In Amazon’s new sex comedy “I Love Dick,” the protagonist, Chris Kraus, played by Kathryn Hahn, becomes wildly obsessed with a mysterious man ― part cowboy, part artist ― by the name of Dick. The camera itself, however, remains entirely fixed on Kraus.
Like the characters around her, viewers are glued to Kraus’ every move, watching a strong woman’s willful unraveling with a mix of fascination, horror and reverence. The way she tousles her hair with a bit too much muscle, like some sort of seductive metalhead. How she punctuates her jerky dance moves with overly carefree yelps and howls. Or how she occasionally makes additional use of random, long, solid objects by running them ever so gently between her legs.
The particular gaze with which the camera savors Kraus’ ― and Hahn’s ― every move is one many women viewers will identify with. It’s the admiring gaze women reserve for one another when attempting to understand who a person has made herself into ― and how and why. A way of looking that considers women to be smart, sexual, messed up and striving to be better, a perspective not often seen on screen.
Jill Soloway, the show’s creator, is known for bringing this particular kind of female gaze to mainstream television ― doing for instant streaming what writer Chris Kraus herself did for writing in her 1995 semi-autobiographical manifesto I Love Dick, on which the show is based.
Soloway’s “I Love Dick” follows Kraus as she accompanies her husband, Sylvere (Griffin Dunne), a Holocaust scholar, to a fellowship in the solidly trippy town of Marfa, Texas. There, Kraus meets Dick ― played by Kevin Bacon ― a scruffy, silent type, a land art sculptor who possesses deep appreciation for straight lines and large, concrete phalluses. Dick awakens something inside Kraus: desire, an eruption of excess energy that is not only sexual but creative, personal and political.
Fueled by her hunger for Dick, Kraus begins to describe his influence on her body and brain in a slew of love letters, each beginning “Dear Dick,” turning the archetypal male artist into her very own rugged muse. One reads: “Dear Dick, I want to make the world more interesting than my problems. Therefore, I have to make my problems social.” Even the book’s title, I Love Dick, positions Kraus as the subject, Dick as the object.
“I think [Kathryn Hahn] is a muse for me in the same way De Niro is a muse for Scorsese.”
Kraus’ lust stimulates her creative drive, transforming the former failed filmmaker into, to quote Kraus, a “female monster,” a woman who boldly wreaks havoc on her life without remorse or apology, who uses her emotions and impulses as impetus for art. “Art supersedes what’s personal,” the book reads, and Kraus lives this truth unabashedly, as her piles of love letters transform into a revolutionary declaration of female irrepressibility.
While Dick becomes a muse for Kraus, Hahn is something of a muse for Soloway. Except instead of zooming in on misty, love-sick eyes or lengthy legs, Soloway keeps her lens fixed on Hahn’s delectable self-destruction, frenzied artistic innovation and virtuoso horniness.
“I think she is a muse for me in the same way De Niro is a muse for Scorsese,” Soloway explained in an interview with HuffPost.
“She has this clownish relationship to her body when it comes to sex,” she continued. “You know, it’s that awkward moment where you are supposed to be sexy but you are just too much in your head. As a physical comedian, she reminds me of Charlie Chaplin.”
Soloway first worked with Hahn in her 2014 series “Transparent”; Hahn plays Rabbi Raquel, a bastion of sanity juxtaposed against the dependably unholy Pfefferman family. But even as the show’s faithful dose of vanilla, a breath of normalcy amongst the selfish havoc, Rabbi Raquel is never one-dimensional. She is ethical, yes, but she’s goofy, flawed, romantic and confused ― as a result, she’s one of the most beloved characters in the stellar ensemble cast.
“When ‘Transparent’ was happening, I was always like, ‘Kathryn needs her own show,’” Soloway recalled. “I thought, ‘If I do another show Hahn will be the lead.’”
It’s hard to think of a better role for Hahn than that of Chris Kraus ― who not only resembles her physically, but offers the actor endless opportunities for physical absurdity and emotional complexity through breathless rants, fevered sex and searing works of art.
“Chris Kraus is a kind of like Philip Roth for women,” Soloway explained. “The more Dick ignores her, the more turned on she gets. What heroic, female TV character has ever admitted that? There are these things we women are supposed to keep secret, in service of male protagonists. The female gaze allows us to have our own version of our reality.”
The first time Hahn read Kraus’ I Love Dick, she felt an intense connection with the writer and protagonist. Many women creatives do. “Her writing got under my skin,” Hahn told HuffPost. “I couldn’t believe how similar some of our behaviors were, how fast our motors ran.”
While getting into character, Hahn took pleasure in how far Kraus pushed and how giddily she relinquished control over her identity and her life. “In the normal romantic comedy,” Hahn said, “Chris would flirt by getting dressed up, doing everything Dick asked, being quiet and demure, and waiting for him to look at her. But no, she just keeps going further and further. It is so cathartic to see someone moving forward into her own abjection. There is something so cringeworthy and delicious about it.”
