25 years ago, I watched, slack-jawed, as Angela Davis rode up to me on her mountain bike, her quads more defined than any paper topic I would think up that first year of doctoral study at UC Santa Cruz. “So I understand-uh that you’re one of our new stu-dents-uh. Is that right?” When she spoke, I blinked fuzzily, like a baby plunked down in front of a Christmas tree, mesmerized by the most famous person in bike shorts I would ever meet. “Yes,” I managed. She smiled approvingly, “Oh, I’m so happy to meet you.” The street lamps and nearby café lighting flickered, almost imperceptibly. As I suspected, the entire town ran on the power of Angela Davis’s charisma.
Later that week, I attended a welcoming event for new students. There we were, scruffy and awash in cortisol and imposter syndrome. We milled about a modernist piazza of sorts, drinking wine from plastic cocktail glasses and aping European conventions by kissing one another on the cheek. Given its proximity to the lips of UC Santa Cruz luminaries like Judith Butler, Donna Haraway, and RW Connell, my cheek is fucking brilliant.
I got into this hotbed of critical and cultural studies by proposing to study popular cultural desire in queer spectatorial communities. The problem was: I had no idea what I meant by any of those things. I was 25 and from West Texas, where I grew up feral military working class. My connection to popular culture was as consumer.of.it. I swilled it down like Schlitz malt liquor between bites of Der Weinerschnitzel and appropriated anything I could even kind of construe as lesbian: Lindsey Wagner’s Bionic Woman, whose amnesia about Steve Austin gave me a fighting chance; whiny little bicurious Chris Cahill (Mariel Hemingway) in Personal Best; Leather Tuscadero from Happy Days. I had endured many truncated make-out sessions with boys and enjoyed two satisfactorily sexual relationships with women. Clearly, I was a super big academic expert on queer desire and as semiotic as a weasel on a trampoline.
In my first year at HistCon, I wrote one paper, more or less, imagining and reimagining it for different courses. It was about the spectacle of queer nationality at the 1993 March on Washington. RuPaul was in it. Bill Clinton was in it. Althusser was in it. But not one drop of lesbian desire was in it. I realized that I was paralyzed by my topic, flummoxed by the alienating social conventions of the academy, and perhaps too working class for the (queer) theory to be the practice. I took a leave of absence and never went back. It was a queer failure in that it rejected dominant notions of success. At the time, though, it felt like failure in a plain brown wrapper.
Fast forward 25 years to I Love Dick, still streaming on Amazon despite the nonsensical cancellation of the show’s second season. After watching, my academic career finally makes sense as its own reluctant roadtrip to the desert of desire, its own discovery of succulent failure. Based on the epistolary confessional by real-life avant-garde feminist filmmaker Chris Kraus, I Love Dick chronicles Kraus’s obsession with cultural studies scholar Dick Hebdige. In the capable non-gender-binaried hands of Jill Soloway (Transparent) and Sarah Gubbins, the television version of I Love Dick is set in the LA-occupied art enclave of Marfa, Texas, whose landscape is identical to the hardscrabble high desert plains of my childhood and whose academic pretension sent my amygdala straight back to graduate school circa 1992.
After her latest film is pulled by an Italian film festival because she failed to pay for song rights, 39-year old Chris (Kathryn Hahn) finds herself unexpectedly stranded in Marfa with her 50-something Holocaust scholar husband, Sylvère (Griffin Dunne). Sylvère has been accepted to the Institute of Marfa for a year long writer’s residency with laconic minimalist sculptor, Dick Jarrett (Kevin Bacon). In a scene straight out of academia circa any year, Sylvère is welcomed at the Institute’s opening reception as “one of Dick’s new fellows,” while Chris, as the encumbering non-academic spouse, is reduced to “the Holocaust wife.”
