Many of us grew up in an age where Disney princesses were rescued by handsome princes, and lived happily ever after. We grew up in an age where Meg Ryan, Kate Hudson, Katherine Heigl et al. ruled the screen, breathlessly falling in love in the most unlikely of places. We grew up in an age with not one, but two, critically acclaimed Pride and Prejudice adaptations. The importance of love was clear; to quote Ewan McGregor's character in Moulin Rouge, "Love is a many splendored thing. Love lifts us up where we belong. All you need is love!"
But then, we grew up. We learned relationships are hard, love can be toxic, and we were encouraged to give up on the idea of having a singular soulmate. Girls, in particular, had a whole new set of rules to learn: put yourself first. Put your career above all. Don't settle down to soon. Don't make big life decisions based on a man (because yes, most of these lectures were aimed at the straight girls in the house). Not to mention the rules imposed on us by our own generation: be chill. Don't come on too strong. Don't date, just "hang out." Don't be clingy. Don't label anything. Don't rush it.
As if having to un-learn everything we were taught about love and swap it for a more "feminist" and nonchalant framework wasn't enough of a mindfuck, we haven't even mentioned perhaps the most challenging part of love: our honest-to-God feelings. Trying to be an impervious Mary-Jane career-focused lady warrior is all well and good, until you actually experience infatuation and literally every social lesson you've ever learned flies out of the window. I'm sure everyone reading this has thought about a crush too much, launched into the oblivion that is "internet stalking," or done something truly insane for our paramour.
To add to this ever-growing clusterfuck of conflicting desires, according to NIMH, 18% of American adults have been diagnosed with anxiety disorders, and 6.7% were diagnosed with major depressive episodes in 2015. That means 1 in 5 of us are shut out of the narrative labelled 'normal' romance and infatuation, whatever that is.
In short? Between the narratives fed to us as children, the need to adhere to liberal or feminist values, the rise of "chill," mental health issues, our actual feelings, and probably countless other factors, we're fucking doomed. Just kidding. But it is a real and present challenge; and like all obstacles in life, culture can provide us with answers — or at least solidarity.
I Love Dick: A New Kind of Female Life
20 years ago, one book navigated all of these perils and pitfalls of modern love with aplomb. In 1997, Chris Kraus published I Love Dick, and reshaped the face of feminism forever. Structured as a series of letters to the object of her affection, (the very real) Dick, ILD conquered everything from love to literary criticism, marriage to feminism, obsession to academia. In the foreword to I Love Dick, Eileen Myles said "When I Love Dick came into existence, a new kind of female life did, too." This is not an overstatement; I Love Dick gracefully manoeuvred through the landscape of modern life, showing us the innermost workings of a woman who happened to be in the throes of a somewhat subjugating romantic obsession. But what about keeping it feminist? I'll let Kraus herself tackle that one:
“Because I'm moved in writing to be irrepressible. Writing to you seems like some holy cause, cause there's not enough female irrepressibility written down. I've fused my silence and repression with the entire female gender's silence and repression. 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.”
The book shines with this candor and intelligence throughout, transforming the idea of woman talking about love (and everything besides) into a radically feminist act. But is the spirit of this 20-year-old novel still true to women's experiences of love in 2017? Well, we're about to find out.
On May 12th, #ILoveDick will be released as a TV series by Amazon, created by Jill Soloway (of Transparent fame) and starring Kathryn Hahn as Chris and Kevin Bacon as the eponymous Dick. The pilot released last year to mixed reviews, but the full series just nabbed the Jury Prize at Paris's Series Mania festival, so it seems too soon to tell whether the I Love Dick TV show will become the revolution that its source material was in the '90s. Luckily, the TV landscape in 2017 already has a handful of young shows which are exploring infatuation from a female perspective in all of its messy, complicated glory. I Love Dick's Chris will (hopefully) join a small coven of female protagonists whose infatuation is not the sum of their parts; whose multi-faceted characterization prevents them from becoming yet another 'crazy girlfriend' cliche, and allows them to say something poignant about being a little crazy in love.
