The Small Screen: A Professional Fatass Gives Drop Dead Diva A Second Look

As a professional unapologetic fatass, I've been asked by numerous media outlets to comment on Lifetime TV's big girl empowerment dramedy Drop Dead Diva. And I have. But until last night, I hadn't actually watched anything beyond the second episode.

Tara Parker-Pope's recent post about it at the NYT's Well blog inspired me to catch up. From a Professional Unapologetic Fatass (hereafter, PUF) perspective, the post struck me in much the same way the first two episodes of the show did: Close, but not quite. (More on that in a moment.) My first impression was: Much better than a weight-loss competition or Fat Chicks Crying, but still a bit too stereotypey for my tastes.

If you're not familiar with the show's premise, it's this: A vapid aspiring model, Deb, dies and is returned to earth in the size-16 body of a brainy, workaholic lawyer, Jane. New Jane has Deb's memories — which include the calorie counts of everything, like the half-grapefruit and Splenda she used to eat for breakfast — combined with Old Jane's intelligence and legal expertise. (Yeah, don't ask; if that's too great a challenge to your willing suspension of disbelief, this isn't your show.)

The odd marriage of a chronic dieter's memories and an apparently resigned, if not unapologetic, fat girl's brain and body, says Parker-Pope, "raises an obvious question: Given Deb's success at maintaining a model-like figure, why doesn't she just put her new body on a diet and lose the weight?" Well, that's one of the first things she tries, as it turns out. But "she discovers that Jane's body craves chocolate and Cheez Whiz. When she is inside Jane's body, Deb says: 'I don't like celery. I like sandwiches.'"

Parker-Pope seems to uncritically accept that answer, which was the one thing I didn't like about the show when I first watched it. This idea that the desire to suck EZ Cheez straight from the can is somehow embedded in Jane's body, regardless of whose brain is doing the driving, only reinforces the stereotype that fat people are uncontrollably drawn to junk food. (See also: Jane/Deb losing the ability to concentrate while in the presence of doughnuts. Seriously.) If they'd played it just as Deb suddenly feeling like she had an excuse to eat, and bingeing to make up for years of calorie restriction, I might have been on board. But no, at the end of the day, Deb likes celery (and grapefruit and Splenda even in mojitos), and Jane likes sandwiches (and doughnuts and fried calamari and EZ Cheez). And I mean, that's fine — I also like many of those things, and I'm sure a lot of fat people do like all of them. But so do a lot of thin people.

I realize you can't have a fish-out-of-water comedy without extremes, but when you're explicitly claiming a fat power message — and the folks behind DDD are — implying that the only reason New Jane can't lose weight is because Old Jane's zombie fat cells demand junk food kinda misses the mark. Well, actually, that's not the only reason. We're similarly meant to believe that Jane — that's her (Brooke Elliot) in the photo up there — is so out of shape she cannot complete a single squat, much less the hours of exercise Deb would like to put her through. Again, it's fine to have a fat character who's so overworked she can't find time for the gym, just like a whole bunch of real people of all sizes, but seriously? An able-bodied, 30ish woman who's just barely over the plus-size line* can't do one effin' squat? Especially when she's played by Brooke Elliott, who's sung and danced on Broadway? I call bullshit. More specifically, I call lazy stereotype.

Or rather, I called lazy stereotype, before I caught up on more recent episodes. In episode 7, I was stunned to see a much better explanation for why Jane's body remains fat. The legal case of the week revolves around a 500-calorie-a-day commercial diet program that may have caused heart problems in a young girl who used it. And the twist (spoiler alert) is, after New Jane takes the case, we learn that Old Jane not only tried the same product but at one point endorsed it. Obviously, this throws a wrench in the case, and it prompts New Jane to visit her old doctor, where she learns more about her dieting history.

Check that shit out! In a two-minute clip, we learn:

  • Old Jane was, in fact, a veteran dieter — like many, if not most, fat chicks — not merely a sedentary spray-cheese devotee who was somehow immune to cultural pressure to lose weight.
  • When trying to lose weight, Old Jane would quickly plateau and then gain it back because, according to her Fairy Goddoctor (so named because damn, this is not the average fat person's doctor visit, even though it ought to be), her body just wouldn't let her keep starving. Quoth the Fairy Goddoctor: "It has nothing to do with willpower." (!!!!!!)
  • Old Jane wanted gastric by-pass surgery, but Fairy Goddoctor "wouldn't even give [her] a brochure." Christ, I wish this doctor were real.
  • Fairy Goddoctor believes that realistically, dieting "success" will almost always be short-lived.
  • Jane's blood pressure is "a little high" because she's anxious, not because she's fat.

