Coming off of SaTC week, let’s focus on some very different television: Dietland. Based on the 2015 book by Sarai Walker, this show tells the story of a “morbidly obese” woman, Alicia “Plum” Kettle, who has put her entire life on hold until she is no longer fat. She denies herself more than just food: she denies herself feelings, love, sex, socializing, a career, her writing, baking, hopes and dreams. Her life is limited to a few blocks of Brooklyn (HI PARK SLOPE!) except for days she goes in to her employer, a Hearst Media style publisher in Hudson Yards (which is where L’Oreal is based in reality), where she ghostwrites for a glamourously thin editor played by Juliana Marguiles. By the third episode though, she’s realizing she isn’t denying herself life because she hates herself. She’s denying herself life because the world hates her.
Show protagonist Joy Nash – in “normal” joyful clothes as herself, and as the self-denying trying-to-be-invisible Plum Kettle
So far the reviews have been mixed: the show is well written, well put together, and different than anything else on TV, but tries to cram in a lot. The original material is almost hallucinatory in its surreality at times, so I suppose this shouldn’t be a surprise. The problem is that the sheer density of the book has resulted in reviews which speak too much to the crowded nature of the show, and fail to notice that this is the first show to openly talk about two important topics. The first of these is the way American society has, for years, taught women to enable and ignore poor behavior by men, while, at the same time, punishing and mocking women for behaving (or appearing, which seems to be considered a behavior in itself) in non-standard ways. The second of these is the national addiction to antidepressants, and the impact of long term use and withdrawal. Selling pharmaceuticals to one in four Americans is so lucrative than I’m genuinely shocked anyone called out that it might not be a good idea.
First of all, I’m incredibly impressed that this show actually depicts and narrates the constant pressure women feel in society to allow men to engage in the behavior that makes women feel bad, while simultaneously pressuring us to not engage in behavior that would make anyone else around us uncomfortable. It is the first time I’ve seen a show on TV that portrays a fat woman being sexually harassed for no reason, and acknowledging that she is reluctant to speak up or clap back because g-d forbid she she should make it worse. Dietland actually takes this a bit further, and not only calls out men’s shitty behavior, but actually tries to show us all how to hold men accountable for it, without putting all the pressure to resist on the women who are the victims of said shitty behavior. In last night’s episode, when a man harassed a woman in a convenience store, the other women in the bodega banded together to film and shame him. We do not all have to torture and kill rapists as the shadowy “Jennifer” organization does, but as a society, we do need to call out men who harass women on the street or who slut-shame them in convenience stores.
This is one of the reasons why Dietland matters. It shows men’s response to women who do not follow a socially acceptable code of conduct, which includes not only behavior, but appearance. Society should hold men accountable for making choices to “grab women by the pussy”, rather than giggling and infantilizing those choices as “boys will be boys“. And when a man bro’s out at the expense of a woman, making a comment on her weight or appearance for his own amusement (as a custodial worker does, mocking Plum to his buddy in an elevator), it is the responsibility of the other men to tell him he’s an ass.
The second reason this show matters is that it shows a protagonist going off anti-depressants and the consequences for doing so. There are many voices of reason that remind Plum she was on doctor prescribed pills, that she should, at the least, wean off them rather than go cold turkey. But antidepressant withdrawal is a BFD as we begin to discover that it is easy to reap initial benefits from medication, but difficult as hell to get back off said medication when it becomes ineffective. No one really wants to talk about how awful it is to try to come off antidepressants, a consequence that is not well researched and on which patients are certainly not well educated when they start the medication in the first place. It’s doubtful that I would have turned down antidepressants in 2005 had i known it would be such an awful experience to come off those drugs in 2018. However, I was not prepared for how awful the withdrawal would be, nor was I really prepared to face the fact that the antidepressants hadn’t been working for years. The NYT has been running a whole series on this recently, which is as much about the withdrawal as it is about the fact that no one is studying withdrawal. To have a mainstream TV show address the idea of antidepressant withdrawal feels extremely timely as we start to investigate what the real long term effects of these medications are.
I do wish Dietland addressed the proven fact that antidepressants rarely remain effective for more than a few years. In the book and TV adaptation, Plum is on Y, an antidepressant that seems to have successfully repressed her feelings ever since she began taking it to cope with rejection from a man she trusted with her feelings. The show addresses the ready willingness with which we sacrifice joy to avoid despair, the way we are encouraged to embrace antidepressants out of emotional risk aversion. It does not address the real challenge, which is that if an antidepressant is prescribed for real depression, we are very likely on borrowed time with it – and we must take ownership for hacking our own brains in anticipation of the day it no longer works.
So for these two threads alone – Dietland matters. It’s got its clunky parts, and can be jarring and unfinished in places. The reviews are not wrong in that it is trying to cram a lot of plot and theme into a single hour long episode. However, I believe this is important TV. The more we portray these issues in television, the more we address the way we, as a society, still choose gender inequality. This show reminds us that as women, our inequality is constantly reinforced through the beauty and body image standards imposed on us, both by men and by ourselves. The more we show the methodology in which women are made lesser, the more we can find ways to make us equal.