Apr 7, 2014

My Mad Fat Diary

My Mad Fat Diary
My Mad Fat Diary is a TV adaptation of author Rae Earl’s My Fat Mad Teenage Diary, a memoir of growing up as an overweight music-obsessed teenager in Stamford in the 1980s. I haven’t read the book (nor any of Earl’s work, though I really want to now), so I can’t tell you how faithful it is, but I can spot some immediate differences from the description alone. The TV series is set in Lincolnshire in the mid 1990s, and, over the course of two seasons and 13 episodes (WHY SO SHORT *sob*), it tells the story of 16-year-old Rae’s life in the months that follow her release from the psychiatric hospital where she’d been following a suicide attempt. Rae continues treatment as an outpatient, and we follow her as she makes friends, falls in love, adjusts to living with a mental illness, and works through the issues that led to her breakdown.

The result is a story that’s every bit as hilarious as it is moving. My Mad Fat Diary has excellent characterisation, warmth and real heart, and lots of feminist concerns that are dear to me at its centre. Also, before I go any further, I have to tell you about the series’ absolutely perfect soundtrack, which won me over from the very first episode. I wasn’t yet a teenager in 1996, but I do have an older brother, and my music taste has always been very late 90s and early 00s. So it’s no surprise that nine songs out of ten played in the series had me squealing with glee, or that I grinned non-stop in the episode where Rae begs her mother for a copy of the newly released Pinkerton. If you like The Cure, The Smiths, PJ Harvey, Eels, Radiohead, Mazzy Star, Beck or Björk, you’ll probably be as excited about the series’ use of music as I was.

I have a lot I want to say about the series, and since the subheadings format seemed to work reasonably well for my Friday Night Lights post, I thought I’d adopt it again here. I’ll try to keep major spoilers to a minimum, but be warned that some will be inevitable. So if you want to remain 100% unspoiled, read on with caution.

1. Sexual Beings

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Finn inside Gush heart
You know that thing I’m always saying? That thing about how I want more stories to acknowledge that while social pressure to be sexually active is a real thing, plenty of teenage girls experience genuine desire and curiosity about sex? Well, My Mad Fat Diary delivers like nothing else I’ve seen before. Rae is allowed to be a sexual being, and this involves not only experiencing desire but actually expressing it by saying things like, “I want him to go down on me for so long that he has to evolve gills” in a completely non-stigmatised way. The series, which does some interesting things with narration and perspective (more on which in later sections), also subverts the male gaze: we see the boys Rae is attracted to through her eyes, which means there’s an emphasis on male rather than female bodies as the focus of desire that’s still rare enough in mainstream media to be remarkable.

We also get an unapologetic first orgasm through masturbation scene, and we watch three major female characters (Rae and her friends Izzy and Chloe) experience sexuality in a variety of ways. The first orgasm scene struck me as particularly momentous, especially when you consider that showing a woman rather than a man experiencing sexual pleasure will often earn a movie a higher rating. Additionally, it’s not often that you see a young woman take her sexuality into her own hands in a TV series. There’s an abortion storyline in the first season, but, as in Friday Night Lights, this is only one among several stories involving sexually active teen girls, which makes it less likely that it could come across as a cautionary tale about sexuality in itself. The abortion is upsetting for the girl in question (for a variety of reasons, including the fact that it takes place in the context of a seriously skeevy relationship with a much older man), but at the same time, it’s not presented punitively or portrayed as life-destroying.

The frank portrayal of Rae’s sexuality is also important in the context of her weight. Overweight girls and women are often perceived as lying beyond the boundaries of acceptable femininity, and because our cultural understanding of sexuality is so tied up with traditional gender roles (as Katherine Angel so well explains in her book Unmastered), you get very few narratives that acknowledge that women of all sizes and body shapes are sexual beings. Thank goodness, then, for My Mad Fat Diary: Rae is allowed to express desire, to experience pleasure, and to live through all the excitements and complications of seeking intimacy with other people.

I loved how sex-positive My Mad Fat Diary was, but I have to say that, because this is a series about a girl struggling with self-esteem issues and recovering from a serious psychiatric episode, I was a little bit worried that it would end up portraying heterosexual romance as the “cure” to Rae’s problems. This isn’t to say that love, acceptance and sexual intimacy can’t be portrayed as healing, but a story where Rae learned to love herself solely because a boy found her loveable and desirable wouldn’t do justice to her struggles.

