Emily Dickinson Was A "Wild Child?"

Amherst MA: the home of our lovely UMass, Amherst College, Antonio’s Pizza, Bart’s...and Emily Dickinson. As an English major, I am well aware of the belle of Amherst’s “queen bee” status. (Only real Dickinson fans will enjoy that reference.) Professors in class preface her name with “our very own” and if you haven’t been to the Emily Dickinson Museum by now you will be scolded. I had no idea Apple TV existed before I saw the trailer for their new show Dickinson, coming out in November. “The series is described as a comedic look into Dickinson’s world, exploring the constraints of society, gender, and family from the perspective of a budding writer who doesn’t fit in to her own time through her imaginative point of view.” Hailee Steinfeld plays Dickinson, who has been rebranded into a “wild child”. The show is anachronistic, meaning it will not be portraying the 19th century with accuracy. As we see in the trailer, Steinfeld says “dude” coinciding with how the show wants to destabilize the public perception of Dickinson as a shy recluse. 

The trailer left me with a mixed reaction. Though some scholars contest this idea, many believe that Dickinson was bisexual and in a love- triangle with Susan Gilbert and her brother. I am excited to see her sexuality explored and for this show to fight against a long history of forcing Dickinson into a heterosexual box. In the trailer she says “I have one purpose and that is to become a great writer.” Oftentimes, Dickinson is portrayed as if writing was her hobby or something she did for her own personal enjoyment. I believe it is important to not shy away from a woman’s ambition. As we’ve seen in countless forms of media from The Devil Wears Prada to news coverage of Hilary Clinton’s presidential campaign, the world sometimes hates a woman with ambition. I am excited by the new opportunities that this rebranding of Dickinson presents. 

Something that I wasn’t so thrilled about in the trailer is that the dialogue seemed a bit heavy-handed. I’m not a big fan of having my feminism spoon fed to me through lines like “I’m a man I can do whatever I want” which are pretty maladroit and obvious. My greatest grievance with the show’s interpretation of Dickinson is this “wild child trope.” This contemporary wave of feminism has given birth to many great smart and nuanced characters in our media. Having said this, I have noticed a trend in which we privilege bold, headstrong, overtly rebellious women over those who are soft spoken and hyper-feminine. There is nothing wrong with the loud rebellious feminist as long as she is not a rebranding of the old-as-time tomboy archetype. There is a major difference between the wonderful combative strength of women in films like Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames and the quirky likable performance of Amanda Bynes in Sydney White.

A woman can be dressed in Scout Finch style overalls or have grass stains on her tights and still be just as one-dimensional as the perfectly manicured debutante. The tomboy trope is meant to please male viewers. For example, Clara Bow in the first Academy Award best picture winner Wings is shown as slightly uncouth but this quality is used to infantilize her. The tomboy trope rejects femininity entirely. These characters spitefully refuse to wear dresses and decapitate the heads of Barbie dolls as they grapple with the same internalized misogyny that many girls endure growing up. Her placement in media is more complex because she is oftentimes written by a man who wants to draw attention to these exceptional and child-like traits. The “wild child” trope is an extension of the tomboy archetype and just as infantilizing (ie. “child” is in the name.) This is why I prefer the feminist portrayals found in Park Chan Wook’s The Handmaiden and Ana Lily Amirpour’s A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night. The feminism of these characters is mostly spoken through action and they are subtle and introspective. Again, why must our feminist characters be spoon fed to us? Do we need a character to tell us women couldn’t own property in 1840? At the end of the day it is insulting the intelligence of the viewer.

 

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 Of course it is too soon to tell if this version of Dickinson will be just another disappointing example of an antiquated trope. Even if she breaks out of that role I still mourn the loss of my soft spoken reclusive Emily Dickinson who was just as feminist as her more rabble rousing counterparts. I’ve always been on the shy side, I’m non-confrontational and at my worst, I’m a people-pleaser. I think a lot of women can relate to my habits of patiently listening to men monopolize class discussions, laughing at jokes I don’t find funny and apologizing when there is nothing to be sorry for. These habits may be a product of conditioning, but they do not make me weak or submissive. Despite my placid temperament, I always stand up for what I believe in. We should celebrate Dickinson’s resistance to conventions but why not also celebrate her rich private life? And the value of that? Her reclusivity does not detract from her resistance. The media likes to construct a rigid dichotomy between the demure and the defiant-- ignoring the demurely defiant. I do believe that Dickinson was not as passive as history has portrayed her but I reject the detrimental conditions of the Wild Child rebranding. 

 

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