There are few women in the lexicon of female television characters that can be considered a legitimate representation, or even a mirage, of women of size. Confident, successful, loving, stiletto-clad fat women are prominent in larger American culture, but television often disregards us in favor of distorted tropes designed to provide comedic relief. We’ve had sex-deprived fat women, like Queenie of American Horror Story ; fat women obsessed with men that have no interest in them, like Nicki Parker of The Parkers; nurturing, give-it-all-and-receive-nothing-in-return fat women, like Nell Harper of Gimme a Break; and a multitude of desperate women of size that can’t bear the image peering back at them in the mirror. Given the bleakness of television options available to women of size, Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva was something different in a vast array of tragic sameness.
Deb/Jane, Drop Dead Diva's fat protagonist made the show a gem, but we soon won't have her anymore. Drop Dead Diva has entered its sixth and final season. As we watch these final 13 episodes, it’s important to remember why Drop Dead Diva was so significant, and why it will be sorely missed.
For those of you who haven't been lucky enough to tune into the Lifetime series, Drop Dead Diva centers on Deb, an aspiring model who’s killed in a car crash. When Deb arrives in heaven, she discovers a portal that transports her back to Earth in a different body. Deb returns as Jane, a ho-drum, drab, all-work-and-no-play attorney whose entire wardrobe is comprised of black suits. In the subsequent seasons, Deb/Jane reinvigorates her closet; falls in and out of love; wins massive cases for her fledgling law firm; and somehow continues to smile even as she encounters multiple obstacles in her personal and professional lives. Margaritas and cookies seem to solve all of Deb/Jane’s woes, and she remains committed to her own happiness. In this regard, Deb/Jane is a revolutionary character.
Deb/Jane was an amazing protagonist.
We live in a culture that glorifies thin bodies at the expense of heavier ones. Fat women are often viewed through the prisms of media images, and those representations, like the ones mentioned above, are caricatures at best. According to researchers at Michigan State University, less than 5 percent of all television characters are obese and only 15 percent are overweight. Of these characters, most are inscribed with negative stereotypes, like poor self-esteem, horrible socialization skills, and dating awkwardness.
Despite the strangeness/offensiveness of a model having to enter a woman of size’s body to give her spunk, Deb/Jane displays the polar opposite of the usual characteristics associated with female characters of size. She’s beautiful and brilliant, and she knows it. She treats her body like a larger canvas and adorns it in clothing that accentuates her assets rather than camouflaging her perceived flaws. Deb/Jane understands that she disrupts spaces with her perkiness and her size, so she does it intentionally. She is the best-friend we all want to have, but never seem to find – especially on television.
A supporting cast of independent women.
Margaret Cho’s Teri Lee character is full of wit, charm, and humor. She portrays a secretary, but Lee is crucial to her boss’ success, and, thus, the success of the law firm. Her sharp detective skills, ability to detect emotions, and overall approach to her work makes Teri an invaluable asset to the firm, and a crucial character in the plot. There’s also April Bowlby as Stacy Barrett, Deb/Jane’s best friend, who we are first introduced to as a quintessential ditzy blonde. She's initially constructed as shallow, blonde eye-candy, but over the years, Stacy's true character comes forth. There was no shortage of cringe-inducing moments that relied on sexist tropes, but Stacy was often the voice of reason when Deb/Jane couldn’t find a solution to complex legal and personal problems. Stacy even opened her own business, and sold it for a significant profit – after it was discovered that she didn’t have a business plan.
Then there’s Kate Levering as Kim Kaswell. In the beginning, Kim was intended to be the foil to Deb/Jane’s hero; she was cruel, unforgiving, unloving and sarcastic. But Kim’s behavior was not presented without context. In these six seasons, we’ve been exposed to Kim’s background, which includes multiple heartbreaks and turbulent relationships with her parents. Giving the audience context creates a clearer picture of who Kim is and why she’s externally cold toward Jane and her other coworkers. We’re even given glimpses of what lies beneath her exterior. The assortment of female characters with different ethnic backgrounds, life histories, goals, and disappointments signal how diverse the female experience is, and how television can capture that. Additionally, Drop Dead Diva had multiple female guest stars, including Rosie O’Donnell, Kim Kardashian, Vivica A. Fox, Delta Burke, Star Jones, and Ricki Lake, and most had their own character arches.
Drop Dead Diva handles the issue of race in the criminal justice system well.
Law is its own character on Drop Dead Diva. The law office serves as a central location for Deb/Jane and the supporting cast, and cases it takes on are essential to the plot. Each episode displays Deb/Jane and her colleagues ensnared in a tricky case that can result in everything from compensatory damages to the death penalty. One of the things I appreciate about Drop Dead Diva’s treatment of the law is its keen attention to how race factors into legal cases. Several episodes have highlighted disparate sentences between black and white offenders and the hassles involved in overturning case convictions based on faulty witness testimony. This apt sensitivity to racial tensions in the legal process was just another victory for the Lifetime series.
The sizzling love flames between Deb/Jane, Grayson, and Owen.
Fat female protagonists are often constructed as both asexual and undesirable, according to film studies scholar Dr. Jane Feuer. In her chapter on “visual pleasure and images of fat women,” Dr. Feuer highlights how women of size are often characters to be pitied or disregarded. In the male gaze, fat female bodies are invisible, or as used as punchlines. Sexy and fat aren’t congruous terms on television, even after Roseanne appeared on the cover of Vanity Fair. Yet, Deb/Jane is depicted as confident, sexual, and desired.
Grayson is the sexiest man in the law office, and he also happens to be Deb’s fiancée. Though he was in love with Deb, a slender, blonde-haired, model, he finds himself falling for Jane. Her appearance is never a hindrance to her dating life. Jane ends up engaged to Owen, a judge that she often argues cases in front of. Owen is attracted to Deb/Jane’s beauty and her intellect, and never seems to be bothered by her weight. It is never mentioned when they’re out to dinner. He often stands back and admires Jane as she walks past him. She is literally the object of his affection, which shatters the idea that fat women are undeserving of romantic love.
There’s nothing to replace it.
I can feel the dread creeping in. When Drop Dead Diva’s final episode airs, it will mark the end of an important era in the fat liberation movement, because there are no other series that can rival the work Drop Dead Diva has done in re-imagining the fat female protagonist. There are fat female characters on television, like Melissa McCarthy's Molly Biggs on Mike & Molly, but Molly is obsessed with losing weight, and her size is often used as a punchline. Molly may be a comedic character, but she is no Deb/Jane. Television is a dreary landscape for women of size, and we’re about to lose one of the singular bright lights we have. Drop Dead Diva’s creator and executive producer, Josh Berman, wanted to use the series to redefine beauty and age ideals.
In an interview with USA Today , Berman said that in Hollywood, “Beauty has been defined as size 2 and under 25; hopefully we can help redefine the paradigm.” This remarkable series has done that, but when it ends, what will fill the void? There is no other series on the pilots horizon that will present a Deb/Jane, a fat female protagonist with pizzazz, confidence, and wicked fashion savviness. For all of the celebrating we’ve done over the past six seasons, we’re still no closer to introducing more characters like Deb/Jane. That is the most crushing realization of all.