Reviews of I Love Dick, the new Amazon Prime series co-created by Transparent creator Jill Soloway and playwright Sarah Gubbins, have been mixed. Critics seem confused by an indie-spirited, women-run series adapted from an experimental book directly to a streaming service, particularly since it’s about a flailing filmmaker (Kathryn Hahn as Chris Kraus) doggedly pursuing an artist-cowboy named Dick (Kevin Bacon), with the begrudging support of her husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne). At Indiewire, Ben Travers calls it “the most confident television experiment of the year” — but then gives it a B+. At The New Yorker, Alexandra Schwartz robs us of the review Emily Nussbaum never wrote, asking of Soloway’s intersectional feminism, “if a woman in Australia has an orgasm, does a woman in Mexico sneeze?” But perhaps most perplexing are the reviews that are confounded by the show’s clear grappling with big ideas. “TV is a subpar medium for the transmission of ideas,” concludes Ruth Curry at Esquire, and at Variety, Maureen Ryan wonders, “is the show about ideas, or is it about people who care about ideas?”
As TV critic par excellence Nussbaum has reminded us elsewhere, we don’t seem confused by television shows’ grappling with ideas when those ideas come from men. But I Love Dick is a show about women’s ideas, and how women are discouraged from having ideas, and what happens when one woman lets her fantasies drive her art. Because once Chris accepts Dick as her muse and begins writing letters to him, her abandon transforms the women around her. I Love Dick dramatizes women’s creative processes from their own perspectives: Chris on the floor putting her letters together, Devon (Roberta Colindrez) writing a play about male beauty, Toby (India Salvor Menuez) creating viral performance art, Paula (Lily Mojekwu) replacing Dick’s bland abstract art collection with highly specific pieces by women of color.
In a keynote she gave at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, Soloway spelled out her vision of the female gaze, positioning it in opposition to — but not as the opposite of — the male gaze Laura Mulvey articulated in 1975. Soloway’s female gaze emerges from three components:
- “A way of feeling-seeing … a subjective camera” created when the director, the cinematographer, the actors, and the other artist-technicians on set “prioritize their bodies over tools, over equipment, over time.”
- Depictions of how it feels, as a woman, to be the object of the male gaze.
- Filmic moves that return the gaze, that say, “I don’t want to be the object any longer. I would like to be the subject, and with that subjectivity I can actually name you as the object.”
This theory helps me understand what Soloway and Gubbins have achieved — and it is an achievement — with I Love Dick. In the fifth episode, widely regarded as the series’ best, Chris asks the camera (and Dick), “What if we all started writing you letters?” This moment opens up the story from its focus on the love triangle between Chris, her husband Sylvere, and Dick to the subjectivity of the show’s three other female artists, Devon, Toby, and Paula. When Toby runs down her own list of achievements beside Dick’s, claiming her place as an artist and scholar, her insistence that “we should be able to study beauty too” hit me in the gut.
Although Lily Mojekwu is powerful as Paula, and Solindrez’s Devon owns the camera with what Soloway calls the character’s “queer cowboy masculinity,” Toby became my favorite character for the precision with which she continually and explicitly recentered the female gaze, refusing to be paternalized by Sylvere or by Devon. In the pilot — the only episode directed by Soloway — the framing of the shots as Sylvere approaches and talks to Toby formalizes the female gaze Soloway laid out in her TIFF talk. We see Sylvere seeing Toby, sexualizing and infantilizing her with his male gaze. But he is removed from the frame as Toby rejects his assumptions about her and actively mocks his research project, finally telling him, in the following episode, “You’re awful.”
I Love Dick is a masterpiece of female vision and artistic agency. It’s also fun as hell. Kathryn Hahn’s bottomless neurosis as Chris Kraus is the human woman Jessica Chastain missed seeing at Cannes. Hahn’s body, her mess, her hair, her mouth, her mania, her misdirection, her absurdly sexy desperation — it all shows us that while Dick is Chris’s muse, Hahn is Soloway’s. Chris distractedly running a stove lighter over her crotch makes visceral how our culture sees women’s desire as a problem — one Chris doesn’t know how to solve. Have I ever seen the gigantism of a woman’s desire onscreen before? Maybe. But unlike X-Men 2’s Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), Chris’s a-directional desire doesn’t kill her, and unlike Unfaithful’s Connie (Diane Lane), it doesn’t kill anyone else. I Love Dick insists that a woman’s desire isn’t a disaster.
Following female desire might be the first step in understanding why two lesbian feminists — Soloway, a filmmaker, and Gubbins, a playwright — made a show called I Love Dick. Is the show saying that women’s interest in dick makes us weak? Is Soloway dramatizing the point she made in her TIFF talk, that catering to the male gaze keeps women “busy with that half of me that is reaching for approval”? Was Chris screwed as an artist the second she married Sylvere for his health insurance?
I can’t answer these questions for sure — no critic can. But let’s argue about what I Love Dick means, not whether it means anything.
I Love Dick is now available on Amazon Prime.