Dickinson: the TV show that reimagines Emily Dickinson as an eye-rolling teenage girl

The show deliberately leans in to flamboyant anachronisms and jarring contradictions.

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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. 

Anna Leszkiewicz is culture editor of the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning

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