I needn’t have worried, though. Although the series ends with a loving sex scene (which, incidentally, isn’t Rae’s first time, and nobody makes a big deal about this — hooray!), this comes after Rae makes significant progress towards health. I’ll say plenty more about the relationship between Rae’s weight and her depression in the next section, but for now let me just say that I thought the series captured the vulnerability of sexual intimacy very movingly. Physical nudity and the emotional exposure of sex are sources of great anxiety for Rae, but as the series progress we watch her get to a place where she’s willing and able to risk them.

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Finn sleeping

2. The Meaning of Health

In her post about the series, The F Word guest blogger Lily Kendall said that while it’s great to see a larger teen girl like Rae tell her own story on screen, it’s a pity that weight is portrayed as a source of unhappiness and anxiety for every larger woman you see in film or on television. This is a valid point, and one that makes me go back to my usual mantra of “all the stories, please”. I want to see stories about larger women who are happy and perfectly comfortable in their own skin, because there’s no shortage of them out there. At the same time, though, I’m also interested in the stories of teen girls like Rae: stories about how harmful cultural messages about body size and female beauty can get inside your head, amplify your fears, and do real damage to your self-esteem. It’s a shame we don’t yet live in a world where the two get to coexist.

One thing I really liked was how My Mad Fat Diary didn’t present Rae’s journey towards health as a journey towards weight loss. As the series progresses, we learn that Rae has used binge eating as an anxiety coping mechanism in the past, but this doesn’t mean that compulsive eating is the explanation behind her weight, nor that developing a different relationship with food will have to equal dieting. We also get a glimpse of the many factors that play into Rae’s belief that being fat is an unforgivable sin: the unrealistic standards of female beauty she sees in billboards everywhere, her mother’s own fears and anxieties (which are presented compassionately rather than accusingly), the town bullies who see her as an easy target, the cumulative weight of the many small ways in which our culture’s attitude towards larger women manifests itself.

Having said that, I also liked that weight wasn’t the full story behind Rae’s self-esteem issues. One of the show’s greatest strengths is that it doesn’t try to come up with a single neat answer to the question “why?”. Rae’s best friend Chloe wants to know why she attempted to take her own life, but Rae can’t come up with a simple answer. A dozen hurts, great and small, pushed her to the brink, and it’s impossible for her to untangle them all at a moment’s notice. Working with her therapist, Kester, Rae manages to identify some of the factors that contributed to her breakdown, but even then it’s not a matter of arriving at a definitive answer — it’s a matter of coming up with better coping mechanisms and more adaptative thought patterns to make sure nothing of the sort will happen again.

There’s a clear cognitive-behavioural sensibility to Rae’s scenes with Kester, and the former psychology major in me was quite pleased with that. I did think that, in season one in particular, Rae and Kester’s relationship stretched the bounds of credibility: Rae shows up at Kester’s house repeatedly, and we watch him confide in her about his divorce. However, the thorny boundaries issues this raises are addressed in a painful but necessary episode in the second season. Rae is reminded that there’s a difference between a therapist and a friend, and although the former is part of her support system as she recovers, he can’t be its total sum if she’s to make real progress.

My Mad Fat Diary - cast photo

3. The Truth Shall Set You Free (Or Not)

If there’s one thing that let me down, it was the fact that My Mad Fat Diary framed telling the whole world the truth about yourself (namely in regards to things like mental illness or sexual orientation) in too absolute terms. Obviously I do wish for a world in which depression or homosexuality aren’t stigmatised, but since that’s far from being the world we live in, I don’t think teens like Rae and her friend Archie owe anyone the truth, or indeed any explanations at all about themselves. Telling people can be the right choice for specific individuals, but it’s not an inherently superior choice to keeping quiet, nor is keeping quiet a condemnable form of deceit. Unfortunately, I felt that the series veered dangerously close to portraying it this way.

This is what happens in My Mad Fat Diary: at the end of season one, Rae grabs the microphone at her mother’s wedding and tells everyone in the room that she hasn’t been in France like her mother told them, but at a psychiatric hospital. Then in season two, everyone at school finds out that Archie is gay. This happens against his will, but in the end, even though he experiences some backlash, coming out is portrayed as being for the best. To be clear, I realise that having to be in the closet is not exactly great, but I do think that sometimes it may be necessary for someone’s safety, and I wish the series had acknowledged that self-protection is also a valid choice. Both Rae and Archie go through wonderful healing moments when they open up to their friends, and these were lovely to see. However, I was less certain about the fact that they both experience a sense of relief in regards to the fact that everyone knows, and that this is portrayed as something that will inevitably follow from being out or exposing your history of mental illness.

