There’s a fashion for adapting the life stories of interesting women from the past, focusing on their struggles to overcome the sexism (and, often, homophobia) of their time with a contemporary lens: from The Favourite to Gentleman Jack, Colette to Vita and Virginia. Despite her subdued life, the poet Emily Dickinson has recently been the subject of three such biopics: A Quiet Passion in 2016, Wild Nights with Emily earlier this year – and now, Apple TV’s provocative new series Dickinson, which reimagines her as an eye-rolling, sardonic teenage girl who writes all night and sulks and schemes all day.
The show deliberately leans in to flamboyant anachronisms and jarring contradictions. The dialogue is brash: not only modern (“This is bullshit!” says Emily when asked to do chores) but full of the kind of ridiculous slang I’m not sure exists outside frat-boy parties in Judd Apatow movies (Emily’s brother declares a romantic Italian villa “so pimp”). Dickinson herself is played by the particularly modern Hailee Steinfeld, who sings feminist pop songs about self-love and was brilliant as a frustrated high-school student in The Edge of Seventeen; her mother by Jane Krakowski, known for ludicrously exuberant comedies such as 30 Rock and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt.
The pop soundtrack is front and centre: Emily dresses up in men’s clothing to Lizzo’s “Boys” and contemplates her mortality to Billie Eilish’s “Bury a Friend”. The rapper Wiz Khalifa cameos as Death, in a scene riffing on Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for Death”.
If all this sounds cringe, the smug televisual equivalent of those “Rebel Women” gift books – well, I thought it did too. And then I watched it, and had far too much fun to complain.
This article appears in the 18 Dec 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning