After watching three screener episodes of AMC’s Dietland, which premiered on Monday June 4, two Jezebel staffers discussed the show’s intentions, its main character, and its dated ideas about fat-shaming. Here’s our conversation.
MEGAN: Dearly beloved, we are gathered here today to discuss the most insane television show I’ve seen in some time, Dietland, based on a book by Sarai Walker, and starring some people we like and some we don’t really know. It’s about: Diets! Women’s magazines! Cats! Anti-depressants! Sex! Misandry! I feel...tired. You?
KELLY: I, too, feel tired. Dietland dredged up a lot of feelings for me and frankly, it was exhausting.
So quick background: We watched the first three episodes, which is what AMC made available as screeners. When we meet our protagonist, “Plum” Kettle, she is underemployed answering letters to the editor of a glossy magazine for young women. She is also trying to lose weight in preparation for weight loss surgery. She is low-key unhappy but pretty numb to it. Which is when things start to get really, really weird, and she is drawn into the happenings around an underground terrorist cell of women targeting abusive men/beauty culture. Is that a good description?
MEGAN: I do wish the show was as clear as what you just wrote, but here we are, in 2018, smack dab in the middle of a Prestige Television bonanza. Though I don’t know if this show necessarily works for me, I don’t know if it would work for any network if it wasn’t trying to do the most at all times!
The three episodes I watched felt hallucinatory—intended, obviously—but much like a hallucination, they made little to no sense as a whole. I’m trying to figure out what about the show irked me so much and what I liked. Right now, the one thing that’s sticking out to me overall is how dated the whole thing felt! Like, it’s set in contemporary times, but it feels like 2008.
KELLY: That’s what really struck me about this show, is how much it felt like the product of an earlier cultural moment, when fat acceptance ideas were first really beginning to bubble up into mainstream culture. (Which is when I first encountered the star, Joy Nash, in her early viral hit “A Fat Rant.”) For instance, the teen magazine where Plum works—Daisy Chain—is a very traditional women’s magazine product and doesn’t really make sense in the era of woke Teen Vogue. I mean, two years ago, Weight Watchers magazine got women to pose nude for “natural beauty,” and their pitch has shifted to one that uses empowerment language. It has gotten to the point where these ideas have been disseminated broadly enough that if you fat-shame somebody, you are often likely to get pushback.
I would have liked to see the show wrestle with the ways that the marginalization of fat people has morphed into things that are often more subtle but no less frustrating. Now, instead of the high gloss fashion-and-makeup exclusion of previous eras, you’re up against woo-woo wellness pseudoscience and purposefully unflattering clothing. At the same time, what I liked about the show is that because it’s so dated, it goes harder than a lot of the watered-down, corporation-friendly stuff that passes for “body positivity” now, which so often centers the concerns of fairly conventionally attractive straight-sized women who sometimes feel fat. Plum is actually fat.
And I also wonder whether part of the reason I found it so 101-level is that I had the privilege of marinating in these ideas in their raw form in my early 20s, before they were co-opted to sell various brands of underwear. So I find myself in this position where I’ve so benefitted from these ideas that I can’t actually read how useful the show is to people. They certainly saved me from a lot of years as miserable as Plum is at the beginning of her character arc. But it just seems like the messages need to evolve a bit and sharpen for the current media environment.
MEGAN: Yeah, as it stands right now, the show provides a lot of good intentions but, like you, I spent my 20s in a stew of radical body-positivity and am perhaps immune to these ideas and their impact. What stressed me out the most about the show is that, because of the ideas about fatness and its acceptability and how dated they are, I couldn’t help but be taken out of the show every time a bit seemed particularly egregious.
An example: there’s a scene in the very beginning of the series that sees Plum walking down the street in her neighborhood in Brooklyn. A car of men slows to a roll next to her; a man in a winter beanie leans his head out of the car, snaps a photo of her, and catcalls her. “Shake it there, sweet pants,” he says. She quickens her pace, and he and his friends move on. I’m certainly not suggesting that catcalling doesn’t happen, but it seems that we are expected to believe that Plum lives in a world where being a woman of her size is so remarkable and so unheard of that a group of rude men would go out of their way to take a picture of her. To share it? To laugh? Who knows!
If the messages sharpened just a tad—like if the show was angrier in a way that felt less like 2013 and more like now—it would work better for me. There isn’t a rule about keeping book to TV adaptations faithful to the source material. Why not make this about the emptiness of the body-positivity movement instead? That’s much more sinister, and would make for a better show.
KELLY: That’s probably harder to turn into a social satire about a Weather Underground but for the beauty myth and sexual harassment, though.
Can I also just say that I was really turned off by the sad cartoon of Plum? There’s a lot of surreal elements, including these random animations that feature a caricature of Plum that just really bummed me out every time I saw her. Which I guess was the point! But there you are! Which I think is another thing that I was struggling with: I couldn’t tell which of my feelings were about the show and which of my feelings were about being a fat woman in a world that thinks fat women are all some variety of folkloric monster.
MEGAN: YES, that is EXACTLY it. The sad caricature of Plum is truly awful, and the weird bits of animation/surreality are puzzling only because they could all afford to be like, 46 percent weirder. Don’t give me this floppy cartoon shit and expect me to snap it up! TV audiences are much savvier than this and we can smell bullshit and loose intentions from a mile away.
Though I do not want to discuss this portion, really, I feel we must: it seems that there is a strong misandrist, “all men must die” vibe that runs through this in a way that I found alarming. It seems like this whole thing has been retrofitted for #MeToo, even though it was written before #MeToo as a movement. But remember that the stuff surrounding #MeToo is historical and has only galvanized as a movement in the past year. It’s foolish to call this “prescient,” but it’s not NOT prescient, I suppose? I can see why and how this kind of behavior exhibited by the Jennifers in the group would’ve resonated in 2015 as radical, but in 2018, when you can buy a “Kill All Men” written in cutesy cursive on a mug on Etsy means that for me, we are a bit past this.
Despite this—I’m grateful that this show exists.
Kelly: Yeah, I am confident that Plum’s narrative arc is bending toward her living up to her cute nickname rather than shedding it entirely in favor of her skinnier-seeming birth name. Which I’m in favor of.