Things the average American student typically learns about in grade school, if they do at all: Emily Dickinson was a poet in the 1800s; she was a recluse who didn’t leave her house much; most of her poems were published posthumously.
Not exactly the foundation for a teenage-tailored sitcom, yet Apple TV Plus’s Dickinson, a launch title alongside See and For All Mankind, turns the adolescence of the famous American poet into a string of rambunctious, 30-minute episodes. Teenage Emily — played here by True Grit and Bumblebee actress Hailee Steinfeld — feels like she belongs in Little Women, following in the footsteps of coming-of-age, 19th century heroines. Thankfully, infused with Steinfeld’s touch to the character, a splash of quirky modern humor, a contemporary soundtrack (hello, Mitski’s “Your Best American Girl” ), and a heartfelt plot line drawing from lesser known aspects of the writer’s life, Dickinson overcomes the YA-appealing, period-piece formula.
[Ed. note: This post contains spoilers for the first three episodes of Dickinson]
The Emily of Dickinson is a spirited misfit who doesn’t want to live by society’s expectations of women. Being an outsider of the era makes her a familiar staple to the modern viewer: a headstrong and defiant modern young woman living in an antiquated world. She wants an education, doesn’t want to get married, and thus checks off all the boxes that make a period heroine a typical fan favorite. After all, readers usually identify with Pride and Prejudice’s Elizabeth Bennet over her more demure sister Jane, with Little Women’s Jo March over the pragmatic Meg.
In the first moments of the premiere, Dickinson showrunner Alena Smith (The Affair) positions Emily in a similar manner. Her mother sends eligible young bachelors her way, hoping that she’ll marry. Emily complains. Her younger sister doesn’t get why — Lavinia would love to be married. The show rings familiar to period-literature-loving teens, though Steinfeld infuses Emily with a loveable weirdness, bringing depth to her character. When her latest suitor (who also happens to be a pal of hers) asks why she won’t marry him, she immediately proclaims she’s “in love with Death” with a perfect theatrical seriousness. Her portrayal — and the series’ anachronistic language and soundtrack — brings the character to life amid what could be a rehash of the plot of Little Women (but real).
The modern language and behavior cement an overall tone of 19th century teens; they’re just like us! and it’s something viewers will have to ease into. At its best — for instance, when Lavinia muses about how popular Jane always looks so “ample” — the venacular adds funky, offbeat humor, reminiscent of the genre of YouTube web series that gave 19th century stories and authors a modern twist (I say this with the utmost love). Though that helps color the show’s otherwise typical plotlines, it is not what makes Dickinson stand out.
That has to do with one very pivotal piece of the plot revealed in the first episode, taken from Dickinson’s real life, one that might’ve been glossed over in school: Emily Dickinson was queer AF.
We learn this in the first episode, after Emily’s brother Austin announces that he’s marrying her best friend Sue. Emily is deeply hurt. It seems like the same reaction Elizabeth Bennet has to her best friend Charlotte marrying Mr. Collins and initially feels like Emily is just gagging at the institution of marriage in general.
But very quickly it’s made clear that the reason Emily doesn’t want Sue to marry Austin — the reason Emily doesn’t want to marry any man — is because she is in love with Sue. It is a love that is reciprocated, but because Sue is a penniless orphan, she must marry in order to survive. It is a deep yearning, one made all the more poignant as the episodes are framed around Emily’s poems, most of them addressed to or inspired somewhat by Sue.
At once, the plot feels heftier: yes, Emily is an outsider, but not just because she likes to write. She is hopelessly in love with her best friend and they can never be together. The struggles and limitations that Emily feels because of her gender are all the more augmented. Not only is she an ambitious young woman in an era where she is expected to put her education aside for a husband, but she is also queer woman in an era where being with the woman she loved was most certainly impossible.
With the weight of Emily’s hidden sexuality, the modern teenage slang feels less like a quirky flourish and instead draws a reflection of the present upon the past. The idea of teenagers going through the same issues through time is still there, but instead of being about gossip and house parties, it’s about the struggle of repressing one’s sexuality that still echoes to this day. It’s not a struggle specific to the era, the way Emily’s father refuses to let her go to college or publish her poems is. Emily is a strong-minded protagonist, sharing a modern mindset with many familiar beloved heroines; but Emily was a real person, and that touch of her real life which makes Dickinson feel like a worthy coming-of-age story for modern times.