My Review of Dietland and why Julianna Margulies is wrong about #MeToo

As a chubby, middle-aged, feminist lesbian who has had a mad crush (OK, fine, obsession) with Julianna Margulies for many years, I watched the new AMC show Dietland with excitement and cautious optimism. Margulies has, over the years, chosen great projects with strong female leads and feminist perspectives. And when I learned that Marti Noxon, one of my favorite writer/producers from Buffy the Vampire Slayer, one of my favorite TV shows of all time, was the creator and producer of Dietland, I figured it stood a good chance of being something I would like.

But this is Hollywood after all. And a show with the word “Diet” in the title also seemed like it might have the potential to go terribly wrong. When I first heard Margulies was set to star in a brand new show I was unfamiliar with Sarai Walker’s book, also called Dietland, on which the show is based. But a couple of body positive friends assured me that the book was a solid, anti fat-shaming critique of the diet industry. AMC aired the first three episodes this week. And it turns out that the show is actually a lot more than that.

Dietland’s first three episodes are feminist, for sure. The protagonist, Plum Kettle, is a fat (it’s not a dirty word) straight woman, an almost 30 year old New Yorker, and writer for a teen fashion magazine called “Daisy Chain.” Kitty Montgomery (Margulies) is the head of Daisy Chain. Teenage girls write in to Kitty’s column asking for all kinds of advice on love, sex, self esteem. And Plum answers those letters as Kitty, with gentle, smart, and subtly feminist encouragement. In the meantime, Plum, is caught up in a toxic relationship with her own fat body, trying to lose enough weight to qualify for weight-loss surgery, which seems ironic if illogical, but apparently a thing that is sometimes required with such procedures. While the show gets a lot of things right about fat-shaming and the kind of cruel treatment fat women experience simply by existing in the world, it should be noted that Joy Nash’s Plum is a mere 250lbs at the outset, while Walker’s character in the book is 304. I know this only because I bought the kindle version of the book after I finished the first episode and the narrator tells us Plum’s weight in chapter one.

Even before I read that part of the book, there were moments watching the first two episodes where I felt like I wanted Plum to be fatter. The storyline may have been more plausible with an actor who is closer to 300lbs than Nash. But this is Hollywood and should not surprise us, I suppose. And as disappointing as that is to me, Nash’s acting makes up for it. She is brilliant; her facial expressions nuanced, each line delivered with fierce authenticity.

Plum’s monologue at the end of episode 3 does a good job of exploring the ways we internalize our own oppression. Yes, her character wants to lose weight and is in the process of mutilating her body in order to do so, but she’s also in the midst of a consciousness raising. We sense (and kind of know from the upcoming episode teasers) that her journey takes her towards body-positive self-love rather than further into self-deprecation. A victory for a Hollywood TV show!

The subplot of the series is darker. A group of terrorist women known as “Jennifer” has started abducting and murdering men who are known perpetrators and dropping their bodies from the sky (from airplanes?) all over the city. At the close of ep 3, we have 12 dead bodies. But before their executions Jennifer has filmed each perpetrator confessing to his own crimes.

Margulies’ Kitty, by the end of episode three, has already undergone some good character development, and is turning out to be neither as dumb nor as naive as she at first appears. It will be interesting to see how her character’s complicity unfolds. Kitty is a high-powered narcissist, self absorbed and self-serving like most good capitalists. And she may peddle shallow, mainstream ideas about beauty and success for a living, but we’re already getting the sense that she probably knows better. Three dimensional characters for women over the age of 50 are so rare on television, (Margulies turns 52 this week). But like Viola Davis’ Annalise Keating on How to Get Away with Murder, Kitty Montgomery has the potential to be a complex, not-all-good, not-all-bad kind of character that viewers (at least smart, feminist ones) crave.

At the end of episode three Kitty muses to a colleague that “Men would rather destroy the world than let us rule it.”

