“Dickinson,” The Hand Flex Scene™, and the Female Gaze: A Season One Analysis
I finally watched the first season of Apple TV’s Dickinson this week, and I can’t believe it took me so long. It is one of those shows that feels like it was made specifically for me. I am Dickinson’s target audience: a poet, a fan of period pieces, and an avid binge-watcher.
Spoilers from season one lie ahead, so if you haven’t watched and Dickinson sounds like something you’d be into, go watch it first.
I went into Dickinson for the promise of Emily and Sue, (and for the poetry, of course.) I was all in for the two of them from the start. So, you can imagine my surprise at falling head over heels for Emily’s male love interest, Ben.
It was unexpected, to say the least.
In the series, Ben works for Emily’s father. He’s based on Dickinson’s real-life friend, Benjamin Newton. In real life, Dickinson spoke of Newton as a friend, but onscreen, the added layer of romance is refreshing and believable. I found it nearly impossible not to immediately love Ben, and more specifically, to love him for Emily. The more I watched, and the more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that this was the elusive “female gaze" at work.
I first came across the term on Tumblr, years ago, but more recently have seen similar discussions popping up on TikTok, my new social media of choice.
It’s an interesting topic, and more hotly debated than you might think. Some don’t believe that the female gaze exists at all. Does the male gaze’s impact on the female psyche negate any possibility of the female gaze? Does that actually matter? Just because we’ve all been force fed the male gaze, does that disprove the existence of a uniquely female perspective? And so on and so forth.
I don’t much care whether or not the untainted and original “female gaze" exists. I’d rather talk about actual, current, existing female perspective, which is not something that’s existence can be debated.
Some of the biggest examples of media which seems to subscribe to the female gaze (Pride and Prejudice, Portrait of a Lady on Fire, Bridgerton, etc) are lush and romantic, and focus on the touching of hands and the meeting of eyes. In online spaces, hands and eyes are rapidly becoming hallmarks of the female gaze.
Interestingly, these examples are all period pieces, including Dickinson. It’s not difficult to guess why so many of these examples take place so long ago. If I were to guess, I think it might be easier to apply the female gaze to another place and time. There’s an element of fantasy in our consumption of period pieces, which makes it easier to believe that this worldview is reality for the characters, untainted by the modern oversaturation of the male gaze in media.
I do think there might be a few things missing from this discussion in online spaces, though. I think that true understanding of the female gaze goes deeper than hands and eyes, and that Ben Newton is the perfect example of how.
Dickinson isn’t particularly romantic like some of the other series and films on the list. It’s a quirky comedy that takes liberties with its source material, which just so happens to be real life. There aren’t so many longing glances or fleeting touches, so much as eye rolls, and elbowing, and modern-day hookups. Still, I feel that the female gaze is glaringly present in Dickinson. From Emily and Sue, to Emily and Ben, and even Sue and Austin, the relationships are nuanced in a way that focuses on the women’s comfort and desires.
In “There’s A Certain Slant of Light," an episode in Dickinson’s first season, Emily and Sue speak about Ben. Emily explains her fondness of the man, saying “I can trust that when I speak a word he hears it.” Sue describes this as “a poet’s definition of love.” Later in the episode, Sue brings up the concept to Austin, and asks him if he thinks he hears her when she speaks. The scene is surprisingly beautiful, and it’s made clear that Austin is an active listener for Sue, and cares deeply about her.
In a later episode, Ben repeats similar sentiments back to Emily, telling her something along the lines of “Being with you feels a lot like being alone.”
I had to pause the episode at that one.
Just look at him.
All of this encapsulates the feeling behind one of the big symbols of the female gaze: the eyes. Maybe there aren’t as many dramatic, lingering glances in Dickinson, but the sentiment is clear. Ben sees Emily. Austin sees Sue. Before watching, I had assumed that the male love interests would be plot devices, villains or obstacles, only meant to keep Sue and Emily apart. I had assumed that Sue and Emily would be the only ones to really see each other, but the men of Dickinson are surprisingly sensitive. (This grace given to male characters, quite possibly, is another integral difference between the male gaze and the female gaze, but that’s an analysis for another day.)
Similar depth can be found in the female gaze’s focus on hands. Let’s take The Hand Flex Scene— you know the one. I’ll set the scene for you. You are watching Pride and Prejudice (2005.) Elizabeth Bennet has been living under the same roof as her hot, rich, and socially awkward enemy while waiting for her sister to recover from a minor illness. Then, when Lizzie is mounting the carriage to finally go back home, said enemy wordlessly takes her hand to help her up, before stalking off inside without another word.
Some girls have all the luck. But, I digress.
That’s when it happens. The flex. It’s a gesture that’s so telling about Darcy. And it is attractive, truly, it is, but the female gaze isn’t just about the physicality of the hands, the same way it isn’t just about the tension of meeting eyes. These things can be found in media that does not stake any claim on the female gaze; I think what makes the hand flex so dreamy for women is the implication behind it.
It’s made clear that Darcy has been nervous to do this. I like to think that he’s been hyping himself up in his room all morning. Darcy’s nerves here are comforting because they indicate vulnerability, and genuine concern for Lizzie’s reaction. Hands represent support, and being held, but a woman really has to trust a man in order to feel comfortable with his hands. Hands (especially men’s, and especially men of the time period) can be greedy and forceful. In this scene, Darcy seems to have an awareness of this. Of course he doesn’t want to be shaken off, but I think he also doesn’t want to frighten Lizzie, or make her feel uncomfortable.
Hands are trust, and eyes are knowing.
Ben Newton shows Emily that she is safe in his hands and truly seen by his eyes. He wholeheartedly supports her poetry and doesn’t make her explain herself the way other characters do. Ben is a perfect example of a male love interest written under the female gaze, and I love him for it.