Later, in the pivotal dinner scene, Dick, winner of all existing art accolades, is true to his name. He insults Chris and all films by women: “Unfortunately, most films made by women aren’t.that.good.” Speaking conspiratorially to Sylvère, “My guess is that she doesn’t want to be a filmmaker.” For Chris, who is both dumbfounded and aroused by Dick’s sheer dickishness, the gauntlet has been hurled. “DEAR DICK,” she growls in the scarlet letter voiceover that ties the show to the book, “GAME ON.” As Chris comes to terms with her midlife failures–a sexless, childless marriage and a lackluster career–she develops a snarling sexual obsession with Dick. With each successive brush-off, Chris embraces her infatuation with growing belligerence, penning a series of x-rated letters to her reluctant muse and then posting them throughout Marfa.
True to its semiotic aspirations, I Love Dick manages to show rather than tell us what it looks like when a woman exorcises gendered expectations that are literally ‘written on the body.’ On Transparent, Kathryn Hahn as Rabbi Raquel is a chersonese of emotion regulation in a sea of cringeworthy narcissism and self sabotage. In I Love Dick, Hahn as Kraus embodies those qualities that are split off and disavowed for all but cisgender men under patriarchy: aggression and disobedience, blunt and salacious sexuality, rage about economic insecurity. Hahn literally flails, bellows, and glowers her way to artistic liberation through an embrace of monstrosity.
At times, watching I Love Dick made me feel like 1990s feminist literary criticism (‘clit crit’) and 2016 genderqueer pre-Trump Amerikkka had a baby who grew up to be a little scary and strung out but pretty honest about desire, sex, art, and failure. Does the show succeed as a “feminist, matriarchal, revolution-inspiring comedy about love and sex?” Not exactly. Episode 5, A Short History of Weird Girls, comes the closest. The women of Marfa: Toby (India Menuez), an ethereal and nakedly ambitious conceptual artist; Devon (Roberta Colindrez), a smoldering genderqueer creampuff; and Paula (Lily Mojekwu), a thoughtful black art curator, write Dick their own letters. It is a brilliant series stand-out that almost works as a“Dear Patriarchy, I Am Everywoman” manifesto. To be revolution-inspiring, however, Chris would be less clownish and more monstrous, and the storyline would plumb the deep veins of economic inequality and racism it taps but does not mine.
However, for whatever shortcomings of its singular season, I Love Dick surpasses expectations in two ways: as an experiment with queer gaze and as a tale of queer failure. My Dick is most often a woman, at least materially, and the show spoke just as much to my fetishes and compulsions as to those of my non queer brethren. Similarly, I found the narrative of artistic redemption through unrequited want compelling and honest, a mirror of my own hungry/angry midlife fury to support my family and ‘make a meaningful contribution’ to society and the academy.
Perhaps the subversive potential of I Love Dick is not its explicit and theoretical feminism, but rather, its abilty to transcend gender and heteronormativity with an ironic equalizing phallus. Loving dick looks and sounds the same for Chris who literally loves Dick/dick as for Toby and Devon who, in a memorable scene, love ‘phantom dick.’ After consuming popular culture as a queer spectator for nearly 40 years, I can say this chain of equivalence is rarely forged so convincingly.
Just because Chris’s particular obsession is with the archetypal Marlboro man, her fantasies and those of the other characters are fueled by the same longing to be seen and validated and to make something good in this world. The tale is very Freudian in that way, ultimately positing liberation through sublimation, or as Herbert Marcuse suggested in One Dimensional Man, political freedom through autonomous (critical) art. Devon’s “Beauty Dance,” which seemingly used the ‘real’ men of Marfa to queer hegemonic masculinity, is a tantalizing but too brief example.
When she’s almost done with Dick, Chris writes, “My obsession with you, or whatever it is, has made it possible for me to accept my failures: my failure as a filmmaker and the failure of my marriage.” In the end, the inevitable and demystifying encounter with the idealized Other is as good as it gets: Dick uses stool softener, pays someone to move the boulders for which he has been celebrated, and is exposed as a poseur from New York who neither succeeded in the New York art scene, nor in making Chris wet. She did that herself, literally through her own (pro)creativity.
Through voluntary abjection, we find an undiscovered well of inspiration, not unlike Dick’s concrete stock tank in the final episode. In reclaiming renounced genius, which we too willingly disown and project onto others, we step forward on our developmental paths. Sometimes the road is dusty and unmarked, and we’re wearing little more than the shirts on our backs.