There is a stark difference between Soloway and Hahn’s relationship and those of famed auteurs and muses past, which traditionally run male and female, respectively. Michelangelo Antonioni and Monica Vitti, Jean-Luc Godard and Anna Karina, Bernardo Bertolucci and Maria Schneider ― such cinematic relationships are often fraught with unequal power dynamics that can result in violence, stemming from gendered stereotypes of the male genius and female beauty.
There is something distinct at play in Soloway and Hahn’s connection, and not just because both actor and filmmaker are women. “I Love Dick” destabilizes the very idea of a muse, founded upon patriarchal understandings of female desire. “I think women are expected to connect to their desire through being seen,” Soloway said. “We grow up in the world where we are told sex is the prize you get for being hot. We have been raised to believe that our sexual satisfaction, desire and orgasm are derived from succeeding at collecting male approval.”
“Women have had to do what they’ve had to do to make a living, so I don’t degrade female muses of yore,” Soloway added. “People who are conventionally attractive, like Brigitte Bardot, rise up thanks to men who believe they possess something special. Women became icons through being muses because that’s all we knew. ‘Some man thinks I’m fantastic and beautiful and look great in a hat and now I’m in a movie.’”
The argument “I Love Dick” makes is that, when a woman stops seeing herself only as a muse can, she processes her potential as an artist. “I’m beginning to think there’s no such thing as a good woman filmmaker,” Hahn-as-Kraus says during an unprompted rant in the second episode. “How can you be, if you are raised to be invisible? I mean visible ― I mean looked at. It’s a wonder that any woman could look at herself as an artist.”
Hahn, however, represents a new breed of muse, one who is both subject and object, artist and artwork ― as Kraus might put it, predator and prey.
“Chris Kraus is a kind of like Philip Roth for women.”
When she becomes addicted to Dick, Kraus bids her ego farewell and plunges into the world as a female monster, unguarded and unafraid. This is revolutionary, even within the fictional world of Soloway’s creation. In the TV show, Kraus becomes a living catalyst for the other women and artists in her midst. Her awakening inspires the local groundskeeper to write a play and a fellow artist to stage a nude performance.
For Soloway, it was important to expand the scope of Kraus’ novel to include new characters like Devon (Roberta Colindrez), Toby (India Menuez) and Paula (Lily Mojekwu). In part, this constituted an effort to tell stories of women who were not, like Kraus, white and straight. But also, Soloway hoped to visually represent the book’s influence on the contemporary generation of women and artists.
“We wanted to put into action what happened to us when we read the book,” Soloway said. She wanted to show, within her show, just how revolutionary it is to watch a woman pursue a man madly and fail happily. To watch a woman write and create without fear or self-doubt.
“The book radicalizes people,” Soloway said. “People read it and they say, ‘I want to write. I want to have sex. I have an idea. I am not ashamed anymore.’ What happens when one woman says, ‘This is who I am’? Women start to go, ‘My turn, my turn, my turn.’ It just takes one woman to start telling her truth.”
Few demonstrate the contagious effect inspired women have on one another quite like Soloway and Hahn themselves. They feed off each other’s energy, brilliance and sense of humor, both moonlighting as water to nourish the other’s gnarled plant. “I feel like we’re constantly surprising each other still,” Hahn said.
For muses of yore, growing older means a decline in roles and a depreciation in value as the stock female parts of ingenue and romantic lead fade out of view. For Hahn, however, aging through the eyes and lens of a filmmaker who is enthralled by the entirety of her body and mind is a thrilling prospect. “There is something quite moving and profound about growing old alongside somebody that knows you so well,” she said. “To grow along with each other’s brains and bodies is something special.”
Like its source material, Soloway’s “I Love Dick” is a triumphant scrambling of art and life, a “matriarchal revolution,” a battle cry for any woman who has yearned to make something of herself, while only ever knowing how to criticize herself.
In her book, Kraus is both author and character, subject and object. As a woman, in the 1990s, this was new terrain. With her TV adaptation, Soloway bolsters Kraus’ words with the help of a writers room comprised entirely of women ― no male genius required. Kevin Bacon, for the record, credited the writers with creating two of “the best, most well-rounded male characters that I’ve read in a long time.”
What happens when a woman writes the story of herself ― activated, lustful and unafraid? What happens when a woman brings this story to the screen, expanding Chris Kraus’ narrative to house the entire history of feminist art? This was the revolution Soloway had in mind.
“Patriarchy recycles male protagonism over and over,” she said. “Every piece of art that is from a man’s point of view continues to make men feel like the subjects. We are women writing, women shooting, women turning the world upside down. You are not seeing women through a male perspective at all. That is a new feeling.”
Soloway described the powers of activated female desire as “too dangerous for this planet.” The exact effects remain to be seen. It seems safe to say, though, that the holy mythology of the lone, male artist is ― like Dick’s artistic legacy ― reaching its expiration date.
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