How '90s political comedy Dick used crimped hair and cookie recipes to show teen girls their power
Never google “Watch Dick online.”
The first result is not the Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams‘s 1999 classic, Dick, as you hoped it might be. But when you finally sift through pages of garbage and clear all the viruses off of your computer, you’ll find the perfect political comedy on Amazon Prime…or you could just go straight to Amazon Prime. Whichever.
If you’re unfamiliar, Dick, directed by Andrew Fleming and written by Fleming and Sheryl Longin, is a fictional reimagining of the Watergate scandal during Richard Nixon’s presidency—if two high school girls, Betsy (Dunst) and Arlene (Williams), innocently wandered into the middle of it. They are in the right places at the wrong times—specifically in the stairwell of the Watergate building during the break-in, since that’s where Arlene lives with her mom. After becoming the official White House dog walkers so that Nixon can keep a closer eye on them, they prank call the Washington Post and end up becoming the source known as “Deep Throat,” which they named after a porno Betsy’s brother was caught watching. Betsy and Arlene see everything—document shredding, the CREEP list, the tapes—and use a cookie recipe to eventually bring down the president of the United States.
As a middle schooler, I lived in Washington, D.C., and the government was a huge part of my life. Dick was set in my hometown, and it felt like my life on-screen. My friends’ parents mostly worked on Capitol Hill, and I was a theater nerd with strong political opinions for a 13-year-old. I watched this movie probably 100 times during my middle school years with a friend who loved it just as much as I did.
It helped me fantasize about my power. Just because I loved bubblegum lipgloss and bellbottoms (shut up, they were still en vogue when I was in middle school), that didn’t mean I couldn’t influence the decisions of our country.
In Dick, young women had a voice.
I don’t remember how my friend and I first encountered this movie, but it spoke to us on such a clear, basic level. Dick was incredibly funny. The characters were so strong in a story that was just insane enough that you knew it had to be fiction. What we didn’t yet realize was that we were still learning our country’s history by absorbing the idiocy that Will Ferrell brings to Bob Woodward and the bright, sparkling performances that Kirsten Dunst and Michelle Williams bring to two perfectly dressed D.C. teens who love making prank phone calls and their own clothes.
That’s what makes this movie so special—it’s a history lesson, but on LSD.
Dick is a deeply effective political comedy, and I will fight anyone who thinks otherwise. It nails the turbulent tone of politics in the ’70s, capturing how the public turned against the president through the story of two young high school girls. It portrays how innocent peace-lovers can become the strongest change-makers of the decade. Dick explores the ins and outs of what actually happened during the Watergate burglary by putting our two heroines, Betsy and Arlene, right in the middle of it all.
Some spoilers (of our country’s history and the movie): Dick‘s depiction of the actual scandal’s events are dead-on. The tape on the door during the Watergate break-in? Real. The phone call with false information and a countdown? Real. The tapes? All real.
The fiction comes into play in how we learn about these aspects of the scandal, and how they are explained. In real life, two girls did not stumble upon the break-in when they were trying to enter a contest to meet a celebrity. In real life, two girls were not responsible for the missing 18 minutes of Nixon’s tapes after getting embarrassed and erasing their declaration of love to the president. But by involving two ditsy, celebrity-loving teenage girls in this historic presidential scandal, Dick tells us that the powerful men who ran this entire operation were morons.
The highest officials of the country are toppled by two clothing-obsessed, hair-crimping, cookie-making girls who give edibles to the president by mistake.
Men in the White House severely underestimated how much these young women could rise to the occasion. Betsy and Arlene realize their power when Arlene declares that they’re not just stupid teenage girls, saying, “We are human beings, and we’re American citizens. And four score and seven years ago our forefathers…did something.”
As we approach the 20th anniversary of the film’s release, I’m reminded that we need satire and strong political comedy more than ever. No longer a middle schooler, I’m now writing political comedy myself and lampooning the presidents of the United States, past and current. Dick gave me license to say, “The leaders of the free world have all been human. There is humanity in each of them, and I get to find it and expose it.” I’ve become what some might call obsessed with how strange many of our presidents have been in their personal lives—public figures are not immune to the world around them. They make gaffs, eat late-night snacks, and hate parties, just like Richard Nixon in Dick.
This movie inspired me to have a career where I bring humanity back to the people who call the shots. That way, we can call out their corruption as if they were anyone else. We’re at a point in history where, like Betsy and Arlene, we can finally say to the men who run our country, “You suck, Dick.”