We need to talk about Dietland

Have you seen it? Have you read it?

For those who haven’t heard of either, Dietland is a 2015 book by Sarai Walker. It’s back in the public eye right now as the screen adaptation by Marti Noxon – producer and writer on Buffy, Grey’s Anatomy and Mad Men, among many others – has just launched. An AMC show, it’s currently on Amazon Prime in the UK, with a new episode released every Tuesday. And even though season one isn’t even done yet, I’m definitely conflicted and need a friend to discuss it with. 

The protagonist is Alicia “Plum” Kettle: fat, ill-treated, a regular at the latest diet industry starvation meeting and ready to push the button on dangerous gastric bypass surgery as soon as her insurance will allow it. Her job? Replying in character as her boss, picture-perfect magazine editor Kitty, to the swathes of anxious, damaged girls who flood the editor’s inbox with their devastating personal dramas. A strange encounter with an odd girl from the magazine’s beauty closet sets Plum on the rocky road to self-empowerment – but at the same time a mysterious terror group named Jennifer starts to take the destruction of patriarchy into its own hands, one perpetrator at a time…

Note: from here, some spoilers will follow. And given the sensitive subject of both book and show, I should warn that there’s quite a bit of discussion of violence ahead.

One thing I’ve definitely grown out of thinking is that the book is always better than the film. In fact, I generally try to treat them as completely separate media, without comparison. Around episode four of Dietland the TV show, which I started first, I knew I had to read the book, and I barreled through it in a few days. Because of that immersion, and even though I haven’t yet finished season one, I can’t seem to resist comparing them – and I’m ready to cautiously call it in favour of the screen. But the thing about Dietland is that it’s deeply problematic in both worlds.

Let’s start with what does work. I’ve rarely read a better blistering take on the diet industry: a world in which I was congratulated, aged 14, for losing four pounds in a week when I was too sick to eat anything but dry toast, and then warned to ‘be careful’ when I regained half a pound the following week, having begun eating normally again (if you can call that restricted weirdness normal). Both on paper and on screen it takes confident, unerring broadsides at the weekly diet club meetings, the tasteless replacement foods and shakes, the drama and disaster behind the success stories and the horror of bariatric surgery. In both cases, Plum is launched onto her path to self-acceptance with the support of Verena Baptist, the daughter of a former diet industry superstar, who saw the rot from within and levelled her mother’s business as soon as she inherited it. But Verena is thin, rich and white, and I could viscerally feel some of Plum’s frustration at her as she suggests nearly impossible things like accepting that society needs to change and not Plum. When you’ve walked a mile in my fat girl’s shoes, you’ll know that it’s easy to say that – even to think it – but to live it is another exhausting thing altogether.

The Jennifer storyline’s grim elements are brought to life with gruesome glee – and therein lies the biggest problem for me. At first the targets are creepy, abusive, predatory figures (some barely-concealed parodies of famous names); it’s horrible, but as with any vengeance drama the abhorrent logic is easy enough to follow. Jennifer is described in the book as starting out blackmailing editors over the likes of Page 3, something that has not (yet) been shown on screen. In both tellings, Jennifer eventually sets its sights on the sex industry – and that’s when it goes from bizarre revenge fantasy to a bleak study of hypersexualisation. There’s a lot to be said – and a lot has been said – about hypersexualised culture and objectification. One chapter of the book lands it deftly by punctuating Plum’s every move with a line about a pair of breasts going by on a bus. But then both book and series decide to have Jennifer take out their frustrations on the culture through a very visible female victim, an adult film star called Stella Cross who is brutally murdered as part of their rampage.

Both also hinge Plum’s biggest leap in self-acceptance on her experiences in a single room in Calliope House – the feminist collective where she’s in recovery from our fatphobic culture. An art installation constantly streams the latest requests in free adult entertainment – and many of these involve violent, dehumanising scenarios. But instead of fixing its gaze on the consumers who demand such extremes, the horror seems to be all about the women specifically who take part in production. On paper, in order to shock with the way they’re reduced to body parts, Walker continually, well, reduces them to body parts in a litany of detached descriptions of extreme acts that makes for difficult reading. After a while, it becomes difficult to tell the difference between criticism of the culture and criticism of the women. On screen, it’s not much better; as Plum sits with Sana, who has suffered serious facial burns, the seasoned activist comments almost smugly that the women on screen look as societally acceptable as she and Plum do not but “how’s it working out for them?” – a statement that seems to me as uncomfortably ableist as it is misogynist when placed in her mouth.

Episode eight of the show has further muddied the waters for me. Plum reluctantly arranges some dates, as mandated by the programme Verena puts her on to try and steer her towards greater love of herself. Whereas in the book there’s a quick succession of gross humiliations and then dating becomes irrelevant, one early episode in the show is devoted to them in devastating detail. An additional new character, with whom Plum has an uncomfortable, doomed flirtation, has already been baked in to add dramatic tension (and give us a view into the goings-on at Austen Media, the powerhouse publishers of the magazine Kitty works for, Daisy Chain). After one disastrous date begs for a second chance came the moment I’d been both expecting and dreading. As if it’s not enough that Plum has already been literally punched in the face and metaphorically beaten down, she is now briefly vulnerable to the need to be desired, only to be suddenly – almost carelessly – sexually assaulted. It’s as if we just can’t bear the idea of a fat woman being in a happy. safe relationship even when she has done the work to fight the tide of societal hatred washing over her. What more does she possibly need to do to carve out even a moment of comfort? Does this unremitting bleakness turn a lens on the way we live, or just make anyone watching want to give up and turn off? While it’s not the assault-as-entertainment line that Game of Thrones has been accused of taking, it hovers dangerously close to assault-as-female-character-development, which we’ve all seen one too many times already.

I’ll continue on my way through season one, because there is of course the hope that there is a point to all this just around the corner. And of course, no-one wants to watch too many happy endings. Still, at this point I’ve been so absorbed in it all – and so troubled by it – that even though there might be lots of twists and turns to come I felt the need to let it all out. So, have you seen it? Or read it? What are your thoughts?

Let me know.


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