Love: Addiction In Two Dimensions
In 2016, #Netflix's Love introduced us to Mickey Dobbs, a character who it seemed could be the spiritual successor to the Chris Kraus's character in I Love Dick. Mickey was a bit of a mess; although she's gorgeous, the proprietor of a stunning apartment and a semi-successful career in radio, she's also an addict, who can turn literally anything into obsession. Drugs, alcohol, obsessive relationships and compulsive sexual habits plagued Mickey's life — but herein lay the opportunity of her character. Mickey was primed to be an excellent guide through the ugly, murky waters of intense love.
The first season of Love succeeded in giving us a Mickey to admire and a Mickey who made us cringe; a Mickey who rocked a Letterman jacket like nobody else, who casually charmed Andy Dick into a meaningful friendship, but also a Mickey who turned up at the workplace of a guy who she'd been dating for several weeks and screamed at him for not texting her back. The scenes where she frantically tried to track down the object of her obsession and "fix" how they got off track rang painfully true. Not a one-dimensional addict or a one-dimensional crazy girlfriend, Mickey contained enough multitudes to keep her character interesting and the stunning performances turned in by Gillian Jacobs certainly didn't hurt either.
However, #Love is an interesting show plagued with issues. One need look no further than the fact the writers decided to turn their one fat character into a slovenly, garbage-person-cliche to see this show is far from perfect, and often veers into laziness. The root of Love's issues may lie in the show's concept; Judd Apatow and Paul Rust initially saw Love as a rom-com about two people who weren't supposed to end up together; a "nice guy" and a "cool girl" who are more than the sum of their parts. It's a neat idea, but it's slightly one note. Season 2 expands the purview somewhat, and offers some raw and engaging moments. One thing that's stuck with me is a line that Mickey says about Paul supporting her addiction recovery: "If he goes 'I'm proud of you' one more time, I'm gonna slit his fucking throat." This moment felt like a mild revelation; we finally got to see Mickey explicitly airing her frustration at Gus's quasi-patronizing support. Yet, this line was played as a pithy one-liner, followed immediately by a cut scene.
Plus, Love seems slightly too enamored with the image of Mickey-as-cool-girl to really explore the depths of addiction. The show has definitely matured from the manic-pixie-swimsuit Mickey we met in the opening scenes of Season 1, but she never quite gets the chance to shake off the "cool girl" label she's been lumped with. We see moments of destructive thinking and behavior that tap into something very real, but Mickey's destructive and wild past often feels like the butt of a joke, or a source of wry admiration rather than the source of real pain. Not to mention, Season 2 is committed to telling us over and over that Mickey is too much for Paul, that Mickey will destroy Paul, that Mickey is Bad News. For the self-destructive ladies in the house, this may ring true of what people have said about us as we desperately try to clean up your acts. But Love hammers it home to such an extent that it feels like we're meant to believe these comments. This is certainly supported by the ex-boyfriend-carry-on Mickey launches herself into at the end of Season 2. Messed up women may feel like aren't worthy of real, vulnerable, supportive love, but it sometimes feels like Love thinks Mickey genuinely isn't worthy of this.
Insecure: In Infatuation, Nobody Is Safe
Issa Rae's Insecure presents us with a female protagonist who's much more together than Love's Mickey. Issa has a loving boyfriend, real passions, meaningful friendships, and a stable job which offers moments of fulfillment. However, Insecure Season 1 is a masterclass in demonstrating how even those of us who've found healthy loving relationships and basically have our shit together can fall peril to the destabilizing effects of infatuation.
