In one episode of the new Apple TV show Dickinson, a teenage Emily Dickinson—played by Hailee Steinfeld—appears as a circus spectacle. Amid a sword-swallowing woman, conjoined twins, and male and female “strongmen” sporting tutus, she enters the center of the circus ring. Emily’s brother introduces her, in a tongue-in-cheek manner, as “the greatest freak of them all—a female poet.” The audience responds by gasping in surprise and (delighted) horror. Similarly, near the end of the series, Emily’s sister asks in a fit of frustration whether Emily “can be normal for just one day?” Emily says, “No, thanks.”
The show is also notable for presenting Emily engaged in an intimate relationship with her friend Susan—who happens to be engaged to the poet’s brother. In a particularly vivid scene, Emily and Susan have sex in the poet’s single bed, while we hear and see the text of her poem “I Have Never Seen Volcanoes.” The poem reads, in part, “Bear within—appalling Ordnance / Fire, and smoke, and gun, / Taking villages for breakfast, / And appalling Men—”
Emily Dickinson is famous for her poetry. So why does Apple’s Dickinson focus not on Dickinson’s literary contributions, but on her person? More specifically, why is the show deeply committed to showing her as an unusual person?
Some may delight in the show’s portrayal of Emily Dickinson. It does, after all, offer a much-needed overhaul of a visionary poet, who today still carries the questionable honor of being known (by some) as the “Virgin of Amherst”: a recluse who kindly lowered gingerbread to children from her bedroom window in a basket. And by including Emily’s romance with Susan as a plotline, it also brings a matter of long-standing debate among historians—did the poet have a relationship with her sister-in-law?—to a broader, and perhaps younger, audience.
But no matter the show’s fun, does viewing Emily as unusual—“the greatest freak of them all,” as her brother calls her, and “crazy,” as she calls herself—actually help us understand the poet or her work better? What if ascribing all of Emily’s traits to her status as an unusual woman actually undermines direct engagement with questions about her sexual and romantic life and their bearing on her body of work?
Questions about how to portray, remember, and commemorate women of the past aren’t confined to splashy new streaming shows. As sociologists, we study how spaces like museums understand and curate women for their audiences. In a recent study comparing depictions of historical figures whose sexualities are unclear—either because the historical record is fuzzy or has been altered, or because of anachronistic labels—we argue that cultural institutions depict certain women as unusual for a specific, worrisome reason: to navigate uncertainty about their sexual identities or practices.
Specifically, in studying how museums commemorate Emily Dickinson and Jane Addams—the famed social organizer and reformer of turn-of-the-century Chicago—our research, conducted in 2014 and 2015, found that museums presented both as unusual women. Furthermore, we found that, for different reasons and to different degrees, the presentation of Addams and Dickinson as unusual discouraged audiences’ direct engagement with evidence about their romantic entanglements with women. Put simply, labeling women unusual can be a tool to manage their uncertain sexuality.
Unfortunately, this narrowing of Emily Dickinson can also be seen in Apple’s new show. Consider the final episode of the series, when Emily is locked in her room as Susan marries Emily’s brother, Austin, in the downstairs parlor. Earlier in the episode, Susan laments that she cannot marry or have a child with Emily.
In our view, this pair of scenes captures what the series does, for good and for ill, to Emily’s reputation. The show at once throws open doors that many viewers might never have expected to walk through, while leaving Emily locked away, trapped in the trope of the unusual woman.
How does Apple’s Dickinson trap its protagonist within this dangerous trope? First, the show leaves viewers with the sense that an overriding wackiness and weirdness pervaded Emily Dickinson’s 19th-century Amherst world. This bestows an unreal quality on Emily’s romance with Susan.
That is, the way the show portrays the romance might well confuse viewers, since the portrayal occurs within a fantastical frame that offers an exaggerated version of Dickinson’s quirky qualities. It is easy for a viewer to place Emily and Susan’s relationship in the same category of impossibility as Emily’s carriage rides with Death and conversations with a bee.
