Your Time Is Running Out

Amazon Never Deserved ‘I Love Dick’s’ Transgressive Feminist Brilliance

The premature cancellation of ‘I Love Dick’ is a reminder that while women and survivors appear to have taken center stage, certain men still have the power to cut the mic.

Leann Mueller

In season one, episode five of Amazon’s I Love Dick, titled “A Short History of Weird Girls,” female protagonists take turns addressing the alpha male at the center of their world. Standing in the desert of Marfa, staring at the camera, each woman invokes Dick, the “Great Man.” The implication is that, while this alpha artist may have been too absorbed to notice the women that surrounded him in the past—the artists, curators, workers, girlfriends, one-night stands—he would be made to notice them now. “Dear Dick, what if we all started writing you letters,” Kathryn Hahn’s Chris proposes. “Dear Dick—we are not far from your doorstep,” India Menuez intones at the end of the episode. “Your time is running out.”

“A Short History of Weird Girls” is a terrifyingly prescient piece of television that predated the current entertainment industry reckoning but somehow still manages to be completely of the moment. Its Amazon episode blurb, “The women of Marfa expose their history of desire,” is only a tiny piece of a much larger puzzle. As each woman narrates her sexual and romantic history, the things that she desired and everything that was desired of her, the stories brush up against larger systems—masculinity, the art world, academia. Menuez’s Toby struggles to be legible as an art historian, and an artist in her own right; she narrates, “There are 500 times as many female nudes in art history textbooks, Dick, as there are female artists.” Lily Mojekwu plays a curator frustrated by Dick’s unwillingness to approve a single feminist art show, insisting, “I’m still here, searching for something you’ll say yes to.”

In the eight months since “A Short History of Weird Girls” started streaming, the prophecy of a generation of women pounding down the gatekeeper’s door has been fulfilled a thousand times over. Suddenly, the histories of women’s desires—what they wanted, what they didn’t want—are being compiled and reported out, published and pored over, passed around and interrogated. In the novel I Love Dick—the cult source material—Chris Kraus writes that, “Who gets to speak, and why, is the only question.” How appropriate then that I Love Dick, a show that was co-created by Jill Soloway and written entirely by female and gender non-conforming folks, was cancelled this week by Amazon, a platform that’s trying to outrun its own sexual harassment scandal. At a moment when women’s most intimate stories are the most talked-about things around—when women’s narratives are, if not accepted or even universally believed, at the very least on trend—non-male storytellers are still fighting for (and losing) the right to have their voices heard.

In 1968, Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” At the beginning of “A Short History of Weird Girls,” Chris tells Dick, “I don’t care how you see me.” Looking into the camera, and the audience, she continues, “I don’t care if you want me. It’s enough that I want you.” It’s one of the million potential readings of the 21 minutes of television: a turn from being desired (the assumed goal of any female character, assumed because no one bothered to ask her) to desiring. Chris’ desire makes a man into a sexual object and humiliates and unmoors him along the way. The desires of her female peers threaten even more chaos: new artists, new curators, new voices, new art. The episode’s closing note, “Your time is running out,” speaks directly to men’s fears of being replaced, dethroned, and disregarded. It’s a conversation that bounces back and forth between the world that Jill Soloway created and the one that they inhabit; Soloway and their non-cis collaborators are, in fact, gunning for the funding and acclaim that was previously the almost-exclusive purview of cis white men. And as we’ve seen in the past few months, telling the truth about women’s lives, splitting the world open, has consequences—we’re not talking about a peaceful transfer of power. As Lindy West insisted, “Yes, this is a witch hunt. I’m a witch and I’m hunting you.”

No wonder Soloway has described I Love Dick as “a tool of the matriarchal revolution.” But, as Soloway illustrates so deftly, this patriarchy-toppling female gaze is not a blunt, man-hating instrument. The female protagonists approach their cis male specimen with a combination of derision, anger, admiration and desire. They are the rebuttal to every two-dimensional portrayal of women by men. Like Moira Donegan, the creator of the “Shitty Media Men” list noted in her recent self-outing, “This is another toll that sexual harassment can take on women: It can make you spend hours dissecting the psychology of the kind of men who do not think about your interiority much at all.” Again, it’s an idea that I Love Dick was already wrestling with—the cumulative days and months that we have all spent in careful consideration of men who rarely look back at us. 

But Donegan continued: “There is something that’s changed: Suddenly, men have to think about women, our inner lives and experiences of their own behavior, quite a bit. That may be one step in the right direction.” Speaking on the fear that has finally pushed cis men to consider the humanity of their female friends and colleagues, Molly Fischer wrote for The Cut, “I wondered if the fear men now felt was borne of an alarming recognition: that women whom they may or may not have seen as equals could nonetheless prove a threat.” Which brings us right back to the closing argument of “A Short History of Weird Girls”: “Your time is running out.”

In I Love Dick, women and their unleashed interiorities wreak havoc on Marfa. Men like Dick, who previously populated the desert with phallic statues and ruled over everyone in it, are suddenly left impotent. It’s a feminist fantasy of a powerful man finally having to reckon with the messy desires (not to mention the vision and intelligence) of the women around him. Soloway seems to acknowledge that they’re essentially creating feminist propaganda. “I know it more than ever with Transparent and Dick, is that I’m a writing a reality,” they told the HuffPost. “I’m writing a reality that I want to live in. And men have been doing that to us since forever, and then you start to kind of wake up to it, you know? And you realize even something that might be an earnest, creative submission to the canon by another white, heterosexual cis male really is also propaganda.”

Unfortunately, back in the real world, time ran out on Soloway’s feminist propaganda first. Clearly, the powers that be over at Amazon weren’t sufficiently afraid of the backlash they might receive for canceling I Love Dick, along with Tig Notaro’s One Mississippi. It’s an important reminder that while women and survivors might appear to have taken center stage in the current cultural moment, certain men still have the power to cut the mic.

‘Niche, critically acclaimed content’ appears to be a euphemism for female-led projects.

It sucks that a company like Amazon, which lost its programming chief just three months ago after a female executive producer went public with sexual harassment claims, has now decided, at the request of Jeff Bezos, to “steer away from niche, critically acclaimed content.” It sucks that “niche, critically acclaimed content” appears to be a euphemism for female-led projects. It sucks that Tig Notaro is possibly being punished for her show’s ties to Louis C.K., despite being one of the few comics who publicly attempted to distance herself from C.K., and despite making lovely, funny television that tackled issues of sexual harassment and abuse so well, and with much-needed nuance. As one headline about the cancellation spree asked, “Did Amazon Just Decide They Were Too Relevant?”

Still, no Amazon exec can take away the absurd fact that a show like I Love Dick existed in the first place—a show where complicated women spoke words that men didn’t write for them. Soloway envisioned the kinder, more radical world that we’ve all been wondering about and waiting for and worked from inside of it, putting together a team of femmes and queers and deliberately taking up space in a medium that has consistently been hostile toward women.

As Soloway recalled when reminiscing on “A Short History of Weird Girls,” “You really thought of giving voice to all the women, or major women characters in the show, in the ways that we were sharing those conversations about ourselves, our mothers, our sisters, our friends…that really is how the episode was born.” Soloway never promised that putting these female interiorities forward would change everything. But the series did manage to make the entertainment industry slightly less homogeneous—less straight and male and white—and more habitable for everyone else. Both on and off screen, I Love Dick allowed us to imagine the future we’re currently creating.