On Wednesday, June 20, 2018, a room of approximately 70 journalists sat listening to a variety of panels from AMC. You could say that we came for The Walking Dead and Better Call Saul, but some of us maybe stayed because of the new show Dietland. Personal note: I am a long time Marti Noxon fangirl from way back in the Buffy days. I still don’t think she deserved that parking ticket in Once More With Feeling. So, when I caught that she and her new show Dietland were going to be highlighted, I couldn’t resist trekking my Connecticut self onto a 6:30 am train that ran late and running through New York City in a suit jacket to ask some questions.
What is Dietland?
Dietland is the brainchild of author Sarai Walker, who, it turns out, is pretty much equally amazing to Ms. Noxon. Since I’d be nothing more than a fake geek (I kid) if I didn’t read the book before watching the show, I tried to fit a whole book and four television episodes into three days. Sadly, that did not work out. However, I made it through 40% of the book and two of the four episodes, so I’m going to say that I can speak to both.
Dietland, both iterations, focuses on Plum (Alicia) Kettle. Plum is round. Fat. Overweight. Morbidly obese. Like many of us who aren’t a perfect size 2, she hates her body. Plum has tried every diet known to woman—from pills to exercise to therapy. You name it, our girl has done it.
The primary difference between the book and the show, at least from my 40-50% crash course, lies in the presentation of Plum from the beginning. The book Dietland focuses on Sarai’s journey to self-acceptance. As such, part of the plot develops around her journey as a fat woman. Meanwhile, the show begins by telling us that we’re flashing back. In the show, we know that the Plum in our moment has completed part of the journey that we find drives the book. (No, I’m not going to say more. Yes, that would be sort of spoilery.)
Why are you using the word “fat” so much?
As a reader and writer, Dietland the book focuses on the language surrounding weight. Book-Plum never uses the word fat. In fact, as readers, we find that she’s angered by the use of the word “fat.” The societally ingrained self-loathing is clearly tied to language, not only what people use to describe us but how we describe ourselves.
With that in mind, I am going to specifically discuss fatness and thinness in this article. Plum, through whose experience we live the story, slowly learns to accept the term fat but finds it a long, painful experience.
What does Dietland do for representation?
Y’all, let’s just sit this down for a second. If you’ve ever blazed some kind of fiery internet heat raging against the young, skinny characters and inappropriate representation of mature women? Then you need to watch this show.
Sitting in a panel discussion about adaptations of books to television shows, I had the opportunity to ask the two writers about their visions. Watching Walker and Noxon next to each other, one cannot help but notice that they approach the same problem—weight and societal reactions to it—from opposite sides of the same coin.
Noxon’s battle with anorexia mirrors Walker’s discussions about the fat body as the politicized body. Thus, these two together create a fullness and richness to Dietland when you both read the book and watch the show. Regardless, their collaboration on show engages you in new ways.
Sitting in the panel discussion, I listened as Noxon discussed her reasons for creating television Plum as slightly older than book Plum. Interestingly, that dissonance didn’t appear to me when watching because as I read the story, I already pictured Plum as late-30s or early 40s. Book Plum’s youth never registered with me because all of her insecurities and quarter-life crisis are the same ones that I felt so urgently in my late 30s as I struggled in jobs that didn’t respect me.
Why Dietland is an important feminist text
Whether you’re into the fat chick reclaiming her body narrative or not, Dietland is something that we women need in a patriarchal society. With a plethora of female characters, the show incorporates varied female identities. In fact, some of the changes from the book allow for increased diversity within the show. For example, one of my favorite changes so far is that the cafe owner is not a pregnant woman but a gay black man. This change allows Plum to have a relationship with the character that stands outside of weight and femininity, giving it a more authentic presentation. In the book, I often felt an awkward sense that Plum was envious of her friend’s life. In the show, the characters interact outside that self-reflective competition.
Why listening to writers Sarai Walker and Marti Noxon inspires other female writers
Nothing makes you feel more validated as a writer than seeing yourself in those you admire. While Dietland presents varied representations of femininity, it also presents a varied approach to writing. When listening to Walker discuss the differences between screenwriting and novel writing, I found myself realizing that the types of writing I’ve chosen have informed my reading choices and writing process.
Of all the comments throughout the AMC Summit, the one that most spoke to me came from the discussion of adapting a novel to television. Noxon noted that adaptations are like eyebrows, “They’re not twins; they’re sisters.” As a writer, my work often interprets or summarizes others’ writings. Academic research, to me, rarely feels entirely unique. This idea of “Sisters not Twins” perfectly sums up the intellectual and emotional connection to a character, story, or idea. As we discussed afterward during lunch, I think if there were a t-shirt out there with “We’re not twins, we’re sisters,” most of us writer would buy the heck out of it.
In the same way, listening to Noxon talk about her writing process reminded me that people approach writing differently. Noxon’s approach (perhaps because I used to join in on her former co-worker Jane Espenson’s writing sprints) reminded me more of my own process. Different types of writing require different personalities and approaches. And, just like people, those differences are okay and important.
Watching and reading Dietland is a must
I’m not going to lie. I love Noxon’s screenwriting passionately (see above re: fangirl). However, as a larger woman previously super-plus-sized-from-meds (hey Prozac! I’m looking at you—yeah YOU), the title made me uncomfortable. Not knowing the author or the storyline, I worried that this was going to be another flimsy novel that mocked women like me.
But I was wrong. I was so very wrong, and I need to publicly apologize to all involved for my internal judging. I was wrong. They say never judge a book by its cover, but here I was, judging it by its title.
And therein lieth the lesson of Dietland—from the outside, others don’t know the real us. Sometimes we don’t know the real us. But, if we take the time to try something new? We might be pleasantly surprised.