This is a choice that the series makes; indeed, it goes out of its way to present Emily as unusual. Not only does Emily call herself “crazy,” dance with a bee, and flirt with Death (played by Wiz Khalifa), but it is made clear to the viewer—thanks to eye rolls and behind-her-back comments—that most of Emily’s friends and family think of her as crazy, too.
In point of fact, other main characters also have moments of bizarreness: Emily’s sister wears a Native American headdress in an effort to get kidnapped, and her brother dresses in drag to play Desdemona, refusing to get out of character. Everyone in the show challenges viewers’ expectations about the setting—a 19th-century village centered around the lecture halls and dormitories of Amherst College. But no character challenges viewers more than Emily, who over and again stands out for her oddness. The show repeatedly reminds viewers that Dickinson was the “greatest freak of them all.”
And, yes, the unusual woman leitmotif can be appealing and fun (take, for instance, a wonderful scene in the show in which Emily and Louisa May Alcott jog around Amherst before dinner, skirts held high while they discuss the merits of avoiding marriage and childrearing). However, the idea of Emily Dickinson—and her circle—as unusual, freakish, or “crazy” actually risks obfuscating as much as it might reveal.
The viewer of “Dickinson” is left without a clear roadmap for making sense of Emily’s sexuality.
Situations—and time—are also queered in the show: that is, they are depicted in ways that trouble normativity, traditional categorizations, and viewers’ expectations.
A racially and ethnically diverse group of 19th-century Amherst youth—who use words like “woke,” “whatever,” “dude,” and “eat shit”—make out at an opium-fueled party. Emily comes face-to-face at Walden Pond with a shirtless Thoreau. After pronouncing himself a “freak,” a bachelor passionately kisses another man at a circus. Lizzo’s song “Boys” plays while Emily and Susan dress in drag so that they might slip, undetected, into the single-sex world of the college next door.
In other words, sex between two young women in mid-19th-century Amherst is not the only unexpected thing that happens in Dickinson.
The sheer quantity of unexpected and comical conversations and encounters in Dickinson renders it difficult for the viewer to make sense of Emily and Susan’s sex scenes (as well as the poems and letters Emily writes to Susan when the latter temporarily moves to Boston). How can a viewer distinguish between historical facts and absurd fictions when nearly everything in Emily’s orbit is wacky and unpredictable and possibly unreal?
Moreover, Emily is also depicted as engaged in romances with a handful of men. And even those romantic entanglements are “queered.” She and her father’s handsome law clerk agree to be “not married forever” and, in the final episode, the clerk comes back from the dead and tells Emily that he’s always “been more attracted” to her brother, Austin.
The viewer is left without a clear roadmap for making sense of Emily’s sexuality. A logical conclusion is that Emily was odd and unpredictable, and that the show itself is eccentric. By queering more than just the protagonist, the show takes the unusual-woman trope one step further than the museums, risking fictionalizing more than just Emily’s sexuality. The show makes her entire story unusual, with all the attendant obfuscations.
Insisting that Emily Dickinson was unusual isn’t confined to Apple’s show. Indeed, there is a long tradition of labeling Emily as peculiar. Even the Emily Dickinson Museum, in Amherst, emphasizes Dickinson’s departures from the norm. Here, we hear about Emily’s rule-breaking poetry, erratic nature, reclusive life, and nontraditional garb. We learn, for instance, that for decades Emily only wore a white gown and refused to dress for company.
At the Museum, stories about Dickinson as an unusual woman offer contradictory narratives and restrict or dodge discussion about sexual identities. Some docents close off questioning by offering their interpretation of Emily as heterosexual and suggesting Emily and Susan were “like sisters.” At the museum, as in the show, painting Emily as unusual serves a cover; it ensures that there’s no need to linger on questions regarding Emily’s possible same-sex attractions and entanglements, which might make some visitors uncomfortable.