Although production on Dietland began long before the #metoo movement caught fire last fall, it’s hard to imagine this show existing, or at least succeeding, before it. This is the ultimate feminist revenge fantasy, one I plan to continue to watch. And I would be lying if I said I’d never had a revenge fantasy of my own. What oppressed person hasn’t? In fact, ever since the last presidential election I have had this suspicion/hope that somewhere in the world right now there exists a secret coalition of incredibly brilliant feminist women — scientists, scholars, farmers, housewives, even politicians — from all walks of life who have come together and already figured out a plan for peaceful world domination and that they are slowly putting into place the structures that are needed to dismantle all the systems of oppression that currently plague us. This could be true, right? But they’d have to toil away in secret for a long time in order to get it to work. If the article you’re reading right now mysteriously disappears from my site, I’ll know I’m on to something and you’ll never hear a word about it from me again.

These are interesting times we’re living through right now where women’s voices and sexism are being taken more seriously than ever before. Where the kind of racism that has existed forever in this country is finally being exposed to a wider audience thanks to social media. I have some hope that the world can change, is changing in big and profound ways (via covert feminist coalitions or not).

When, in a recent interview promoting Dietland, Margulies was asked about the show’s connection to the #metoo movement; she confessed that her fear is that there may be a tendency in these times to pit women against men. But, she said, it is not about women vs. men; it’s about good people vs. bad people. I haven’t been able to stop thinking about this comment since I saw that clip. And especially now that I’ve watched the show.

Margulies is wrong. I understand her sentiment. It isn’t right or productive to lump all women or all men together — certainly not in an us vs. them kind of way, but her thinking is also problematic. Besides the fact that any set up of men vs. women perpetuates a limited gender binary, it also over-generalizes. Admittedly, sometimes generalizations have their place. Certainly we can see patterns of abuse and violence that position men as the perpetrator and women more often as the victims. But while reducing #metoo to men vs women is incorrect and misleading, saying this conversation should be about good people vs bad people is a dangerous over simplification.

There is not a dichotomy of men vs women or even good vs bad people. There are systems of power that exist under patriarchy which have allowed and encouraged certain groups of people to abuse and oppress others. But I understand how that’s not a good sound bite.

I have to admit that sometimes I feel tempted to make statements like “Men are awful.” Or “Jesus, I hate men!” It’s easy when we hear about man after man being credibly accused of assault, harassment, or just deplorable behavior. It’s easy when most of the women I know — myself included — have had multiple experiences of abuse or assault at the hands of men. But I also am raising three sons. And I know that the answer is not that men are evil. It’s not even that some men are bad. Not inherently anyway. And I don’t believe that sort of thinking gets us very far. Margulies is the show’s biggest star and she’s been doing a ton of promos. I have always adored her and find her to be funny and smart in interviews, but her comment has to be challenged.

The first phase of #metoo was about giving voice to our experiences, putting them out in the open, about saying this happened to ME TOO and it’s not right. Most, though not all, of those stories came from women who named men as their abusers. There is something in our culture that has allowed men — especially certain kinds of men — notably heterosexual, cis-gendered men to not only get away with such bad, often criminal behavior, but to profit from it. And I know that many women have been complicit in the system that allows women’s oppression. We all suffer under patriarchy. We all, in different ways and to varying degrees, are harmed by oppression even when we are the oppressor. Men are robbed of their full humanity by roles that patriarchy demands they play. White people are kept from empathy and from understanding the human experience more fully by the structures of racism and white supremacy. In the same way that all white people (including the “good” liberal ones) need to interrogate their own racism and unconscious bias, all men need to ask how they have benefited from and perpetuate sexism. And we need to ask why some men — why so many men — even men who are often talented artists, successful in their fields, and in some cases men who are even loving fathers and husbands — why those men act the way they do and why we as as a society have gone along with it. That’s what the next phase of #metoo must be about, not an attempt to separate the “good” from the “bad.”

It may be too much to ask from Hollywood, but I do hope that Dietland will be able to explore some of the more nuanced aspects of oppression — both fat-oppression and misogyny — and not resort to making false dichotomies about good people vs. bad people. Dietland is already unabashedly feminist in the ways that it is taking on fat-shaming and sexism, and so far seems promising, even if only in its offering representation of characters we don’t often see on TV. But I think it has the power to be much more.

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Erin Heiser

Erin Heiser

Mother. New Yorker. Reluctant academic. Lover of words, flowers, buildings, art. Teacher. Writer. Intersectional Feminist. Lesbian. Queer.