“We all have to live with the parts of ourselves that are broken and find a way to be happy.”
Sarai Walker’s book ‘Dietland’ has been adapted into a TV series with one season released so far. I haven’t yet read the book and only discovered its existence after seeing the rather enticing poster of an illustrated chubby girl in a red dress holding a cupcake shaped grenade. The tag-line was – Join the Revolution.
The story starts off simple enough. Here is Plum Kettle (Joy Nash). She’s fat, has a plain face, wears dark, drab clothes that billow about her and is saving up for a gastric bypass procedure. Everything about her existence is designed to reman inconspicuous. The only people she’s close to are her gay coffee-shop owner friend and her mother. Plum works as a ghost writer for Kitty (Juliana Marguiles) at the Daisy Chain Magazine where her job is to reply to letters sent by sad, angry and lonely women seeking answers. She has a set routine within a limiting radius – coffee shop, office, home – and gets terribly upset when it is disrupted. Sort of like a little Pacman moving about eating dots in a drawn box trying its best not to get eaten up wandering crabs.
Plum is tired. Of her weight, of people, of other women who try to make her feel better, of her mother who loves her unconditionally, of being a writer in the shadows, of never feeling good enough. And Dietland is so good that you feel torn between being mad at her for being so hard on herself and also understanding how tough the world can be if you don’t bloody fit in. Desperation drives her to join a feminist cult (for lack of a better word) founded by Verena Baptist (Robin Weigert). The Calliope House is meant to be a form of rehabilitation for women who have suffered from emotional and physical abuse by men, family or even themselves. Verena uses an unconventional form of treatment where she dangles monetary rewards to entice Plum into taking an effort to look good and going on bad dates.
But Plum Kettle and her body issues and Calliope House are just small cogs in a bigger plot. ‘Jennifer’, a group of female vigilantes, are murdering rapists and hurling them off bridges. Team Jennifer is organized. They wear masks, carry weapons and are untraceable. They are fearless in their strategy of taking justice in their own hands and suddenly, for the first time, men are scared. While we’ve watched several films that depict strong women avenging men who’ve betrayed them (Kill Bill, Mad Max, First Wives Club, Double Jeopardy, Enough, Hard Candy), Jennifer plucks at a different string. They represent a collective rage against the infinite blackhole of pain and humiliation endured by women for far too long. And although a few women do question the morality of taking justice into your own hands with violence, they all can’t help but feel admiration and kinship with Jennifer.
Dietland does justice to every character it creates. Kitty appears to be the polar opposite of Plum – skinny, ruthless, poker-faced, manipulative. She knows how to play the game and does it so well in those killer heels and “Don’t fuck with me” expression. It’s easy to hate her for how disposable people are to her but you learn about her own struggles against the patriarchy. I loved one of her lines, “Men would rather destroy the world than let us rule it.” Then there’s Dominic (Adam Rothenberg), a man set apart by his eagerness to do the right thing. He is Plum’s ally and crush, brooding and handsome with a gruff, seductive voice. This is the intentionally differentiating hue in the Dietland palette that tries to show how hard it can be for good men to do their job.
The world makes it very hard to love yourself. There’s a scene in which Plum sits in a room with a projector streaming the top videos being watched on Pornhub. Images of women being thrust into or spanked flutter on the walls with a soundtrack of moaning and groaning. Plum has her epiphany, that even skinny, beautiful women endure such tortuous whims of men so what was the point of her resenting her own weight? It didn’t matter. You could walk up to one point and think, ‘This is it! I’m finally ready for people to see how beautiful I am.” And then it would move further like a laser dot teasing a cat. Chase chase chase.
The show starts off with one layer of an unhappy fat woman and then with each episode unravels itself like a pungent onion; the manipulative beauty industry that pecks at women’s crippling self-esteem like a ravenous vulture, the connection that materializes so effortlessly between women who have endured pain and abuse, the nuances of consent, the toxic masculinity that men holding powerful positions enable in each other, the endless quest for self-love.
I was a little disappointed with the ending. It’s not the best for a show that triggered so many conversation points. But that doesn’t take away its immense courage, dark humor and wit. The characters evolve, you watch Plum’s face stretch tighter with each episode, her self-confidence building , her building a will to fight back and refusing to settle. She stops shuffling and starts running, her new tribe builds conviction in herself and her purpose and for the first time she stops caring about how she looks. Nash and Marguiles are just a wonder to watch.
Dietland’s women are throttling on full gear, no brakes, no reasoning. They want to do more than shake the system, they want to tear it down and re-build a social structure where men and women are truly EQUAL. Perhaps fear is the only way to disrupt the assumptive roles that have been built for genders over time. Radicalized women who resort to violence to control despicable men – why not?
This show is important to me because although we as women keep talking about loving ourselves and our bodies, how much of it are we really putting into practice? Open Instagram and Facebook and you’ll be flooded with selfies of poised women, proud ‘Before and After’ pictures with multiple hashtags relating to persistence and hardwork while working out, fashion and make-up tips to make one look slim or bronzed or cellulite-free. We are so far away from not giving a shit about how the rest of the world sees us and still seek constant validation. Patriarchy is just one enemy. Our need to meet others’ expectations is the real monster than must be slain first.