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A Short History of Weird Girls

Shawna Lipton

I Love Dick by Chris Kraus was published by Semiotext(e) in 1998. The book is a darkly comic exploration of female desire, ambition, and creative production. Under the auspices of writing letters to “Dick”, her object of desire (and a man she barely knows), Chris Kraus finds her voice as a writer, thinker, and critic. Although the book begins in the epistolary form, it evolves into a series of essays in which Kraus puts herself in dialogue with primarily female writers and artists. The tone becomes more self-assured and assertive as she writes passionately and persuasively about art. In the novel Chris is thirty-nine and wrestling with the choices she has made over the past ten years. She has built up the academic career of her husband, a prominent critic and theorist, but she is tired of being his perpetual “plus one” in the intellectual and artistic circles in which they move. Forty looms large as a perceived “expiry date” for women, but this book demonstrates that one’s insight and talent can flourish at precisely the time their body and beauty are supposedly no longer in their prime. Since writing this book Chris Kraus has gone on to publish many more novels, and works of criticism, honing her craft as a singular artist in her own right. The Amazon series inspired by the book I Love Dick was released 2016-2017. The series is not an adaptation so much as a contemporary riff on some of Kraus’s themes. Kraus has said she wanted to create a “’goofball loser’ on the page, a distinctly unglamorous ‘female antihero’ who could screw things up and make an annoying, entertaining fool of herself while still living to tell the tale”. Kathryn Hahn embodies this charming “goofball loser” persona, perhaps more than the protagonist of the novel. The humor shines through in the series, where the story is transplanted to modern day Marfa, Texas, and the milieu of workers, cowboys, and wannabe intellectuals is far less rarified than that of the elite art stars and literati that populate the book.

The novel explores Chris’s inner workings, with some insight into her married life with her husband Sylvère, and passing glances at the elusive Dick, but the show features a more robust ensemble cast. Actor Roberta Colindrez’s performance as Devon is an especially notable addition. The standout episode, which works as a standalone piece, is episode five, “A Short History of Weird Girls”, directed by Soloway and co-written by playwrights Heidi Schreck and Annie Baker. In this episode Hahn’s Chris, declares: “Sometimes when I walk down the street, I look into the faces of every woman that I pass, and I wonder what she sees. I wonder about the history of her desire.” Granting Chris’s wish, the show’s cast of characters then proceeds to tell their personal embodied histories of desire as monologues delivered face-on to the camera, while flashbacks of their former selves play out behind them. The episode pays visual homage to Naomi Uman’s 1999 experimental film Removed, in which the filmmaker took vintage porn and painstakingly erased each female figure from the scene using nail polish remover, leaving a striking absence where the woman’s body would have appeared. Here, the same white blur appears when the character’s desire is activated, calling attention to a presence rather than an absence. Psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan famously claimed, "Desire is a relation to being to lack.” But Kraus asserts, “I think desire isn’t lack, it’s surplus energy—a claustrophobia inside your skin” (Kraus, 239). In the episode the white moving form that appears when the character’s desire is activated serves as a visual manifestation of this “surplus energy” leaping out from the skin. The characters are literally animated by desire.

The monologues in “A Short History of Weird Girls” recount each of the characters’ relationships to “Dick”. Although Dick is a person in the show portrayed by Kevin Bacon, “Dick” also represents the phallus, the imaginary and symbolic functions of masculinity. For Chris, Dick is a catalyst that helps her get in touch with her own passions- she wants him and that’s enough; he doesn’t need to want her. “I don’t care how you see me,” Chris tells the imagined Dick. “I don’t care if you want me. It’s better that you don’t. It’s enough that I want you.” He serves to remind her how to want things for herself (this is different than in the book where the two do have sex, and it is a harsh reminder that the seduction is not just an erotic game, that he is a real person, and his rejection can hurt her).

Devon, a working class, Mexican-American, gender non-conforming butch character is a handyman, aspiring playwright, and performer. Devon is portrayed as both sexually appealing, and emotionally present (a rare combination for a masculine presenting character in both straight and queer media). Striding through the desert terrain in jeans with a large belt buckle, a black t-shirt with rolled up sleeves, and a tendril of hair falling in their face, Devon’s queer masculinity is unmistakably alluring. The queer gaze lovingly rendered by creators Jill Soloway and Sarah Gubbins is a refreshingly original contribution to the series, given how much the source material emphasizes heterosexual sex and marriage. For Devon, Dick is not an object of lust but a masculine ideal, an ambivalent yet aspirational figure to emulate in the pursuit of women.

For Paula, Dick is the embodiment of the great artist, and she is constantly seeking his approval to curate female artists, to no avail. In intertextual defiance of Dick’s masculinist definitions of art, there are scenes and images from films directed by women scattered throughout the series. These visual references function much like the lyrics to the band Le Tigre’s feminist anthem “Hot Topic”, highlighting inspirational artists, and providing either a thrill of recognition or an opportunity for discovery, encouraging you to research and learn more about the sources (works by Sally Potter, Jane Campion, Chantal Akerman, Cheryl Donegan Carolee Schneemann, Vanalyne Green, Cauleen Smith, Marina Abramovic, Annie Sprinkle, Liz Lerman, and Maya Deren are all featured, with many other visual artists name-checked including Louise Bourgeois, Mickalene Thomas, Kara Walker, and Laura Aguilar).

The final character to speak in the episode is Toby, an art historian studying the aesthetics of hard-core pornography. When a member of her dissertation committee suggests she should switch disciplines from art history to gender studies Toby asserts, “We should be able to study beauty, too. We shouldn’t have to be gender-studies majors.” Toby’s insistence on studying form echoes Kraus’s sentiments in the book, about who gets to have their work considered general and universal. Kraus writes, “No matter how dispassionate or large a vision of the world a woman formulates, whenever it includes her own experience and emotion, the telescope’s turned back on her. Because emotion’s just so terrifying the world refuses to believe that it can be pursued as discipline, as form” (Kraus, 196). This episode takes experience and emotion seriously, as sources of knowledge worthy of attention and thought. Unlike Paula, Toby does not seek Dick’s approval or permission to create or succeed. Her drive and ambition to achieve his level of prestige reflects white feminism’s tendency toward self-serving careerism (Devon is notably the only one who challenges her to examine her race and class privilege) but the show seems aware of this, even as it gives her the last word. “Dear Dick” she cautions, “we are not far from your doorstep.”

All of these characters are flawed and unlikable at times, but “A Short History of Weird Girls” is effective because it channels Kraus’s insurgent spirit: “I think the sheer fact of women talking, being, paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive but above all else public is the most revolutionary thing in the world” (Kraus, 210).

References

Schwartz, Alexandra. “A Deflated Adaptation of the Singular Cult Novel ‘I Love Dick.’” The New Yorker. 7 July 2017. www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/a-deflated-adaptation-of-the-singular-cult-novel-i-love-dick.