The Dick-loving female gaze
The effect of Kevin Bacon’s Dick
In her essay, Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema, Laura Mulvey outlines three looks, or gazes that are part of the movie watching experience. There’s the camera, the audience, and of the characters looking at each other. For the sake of ‘reality,’ the character becomes a surrogate for the audience member. We have been trained to pretend that the camera is not there. The characters never speak to us and we are voyeurs. If a movie or a TV show breaks the fourth wall, that is the ‘wall’ that separates the audience from the characters it can be a powerful, penetrative tool. Kathryn Hahn and co break the fourth wall in ‘I love Dick’ the TV show and gurl. I was gonna read the book but Kathryn Hahn stared me down and now I don’t think I ever can.
I Love Dick the TV show is based on I Love Dick the book by Chris Kraus. It was made for Amazon by Sarah Gubbins and Jill Soloway and debuted into my heart on May 12, 2017. Full confession, I never saw Footloose. The first thing I remember seeing Kevin Bacon in is Beauty Shop where he played a hair guru but his hair was so limp and crunchy I did not believe the character at all. I definitely do not see him as the sex symbol US Weekly or whatever says he is. In I Love Dick, he plays the dick, Dick Jarrett, that has become the unwilling object of Chris’s affection. She begins to write him letters, fantasizing about him, and he becomes ‘like a greek god bringing the spirit of sex back into our lives.’ ‘Our’ because she is married and the sexual relationship between her and her husband has faded.
First these letters are meant to be private, and then she was going to turn them into a short story. But with the rejection of her work into a film festival and the rejection of her talent as an artist by Dick she becomes angry and pastes them all around town. Eventually he reads a couple and he does not like being the object of her desire. So he rejects her again. In episode 7, A Short History of Weird Girls, of the 8 episode show, she challenges him: “Dear Dick, What if we all started writing you letters?” She is not talking to him though, she is talking to me, to us, the audience.
‘We’ is Chris, Devon, Paula, and Toby. Four women, who tell us the history of their desire in four short vignettes. We are told that this is what they desire because their image becomes blurry and white. This is a cue taken from the short film Removed by Naomi Uman. She is not the director, she is the artist who took a bunch of old softcore porn and, using bleach and nail polish remover, removed every single image of the woman in every single frame. It’s beautiful.
For Chris, her history of desire starts with masturbation and a crush on hot, half naked Jesus. She is standing in the room and narrating her sexual experiences as they happen, played by a younger actress. Her moment of desire happens with her soon to be husband, Sylvere. He was the first man she was with who didn’t resent her for being smart. When a younger Chris is summoned into the bedroom by him, she follows, and we follow. He tells her to take of her clothes and touch herself, and lays down on the bed to watch her. An older Chris circles the bed and stares her younger self down, and that younger self disappears into a smoky white specter. They eventually marry so she could get on his insurance, six years later they stopped having sex. Until Dick.
Devon (Roberta Colindrez), born Dolores, doesn’t want to fuck Dick, she wants to be Dick. She acted like a boy so her cousins could practice kissing and she pretended she was Dick. She does not want to be a lady. In college, she falls in love with Shirin, who dumps her. Presumably for some dude with horrible footwear, Gabe. We only see him from afar, but he doesn’t matter. Not really. She goes back to her family in Texas, who all work on Dick’s land. Now she works for him too.
Paula doesn’t want to be Dick, she wants his approval. Her history of desire starts with Michael J. Fox because she finds political conservatives really sexy and he played Alex P. Keaton. It’s messed up, she knows. She describes her mother as her other great love, whom she followed everywhere. Her desire was ignited in her reading nook, where she would read and touch herself. We do not actually see young Paula touch herself, but it is alluded to. She didn’t have a word for it, and when she learned what masturbation was she stopped. That’s why she loves Dick so much, he does not name his work, and that invokes ‘boundlessness.’ She works as his curator, and is trying to find something that he’ll say yes to.
Toby doesn’t want his approval, she wants to surpass him as an artist. He is, as she describes him, ‘an alpha male scholar… a remote, mysterious, unknowable cowboy.’ Her moment of desire is the first time she saw pornography. At 16, she goes to Columbia and studied hard core porn as an art historian. For her PhD., she wrote about gaping. She says the last words of the episode, “Dear Dick, we are not far from your doorstep.”
In “The Oppositional Gaze,” bell hooks cites the movie, Passion of Remembrance, and praises the scene for reclaiming the gaze. In it, two black female characters are getting ready to go to a party and thus, “completely focused on their encounter with black femaleness. How they see themselves is most important, not how they will be stared at by others. . .they display their bodies not for the voyeuristic colonizing gaze but for that look of recognition that affirms their subjectivity-that constitutes them as spectators.”
All four women occupy the scene with their younger selves at some point or another. The Chrises are in Sylvere’s apartment together, the Devon’s are at family gatherings that Dick is invited to, the Paula’s hang out in their living room watching TV while the younger Paula cuts out pictures of Michael, and the Toby’s read together. They are inserted into the realities of their pasts. We watch them watch their younger selves, and their voices walk us through important moments in the histories of their desires. We are cast as characters too, as Dick. We share the gaze that has been claimed by their adult selves and we are told what these characters want from us. From Dick. But honestly, this isn’t really about Dick at all.