Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Can "Drop Dead Diva" Move Beyond Fat Jokes and Stereotypes?

In the opening scene of Lifetime’s Drop Dead Diva, Deb (the skinny, shallow character) primps in front of the mirror while her boyfriend dutifully prepares her usual breakfast of a grapefruit sprinkled with two packets of Splenda. The camera closes in on the grapefruit and suddenly we’re inside the refrigerator at a law office, where Jane (the plus-sized, smart character) reaches for a plate of pastries. She stuffs them in her mouth and closes her eyes in ecstasy. This is all a setup for what happens next: size zero Deb is killed when she crashes her car into a grapefruit truck (oh, the irony!) and the Price is Right prize model-wannabe ends up inhabiting Jane’s Lane Bryant body.

I have no doubt that the show’s stars, Brooke Elliott and Margaret Cho, are serious about raising awareness about body image issues. Cho has been open about her own past struggles with weight and eating disorders. “I was very obsessive as a dieter and I thought being thin was the answer to all of my problems and so I wrecked my health in order to become thin," she recently told Ok! magazine. Both actors also talked passionately about their personal connections to Drop Dead Diva last week at a blogger meet and greet, respectfully taking on the criticisms that the show plays into stereotypes.

“This is a journey from being invisible to being visible. When [my first series] All-American Girl came out, it was hard to get the Asian American community to accept it," Cho said. "They couldn’t believe they were seeing themselves, and they couldn’t believe it could be positive.” I get what she’s saying, but how does a plus-sized main character create positive visibility when she’s leaning back in her chair so her assistant (played by Cho) can squirt canned cheese into her mouth? That’s a tough one to swallow.

I came away from the premiere with the message that Jane's size is connected to her emotional overeating. Oh, and now she happens to have the soul of a skinny woman living inside her. As Kim from Big Fat Blog pointed out, isn’t that trope pretty much the party line of the diet industry? Everyone has the power to be thin! “The show is about self-acceptance,” Elliott responded. “I happen to love my body. There’s me inside of me, a me who knows I’m beautiful.” Unfortunately, Elliott isn’t playing herself—she’s playing Jane, an unfulfilled workaholic who takes comfort in doughnuts.

I am curious to see how Deb and Jane will find self-acceptance. Their food issues (Deb’s restricting and Jane’s bingeing) were put right on the table in first episode, so how will they be addressed throughout the series? Will we get to see a plus-sized character who is confident and healthy? Truthfully, I want to believe that the stars’ good intentions will eventually translate into a good show.

Drop Dead Diva Mother-Daughter Discussion Guide
Margaret Cho suggested that Drop Dead Diva is a good show for mothers and daughters to watch together. Here are a five discussion questions to get your conversations started. Feel free to submit your own questions in the comments section.

1. What messages did you get about thin people from this episode?
2. What messages did you get about fat people from this episode?
3. Does Deb feel good about her body? Does she eat in a healthy way? Talk about examples from the episode.
4. Does Jane feel good about her body? Does she eat in a healthy? Talk about examples from the episode.
5. How did you relate to the characters in this show?

Drop Dead Diva airs Sunday nights at 9 p.m. on Lifetime


Reagan said...

I didn't see the show, but the plot sounds like a quote I often see on cocktail napkins, pillows, etc. at "cutesey" boutiques: "There's a skinny bitch inside me screaming to be let out, but I shut her up with chocolate."


Dan Hess said...

Keep watching the'll see that it's truly about accepting yourself in every way and understanding that beauty comes in many shapes and forms. We have some great guest stars (Rosie O'Donnell, etc.) coming up to help us in our mission to tell good stories with a positive message, so stay tuned!

Anonymous said...

Any women writing on the show?

Claire Mysko said...

Did you say chocolate? Yep, that's in there, too. In one scene, Deb/Jane begs her vapid friend for some chocolate. The friend stares at her like she's speaking a foreign language and then manages, "Chocolate martini?"

Thanks very much for your comment. I hope you're right! Rosie O. should be an interesting addition.

No women writers on the show, at least according to IMDB. The pilot was written by Josh Berman (the show's creator). Director is James Hayman and all five of the credited producers are men.

Andrea said...

I caught the second episode last night (after being disappointed that I got the time wrong and missed the first episode). Halfway through I remember thinking, "I'm not sure about this..."
I think I expected more; however reminded myself that 1. This was only the second episode and 2. this at least was a step in the right direction considering what we all have grown up watching in mainstream TV.
One part I liked, Jane's friend (guardian angel?) asks her what Deb would say to Jane now and she responded, "I'm sorry I needed girls like you to feel better about myself". Being a thin girl used to hate my body I could sadly relate. I'll keep watching!