By Charlotte Turner | January 26, 2022
Most everyone knows what happened at Watergate. After burglars attempted to wiretap the offices of the Democratic Party, Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, along with help from the shadowy figure known as Deep Throat, uncovered that President Richard Nixon was involved, leading to his resignation. As one of the major political events of the 20th century, Watergate has permeated the public consciousness for decades. Furthermore, thanks to widespread news coverage, and multi-award nominated films such as All The President’s Men (1976), there now exists an American national memory of the scandal leading to a shared interpretation of the country’s past. This memory dictates that male good triumphed over male evil, and everything was made right again.
But what if we don’t really know what happened? What if these myths of masculinity and power and men saving the day were wrong?
Wildly different from the other, much more serious films made about Watergate, the historical revisionist comedy Dick (1999), serves up an alternate version of the events. The film follows 15-year-old girls Betsy (Kirsten Dunst) and Arlene (Michelle Williams), who through a series of events become Nixon’s (Dan Hedaya) secret youth advisors and eventually become Deep Throat. They’re the ones who reveal the truth, not in spite of the fact but because they’re dismissed as ‘dumb teenage girls.’
Dick reimagines the national memory of Watergate through a feminist lens by making teenage girls the heroes of the story, and by positioning the male characters as incompetent buffoons, whether or not they’re the good guys. It forces the audience to re-examine who is assumed to be capable, and who is remembered by history.
The premise of Dick sounds laughable. Two teenage girls take down a president? But it’s these exact kinds of assumptions made by Nixon, Woodward (Will Ferrell) and Bernstein (Bruce McCulloch) alike that ensures their success. As Betsy declares near the end of the film, ‘we’re not dumb teenage girls, we’re human beings’.
Dick creates a new story out of Betsy and Arlene becoming the main characters of Watergate. Thanks to fantastic performances from Dunst and Williams, full of youthful sincerity and optimism, we’re laughing with them, not at them. On the surface, they’re stereotypical ditzes, but the film demonstrates a disconnect between how male characters perceive Betsy and Arlene, and how they actually act. Yes, they may be a little dim, and more interested in teen idols and Nixon’s dog than politics. However, early in the film Arlene declares she loves the singer Bobby Sherman as he cares about ecology, and Betsy implores Nixon to end the Vietnam War over concerns for her recently drafted brother’s safety.
On the other hand, when it comes to the traditional heroes, Woodward and Bernstein, the film reinvents what we think we already know. These versions of Woodward and Bernstein exemplify the traits Betsy and Arlene are expected to have. They’re childishly competitive, and self-obsessed. They argue with each other about revealing Deep Throat’s identity, Bernstein is always grooming his hair, and they bask in the glory they receive for their reporting. They’re also too embarrassed to admit they were helped by teenage girls, and that’s why they decide to keep Betsy and Arlene’s identity a secret, not out of concerns for their safety.
In All The President’s Men, a film that has played a major role in developing collective memory of Watergate, Woodward and Bernstein are portrayed as underdogs going up against the White House and Nixon. But in Dick, they’re dumb, mean, and petty. It challenges the male narrative so frequently presented to viewers, and gives space for two teenage girls to be the new heroes.
Dick does not make fun of, but rather celebrates Betsy and Arlene. Just as the film alters the collective perception of the Watergate scandal, much of the film’s comedy comes from warping expectations of how young women in cinema are supposed to act. Indeed, Betsy and Arlene bringing down Nixon is the most subversive moment of all. When Woodward and Bernstein prove incapable, it is Betsy and Arlene who break into the home of H.R. Haldeman, the White House Chief of Staff, and steal the all-important incriminating tapes. For once, women are the heroes of American politics.
Richard Nixon is the only president to resign in American history, and only escaped criminal prosecution after being pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford. He has always been the bad guy in national memory, and Dick is no different. In this film he is corrupt, ill-tempered, rude, and antisemetic. He insults Betsy and Arlene’s intelligence, takes advantage of their youthful naivety for his own purposes, and while dismissing the ‘girly’ interests of his daughters, he can’t even remember one of their names.
The end of the film finds Nixon resigning, and leaving the White House in a helicopter. Flying over Washington, D.C., he sees Betsy and Arlene on the roof of Betsy’s house waving a sign that reads ‘You suck, Dick! Love, Deep Throat’, all while You’reSoVain by Carly Simon plays. Nixon realises that the young girls he constantly dismissed were the ones who destroyed him, and it’s thrilling as any moment in All The President’s Men.
By telling a true story that never happened, Dick is able to investigate the inherent masculinity of remembered history much more effectively than if it told the real story of Watergate. The film makes fun of the male characters, no matter what side they’re on, to examine who is allowed to have political and historical power, and celebrates Betsy and Arlene as the true heroes of Watergate. Dick revises history to make space for new voices, places women at the centre of the story, and holds a mirror up to the ideals of masculinity that make us assume we know the truth.