A Conflicted Feminist Revenge Fantasy for the #MeToo Era
Dietland Has Teeth. So Why Is it Afraid to Use Them?
In the second episode of AMC’s new drama Dietland, the body of a photographer is dropped out of a plane during Fashion Week. Before his untimely end, Malleck Ferguson, the victim, wore large, ugly, 1970s-style glasses, strutted around his shoots like a god, and continued to get work after being accused of sexual harassment and assault by a dozen different women. It’s not subtle: the scene is, essentially, depicting the hypothetical murder of Terry Richardson. That’s not necessarily what you’d expect from an adaptation of Sarai Walker’s 2015 novel of the same name.
Dietland the series follows Alicia “Plum” Kettle, a fat woman whose journey to self-acceptance runs through a feminist collective, workplace sabotage, and, ultimately, several terrorist attacks. When we meet her, Plum (Joy Nash) is working as a ghostwriter for Kitty Montgomery (Julianna Margulies), a high-powered editor for women’s magazines at Austin Media—another thinly veiled stand-in, this time for Conde Nast. Plum toils away answering letters from anxious teen girls with body image issues, and the first episode of the series opens with a dramatic montage of the girls’ questions in voiceover, intercut with scenes of body maintenance—spanx, makeup, shaving. Both versions of Dietland are concerned with the way these pressures add up, creating a smothering layer of oppression and inequality for all women subjected to impossible beauty standards. Both also disdain porn, plastic surgery, Hollywood, and all of the things they consider to be part of that system.
A group of women trying to sabotage Austin Media recruit Plum to their cause, which leads her to the New York feminist collective Calliope House—and in turn, to Jennifer, a terrorist group that executes men who have avoided consequences for their predatory actions and with which Plum becomes loosely connected. In the novel, Jennifer blackmails media companies into changing the way they portray women and prompts mass Lysistratic strikes organized via sexual blacklists. In the series, Jennifer gets New York Fashion Week canceled through the public display of Ferguson’s dead body. The hyperbolic revenge fantasy component is the most exciting part of Dietland’s adaptation: There’s something undeniably thrilling about the idea of an actionable, violent response to sexual abuse, especially in the months following the first glimmering of real consequences for those behaviors; an enticing, if too-easy commitment to justice by whatever means necessary.
In some respects, though, Dietland’s extremity has only served to highlight how little is actually happening to the men implicated by #MeToo. Jeffrey Tambor was loudly excoriated for his behavior when the cast of Arrested Development spent the length of an interview with The New York Times excusing his verbal abuse of actress Jessica Walter. But many of the same people who leapt to Walter’s defense were not nearly as vocal about the trans women Tambor harassed on the set of Transparent. Harvey Weinstein’s history of incredibly well-documented sexual harassment, rape, and abuse has, after years of reporting, produced two indictments and a man free on $1 million bail. Conde Nast only cut ties with Richardson in October of 2017, after his behavior had been semi-public knowledge for years. In this light, Jennifer’s violence feels like a more-than-justified fantasy.
“There’s something undeniably thrilling about the idea of an actionable, violent response to sexual abuse, especially in the months following the first glimmering of real consequences for those behaviors.”
But Dietland’s conception of what it means to oppose male power often feels oddly flat. There are moments where it feints at becoming a heavily stylized television show about a group of terrorists who execute perfectly planned murders of men who otherwise appear to be above the law, in the vein of something like Revenge. At least in its first few episodes, however, the show ultimately flinches at the prospect: too icky. At one point, Plum briefly hallucinates Ferguson’s presence in a solemnly shot moment; brief clips of a confession filmed just before his murder highlight his quavering, fearful voice—we are expected to feel sympathy for him. In interviews, series creator Marti Noxon (herself recently the subject of a story involving harassment on the part of her old boss Matthew Weiner) has said she wants to lean in to the contradictions of Dietland and its violent unwillingness to be one thing. As a result, the series has a deep ambivalence about the violent strand of its premise. As one man says during a scene set at a fancy Manhattan dinner party, once these women have begun engaging in vigilantism, where does it stop? (Well, ideally, where the abuse does.)
