Sunday 22 September 2019

'There's nothing wrong with being fat'

'Dietland' is being hailed as 'The Handmaid's Tale' for 2018, as female rage reaches boiling point in the age of #MeToo, writes Jane Mulkerrins

Weighty issue: Joy Nash as Plum Kettle in Dietland
Weighty issue: Joy Nash as Plum Kettle in Dietland

Jane Mulkerrins

Stories about women are proliferating on television. In the past two years, female-driven projects have led the way, and this swing has been given extra momentum by the rise of the #MeToo movement. The Handmaid's Tale, currently in its second season, has come to represent the rage felt towards society's misogyny. And now a new show - albeit a very different one - is tapping into the same wellspring.

Dietland, which launched this week on Amazon Prime in Ireland, tells the tale of Plum Kettle, a 20st woman awaiting gastric band surgery who replies to readers' letters on a glossy teen magazine. Meanwhile, a vigilante group called Jennifer is kidnapping and torturing men who have sexually abused and objectified women, throwing them off motorway bridges and out of planes.

The latter part of that storyline sounds fantastical but Joy Nash, the 37-year-old who plays Plum, insists the series has a serious point to make.

"People are saying, 'Gosh, men are so nervous now. They are questioning everything, and asking what they are allowed to do or say.' Well, I have been constantly questioning myself every day of my life. 'Is my neckline too low? Is it too late at night for me to walk around the block?' Everything has been a question. So welcome to my world, men."

Even two years ago, Dietland would have struggled to get commissioned. But shows that used to be branded 'women's interest' dramas are now not only mainstream, but agenda-setting and award-winning. At last autumn's Emmys and this January's Golden Globes, the biggest winners in every category were The Handmaid's Tale and Big Little Lies, the hit drama starring Nicole Kidman, Reese Witherspoon and Shailene Woodley about, among other things, motherhood and domestic abuse.

"In the time since I created Girlfriends' Guide to Divorce [about a woman in her forties navigating single life in LA, post-divorce], things have changed exponentially," says Dietland's showrunner Marti Noxon. "I would pitch it as an idea, and the women in the room would be, like, 'Mhmm' [she makes a noise of recognition and approval], and the men would be like, 'I would be nervous to have my wife watch this'. That was not that long ago". She laughs. "Now, we are murdering men and throwing them out of planes."

Julianna Margulies plays Plum’s glossy boss Kitty Montgomery
Julianna Margulies plays Plum’s glossy boss Kitty Montgomery

Dietland also follows Plum's journey to "fat acceptance".

"I am prepared for people to come at us, accusing us of promoting an unhealthy lifestyle," says Noxon. "But women's bodies are such public property. And when you are fat or, as was the case when I was way too thin [Noxon spent years battling anorexia], people will put their hands on you, and give you advice. It is as if you are walking around with a big 'Fix Me' sign." Indeed, we see Plum miserably enduring meetings at Waist Watchers, during which she is advised to curb "bad behaviour" such as eating. Nash herself has plenty of experience of this. A newcomer, with only five minutes' TV experience, she remembers one of her first acting teachers telling her to consider "audiobook narration". "And what I took that to mean was, 'You're very talented, but I don't want to look at you'," says Nash.

Consequently, her career thus far has been limited to said audiobooks and small character roles. Now, thanks to Dietland, she has been named by the Hollywood Reporter as one of 10 breakthrough stars of 2018.

Unlike Plum, Nash came to "fat acceptance" almost 20 years ago. "I read [activist] Marilyn Wann's book Fat!So? when I was 18, and it blew me away. I was suddenly really angry thinking about the fact that nobody had ever suggested that you might be okay as you are. The idea was that you have got to get 'fixed', or otherwise nothing good is ever going to happen to you."

Talking to both Nash and Noxon on this subject does feel revelatory, not least because both use the word "fat" freely and unashamedly.

"That is something I learnt from the fat acceptance movement - to just call it what it is," says Noxon. "Every once in a while, I will stumble over it, and be like, 'Am I really allowed to say that?' But Joy really gets me comfortable with it - she will say, 'It's fine, you can say it, I am fat'."

"If people are constantly using euphemisms to describe me, then it's clear they think that there's something wrong with me," adds Nash. "I use the word fat - and I don't think there's anything wrong with being fat."

The same could not be said for Plum's editor, the sharply-dressed, gym-toned Kitty Montgomery, played by Julianna Margulies.

"She has played the game to get where she is," says Margulies. "She has this great monologue, where she says: 'Do you know what it took to get where I am? I sucked a lot of d***. And the d*** was nothing - the d*** was a picnic compared to the a**holes I had to cater to, and humour and please, knowing the whole time that I was smarter and better at the job'.

"I think that pretty much any woman, in any high-powered position, would be able to say to that: 'Me Too,'" she adds.

The former star of The Good Wife says the recent change in culture emboldened her to demand pay on a comparable scale to that of male actors in a similar role.

"For the first time in my career, I have been able to say: "What if I was a man? What would this pay cheque be?" she says. "And I get angry about it. Because I know for sure if it was Jon Hamm or Kiefer Sutherland, all these guys who I am apparently equal to on a TV playing field, they would be getting offered more." So she asked for more too. "I would rather spend time with my family than bust my a** getting paid less than a man."

Dietland is available now on Amazon Prime Video

Irish Independent

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