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The Liberating Obsessiveness of I Love Dick

Jill Soloway’s new show explores the tangled lives of women in the desert.

There is a scene in the second episode of I Love Dick, the new Amazon original series from Jill Soloway, in which two characters debate the aesthetic appeal of straight lines. Dick (Kevin Bacon), an abstract sculptor who swaggers around in weathered cowboy boots, loves them. “A straight line is perfection,” he tells Chris (Kathryn Hahn), a frustrated filmmaker who is new in town and newly besotted with Dick’s pretentious buckaroo machismo. The scene takes place in a gallery in Marfa, Texas, that odd patch of artisan bohemia in the desert: a place where one can hitch a horse outside the Judd Foundation, and where two sculptors constructed a nonfunctional Prada store that sits right off U.S. Highway 90. (It’s a commentary on capitalism and the mythos of the Western souvenir shop, you see.)

Dick is one of the sauntering artistic giants on the scene. He runs a competitive artists’ residency when he is not making earthworks on his multi-acre ranch. Chris is a fish out of water from Brooklyn; she is in Marfa to support her pedantic historian husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), who is one of Dick’s new fellows. She was not supposed to stay long, but one of her art films got cut from the Venice Biennale, and now she is stuck in outlaw territory. Her crush on Dick begins as a way to pass the time and soothe her blistered ego, but soon it swells into an all-encompassing obsession.

Adapted from Chris Kraus’s 1997 novel of the same name, I Love Dick is, above all, the story of a three-way romance: Chris wants Dick, Chris confesses to Sylvere, and then the two of them slowly pull Dick into various sexual and psychological games. Over dinner on Chris’s first night in town, Dick introduces himself to her by berating female filmmakers, snorting that he is too “post-idea” to read books. From that moment, she is fully hooked: Dick becomes her white whale, the fire of her loins, her virile cowboy idée fixe. She begins writing him letters, which she reads out loud to Sylvere as a kind of conceptual art foreplay. Chris pins these notes over the bed in their shabby rental adobe house as she and Sylvere make vigorous love, which they had not done for months before arriving in Marfa. Sylvere doesn’t seem to mind, at least at first, if she calls out to Dick in the heat of passion: They have mutually agreed that Dick is an abstraction, a distant perfection. A straight line.

Of course, straight lines can, equally, be oppressive and antiseptic. They don’t leave much space for human messiness. And this is where the show’s erotic tension lies: Chris is all messy twists, a woman in the midst of coming undone, professionally and personally. She was beginning to unravel before she arrived in Texas. Her latest film is a bleak, muddy failure. Her career is moving backwards. Encountering Dick and his formalist sculptures—one is just a brick sitting on a table—is the last straw. Dick won’t let her into his seminar; he refuses to allow her pent-up, discontented energy into his world. This blockade only makes Chris more determined. “If you’ve achieved perfection,” she yells at him, “what else is there to work on?” Her voice is thin, full of desperate oxygen. “Sorry, I don’t think a straight line equals art! They don’t call it the Philadelphia Museum of Lines!”

It is rare to see a woman embrace her own abjection this way on screen, rare in fact outside the pages of experimental literature. Here is a 43-year-old actress waxing fluidly about art and desire and the devaluing of women’s labor under patriarchy, working herself into a frenzy, letting her hair fall into her face as she stands up for herself to a man she also wants to grab hold of. It feels deeply layered, like a cake made of theory and corporeal need and artistic resentment. Perhaps we could only get I Love Dick, the show, right now, when tensions between men and women (and discussions surrounding gender in general) have reached a kind of politicized apex, and even those whose lives exist completely outside the academy are regularly debating feminist theory and capitalist ideologies on Twitter during coffee breaks.

There is a hyper-intellectualism to the show—which grows directly out of the novel—but also a dirtiness, a raw emotional nerve. Hahn’s frenetic energy in this scene stands in for that of all women who have decided they are tired of living in a man’s world and demand to be heard, but who also are trying to square this deep frustration with a libidinous thirst. After Dick leaves their verbal tête-à-tête, Chris has to press herself against a cold steel wall to slow her pulse. Simply asserting herself to a man who won’t bend to her aesthetic will has turned her on. It is one of the most authentic sexually charged scenes television has seen in a long time. We may finally be in a cultural moment in which we can root for the ravenous woman.

The first three episodes of I Love Dick premiered earlier this year at Sundance, where Soloway made clear that the show is primarily about the “female gaze”—one of her pet subjects (she gave a master class on it at the Toronto Film Festival). The male gaze, as film critic Laura Mulvey defined it in a now-canonical 1975 essay, is all about the ways men turn women into objects of pure visual delight. In Toronto, Soloway joked that in 40 years, no one had thought to adapt the theory to a woman’s perspective: “No one has claimed being the namer of the female gaze yet! So I’m taking it now. It’s mine. I want it to be like: Mulvey, male gaze; Soloway, female gaze!” The goal of the female gaze, as she explains it, is to explore how it feels to be an object, and then to turn that scrutiny around, so that we “gaze on the gazers.” The female gaze is “about how it feels to stand here in the world having been seen our entire lives.”

