Dietland opens with a torrent of desperate questions from young women, their voices echoing over a montage illustrating the harm women inflict on their own bodies – the cutting, the plucking, the purging. What follows is a TV show that seeks to show why they do this to themselves.
In this adaptation of Sarai Walker’s bestselling novel, there is a lot – a lot – going on. Central character Plum Kettle is a fat woman (her description) struggling to navigate her way through an only slightly exaggerated version of our society, where the beauty standards expected of women are increasingly overbearing. But there is also a mysterious female underground network attempting to dismantle the cosmetic industry from within (and recruit Plum in the meantime), a ruthless feminist vigilante group called Jennifer, which is taking revenge against the perpetrators of sexual violence, and an enigmatic heiress of a weight-loss programme now hellbent on destroying her family’s legacy of shaming women.
On top of all of that, there are surreal daydream sequences, fantastical animation elements and dreamlike flashbacks. As I said: there is a lot going on.
Showrunner Marti Noxon is also responsible for UnREAL, a massively underrated show (in the UK, at least) set behind the scenes on a Bachelor-style dating show and with a strong feminist undercurrent. In Dietland, that undercurrent has bubbled over. Those misogynistic micro-aggressions we keep talking about? Dietland is about what happens when the build-up becomes unsustainable, when the dam bursts. The first episode is titled “Unapologetic”.
What fundamentally fuels the various plot strands is female anger, which the show captures, harnesses and unleashes… and it has plenty of targets. After years of prejudice, self-deprivation and brutal diet plans, Plum is now planning risky and drastic weight-loss surgery, believing that all her problems will be solved if she takes up less space in the world. She has a new wardrobe, career plan and even a different name planned for her future, thinner, self.
Those misogynistic micro-aggressions we keep talking about? Dietland is about what happens when the build-up becomes unsustainable, when the dam bursts
For now, she is stuck ghost-writing advice letters to the teen-girl readers of fictional magazine Daisy Chain (theirs are the voices in the harrowing opening montage), acting as the mouthpiece for its perfectly proportioned editor, Kitty Montgomery, played by Julianna Margulies.
Meanwhile, Jennifer are making headlines by quite literally throwing rapists from bridges and kidnapping serial abusers (a Terry Richardson reference is not so much thinly veiled, as signposted in neon lights). They are the monstrous female revolt that the conservative, old, white men have been prophesying.
In The Handmaid’s Tale, against which this will undoubtedly be compared, women are subjected to horrific injustices, humiliations and abuses in a dystopian sort-of future. It feels like a warning of things that could come to pass – the extreme violent end towards which we are headed.
In Dietland, though, the abuses faced by women are much more in line with the world we live in: street harassment; impossible beauty standards; objectification; emotional, physical and sexual violence; and being manipulated by a capitalism that tells us we are lacking.
It would make an interesting companion piece to Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty, which claimed to spread the message that if you believe in yourself – also unapologetically – the world is there for the taking. Dietland is less optimistic – it thinks that it’s the world that needs to change, not the women in it.
Margulies’ Kitty is being compared to Miranda Priestly in The Devil Wears Prada, but her performance is wackier than that. She’s part Disney villain, part corporate robot, part glamazon – spouting nonsensical soundbites about shaving creams or lipsticks, while dressed in tight, rigid, structural clothes that only serve to emphasise her thinness.
Some will see Kitty as Plum’s tormentor, the villain of the piece who relishes enacting what Mean Girls would call “girl on girl crime”, but Dietland shows that even she is still operating within a system that devalues her, ultimately answering to a male overlord. One complicit woman is not to blame for the deep roots of misogyny that society has been built on.
Dietland is trying to do a lot of things – probably too many – but based on both the novel and show, there is still a lot to be done. These kinds of stories used to be snuck into pop culture; they were a stealth tool of writers. Now they are front and centre of the story and there is no soft padding to cushion the blow. It’s never entirely clear which conspiracy everyone is involved in: is it the one to topple the patriarchy, the anti-capitalist plot to decimate the beauty industry or the one nudging Plum towards self-acceptance? But that lack of clarity is kind of the point: those three objectives are intrinsically linked by systemic misogyny. They all operate on the same plane.
Dietland feels audacious and it is undeniably a risk. We talk about wanting female characters being allowed to be brazen, unlikeable and unapologetic, but this is what television looks like when it is made by women being just that.
Dietland is on Amazon Prime