I don’t want to make light of the fact that it’s hard and awful to live in a world that requires you to pretend to be someone you’re not in order to be accepted, and I can understand their relief when they let go of that. Yet at the same time, it’s absolutely okay for teens and adults everywhere to stay in the close (or keep their psychiatric history private) if that’s going to make their everyday life easier or ensure their safety. This, and not a sense of loyalty to an inflexible notion of truth or of honesty with others, should always be the priority. As this post puts it,
Beyond just personal preference, the pressure to come out can be dangerous for a large portion of the queer community, especially in less accepting and more violent areas. In the eyes of many queer activists, the pressure to “come out” for the benefit of overall society trivializes the danger many closeted individuals face.
I really wish Rae and Archie’s stories had been told in a way that did a better job of acknowledging this.

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and her friends on a school bus

4. Complicating Chloe

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Chloe
If you think I sounded gushy up until now, that was nothing compared to what I’m about to tell you. Rae’s relationship with her best friend Chloe was — much to my surprise and delight — my favourite aspect of the series. I say to my surprise because at first My Mad Fat Diary seemed to be going for the kind of “frenemy” dynamics I don’t always have the time for — not because teen girls don’t have complicated or ambivalent relationships with each other, but because of, well, everything Jodie wrote in the “About” section of The Friendship Zone: there are far too many harmful myths out there about how girls and woman interact, and we need to pay more attention to the many, many instances of us sharing relationships of genuine affection and support.

It made me especially sad that in the first season it looked like Rae and Chloe were going to be pitted against each other because of a boy. Spending so much time competing for a boy’s affection made it look like their relationship was subordinate to the relationships they might form with men. On top of that, there was the huge can of worms inherent to portraying conventionally attractive, skinny and “girly” Chloe as shallow and duplicitous in contrast to no make-up, jeans-wearing Rae’s genuine nature and depth of feeling. I absolutely want more stories that focus on girls like Rae, but I’d prefer it if they were ones where girls like Chloe aren’t villainised (this piece on femmephobia does a great job of explaining why something like this would have troubled me).

Yet once again, I needn’t have worried. As much as I enjoyed My Mad Fat Diary as a whole, I can honestly say that it was the final two episodes of season two that made me fall head over heels in love with the series. In these episodes, the writers complicate Chloe beyond my wildest hopes. Explaining how will require some spoilers: when Chloe runs away from home, Rae finds her diary and can’t resist the temptation to read it, and as a result we revisit previous events in the series, particularly ones that cast Chloe in a bad light, from her own perspective. Not only do these scenes humanise Chloe, but they also reveal that Rae is a bit of an unreliable narrator. The episodes suggest that if Chloe’s account is biased, so too is Rae’s — the truth lies somewhere in the middle. All the moments where Chloe seemed not to give a damn about her best friend were filtered through the eyes of someone who can’t quite bring herself to believe that anyone could possibly care about her.

This isn’t to say that Chloe never let Rae down, but the reverse is also true. When we compare their perspectives, what emerges is a story about two girls who genuinely care about each other, but whose very human failings will sometimes make them unable to tell when they ought to be supportive. Rae’s struggles with depression add another layer of complexity to this, because being so focused on her recovery makes her (understandably, but still painfully to those close to her) very focused on her own hurts. Breaking free of that is a huge step forward for her.

I also really liked how taking a closer look at Chloe gave the writers a way to examine the double bind women find themselves in. Like Rae, Chloe has low self-esteem: while her friend is told she’s worthless because she doesn’t fit conventional standards of female beauty, Chloe is told she’s worthless beyond her appearance. Over the course of the series we watch Chloe get caught up in two abusive relationships, both with statutory rape involved. The story steers clear of victim-blaming as it sheds light on the circumstances that pushed her towards these men, and the initial lack of support that made it so hard for her to get out.

Lastly, I loved how the final episodes reframed Rae and Chloe’s relationship as central to their emotional well-being, as well as to the series as a whole. Initially we think that Rae’s moving rendition of “Nothing Compares 2 U” is informed by her feelings about Finn’s absence, but then it becomes clear that her emotional turmoil is very much about her best friend. As much as I loved the romance in My Mad Fat Diary, it was wonderful to see the series recognise that the emotional ties girls form with each other are crucial too.

5. “I already have a dad”

My Mad Fat Diary - Rae and Karim
Last but not least, I want to talk about a small but wonderful aspect of My Mad Fat Diary: the relationship between Rae’s mother and her fiancée and then husband, Karim, as well as the relationship Rae herself develops with him. When we meet Karim, he’s an illegal immigrant living secretly with Rae’s mother, Linda. Although he’s younger and more conventionally attractive than she is, the two enjoy an obviously loving relationship, and there are less than subtle hints that they have a satisfying sex life.