I Love Dick is particularly suited to this kind of exploration. It’s the story of a woman who is not only steeped in film theory, but is also grappling daily with the way the art world views her body and her intellectual weight (or lack thereof). It is about the way women are allowed to move through the world, what aesthetic spaces they are allowed to claim. In one exasperated moment, after Dick’s rejection, Hahn breaks down. “I’m beginning to think there is no such thing as a good woman filmmaker,” she laments. “Because how can you be, if you are just raised to be invisible ... I mean visible, I mean looked at. It’s a wonder any woman can think of herself as an artist.”

Soloway’s co-creator, Sarah Gubbins, claims to have picked up a copy of Kraus’s novel after reading a paean by Leslie Jamison in The New Yorker. She then pressed a copy into Soloway’s hands, insisting that now was the ideal time, 20 years after its publication, to adapt it for the screen. That’s how Kraus’s work tends to spread through culture—from one devotee to the next. A cult document since its publication, the novel is an intimate, genre-bending work of fiction that includes diversions into literary criticism, biography, and ’90s academic theory. The material for the book, in which the protagonist’s name is also Chris Kraus, came straight from life—Kraus really did have a fixation on a man named Dick, and her husband (at the time) was named Sylvere. Chris hunts Dick down, pursues an affair, and debases herself in order to get what she wants.

In the introduction to the 2006 reprinting, the poet Eileen Myles (Soloway’s ex-partner and an inspiration for a character in Transparent) wrote that “in Chris’s case, abjection ... is the road out from failure. Into something bright and exalted, like presence.” Soloway and Gubbins lean into this abjection, refusing to shy away from Chris’s base motivations. There’s an obvious risk in presenting a female character in all her complexity: If you overshoot, you can end up reinforcing the age-old women-are-crazy stereotype, rather than subtly undercutting it. But they have also made a careful choice in casting Kathryn Hahn, an underappreciated actress whose face contorts so fully into each individual emotion that it is impossible not to empathize with her, even at her least dignified.

In interviews, Soloway has said that she hopes the show will do for feminine desire what Transparent has done for transgender issues; to explore the humor, heaviness, and messy, complex humanity of marginalized points of view. Soloway met with her share of criticism for Transparent; her casting of a cisgender man to play a transgender woman in the main role was not well received by some, and she was forced to course-correct along the way, bringing in trans actors, writers, and a trans director. And adapting I Love Dick has its own pitfalls: While the show boldly deploys feminist theory, it still privileges and centers the voice of a bourgeois, white, bohemian woman. That Chris has been able to make films at all puts her in a fortunate position. Her own frustrations as an artist don’t necessarily represent women’s experiences more broadly.

Soloway wanted to make a show that could embrace a more expansive view of feminism, representing a range of female identities and how they converge and challenge one another. Accordingly, the narrative switches between several women in the Marfa universe, revealing each of their ambitions and heartsick cravings in turn. There’s Devon (Roberta Colindrez), a lesbian playwright and property manager, who becomes so captivated by Chris’s dysfunction that she starts to write her tenant into her next one-act play. There’s Suki (Phoebe Robinson), who finds herself caught up in Devon’s theatrical experiments. There’s Toby (India Menduez), who has come to Marfa to complete her research on hard-core pornography. If the show were completely faithful to Kraus’s novel, it would be told entirely from Chris’s discontented perspective. But Soloway and Gubbins “took the book,” Soloway has explained, “and tried to explode it into these viewpoints of these women.”

All these supporting characters have tangled lives in the desert: Devon is obsessed with Chris and also Toby, Toby is obsessed with Devon and also Dick, though in a different way from that in which Chris is obsessed with Dick. The characters’ needs overlap and interweave. Once Chris abandons her inhibitions, everyone in her orbit starts to do the same.

We so rarely get to see women like these on television: women who want to be respected and hallowed and serious and also naughty and profane. Women are not often encouraged to perform exalted abjection, to swerve into a glorious failure as a way out of a dull, depressive one. If there is one thing that I Love Dick does well, it is showing that these compulsions can be artistically fertile. It is about the art of simply hitting a nerve raw enough to allow swooning infatuation to become praxis.

After absorbing her rejection, Chris allows herself a mischievous act: She packages her risqué letters to Dick in a box adorned by a dead moth and places them on his desk. It recalls a moment in Steven Shainberg’s indie S&M drama Secretary, when Maggie Gyllenhaal puts a desiccated cockroach on James Spader’s bed. It is as an act of provocation and of love. Both women are pushing in order to be pulled.

For Chris—and everyone else caught up in the swirl of her experiment—Dick is a rugged Mephistopheles, her incessant need for him leading her out of her gray funk and into a place where the rules and the sharp angles melt away. She is pushing up against his hard edges not because she desires his rigid code, but because she knows that subverting what Dick wants is a vital way to tap into her own ambition, wobbly and rapacious as it may be. What makes I Love Dick exciting—as television and as a literary work—is that it offers a promise of liberation, for both men and their abstract cold lines, and for the women who dare to crash through them.