One of the key tenets of Insecure Season 1 is Issa's infatuation with "the one that got away"; Daniel, a creative, gorgeous ex-boyfriend who comes back into her life and makes her feel wanted. The allure of Daniel is further compounded by the fact that Issa's current boyfriend, Lawrence, is long-term unemployed, and their relationship is in a bit of rut. Using Kraus's framework, in dealing with her crush, Issa is certainly "paradoxical, inexplicable, flip, self-destructive". She contrives a meeting with Daniel (which involves deceiving her best friend into coming with her), rejects him, tries to push him out her life, lets him back in a little bit, fantasizes about him, fucks him, regrets it deeply. She spends most of the season flitting between trying to strengthen her current relationship, and slowly succumbing to her attraction to Daniel. Her behavior is erratic and somewhat neurotic; we see her doing the social-media-stalking thing — an element also present in Love, which seems to have become an integral trope of infatuation on TV. More strikingly, we see Issa lie and delude herself, her best friend and her partner about her feelings and actions. Tellingly though, Issa's transgressions are relatable, rather than damning. The central female characters of Insecure are flawed, but sympathetic; they have triumphs and humiliations, they make decisions and double back on them. In short, they feel like real, irrepressible women.
Perhaps my only gripe is Insecure Season 1 is that I wanted to see more screen time dedicated to exploring Issa's rapping aspirations. The first episode sees Issa impressing at an open mic, but this early success isn't really built upon throughout the rest of the season. The series is punctuated with scenes of Issa rapping to herself in bathrooms, as a way to explore her innermost feelings and exorcise her demons. Yet as the show progresses, these scenes take a backseat to the bigger narrative threads. These asides — and her passion for rap in general — seemed bursting with promise in the first few episodes; a way to celebrate Issa's strengths and talents, whilst also excavating the depths of her consciousness. Hopefully, Insecure Season 2 will deliver more of Issa's bathroom rapping — and another ridiculously good soundtrack.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend: Crazy, Cringe-worthy, Irrepressible
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is another show which uses music as an extra dimension to explore female characters who are crazy in love; arguably, more successfully than Insecure. As a musical dramedy about a woman who quits her high-profile job to follow her childhood sweetheart across the country, #CrazyExGirlfriend may seem like an unlikely spiritual successor to I Love Dick. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend gives us a protagonist who is smart, resourceful and desirable, but whose shocking attempts to manufacture love launch her into a world of obsession, selfishness, delusion and humiliation.
Many are turned off by how Crazy Ex-Girlfriend explores these themes, deeming it anti-feminist, or simply too cringey. But Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tackles all of the tropes of a modern woman in love, and rather than just flippantly subverting them, it explores them all on deeper levels. It tackles every contradictory facet I mentioned in the intro: the Disney/rom-com ideas of love, the overwhelming desire to be chill and keep our neuroses under wraps, how feminism can seem at odds with modern romance, how infatuation can lead us to unhealthy behaviors like social-media-stalking, how mental illness complicates the picture. Plus, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend does all of this with song and dance, without ever taking itself too seriously. Hell, it even tackles the main downfall of Love: the idea that mental illness is somehow cool and sexy:
In terms of Rebecca's own "craziness," the idea that she is too crazy or cringe-worthy to be a compelling protagonist does smack a little of sexism. If we can buy Ted Mosby's 9-season odyssey of romantic discovery (including some truly crazy behavior, like organizing multiple house parties to see a girl he likes) in How I Met Your Mother, why can't we sit through Rebecca doing the same thing?
The Ted comparison feels particularly apt, because both Ted and Rebecca are primarily in love with the idea of love. For them, romantic actualization is not about the journey, it's about the destination — and it doesn't really matter who's waiting at the finish line. We see them go to extraordinary lengths to convince themselves and others that they're "destined" to be with someone, when they were saying the same thing about an entirely different person only episodes ago. Yet whilst Ted was considered the lovable, romantic hero of a wildly successful, family-friendly sitcom, Rebecca and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend somehow remain at the cutting edge of network television.
So why is Rebecca doing many of the same things Ted did so noteworthy? Perhaps because CEG actually explores the wonky mental cosmology that has led Rebecca down this path, whilst Ted is merely accepted as a "romantic," with no real interrogation of his motives. However, it might also be because this paradigm of how we treat male and female love objects has plagued our culture for centuries.
