Life

Dickinson is sexy, strange and seriously good – it’s the surprise feminist hit of the year

Starring Hailee Steinfeld as the poet in her teen years, AppleTV+’s Dickinson is a portrait of the artist as a young woman. It’s also some of this year’s most feminist, empowering television.

Emily Dickinson is trying to write.

All she wants is a room of her own and freedom from the restrictive gender roles of the 19th century that prevent her from embodying her full creative potential, if AppleTV+’s new series Dickinson is to be believed. She is trying to write! Even though her father believes that women should not receive an education or be published – he’s written a pamphlet on the subject that he brandishes in front of Emily (Hailee Steinfeld) whenever he can – she is trying to write. She steals scraps of paper – the back of her father’s pamphlet will do. She rises early in the morning to be alone with her thoughts. She is trying to write. So why is her sister Lavinia knocking on her door?

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“You have to fetch water,” Lavinia (Anna Baryshnikov) trills.

“Why doesn’t Austin do it?” Emily asks, referring to their brother. 

“Because Austin is a boy.”

Emily huffs. “This is such bullshit.” 

This is the kind of show AppleTV+’s Dickinson is, a series in which characters lob modern slang to each other like basketballs, twerk to ‘I Like Tuh’ by Carnage in sweeping ballgowns and in which Wiz Khalifa – I tell no word of a lie – plays a sexy, tiny sunglasses-wearing personification of death. 

He rolls up in his carriage to the Dickinson house every night and Emily, in a blood-red dress straight from the cover of a romance novel, launches herself into the backseat for a ride. This is a dream sequence, naturally. I think this might be the best television show ever made? The thing is, if you cast Wiz Khalifa as the sexy personification of death in your series, I am legally required to change my home address to AppleTV+’s Dickinson and move in forever. I don’t make the rules, and yet here I am, obliged to obey them.

My point is: Dickinson is weird. It’s wacky and wild and completely, totally wonderful. Sure, as a historical series, it’s riddled with anachronism and half-truths. Anyone who is coming here for a faithful record of Emily Dickinson’s life will be sorely disappointed. 

But what if you were looking for a show that wanted to use the language of modern day teenagers with all of their longing and desire and ambition for the future to say something about one of the most celebrated and, yet, inscrutable female literary figures of all time? What if you wanted to take the sensibility of, say Sofia Coppola’s Marie Antoinette to make Booksmart – if the characters in Booksmart were the Brontë sisters? 

Dickinson: Hailee Steinfeld and Wiz Khalifa in the AppleTV+ series.

Sounds good, right? Because that’s what Dickinson is. Created by showrunner Alena Smith (The Newsroom) and directed by David Gordon Green (Halloween, Pineapple Express), Dickinson is a clever, self-aware television series that seeks to use the aesthetic, music and vernacular of teens today to get under Dickinson’s skin. The result is a show that helps you understand Dickinson’s urge to create better than many other fictional works about her thus far. And it does this by giving Emily back her voice.

Steinfeld is the heart and soul of this show. She embodies the poet so completely, a bundle of frenetic, frenzied energy, so charming that she can’t help but leave her father, sister, mother (played by Jane! Krakowski! We are not worthy!) and her best friend Sue (Ella Hunt, the breakout star of last year’s Anna and the Apocalypse) in the dust. In a plotline borrowed from real life, Sue is engaged to Emily’s brother Austin (Adrian Enscoe). In a plotline added by the show – though nevertheless suggested by Dickinson scholars – Emily and Sue are lovers. They kiss and touch and orgasm together and declare that they wish to be independent and unmarried for the rest of their lives.

Once you get on board with Dickinson’s aim not to be doggedly factual but rather spiritually clear, it becomes a lot easier to love this show. The dynamic between Emily and Sue, for one thing, benefits here. Who cares whether or not they really did have a sexual relationship? What Dickinson is trying to show is how understanding and exploring her sexuality might have been a formative and, crucially, transformative thing for the young poet. As it is for many young women, all around the world. Always. 

Dickinson: Hailee Steinfeld in the AppleTV+ series.

Here lies the feminist agenda of Dickinson – that Emily really was, to borrow from some No Doubt parlance, just a girl. 

“Boys are stupid,” she tells Sue at one point, the kind of throwaway comment girls have been uttering to their best friends since time immemorial. (Did Cleopatra say “Boys are stupid” to a handmaiden after bidding farewell to Caesar? Surely. Anyway, can Alena Smith get onto that television series next?) Emily wants what all young women want: she wants an education, she wants independence, she wants to be heard, she wants to be valued. She wants equality. She wants to be treated in exactly the same way her brother Austin is treated, or the way her pal George (Samuel Farnsworth), the editor of the Amherst Literary Journal, is treated.

It’s just that Emily was a young woman in the 1840s. She was born into a patriarchal society that did not afford her an education, or independence, or the right to vote, or the right to own property. She couldn’t even write, her one big and bold ambition. Her father expressly forbids it – remember that pamphlet? Only a dozen of her 1,800 poems were published in her lifetime. 

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That, as Dickinson would say, is such bullshit. And by contrasting the concerns of young women today with Emily’s particular, immoveable concerns it’s a reminder that the feminist fight is never over. In fact, for the young women like Emily all around the world who might be watching Dickinson, it’s just beginning. 

Dickinson streams on AppleTV+ now. 

Images: AppleTV+ 

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