There is a lot to dig into in I Love Dick, Amazon’s deceptively layered new original series from Jill Soloway. Based on the 1997 feminist cult classic (an epistolary, memoir-like novel by Chris Kraus), I Love Dick is the story of one woman's spectacular unravelling, played to frenetic perfection by Kathryn Hahn. The show brims with hyper-intellectual subtext — traversing art and feminist theory, exploring the female gaze, and interrogating the patriarchy. (Don't worry, it’s not at all dry or haughty.) Reams of brilliant social commentary are packed into seemingly simple scenes, like the premiere's standout confrontation during a hostile dinner, a scene I didn't fully appreciate until I watched it for a second time.
Chris (Hahn), a fledgling indie filmmaker, follows her husband Sylvère (Griffin Dunne), a Holocaust scholar, from New York to the insular artistic oasis of Marfa, Texas. (You know it as the town behind that infamous art installation of a desert Prada store.) Sylvère has a summer residency in Marfa under a renowned artist named Dick (Kevin Bacon), an aloof yet magnetic cowboy resembling a modern Marlboro Man.
On the couple's first night in town, they go to dinner with Dick, who performs the conversational equivalent of taking his balls out and smacking them down on the table. This is the scene that inspires Chris to both want to fuck Dick and prove him wrong about her: Dick sparks in Chris both a psychosexual obsession and an explosive identity crisis, both as an artist and as a woman.
It starts when Dick asks Chris what she does for a living, and she tells him she’s a filmmaker, and that her experimental title was just booted from the Venice Film Festival because she failed to obtain music rights. This provokes a scolding lecture from Dick about the ability of a song to make a mediocre film a masterpiece. (Strike one!) He asks her what it’s about. “It’s about a couple — or I would say the woman in the couple, actually. She kind of represents all women, and society’s crushing expectations,” Chris says.
“Sounds horrible. Sounds like you’re crushed by something,” Dick responds.
He leans in to ask Sylvère, “Is she any good? You’re good, have you seen this film about society’s crushing expectations?” he asks, barely holding in laughter. Then comes the pièce de résistance in this epic exhibition of mansplaining, one in which he casually eviscerates Chris' life's work and passion.
Dick: “My guess is that she doesn’t really want to be a filmmaker. Because if you really wanted to be a filmmaker, you would be one. It’s just a question of desire. It’s not timing or talent or circumstance — it’s pure want, which you don’t possess. And don’t confuse desire with entitlement around your filmmaking either.”
Chris: “If all it took was desire, Dick, there would be a trove of amazing films by women filmmakers —”
Dick: “Well, unfortunately, most films made by women aren’t. That. Good. See, I think it’s really pretty rare for a woman to make a good film, because they have to work from behind their oppression, which makes for some bummer movies.”
Incredulous, Chris rattles off some female filmmakers — Sally Potter, Jane Campion, and Chantal Akerman, whose films are briefly cut to — before excusing herself to the ladies room to catch her breath after such a sexist, gaslighting mind-fuck..
This 60-second scene presents a situation many women are all too familiar with: a cruel, mocking mansplanation delivered across the table with a smirk and a wink. The scenario is both an example of and a metaphor for the treatment of women artists in the patriarchal art world — a theme I Love Dick revisits from different angles throughout the series. (In episode 2, another character says that there are 600 times more female nudes than there are female artists in the canon — a stat I can’t vouch for but sounds accurate enough.) We have a man projecting exactly what Chris’ film is about, “society’s crippling expectations,” onto Chris — telling her she is a shitty filmmaker because she is a women, and women are shitty filmmakers because they are oppressed.
The scene unpacks this point like a Russian doll. Zoom in, and there are clever footnotes to the dialogue. The trio of directors Chris references — Sally Potter, Jane Campion, and Chantal Akerman — were pioneers of feminist cinema, making films that wrestle with gender roles (Potter's Orlando); female sexuality and the tyranny of the patriarchy (Campion's The Piano); misogyny and sexual politics (Akerman's Jeanne Dielman, 23 quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles). And in their lives, of course, these women struggled to be taken seriously as women artists — precisely the beast Chris faces in this very scene.
For example, Campion is the first and only woman to have won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, and has spoken at length about being discounted by men in the industry and failing to live up to people's expectations of her. Akerman struggled with the connotations that come with being labeled a feminist filmmaker. ("I am a woman and I also make films," she has insisted.)
Pull back, and on a meta level, there's the obvious fact that the scene we’re watching unfold was written and directed by women (along with all but one of Dick’s episodes). These women, like Jill Soloway and Kathryn Hahn, are creating art under the weight of (you guessed it!) the burdensome expectations placed on them as women artists.
The ingenious confluence, in a single scene, of these many iterations of the sexist challenges faced by women artists is both sharp and seamless. It's an example of how a filmmaker can say so much with so little. But more than that, the fact that any woman can identify with the way the men at the table are treating Chris in this moment helps viewers connect, on a very personal level, with the series' overarching theme of female oppression. The scene refracts the larger, abstract concept into concrete examples on multiple levels that exist outside the world of the show.
Re-watching this scene gave me an almost-empowering sense of solidarity: Women everywhere are constantly facing this kind of BS. Then I had the most wonderful realisation that the women behind I Love Dick have not let society's crippling expectations weigh them down in any way. They've created thoroughly feminist, thought-provoking, must-watch TV about women — a work of art I'd love to see a guy try to mansplain.