CULTURE & ARTS
08/19/2016 04:57 pm ET

Women Need 'I Love Dick' More Than Ever

Almost 20 years after Chris Kraus' cult novel debuted, Jill Soloway brings the feminist masterpiece to your TV screen.
Priscilla Frank

When word got out that “Transparent” creator Jill Soloway was creating an Amazon pilot based on Chris Kraus’ 1997 novel I Love Dick, I was excited and afraid. The book ― a schizophrenic, psychological road trip through the mind of a woman in lust ― is part memoir, part fiction, part juicy gossip, part critical theory, part radical work of feminist art. It doesn’t make for easy television. 

The story begins when Chris, an experimental filmmaker, and her husband Sylvere, a college professor, meet a cultural critic named Dick at a Sushi bar in Pasadena, Calif. The couple hasn’t had sex in years, but when Chris becomes suddenly infatuated with Dick, she and Sylvere begin a bizarre sort of game, or a conceptual art project, in which they obsessively write Dick letters in an attempt to rekindle their own intimacy.

When their marriage eventually unravels, Chris continues her lopsided relationship with Dick on her own, pursuing him both abstractly and concretely. Her unrequited obsession changes Chris, luring her into a sort of madness that brings with it desire and strength. She sees her life, her work, herself, differently after giving her emotional mania the philosophical gravity more often granted to men.

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Though Chris continues to write to Dick about her revelations, he becomes less of a human being and more of a vessel. In a library full of women characters who exist solely to please and compliment men, Kraus transforms Dick, the object of Chris’ unwavering desire, into just that: an object. Or, if you like, a big, hard dick. 

Kraus’ book is revolutionary in its ability to speak in a woman’s voice ― one that embraces fantasy as much as reality, emotion as much as storytelling. Before Sheila Heti, before Lena Dunham, before “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend,” Kraus spilled her neuroses, showed her difficult parts, unwaveringly expressed her wants and needs. “I aim to be a female monster too,” she wrote. 

Soloway’s take on I Love Dick doesn’t aim to recreate the book. It can’t. Instead of taking place in the so-unglamorous-it’s-cool landscape of 1990s Southern California, where Chris frequents strip mall sushi joints and Trader Joe’s, the story goes down in Marfa, Texas, a cosmic no-man’s-land-turned-SoHo-outpost, in present day. Rompers and talks of Uber rides quickly dislodged the hopes I had for a different kind of ‘90s nostalgia, one more Cindy Sherman than Lisa Frank. 

“I think it makes a lot of sense,” Kraus told The Huffington Post of the location swap. “I think originally they were talking about making it upstate New York, the Catskills, Hudson, or something. But that’s such a New York Times cliche. You know it before you even think about it. Marfa is completely something else, people come from all over the place.” 

Amazon Studios

Marfa seems an appropriate spot for a television reboot of a cult-classic novel, given the fact that the place itself is a living example of inexplicable magic juiced for all its worth. Since artist Donald Judd migrated there in the 1970s, seduced by its open space and alien light, the small city has become a present-day mecca for the artistic millennial bourgeoisie. The character of the space has changed, and certain enchanted qualities have been lost as a result, but the destination has a new kind of power ― the uncanny mixture of then and now, local and transplant, art installation and fancy grilled cheese shop. 

The space also presents a perfect stage for Soloway to do what she does best: lovingly make fun of bougie intellectuals as they clumsily make their way through existential crises. “What I love about the pilot is that it’s so funny and sad at the same time,” Kraus said. “The casting is perfect. Kathryn Hahn so remarkably conveys that existential crisis ― albeit perhaps a minor, petty one. That perpetual unease where you don’t know where to put yourself in the world.”

There’s clearly a connection between Kraus’ mission and Soloway’s, though the two are in slight disagreement over what exactly it may be. “I read a quote where she said she’s interested in somewhat unlikeable, Jewish women,” Kraus said. “I never thought of myself as doing that. I wouldn’t have even thought the Chris character was that unlikeable,” she said, laughing. “I connect more on the level of comedy. She does close, psychological comedy and that’s something I connect with.” 

When Kraus wrote I Love Dick in 1997, the act of a woman writing smartly, sloppily, deliriously, obscenely and without permission, was radical. Nowadays, things have improved, but, just a day after Redditors sabotaged Amy Schumer’s debut book with one-star reviews, there’s still plenty of work to be done. The current climate is perfectly summed up by none other than Dick himself, who, on his first dinner date with Chris and Sylvere, quips: “Most films made by women ultimately aren’t … that … good.” 

Amazon Studios

The statement is meant to be incendiary, subversive, but also flirtatious, which makes it all the more infuriating. We’re not supposed to be sexist anymore, Dick implies, but look at what a bad boy I am. “That was hilarious,” Kraus said of the moment. “He’s trying to bait her. I don’t think anyone who says that even really believes it.” Soloway’s moment is not one of flagrant oppression and discrimination, but one more insidious. One characterized by, in Dana Schwartz’s words, “the men who know that objectification and sexism is wrong but still secretly wonder if all this fuss isn’t over nothing.”

One of the most famous lines in Kraus’ novel reads: “I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world.” Soloway is revolutionary not only for the stories she writes and the ways she tells them, but the representation they make space for, on- and off-screen. Her production company is called Topple, like “topple the patriarchy.” Her brand, which the New Yorker’s Ariel Levy described as “post-patriarchal television,” holds cooperation, feminism and queerness among its values. 

The set of “Transparent” was lauded for its diversity and good vibes. “I Love Dick” seems to follow suit. “The set is characteristically inclusive, chill, and collaborative,” Jason McBride wrote for Vulture. “Partners, spouses, and children are everywhere. The mobile bathrooms are gender-neutral, and each morning begins with a ritual called ‘Box,’ during which Soloway climbs atop an apple box and makes a brief inspirational speech to the assembled cast and crew.” The question, for Soloway, is not only what can women say, but where can they work, and how? 

Amazon Studios

While Kraus changed the game for women writers in the ‘90s, Soloway pulls a similar move for women, queers, and people of color in the age of contemporary television, both on screen and behind the scenes. Her added touches include a sexy, butch ranch hand played by Roberta Colindrez and her hipster buddy played by Phoebe Robinson of “Two Dope Queens.” Like Marfa itself, Soloway’s work can, at times, feel a bit try-hard or too cool, but its overall effect is undeniably good, and maybe even magical. 

“Become your own myth,” feminist artist Hannah Wilke said, quoted in Kraus’ book. Wilke was once considered radical for baring her naked body in her work; in 1980, then-Village Voice critic Guy Trebay wrote that her vagina had eventually become “as familiar to us as an old shoe.” Despite the gross sexism embedded in Trebay’s “critique,” there is something satisfying about the idea that something as radical, transgressive and taboo as an exposed vagina can become familiar, normal, even status quo.

Thanks to I Love Dick, women can now more freely express their art, their sexuality and their smarts in one fell swoop, and be taken seriously as a result. Thanks to women like Wilke, Kraus and Soloway, what was once radical is now familiar, what past generations had to fight tooth and nail for, we 21st-century women can comfortably build on and expand into new, revolutionary terrain. 

Men may still be dicks, but all that’s certainly familiar to us by now. Truly, an old fucking shoe. 

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