Dickinson: Why Emily and Ben would’ve been better as friends

Hailee Steinfeld stars in “Dickinson,” premiering November 1 on Apple TV+.. Image Courtesy Apple TV+
Hailee Steinfeld stars in “Dickinson,” premiering November 1 on Apple TV+.. Image Courtesy Apple TV+ /

While Dickinson is a major win for queer representation, it squanders a chance to portray a bond rarely seen on TV: platonic, queer, male-female friendship. (Warning: spoilers)

First, let me say that Dickinson is overall an excellent show that I highly recommend watching. I binged most of it in a single night, and I’m looking forward to season 2. Second, let me clarify that my objection to Emily and Ben’s romance on Dickinson is not that I think Emily can’t be bisexual or sexually fluid. My objection is actually in regards to how they portray Ben’s sexuality.

Ben’s sexuality is confirmed as a punchline

After dropping hints through the season that Ben is gay — he’s in his late 20s or early 30s but unmarried; he wears a fake wedding ring to stop mothers from throwing their daughters at him; he calls himself a freak and kisses another man in Emily’s circus dream sequence; he compliments Austin on his cravat — Dickinson finally confirms his sexuality in the finale after Ben has already died, after Emily has fallen in love with him and, most egregiously, as a punchline.

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During the funeral dream sequence, Emily tells a “ghost” of Ben that she thinks they “could’ve been really happy together,” prompting Ben to cheekily admit that he’s “always been more attracted to Austin,” Emily’s brother. That reveal is then used as the final nail in Emily’s “coffin,” the final straw that makes her melodramatically proclaim, after screaming in horror, “Just get it over with. Bury me.”

What are viewers supposed to make of their relationship in retrospect?

Since Emily’s dream sequences are manifestations of her subconscious, Emily must have been aware of Ben’s orientation of some level. So is the joke on Emily for being willfully oblivious? Or is the joke an indictment of Ben for leading Emily on? Would he have gone through with their “non-marriage” marriage had he lived? Or was their entire relationship just playing into the trope of a gay guy breaking a girl’s heart?

Furthermore, how are we are supposed to feel about Emily, a fellow queer character, seemingly being horrified that Ben is gay? Dickinson doesn’t strive to make Emily perfect and, in fact, often calls her out when she is in the wrong. For example, Sue and Henry both rightfully criticize Emily for taking her economic and social privileges for granted and failing to consider how much harder life is for people like them, a destitute orphan and a black man, respectively. In this instance, though, Ben’s “coming out” and Emily’s reaction are used as a punchline and plot device and never reflected upon afterward.

In the show’s defense, Emily’s horror is at least partially derived from learning Ben was attracted to one man in particular. After all, Austin is already marrying Sue, the love of her life, and now it turns out the only person she ever came close to loving as much as Sue was more into Austin. However, since Emily’s reaction to realizing Ben is gay and realizing who Ben is attracted to are not differentiated in the scene, her reaction comes across as homophobic rather than comedic.

Stranger Things, by contrast, featured a coming-out scene in season 3 that was successfully comedic because of that differentiation. Steve doesn’t judge Robin, who he’s just admitted to having a crush on, for liking girls. He judges her for liking a girl who’s not worthy of her.

A friendship arc could’ve been just as, if not more, powerful

The best part about Emily and Ben’s bond is that it’s centered not on lust but rather on their respect and admiration for one another and their mutual desire to lead unconventional lives. They openly discuss not wanting children and not wanting to be tied down. So, Emily and Ben’s relationship really didn’t need to become a romantic at all, especially because Emily and Sue will always be Dickinson‘s central love story, regardless of their other relationships.

Furthermore, a cornerstone of the Emily and Ben relationship, which seems ironic in retrospect, is their eagerness to confide in each other. Emily shares her poems with him. Ben reveals that his ring is fake. What if they hadn’t stopped there? What if Emily had revealed her love for Sue, and Ben had told Emily he was gay?

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It’s rare enough to see platonic male-female friendships on TV between straight characters who aren’t related. It’s almost unheard of to see platonic male-female friendships between characters are both queer. Think about. Most shows that feature queer representation only have one major queer character or two major queer characters who are in a relationship. So, the queer character(s) are only friends with straight people, aka the other major characters.

Dickinson could’ve portrayed Emily and Ben as friends without even needing to change the overall arc of their relationship. They could’ve wanted to marry and spend their lives together as companions, knowing neither could be with the person they truly loved or were attracted to. Emily could still have wanted to work on her housewife skills to impress Ben since she values his admiration. Sue could still have been jealous of Emily’s bond with Ben. Ben could still have died, leaving Emily devastated.

Furthermore, the show could’ve explored the one way in which Emily has more freedom than Ben by virtue of being a woman: Emily can say she publicly that she loves her best friend without people immediately jumping to conclusions; she can and does sleep in the same bed as Sue without people jumping to conclusions. Not everyone is oblivious to her unique bond with Sue, of course, but Emily is still able to speak and act affectionally to a degree without raising suspicions. By contrast, if Ben talked openly about a man the same way Emily talks openly about Sue, he would out himself immediately.

Emily & Ben weren’t a couple in real life

As Bustle explains, Ben Newton was a real person who was friends with the real Emily Dickinson. He really did work as her father’s law clerk and support her poetic career. However, in all likelihood, he was never in a romantic relationship with her.

In an interview with VultureDickinson‘s creator Alena Smith confirmed that Emily and Ben’s romantic relationship on the show, unlike Emily and Sue’s, was largely fabricated.

"Some people think [Emily and Ben] had some kind of romantic relationship, but most people don’t think that’s true at all, and I agree that there’s not really evidence to support that. And Emily says to Susan, “I love Ben almost as much as I love you.” She still puts her love for Sue above that. That rang very true to me."

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Period pieces are, of course, are not obligated to be strictly accurate. Ben’s sexual orientation doesn’t seem to necessarily be based in fact, either. But that just begs the question of why Dickinson‘s Ben is both in relationship with Emily and gay. If you’re going to take creative liberties, why throw in an unnecessary romance rather than explore a platonic queer friendship?

What did you think of Emily and Ben’s relationship? Do you think Ben’s sexuality was addressed appropriately? Let us know in the comments section below.