If you haven't started watching Dietland, it's worth adding to the top of your list. AMC's new drama, which premiered on June 4 and airs on Mondays at 9 p.m. ET, is based on the book of the same name by Sarai Walker. Dietland follows protagonist Plum Kettle, who identifies as a fat woman and finds herself enrolling in a type of rehab program to undo the damage of a lifetime of suffering through harmful diets and personal pain inflicted by society's judgement of her body. From there, she discovers an underground feminist collective, Calliope House, and a loosely connected group of women taking vigilante justice to a whole new level.
The fact that Plum owns the "fat woman" description is pivotal to the show's plot, and if the word "fat" makes you a little uncomfortable, well, get used to it — Dietland is all about making you uncomfortable. It's something I learned firsthand while interviewing Dietland actor and activist Erin Darke about her role on the show. She plays Leeta, the mysterious woman who introduces Plum to Verena, the unorthodox leader of Calliope House.
At one point during my chat with Darke, there was a moment of discomfort due to that very word. "So, Dietland centers around Plum and her journey of self-empowerment as a fat woman," I began, before getting tongue tied. "Er, um, an overweight or plus-size woman—"
In an effort not to appear rude, ignorant, or misinformed, I stumbled over the word "fat," the very word I had painstakingly considered beforehand while writing out my questions. It's the word Dietland author Sarai Walker uses herself, and she makes a compelling case for why "fat" shouldn't have any negative connotations. I'd even put a star next to it with that entire explanation in a footnote. And yet, when it came time to say it out loud, I choked. Luckily, Darke jumped in.
"I think 'fat' woman is [fine]..." she started, reassuring me that my initial attempt had been correct. Hastily, I tried to cover up my embarrassment with my question, and asked her what she thinks the role of thin allies should be when it comes to a situation like Plum's.
"We have to do better, being allies," Darke began. "You know, that was one of the things that this show really made me think about — how I have probably not been a great ally. You know, even just the idea that we are still hesitant about using the word "fat" because we’ve been taught our whole lives that that’s a negative thing, that that means a horrible thing. There are all of these little things that we've been taught our whole lives. And I’ve realized I have probably not been a great ally, and not really spent time seeking out fat viewpoints. It made me feel really awful, actually, when I realized how fat is sort of like this weird sort of still socially acceptable form of prejudice."
You wouldn't tell a woman what to do with her reproductive system, so why is it okay to tell fat people they need to change their bodies?
As she spoke, the whole tone of the conversation shifted. Her sadness and regret was evident, and her words made me sad, too. I'd been coming to the exact same conclusions while watching Dietland, myself — that I hadn't really been the ally I should have been.
In Episode 3, "Y Not," Plum goes through a wild and hallucinatory withdrawal as she stops taking the antidepressant Y. When she comes out of her fog, her mother and friend Steven well-meaningly try to rebuild her confidence in her body and herself, but they're rebuffed. "I don’t hate myself," Plum says, exasperated, "The world hates me. For being like this. Every day I walk around in this skin, people look at me like I have the plague. They act like I’m a stain."
As someone who's been thin her whole life (even using the word "thin" here feels strange, like a brag instead of simply a description of my body type), Plum's words drew attention to all the privilege I hadn't been acknowledging.
In 2018, intersectional feminists know that it is important to acknowledge the perspectives and narratives of marginalized people. And yet somehow, fat people are consistently left out of this group. You wouldn't tell a woman what to do with her reproductive system, so why is it okay to tell fat people they need to change their bodies? You wouldn't say something self-deprecating and equate yourself to being from a marginalized group, so why is it so common to make these generalizations about fat folks? Why is it still OK to use the word fat as an insult, and to insult fat people, in public?
Obviously, it's not now and has never been OK, but that doesn't mean people don't still do it. Even people who otherwise consider themselves to be progressive and empathetic still commit these micro-aggressions without thinking. Somehow, the fat perspective has been forgotten when thinking about groups that don't fit into the cis, white, heteronormative ideal.
While the body positivity movement is — for lack of a better word — positive, it fails to cut to the core of the real issue. And Dietland brings that issue front and center.
In Episode 7, Verena challenges the hurt, dejected, post-bad-date Plum. "It never even occurs to you that maybe it’s the people who judge you who need to change," she says.
"Well, good luck with that."
"You think it’s impossible?"
"I think it would take a revolution."
Verena is right. It's not fat people who need to change, it's the rest of the world that needs to adjust and make some space for the fat perspective.
Plum is right, too. It'll take a revolution. But rather than being a rhetorical statement of defeat, that should be a call to action for allies everywhere.
Like Darke said, we need to do better.