‘Dickinson’: Drunk on Imagination and Unapologetically Feminist

By Tina Mai, age 16, St. Margaret’s Episcopal School, San Juan Capistrano, Calif.

Credit...Apple TV+

No one imagines the pinnacle of American literature as a carriage ride with Death, a giant talking bee, a twerking dance-off and a stroll with Nobody. But this is “Dickinson,” Alena Smith’s imaginatively raw, genre-defying retelling of an artist struggling as a marginalized voice. Now in its final season, the Apple TV+ series follows Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) as she navigates adolescence in 19th-century society. What ensues is an avant-garde love letter to a Transcendentalist icon, remixed with magical realism and 21st-century pop culture — just as defiant as its heroine, just as rebellious as teenagers today.

As a young female poet, I was nothing short of amazed when I met Smith’s version of Emily: a teenage misfit as characteristically Gen Z as Steinfeld’s previous role in “The Edge of Seventeen.” One moment she’s penning a magnum opus, the next she’s throwing a house party and complaining about getting her period. By fusing history with a coming-of-age dramedy, Smith intentionally makes the show anachronistic (characters drop pickup lines like “You look hella ripe” and share “hot goss” at sewing circles). Historically inaccurate? Who cares — the show’s true accuracy lies in its portrayal of adolescent uncertainty, making it so radically relevant for teens like myself.

Though whimsical interpretations make some scenes feel like a surreal fever dream, “Dickinson” remains earnest by transforming absurdities into lessons on identity. In one episode, Emily hallucinates a shadowy, Daliesque circus before being called “the greatest freak of them all” — it’s a homage to our innate fear of not fitting in, but also a message of embracing our true selves. Meanwhile, the poet’s fight against the control of powerful men unveils Smith’s feminist vision. In the episode “The Daisy follows soft the Sun,” the show delivers its message for women who feel unheard and voiceless: “Refuse to be the daisy and start being the sun.”

Thus, the writers are unapologetic when championing female characters (with L.G.B.T.Q.I.A.+ and minority representation in the spotlight), who rise like witty mavericks in rebel mode. Sue (Ella Hunt), whose relationship with Emily is supported by scholarship on the real Dickinson’s sexuality, delivers a hauntingly honest line: “The minute we [women] get a little bit of fame, or show the slightest amount of ambition, we get slapped with the nastiest comments.” With that, “Dickinson” earns a poignant urgency — like a palimpsest, it embeds our modern third-wave feminism atop the first-wave feminism of Emily’s time.

So here’s to all the women and teens who have been silenced, who are reclaiming their ambition, and who are penning their own identity. “Dickinson” — brilliant, innovative and utterly unforgettable — empowers us to not be daisies following conventional suns, but to be our own sun, unafraid to share our voice and unfettered from expressing our true selves.