Ugh, Netflix is like Costco where once you fall in love with something *poof* they stop carrying it (or the season/episodes stop coming). After Parenthood, House of Cards and then The New Girl stopped having new episodes, I watched all of the Ted talks I could get my hands on. Then, I found Drop Dead Diva, & despite my hesitation, I couldn’t help thinking it would be an experiment in analysis – can a show with a premise that is so seemingly shallow actually escape the pitfalls built into its structure? That is, can a show about a conventionally-attractive thin & blonde model whose soul gets transplanted into a fat lawyer’s body be anything but offensive? It’s the age-old (& freakin’ tired) pitting of “beauty vs. brains.”
Or is it?
This show has blown my mind in such a positive way.
So, here’s the gist of the premise: Deb Dobkins is a thin and conventionally attractive model who dies in a car crash on her way to audition to be a prize model on the Price is Right; Jane Bingum is a fat lawyer who is shot in her office by someone intending to kill her boss. Due to a kerfuffle at the gates of Heaven, Deb’s soul is returned to Earth, but…wait for it…in the body of Jane Bingum. This is so hah-hah funny because Deb is a model and Jane, being fat, is probably the worst thing that could happen to her (sigh). Let’s get over sad this set up is, shall we?
I have to say this show does not shy away from tackling the complex issues related to being a fat woman in America. Instead of focusing on Shallow-Hal-like depictions of fatness that are one-dimensional, offensive and unproductive, Drop Dead Diva tackles things like sizeism, the pitfalls and dangers of dieting, the absurdity of clothing stores like A&F and the popular conflation of thin and healthy.
Jane, in her beautiful glory.
While Jane seems to work for a corporate defense, she takes on cases defending the underdog as well as suing on behalf of the underdog (I don’t think this is a realistic depiction of law firms, but let’s run with it). Here are some of the awesome fat-focused themes introduced in DDD (*spoiler alert* these will tell you all the juicy stuff that happens, so read at your own risk!):
- The pitfalls & dangers of dieting. Jane sues a diet company called “Jillian Ford’s EZ Thin” for not putting a warning label on their products after it causes arrhythmia in a young woman. This is episode 7 of season 1. In one scene, Jane encounters Jillian – a weight loss “success” story who created the diet products and a 500-calorie diet plan – who snarkily says, “I am by far the healthiest person in this conversation.” This is the typical snark fat people hear from their thinner counterparts i.e. the conflation of thinness with good health and fatness with poor health. Jane later exposes Jillian Ford as a fraud who secretly had weight loss surgery and could not even eat her own products. Jane wins the case and the poor girl with arrhythmia, who had idolized thinness and Jillian Ford, decides she’ll start eating again and stop dieting.
- The assumptions that fatness is a result of lack of self control. There are countless times where people assume Jane lacks self-control and that is the reason she is fat. The reason this is so compelling is because Deb – the thin blonde who is now inhabiting Jane’s body – used to say, “step away from the cookies and get a grip.” As a fat person now, Deb/Jane realizes what a crock of shit those types of statements are. And, despite her best friend’s attempts to get her to diet, Jane refuses. Even her thin colleague, who is a continual voice of body- & looks-shaming, tells Jane, “Grow up or go on a diet.” Jane/Deb, in a sign of character development, realizes that thin people who put down fat people are simply trying to assert their privilege and that this is a projection of their own insecurities.
- Weight bias & discrimination. Jane ends up defending a woman who loses her job as a waitress at “the Sun Bar” after gaining 40 pounds. Jane’s boss wants Jane to argue that fatness is a disability and should be covered under the ADA. Eventually, Jane decides to try the case as a civil rights case arguing that weight should be protected under the law. In another sign of character growth, Jane – who, prior to this case, could not mutter the F word (fat, that is), says in her closing argument: “Have you noticed people have euphemisms for being overweight? No one wants to say the word ‘fat.’ But ‘fat’ is only pejorative when we allow places like the Sun Bar to tell us that being fat somehow makes us less of a person. Tell the Sun Bar that being fat is not cause for being fired.” How pertinent is this episode to today? We are seeing rising rates of sanctioned weight discrimination and here Jane wins the case, effectively getting “weight” status protected under the law. Additionally, Jane effectively “takes back” the word FAT, which is something fat acceptance advocates want — we want people see “fat” as a neutral descriptor.
- The lack of accessible & mainstream fatshion. In another episode (season 1, episode 9), Jane finds herself at PDQ, a store on Rodeo Drive, looking to purchase “the perfect black dress” but is quickly shooed out of the store by the store owner and an employee who tell her they do not carry above a size 10, as that’s not part of their “brand,” and the dress she had in mind is made for a particular “silhouette.” Jane leaves in a huff and decides to sue. She wins the case based on a technicality which is that the designer for the store says he “can’t” make dresses those size (and she proves that he can) and one of the main shareholders of PDQ decides it only makes smart business sense for the store to carry larger sizes. This episode is particularly great because it calls out one of the silliest realities of today — the average woman is a size 14 — but many stores refuse to carry sizes to accommodate this huge market (like Abercrombie & Fitch).
- The value of confidence. Since Deb is reincarnated into Jane’s body, she carries over her love for fashion, and – when she’s not being reminded by others that her new body does not conform to the thin ideal – she is very confident and assertive. This is a change from the Jane before Deb, who we find out wore plan grey suits and no make up. While this is a bit problematic, I know, I think it’s wonderful to see a fat character carry herself with so much confidence & self-care. As women, we are encouraged to take up as little space as possible and to use the space we take up to simply be beautiful ornaments. As fat women, we are encouraged to just disappear all together – we’re told we’re sexless, unlovable and unattractive. So, to see Jane wearing beautiful clothes, going on dates, kicking ass in court, and having a complex character and life that is not simply relegated to her looks, is so damn refreshing!
After season 1, it seems that Deb has become accustomed to being in Jane’s body and so she is no longer so body-focused. This is great because it shows that body-shame is really a learned behavior that can be overcome. In season 2, Jane goes on to defend cases that do not center on size, but rather on other important social & civil rights issues; for example, a pair of high school lesbians who are banned from attending prom.
While Jane/Deb does seem to conform to some normative standards of beauty (i.e she mostly wears skirts & dresses, almost always has make-up on, is feminine, and is heteronormative & cis-gender), as a character, she still manages to confront some incredibly weighty (hah) issues in such an intelligent and meaningful way that I honestly want to take clips of this show and show them to public health professionals and anyone who really wants to confront the fat-phobic society we live in. I also want to show it to young girls who may believe that fatness cannot co-exist with beauty, intelligence, romance, etc.
I just loved this show. If you haven’t checked it out…do!
The Cranky One