You can currently go enjoy Beauty and the Beast in theaters, which starts with a man/beast literally trapping a woman at the start of their nascent love. Consider also American Beauty, 500 Days of Summer, City Lights, Vertigo, The Great Gatsby, Forrest Gump, There's Something About Mary, Scott Pilgrim vs the World. This is not to say that men are never condemned nor women never celebrated for their infatuations, but the scales are certainly tipped that way. One of the key reasons for this, I would argue, is the gender dynamic that men should be the pursuers and wooers, and women the passive recipients. Whilst this prescriptive view can be direly repressive for all parties, women who find themselves utterly infatuated often end up with the raw end of the deal. Culture abounds with ravenous, hysterical women whose passions are their undoing.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's moral, though, is not that "Rebecca is only doing what guys do already"; like all of its thematic explorations, the answer is much more complex than that. CEG features a male foil for Rebecca, Trent, who is infatuated with her; and his actions read as pretty fucking creepy. To make matters even more slippery, Rebecca and Trent end up sleeping together. There's no clear moral here — and therein lies Crazy Ex-Girlfriend's strength. There are no easy answers, least of all when it comes to what Rebecca will do next. To go back to Kraus, if we accept the idea that "women talking, being paradoxical..." is a revolutionary, feminist act, then Rebecca is a feminist icon. She is all of the above in droves, and takes up a hell of a lot of space. We've seen her inexplicably bang a barista when she's on a date with someone else; swear off Josh only to enter into a committed relationship with him an episode later; and ignore a nasty UTI to the point where she literally semi-destroys herself and ends up in hospital. Rebecca is many things, but she is irrepressible above all.
Looking To The Future: I Love Dick and Other Voices
Insecure might break the mold to an extent, but the other shows discussed here offer fairly homogeneous protagonists. They're all unmistakably unique characters, but they're also mostly white, straight, financially comfortable, cisgender, able-bodied, slim, attractive... In danger of running off every privilege known to man, suffice it say that they fall into a narrow sliver of female experience. A theme as unique and challenging as modern romance and infatuation would undoubtedly benefit from more voices. I Love Dick will reportedly explore infatuation from the queer female viewpoint as well, both strong steps to moving the narrative of messy love away from a purely white, straight perspective.
This issue of representation ties into a wider issue of context. The I Love Dick novel was such a revelation in part because of its genre-bending intertextuality. It gave us not just a 3-dimensional narrator, but one seen from 360 degrees, too. It wasn't about love, it was about life; the infatuation story was supported by a vast sense of context, of the circumstances and cultures which contributed to how Chris felt in any given moment. The shows discussed above give women ample space, but do they give such a broad picture? I'd argue no — not yet. But with the respective protagonists of Insecure and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend both newly-minted single ladies, the new seasons have ample room to explore wider a purview. In its exploration of black womanhood, Insecure is certainly heading down this track already. As a TV show, I Love Dick cannot be as literally intertextual as its source material, but I hope it finds a way to retain the intellectual rigor and sociological sense of space.
In short, there's still work to be done. But this doesn't diminish the liberating impact of simply seeing women on TV wrestling with a violence of feeling most of us don't want to admit we're capable of. Indeed, when it premieres on May 12th, I Love Dick will be entering a fascinating corner of television; one that's taken us into the Magic Castle, introduced us to a song called 'Broken Pussy', and shown us a woman's ass-blood after a waxing mishap. But more than the quality of the writing, humor and pathos, these shows are doing important work. With so much "wisdom" and culture around how women should love, which all seems largely removed from the way women actually feel, love and live, the crazy-in-love women of television are giving outlet to the voices that so many of us want and need to hear.
The jury's still out on I Love Dick, but if I have one hope, it's that the show will illuminate a dark corner of the hilarious, exhilarating and terrifying experience of being a real woman in love. With such fantastic source material and existing shows showing a lot of promise in this area, I remain optimistic.
Will you be watching I Love Dick when it premieres on May 12th? Let us know in the comments.