The Freaky Friday analogy–in this case, as premise for Lifetime's summer series, Drop Dead Diva, it's blond bombshell trades places with any-euphemism-for-fat lawyer–seems tired before it begins. Pitched as a dippy-meets-dumpy or brains versus beauty contest, what's striking is how the show's promotion–"watch with your girlfriends!"–is the idea this constitutes a feelgood sensation, instead of being, well, degrading. Here's a very condensed description of the series' plot: there's some sort of jam-up and two women die–the blond ditz, the plain, heavy lawyer–and parts of both personalities suddenly reside in the lawyer's body. Maybe you're read people posit that we've entered post-racist, post-feminist times? This show would be a great case in point for the fact that, at least for women, looks count more than smarts, because we're still laughing at calling women out as… heavy. And because unlike America Ferrera's Betty, no one seems to be suggesting there's a swan about to burst forth–one makeover away–from Elliott's oversized duckling.
The New York Times admits the premise is, uh, thin. "And while the presumption that a woman can be either brainy or beautiful, or in this case, good or thin, but not both, is a bit primitive, the series has humor and charm beneath its facile message, in large part (no disrespect intended) to a subtle, winning performance by Ms. Elliott." Primitive? And a little fat joke stuck in there? Really? Wait, wait, wait. The Times' goes on to point out: "It’s gotten harder than ever to find an imperfect heroine in a series who is actually flawed. More than ever these days, television suffers from casting dysmorphia; it repeatedly takes a slovenly, gluttonous, character and casts an exquisitely groomed, Pilates-toned actress in the part." Citing an array of actresses supposedly slovenly or junk food addicted on their series but looking anywhere from "slender" to "well preserved," to "whippet-thin," the choice to give such fallability to an actress who looks like she doesn't exercise and actually eats carbs is therefore considered kind of bold.
Across the reviews, praise is being directed toward lead actress Brooke Elliott. On Entertainment Weekly's blog: "As 'Jane's' internal brains vs. beauty battle rages, the winner is clearly Elliott, who effortlessly embodies both." In the Los Angeles Times' review: "Almost impossibly, Elliott manages to embody both personalities in a way that, far from some tedious 'Inside the Actor's Studio' lesson in character assimilation, is just delightful to watch."
Despite the praise, the New York Times' article points out that casting of the heavier leading actress type seems in no way a likely next-big-thing trend: "Network executives have concluded, perhaps not unreasonably, that audiences don’t really want television characters that are too true to life. 'Roseanne' was a huge hit and lasted nine years, but it didn’t spark a stampede for plus-size actresses." So, although Elliott is impressive, the next bigger actress isn't likely to be receiving those accolades in her footsteps any time too soon.
A friend of mine pointed out that many movies from the 1980's had female leads who would no longer be considered sexy or pretty enough by today's celluloid standards. The teens were rounder and so were the adult women. We were walking back from a screening of Lauren Greenfield's gripping (disturbing, brilliant) HBO documentary, Thin. The film followed closely women on a locked eating disorder unit at the Renfrew Center (Greenfield did a companion show of still photographs, which was shown at the Smith College Art Museum in the spring). To listen to anorexic women rail against eating, because the paranoid fear–turned disease–of becoming too fat was so pressing they very seriously risked death certainly put this mania into perspective, at least briefly. But what the film couldn't do–nor any one trend or image of beauty as we define it these days–is adequately contextualize how pervasive the problem actually is. Catching a glimpse of Jennifer Anniston at the beginning of the Friends era in a magazine recently, I was struck by how she did not look like the iconic Anniston of late Friends and post-Friends.
What does seems strange is the nationwide dysmorphia going on–by no means limited to Elliott and the actress portraying "airhead" Deb, Brooke D'Orsay–between a heavier nation in "real-life" and ever thinner idealized images of women that seem to become more unrealistic over time. This past fall, when the remake of Aaron Spelling's 90210 was rolled out, reports that the young lead actresses were "too thin" soon followed. I don't mean the images of women on the screen are unrealistic because the nation's heavier, it's that the expectations for Hollywood are ever-thinner, as in too-thin. Perhaps, what's most disturbing about this dysmorphia between "reality" and "ideal" is that neither one is healthy. Yet, there's increasing pressure upon actresses and other women in the public eye–from politicians to reality show "stars"–to be thin and plastic surgery enhanced. There is no way someone with as little substance intellectually could have risen from obscure, conservative governor from the state that keeps a direct eye upon Russia to Vice Presidential nominee for a major political party had she not been so… telegenic (pig in lipstick, yes indeedy). Look to infamous mother of multiples, Kate Gosselin, whose television contract somehow included a tummy tuck or how from the Hills to the Housewives to the endless seasons of the Real World (so disconnected by now from reality that each season's crew is instantly referred to by type) to confirm that airbrushed quality to the participants is baseline requirement at this point. Many articles are pointing out that in the larger world of reality television, there are many venues for "plus-sized" folks, to dance, lose weight, or find love. The implication is sure, we'll look at heavier real people for certain entertainment, just not when we're in fantasy mode.
Now, obviously, beauty comes in all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, styles… and isn't skin deep or measured on a scale. I don't believe in cookie cutter beauty (nor a cookie cutter healthy "fighting weight"). But I do believe we've got a problem in this culture about objectification of women, something that feels pervasive and dangerous. And I believe the problem is getting worse, not better. Although I could not begin to articulate precisely how, I feel fairly certain that the societal dysmorphia is somehow tangled in the ever thornier problem. Almost as a footnote, because it deserves more attention than a passing mention, the trend to "cover" as (entertainment) news celebrities–past and present–telegraphing their weight gains and losses has got to be considered in the discussion of how this dysmorphia seems to increasingly entrenched in our collective psyche.
In her Los Angeles Times' review, critic Mary McNamara writes, "If you were of a mind, you could concentrate on all the rather obvious plot devices and general silliness — a female client transformed by a single make-over — and pick "Drop Dead Diva" to death. But why?"
Why, indeed? Because finding humor at the expense of a fat plain Jane is demeaning, that's why.