Film & TV

Apple TV’s Dickinson Does Damage to the Poet’s Legacy

Hailee Steinfeld in Dickinson (AppleTV)
The show’s marketers call Dickinson “a woman ahead of her time,” but she’s more like the Apple equivalent of Disney’s stock rebellious teen.

Emily Dickinson shouldn’t be Hollywood’s feminist fantasy.

The new Apple TV series Dickinson dropped a few weeks ago, based on the life of 19th-century American poet Emily Dickinson. The trailer features singer-songwriter Hailee Steinfeld as the introverted poet, dancing like Taylor Swift in a pseudo-19th-century dress, exclaiming “sick!” She also gets intimate with another woman, all to the tune of a repetitive dance track.

The show makes good on the trailer’s bad promises. Characters speak in 21st-century slang. Dickinson introduces her brother in Episode 1 by asking, “‘Sup, bro?” Dickinson takes immense liberties with the female poet’s radical writing style to prop her up as the ideal 2019 feminist: irreverent, immature, and sexually fluid.

The show does real damage to one of history’s best female poets. Dickinson was the daughter of a well-known lawyer and the middle child of a staunchly religious family. If she was rebellious, it was merely by contrast. Though she may not have been as loyal to the church as her family was, it would be equally far-fetched to say she rejected religion and convention wholesale. She wrote avidly, saw few people outside her family, and limited most of her excursions to the garden.

Of course, the show doesn’t pretend to be serious. When Dickinson’s parents go out of town in Episode 3, the Dickinson children throw a party, twerk, and take opium. Emily hallucinates the image of a bumblebee the size of a horse. As with the musical Hamilton, this may be the only impression people have of an important historical figure. But unlike Hamilton, Dickinson takes liberties with history that harm the poet’s image.

The show will likely supersede any high-school level knowledge the average watcher had of her. Rather than “I heard a fly buzz when I died,” viewers will remember her poetry taken largely out of context, as in Episode 3, when she composes the poem “Wild Nights” for her brother’s fiancée, Sue, who is also portrayed as Emily’s lesbian lover: “Wild nights!/Were I with thee/Wild nights should be/Our luxury!” (According to Publisher’s Weekly, Dickinson’s posthumous editor and friend Thomas W. Higginson “worried about including this poem in the 1891 volume of her poetry ‘lest the malignant read into it more than that virgin recluse ever dreamed of putting there.’”) And while some scholars have asserted that Dickinson was romantically interested in her brother’s wife, they have never proven the two women were anything but close friends. Another legend is that Dickinson pined after a married minister; if anything, her closeted affections were illicit, not explicit.

But not only does the show sensationalize Dickinson’s personal history (presumably to attract a more woke audience), it doesn’t even do that well.

In an attempt to make her flat female characters look more interesting by contrast, Dickinson screenwriter Alena Smith gives the audience an award-worthy collection of idiots for men. What starts off as a mildly amusing parody of masculinity in Emily’s brother Austin falls apart when he writes a lousy poem for a town event. Comedian John Mulaney joins the cast for the fourth episode to play transcendentalist author Henry David Thoreau, whose mother does his laundry and who spews aphorisms because he believes an Amherst College newspaper is interviewing him. And Emily’s main suitor George (portrayed by Samuel Farnsworth) is probably the only decent character in the show, but he is painfully out of touch with reality, joking about how many children he and Emily will have though she’s repeatedly turned him down.

This false caricature of masculinity grows more ridiculous when Emily’s father forbids her from attending a lecture at Amherst College in Episode 2. Never mind that the real Dickinson attended lectures at the college frequently. Emily and Sue dress as boys in what Sue calls “the kind of stunt that only works in stories,” and hardly a boy at the college gives them more than a second glance.

In a recent interview with Yahoo News, screenwriter Smith called the show much more accurate than it appears: “Even the things she did, you’d be surprised how many of them are really true,” she said.

The New York Times dug into the series’ accuracy in an Oct. 30 article, quoting scholars who emphasized Dickinson’s gothic severity, as if you could equate her antisocial tendencies and morbid sense of humor with drugged-up house parties and eroticism. What the Times proved was not that Dickinson is an accurate portrayal of Emily, but that progressive scholars liked it. “If Apple’s loosened-up, and sexed-up, young Emily takes things way over the top, scholars say they are here for it,” Jennifer Schuessler wrote.

Screenwriter Alena Smith told the Times that this portrayal of Dickinson serves an underlying point, as she believes that Dickinson wasn’t understood in her time. “I use that as my excuse,” she told the Times. “If she wasn’t that well understood in her time, can we understand her better in ours?”

In fact, we know almost nothing of the poet, save that she locked herself alone in her room for most of her life, writing poems — poems she never even wanted published. What we do know of Dickinson is that she was a trailblazer, but not in the way progressives think of “trailblazing” in 2019. She was a female poet because she was good at writing poetry, not because she wanted to bring down the patriarchy.

But by rewriting Dickinson as the wild girl at the party, this fast-and-loose adaptation will do the exact opposite; it will leave one of the best female poets misunderstood. If Dickinson was really a bisexual wild child, her poetry wouldn’t need a third-rate TV series to prove it.

As Emily says to a friend at one point: “You’d have to be pretty stupid to fall for this.”


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