Dietland is unequivocal in one place, though: its condescension toward what Walker calls, in the novel, the “lifestyle industrial complex.” Though there are stray acknowledgments of the positive uses of fashion and beauty—particularly in a scene where Austen Media beauty closet manager Julia (Tamara Tunie) flirts with Plum by finding her ideal makeup and lipstick shades—the show often feels like it’s regurgitating arguments about beauty that we’ve heard too many times before. It’s jarring to watch a group of women plot to take down women’s magazines as the ultimate manifestation of patriarchy in a world where The New Yorker now publishes essays about skin care as a form of political coping and Teen Vogue has become notoriously, meme-ically woke—to say nothing of federal attacks on reproductive rights, women’s ongoing difficulty in divorcing abusive partners, and the institutional shielding of workplace harassment. At Austen Media, there are brief discussions of Ferguson’s conduct that, ironically, end with Kitty defending him as a member of the Austen “family,” participating in a long-standing justification for protecting perpetrators of abuse.
Of course women’s media, and media in general, is littered with complex institutions with fraught, sexist histories (case in point: the New York Times’ style section), but it would be nice to see those histories dealt with rather than compressed and dismissed. Dietland also takes the position that sex work and pornography are uniformly degrading to and exploitative of women. This is the same mentality that animated celebrity PSAs in support of the disastrous, brutal SESA/FOSTA legislation, which has forced sex workers to abandon safer online platforms and shunted many onto the street. Meanwhile, many arguments against SESTA and in support of sex workers’ rights were, in fact, published on the websites of the women’s magazines that Dietland scorns. The series reproduces verbatim one of the more discomfiting passages from the book, where Plum in her capacity as an advice columnist is, in earnest, asked the question, “Who is more oppressed—a woman covered from head to toe in a burka or one of the bikini-clad models in your magazine?” This was a retrograde way to frame women’s issues in 2015, and it’s worse in 2018.
To its credit, some of the more compelling parts of Dietland are the moments that acknowledge the complexity of individuals’ relationships to the beauty industry—Kitty, in particular, has to navigate the pressures of embodying the feminine ideal while maintaining her hold on power in Austen Media. But the institutions Dietland critiques are run not just by men, but by money, and the show’s near-exclusive focus on maleness diminishes the role that the profit-motive plays in women’s media. Some of the novel’s sharper passages reproduce meetings where ad executives pitch new ways to sell weight-loss scams, where the sale itself (and the company’s attendant profit) is more important than the feminine ideal weight-loss pushers are trying to uphold. And Plum chooses to become involved with the feminist activists who deprogram her not because she finds their ideas compelling, but because they dangle the prospect of paying for her bypass surgery. Dietland the show, though, is oddly incurious about the relationship between the “perfect woman” and all of the money she has to spend (and make) to become one.
AMC’s launch of Dietland included an “intimate luncheon” with people like Alyssa Milano, Sophia Bush, Laverne Cox, and Piper Perabo—implicitly tying the show to the emerging class of women in Hollywood speaking out about harassment and abuse in their industry. Each week, AMC will air a Talking Dead-style aftershow hosted by Aisha Tyler, titled Unapologetic. Some of the promotional material for the show is branded with the slogan, “Join the revolution.” But whose revolution? And does AMC really want you to join it? Probably not. At the conclusion of the first episode, the closing credits inform us: “Use of photography from Vogue magazine appears courtesy of Condé Nast.”
“Dietland the show is oddly incurious about the relationship between the ‘perfect woman’ and all of the money she has to spend (and make) to become one.”
Being steeped in ambivalence produced by the things we do and the spaces we occupy isn’t anything to be ashamed of—literally every person and every interaction is part of a mess of conflicting, varying terrible systems, especially when it comes to industries and choices as fraught as beauty and how you relate to your body. But the entire point of a revenge fantasy is that, on some level, it’s a fantasy. Dietland doesn’t interrogate its own flawed construction, and it doesn’t finish poking its way toward a real, full-throated feat of violent imagination.
It’s true that Dietland is attempting a pretty difficult tonal balancing act, including the revenge components of its plot alongside the more internal parts of Plum’s story. But what would it look like for the series to more wholly embrace every part of those stories, with no reservations? We’ve been more or less straightforwardly eating up shows about the actions of violent, “complicated” men for years. In the same New York Times piece about the exciting nature of Dietland’s contradictions, Alexis Soloski writes, “It’s hard to say, ‘You go, girl,” when girls are hurling bodies from freeway overpasses.’ Right now, though, it’s not—or at least, it shouldn’t be.