I can safely say I have never seen anything even a little bit like that on TV in my life. And speaking as a PUF, I have a whole new love for this show because of it. (So much so that I'll even forgive them for the bit where she lies to the doc about going to the gym. Reinforcing stereotypes of fat people as both sedentary and medically non-compliant? Yes. Fairly realistic and delivered rather adorably by Elliott? Also yes.)

Other recent episodes mostly bore out my new love for DDD, though I still have a fundamental problem with it, which is an unfortunate side effect of the premise: To wit, we are not seeing the experiences of a professional, competent, cute-as-a-bug's-ear fat woman, but the experiences of a thin woman suddenly forced to give thought one to what it's like to be fat. And that means, for instance, that we get an entire episode built around New Jane's shock and outrage upon learning that a Rodeo Drive boutique doesn't carry dresses in her size — and gasp! the salespeople are rude to fatties — which leads to an ill-advised (and realistically ill-fated) discrimination lawsuit against the company.

The lack of fashionable plus-size options — and respect for the market — is real and shitty, but an actual fat woman would A) not be all gollygeewhiz surprised by this and B) likely have bigger and better fish to fry where discrimination suits are concerned. So, although it's realistic that Deb would be both learning this for the first time and dumb enough to believe there's a lawsuit in it, the fact that she's doing it in Jane's body subtly reinforces one of my least favorite Hollywood stereotypes: The fat girl who doesn't know she's fat. The fat girl who doesn't realize she's not a 24-year-old model, and thus humiliates herself by acting entitled to all the rights and privileges pertaining to conventional attractiveness. That's a really common trope, among the rare instances when you see a fat girl on TV at all — she has no idea that other people are offended by her appearance, that the captain of the football team doesn't really want to take her to prom, that people think she eats too much, that she can't wear straight sizes, that any effort she puts into looking pretty will read as a big joke on her. It's usually based, as far as I can tell, on the assumption that fat people are ignorant not only of nutrition and exercise recommendations, but how they're perceived in society — 'cause if they knew how much people hate them, they would have lost weight already, amirite?

Here, obviously, it's based on the conceit that this particular fat girl is also a 24-year-old model. But I just don't think we've come far enough from that other version of The Fat Girl Who Doesn't Know It for the underlying premise here — as DDD creator Josh Berman told Parker-Pope, "I always liked the idea of a woman who doesn't feel on the inside like she looks on the outside" — to be 100% empowering. It leads, just a bit too often, to New Jane looking like a buffoon in all-too-familiar ways. (And that's without getting into the fact that looking like Brooke Elliott on the outside is hardly the raw deal it's made out to be.)

More disturbingly, it raises another question that should be obvious: What happened to Old Jane, anyway? And the answer is: She's dead. Literally. She died so that Deb could live. We're meant to believe Old Jane was self-loathing and lonely, so being body-snatched by someone more sexually confident is trading up, but unfortunately, that means this isn't the story of a fat woman learning to love herself as-is, but a fat woman fucking dying so a thin woman can learn a valuable lesson. I don't think I'll ever completely get past that.

But I can get past it enough to enjoy Drop Dead Diva for what it is — a fairly typical Lady Network show with a lot of atypical, unprecedented, truly body-positive twists. It's not 100% PUF-approved, but holy crap, it's a better portrayal of a fat woman than damn near anything I've seen since Roseanne, so I would really like to see this show do well. Since they already seem to have cut down on the binge-eating gags in recent episodes (THANK YOU), and they can only do so much about the premise, all I can really ask for is a little more sensitivity to the pitfalls of having Deb learn shit in Jane's body that should be obvious to any thinking person, fat or thin. Oh, and more Fred. For the love of all that's holy, do not take Fred away from us again.

*Before somebody argues that point, the line I'm referring to is 14/16W, where most plus lines begin. And as anyone who's ever had the misfortune of falling between them can tell you, there's actually quite a gulf between a "straight" 14 or 16 and a 14 or 16W.

In TV Series, Some Reality On Weight [NYT]