During UVC I wrote about Jill Soloway, a director working in Hollywood, whose award-winning television show, Transparent, won numerous high-profile awards. Soloway’s work is always a deconstruction of the male gaze and she speaks often about a female counterpart. Last week Amazon released an 8 part series, produced, written and directed by Soloway, alongside a rich team which she is known for being able to gather, called I Love Dick, based on the book by Chris Kraus (1997). An incredibly detailed description and review of the show by journalist Alison Herman for The Ringer tells us, “This is a successful adaptation not because Soloway and Gubbins made I Love Dick work for television, but because they somehow made television work for I Love Dick.” (2017) They harnessed the medium rather than let it dictate to them. (Avoid reading Herman’s review until after you’ve watched the series as it really is expansive and risks narrowing down personal interpretation.)
The programme is worth looking at here, if for no other reason than Soloway explores the idea of a female gaze so effectively and aims to rebalance the way we perceive gender and sexuality. She diffuses difference without dismissing what makes each of us valuable. I have also been watching The Playboy drama documentary which is fascinating because it really highlights the strange and peculiar way women were/are surveyed. (Hefner’s story is made all the more complex because of his unstinting support for the civil right’s movement and commitment to robust and challenging editorial, which perhaps in the end only heightens the intense oddness of the weird and creepy, paternalistic, sexualised ownership of the female – epitomised by the bunny girl. Polly Borland’s Bunny is a fantastic reposte, incidentally, which I will return to in this module).
However, there is a critical scene in I love Dick where one of the characters, Devon, as described by Herman, “…calls out Toby (another protagonist) for a self-indulgent stunt on a construction site: “[You’re] inflicting your privilege on these working-class, mostly brown dudes so you or someone like you can see what happens.” This might be viewed as a powerful and accurate accusation which can be aimed at so much post modern life. And perhaps it is a trap that photography in particular seems to fall into. How many images do we see of distressed people, distressed for any number of reasons, in documentary art images? People who might be deemed as having less privilege with a look of ennui being surveyed? There are so very many images like this online and I wonder if once captured and shared, these images become reduced so significantly in emotional value by their number, that they end up somehow reducing the subject’s value too.
The way in which reality TV production companies harness everyday life, turning people’s daily struggles into entertainment which can be screened into everyone’s living room should also be a highly contentious activity. However, it has become so normalised no one thinks to question companies which air programmes about children being left to fend for themselves on TV. Nor do people question the trend which has led to two decades of prurient-satisfying production, disguised as educational ‘behavioural help’, where a family’s inability to cope is aired nationally… mainly so we “can see what happens”. Do these programmes actually help people as they claim to, or simply impose upper middle class mores on everyone and patronise anyone who fails to fit into those quite narrow constructs?
I love Dick is an important television show but not only because it explores and reconfigures the way in which gendered sexuality is represented in popular culture. It asks wider questions about the way in which popular culture shapes reality, and it finds the problems, even when those problems might be of its own making (produced as it is by privileged Hollywood) and opens them up for discussion. It’s important in the same way as Fleabag by Phoebe Waller-Bridge (BBC4, 2016) is. These are both popular culture texts that “come by its themes in a way that [feels] natural as opposed to force-fed” (Herman, 2017). The themes are challenging and not easily digestible. But the fact such programmes can be made at all is worth noting.
I think there is much to learn from Soloway’s work, which is brave and inventive, and although one may not agree with everything she says in talks and interviews, or with how she says them, she raises questions and attempts to reach alternatives in a way that is admirable and worth the effort. It is troubling to be promoting Amazon just by mentioning I Love Dick, but at the same time one can’t help but feel grateful that Amazon’s production policy make it possible for this sort of popular culture to be made at all.