or flattering manner. The milieu of boobs becomes commonplace after a while, almost a part of the desert landscape, just as Dick’s phallic sculptures are. The most brilliant thing I Love Dick does is grant these women the opportunity simply to exist.
Get the Film & TV Newsletter
Stay up to date on the best new movies with our critics' latest reviews, interviews and trailers for the films coming to a theater near you each week.