Over the course of the series, Linda says again and again that she doesn’t understand what a man like Karim could possibly see in her, and I was just bracing myself for the awful moment when he’d be exposed as a scheming bastard using a naïve older woman to gain legal entry to the country. But! That moment never comes, and in a media landscape where immigrants are still casually portrayed as troublemakers or flat-out criminals more often than not (Bletchley Circle season two, I’m looking at you), it was such an immense relief to see that Karim is exactly what he seems: a kind man who loves his wife and stepdaughter and who wants his family to be happy.

Also, Karim is from Tunisia and he’s a Muslim. When Linda becomes pregnant, he tries to share his faith with his wife and unborn child, and that’s portrayed as exactly that: not as an act of oppression, but as a man sharing something that matters to him with the people he loves. Again, it was refreshing and absolutely lovely to see.

***

Time for some parting words: I adored My Mad Fat Diary, particularly because of how the final episodes complicate our understanding of the story we’d been told up until then. There’s a lot I didn’t touch on here (Tix, Danny, Rae’s complicated relationship with Liam, the “Mean Girls” episode in season two), but hopefully I’ve given you a glimpse of some of the show’s greatest strengths, as well as of a few of its shortcomings. If you’re a fan of heartfelt teen shows like My So-Called Life or Joan of Arcadia, this is something you absolutely need to watch. And then you need to come talk about it with me.

10 comments:

  1. So I immediately went to find this, but alas, it is not available through Netflix and I can only buy used DVDs for like $60 through Amazon! I must find it! This sounds like a great series.

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  2. Oh no! I had no idea it wasn't easily accessible across the pond. The second series has just finished here in the UK, so maybe it will still get wider distribution over there? Fingers crossed! It's totally amazing and I really want to share it with American friends.

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  3. aw yeah Trisha it is not available in the States in any form that I know of!

    I didn't realize this was set in the 90s! and omg the music! lol. I have a lot of friends that really love this show, but since it's not easily accessible I haven't watched it yet.

    So wait is it over forever?

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  4. I think the jury's still out on whether there will be a third season, but the ending felt like a real ending, if that makes sense. It gave me enough closure that I wouldn't be heartbroken to be told this was it, even though I'd love more of these character. And OMG Amy, the music! Soooooooo many amazing scenes with The Cure - amazing not only in the sense that they play them, but also that the musical choices are PERFECT for the emotional tone of the scenes <3

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  5. Oh bother bother bother bother bother! I've just checked, and it's not only not on Netflix, it's also not at my library, and oh, okay, now I am reading the other comments and discovering it's not available here at all. Bother bother bother bother bother.

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  6. I like your "the truth shall set you free" section. Recently, I tried calling some of my closest friends on the narrow way we talk about weight and appearance even in a private space--and we're all in our 40's and 50's.Anytime we discussed weight, they were putting it in the context of "what I'm doing about it because I weigh too much." I asked if we could talk about some other issues, and we tried. It's hard, though. The taboos are so ingrained that often we're not even aware of them.

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  7. also, you spurred me to think about this in a way that allowed me to write about it! Thanks! You're behind tomorrow's post entitled Let It Go.

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  8. The way you describe the show's handling of Rae's weight sounds perfect. I get so, so tired of the conflation of weight and health and the assumption that if you're fat, you must by definition be physically and mentally unhealthy, and it's just not true. I mean, fatness may be the cause or the effect of other health problems, but people are complicated and so are the relationships between the various parts of our selves.

    If this becomes available in the U.S., I'll be sure to add it to my list.

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  9. Thank you thank you for reminding me about this show! I LOVED season one (which I watched in its entirety on Youtube, fellow americans!), and this reminded me to go find season 2! (Alas, heartbreak: all but the final two episodes are on youtube. I cannot find the last two episodes anywhere. This is awful. Everything is awful. Nothing is resolved. Ack.)

    But as to the substance of the show...I have so many feelings. There are so many painful moments in this show--painful because they are well done and we feel for the characters--and then so many wonderful moments that show that no character is just one thing. And the relationships! Rae and her mother, Rae and Finn, Rae and Archie, Rae and REALLY EVERYONE. Gah. Sorry, I'm having trouble being coherent since I don't know how it ends!! It's painful. Kind of worth it, though.

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  10. Jenny: I'm keeping everything crossed for a proper release over there!

    Jeanne: Aw, I'm happy to hear that. I read your post and loved it.

    Teresa: There are also bits like this! I really hope it's made available over there!

    Laura: Argh! I'm so sorry! I don't want to make it worse, but you TOTALLY NEED THOSE EPISODES. Maybe whoever the kindly soul was who made the rest available will get to these too?

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.