Some historians also argue that Jane Addams, the famed Chicago reformer, had relationships with women, against competing beliefs that she did not. Others suggest that while Addams might have been romantically involved with women, we ought not rely on contemporary sexual-identity categories to make sense of those entanglements.
If you visit the Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, in Chicago—or Amherst’s Emily Dickinson Museum—docents guide you around the former home of their subject, telling stories about their lives. In Chicago, we hear about Addams’s radical political activism, feminism, and unconventional living arrangements.
Docents tell visitors that Addams was once wanted by the FBI, and that she was one of the first women to win a Nobel Peace Prize. Photographs of Addams with a female partner adorn her bedroom, alongside text that provides details about their relationship—they requested a double bed when staying in hotels, contemplated adopting a child, and shared a holiday home. The museum sketches a portrait of Addams as unconventional in a politically progressive and positive way.
As we heard more references to the museum subjects’ unusual gender performances—for Emily Dickinson these comments focused on eccentricity, while for JaneAddams they focused on radicalism—we began to notice a similarity. We realized that both museums depict their subject as an unusual woman—a female actor who violates a range of gender norms—to convey their uncertain sexual identities in a palpable manner while also narrating their special qualities.
The Hull-House Museum presents a version of the unusual woman that questions normativity. Docents ask visitors questions about knowing and naming sexualities and encourage debate about whether it makes sense to apply contemporary labels to historical figures’ past feelings and actions. In this way, the museum embraces uncertainty and uses it to unsettle the notion of stable categories of gender and sexual identity.
But while this may expand some visitors’ mindsets, it also risks preventing visitors from directly engaging with questions about historical figures’ sexualities, leaving them, instead, with an unspecified impression of unusualness. In other words: by presenting their subjects as unusual, these museums risk stifling, rather than encouraging, open and direct conversation.
Positing historical figures as “unusual” risks silencing contestation and debate over uncertain or contentious sexualities.
This is the work that cultural depictions of uncertain sexualities can do: either present characters as unusual—gesturing to the possibility of a nonnormative gender performance and/or sexual history—or discourage direct engagement with questions about a subject’s sexual past. At the Emily Dickinson Museum, relying on the unusual-woman trope means docents do not have to consistently and overtly characterize sexuality. At Hull-House, it allows them to avoid definitive characterizations while being upfront regarding speculations about Addams’s romantic attachments to women.
The writers of Dickinson might hope to do for Emily Dickinson what Hull-House does for Jane Addams’s reputation. Presenting the poet as unusual might unsettle or queer what the viewer thinks they know about Dickinson and her sexuality—and do so without having to claim a particular label or identity for her. They might even hope to unsettle the notion of stable sexual identity categories altogether.
Perhaps the show accomplishes these things for some viewers. But the concern is that even this accomplishment requires viewers to already be knowledgeable about Emily’s sexuality. A quick glance at reviews of Dickinson suggests that television reviewers don’t all know the facts of Emily and Susan’s relationship; indeed, some take this sexual relationship to be a verifiable fact, while others believe it to be—in line with the show’s other fantasies—an invention or exaggerated version of reality.
In this sense, by presenting everything as queer, Apple’s Dickinson risks falling back on a version of the unusual woman that is closer to the one we encountered at the Emily Dickinson Museum than to the one we found at Hull-House.
It is noteworthy that Dickinson presents Emily as the greatest freak of them all while also depicting her romantic and sexual relationship with a woman. We contend that these decisions are connected, and that rhetorically linking same-sex relationships to unusual women extends beyond Dickinson. And we contend that this linking has critical, even dangerous, implications. Positing historical figures as unusual risks silencing contestation and debate over uncertain or contentious sexualities. And this is true, unfortunately, even when one might hope to accomplish the opposite.
This article was commissioned by Caitlin Zaloom.