Women talk about men—the ones they work with, the ones they see, the ones they want to sleep with. They talk about them in bars and on sidewalks and on couches in small cramped apartments. More than a discussion, the way women talk about people they want to sleep with is a dissection. It’s always been this way for some of us, since childhood slumber parties and passed high school notes.
What did he say? But how did he say it? Did he text you before or after you saw him standing across the subway platform? At what time?
There’s a whole episode of Sex and The City late in the series where the women are told that this is not normal by one of Carrie’s less-favorable boyfriends. He insists that if a man wants to be with you he’ll come upstairs, or he’ll call. That this whole loving game is so much simpler than women make it out to be. Men love to tell women this—that their obsession, their conversations upon conversations over a single wink across a crowded party that no one even cared about is preposterous. That the pursuit of truth, men dictate down, won’t change anything about how a man feels.
Maybe what men don’t realize is that sometimes those weeks of obsession, the moment in the night where you wake up and realize that maybe his hand did linger a little longer on your left shoulder when you brushed past him, is better than any love affair that man could possible give you.
There’s a scene near the end of Jill Soloway’s television show pilot I Love Dick, which premiered on Amazon last Friday, where the protagonist Chris (Kathryn Hahn) reconstructs a truly terrible dinner in her own mind. Soloway shows her replay of events cast in both a literal and metaphorical rose colored light. Earlier in the night, Chris and her older husband Sylvere (Griffin Dunne) went out to dinner with Dick (Kevin Bacon), the founder of Sylvere's writing fellowship program in Marfa, Texas. There is rabbit on the menu. There is misogyny in the air. Chris’s film has been rejected from a Venice film festival by her own fault—she refused to rescore the film after receiving a cease and desist letter from a band—and she is grieving. Dick has very little sympathy for her. In fact, he has outright antipathy, but by the time Chris falls asleep that night, the story has changed.
When Sylvere finds her in the living room in the middle of the night writing, she’s performing the kind of analysis women normally confine to their thoughts or their conversations with friends onto the computer screen in the form of a letter to Dick.
"Dear Dick," she begins her first letter, "I never understood how one chance meeting could alter the course of events in someone's life. I've met charismatic people before. I've been warmed by their glow. I never had someone shatter in one glance the persona that I have spent decades constructing."
This dinner is the beginning of a long obsession. The dinner is not the story. The obsession is the story, the thread that will tie every piece of this long love story, if you can call it that, together.
As she reads, the screen flashes images of the night from different angles. We see his hand linger on the chair he pulls out for her a little too long. We see a flourish to his wrist as he refills her wine. We see that eye contact. Is it real? Did those moments happen in the first scene and we were just too wrapped up in the conversation, too distracted by our omniscient angle to observe them? Or did Chris make them up? In the end, does it matter?
In 2016 it is still rare for this kind of female desire to be seen as anything other than crazy. Instead of a wanting, a longing, a pulling, a fantasy constructed and reconstructed until the players do not matter any more than the words that are or are not said; the stories that women tell themselves are manipulated to seem like jealousy, like insanity, like a way to trap and scare men.
Of course, this story was dismissed as serious work the first time it was told. Chris Kraus' radical novel I Love Dick came out in 1997. It’s radical, and not just because anyone who wants to read it in public has to carry around a 300-page paperback with I LOVE DICK emblazoned on it in a lime green block print.
Novelist Kraus, just like her eponymous protagonist, is a filmmaker. Kraus, just like her protagonist, is married to a cultural theorist named Sylvere. Kraus wrote a novel, which means it is fiction. The novel is written in first person and told through letters written to a love obsession named Dick. At first Chris (the character Chris) writes alone, then with her husband, and then alone again. Through her letters she, a 40-year-old woman, gets to be sexy again, gets to voice her disagreements with the canonized male arguments of artistic theory, and gets to find who she needs to be.
“Her living is the subject, not the Dick of the title,” poet Eileen Myles writes in the intro to the 2006 edition of the book.
But contemporary critics missed that memo. Upon publication, the focus of the publicity for I Love Dick was not its brilliant grasp of critical theory, or its thoughtful examination of female sexuality, but the theory of who Dick could actually be.
The book alone does not make for an easy adaptation to television. It’s written in the letters that Chris writes to Dick, which doesn’t translate intuitively onto the screen. Its plot is fairly narrow—one woman and her obsession, without any substantial subplots. Its fan base is a very particular one—mostly educated women, who are feminists and interested in feminist fiction. And its text is laden with criticism and theory—of art, of literature, of scholarship, of men.
I Love Dick the television show takes a host of liberties. It moves the story, for example, from the hills outside of Los Angeles to the sparse, brutal landscape of Marfa. It moves the problems of 1997 firmly into 2016 and gives the story references to match. But most notably, it moves so much of the body of literary, artistic, and scholarly criticism Kraus filled her book with behind the needs and wants of the main characters. Soloway pulls the heart of that book out from the literary criticism and erudite musings that surrounded it and lets us watch it pump—beautiful, powerful, and certainly intense.
This episode is an audition. Like all new Amazon shows, it has to prove it will have an audience and a purpose before it gets greenlit. It does not matter that Soloway created Transparent, easily Amazon’s most popular and most highly awarded show. Just like Transparent, Soloway has taken a complicated theory about humanity and given it a human face that can show anxiety and fear and nervousness.
“Dear Dick,” says Chris at the very beginning of the show, “every letter is a love letter.” On television we so often only see one kind of love, even on our most “feminist” shows. Even Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Jane the Virgin give us dresses and roses and romance. But I Love Dick doesn’t bother with those games. It gives us a messier love. A love that ends in a late-night hookup with your husband after reading him a love letter to the man you ate dinner with. A love that grows in a moment of frustration strong enough to force you to leave the table. A love that stems from your own obsession, and dissection, and curiosity with your feelings and yourself. What if you could feel love without ever needing it returned? What if your obsession was enough to sustain you?
I Love Dick hasn’t answered these questions yet. If Amazon doesn’t choose to renew the series, maybe it never will. But even in one episode it’s given us something no other television show has dared to try and put on screen—a love letter that’s not actually about men at all, but about a woman finding herself.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.