Killer seems: how Dietland confronts the violence of beauty culture

Based on the hit novel by Sarai Walker, the new series tackles the extreme expectations placed on women with rage, retaliation and ultimately murder

In one of the saddest moments of the new black comedy series Dietland, the show’s heroine, Plum Kettle, lovingly bakes and decorates a cake. She sings passionately, completely immersed in her work, which is clearly a true labor of love. When she finishes the final touches, she dabs a bit of frosting on her thumb and takes a tiny taste. For a very brief moment, she seems blissfully happy and content, until she realizes that she is not allowed even such small indulgences according to the incredibly restrictive diet she is on in preparation for getting weight loss surgery. A look of horror is available on her face and she immediately runs to the sink to rinse her mouth out.

Scenes like this one illustrate the depths with which Plum has been instructed that she doesn’t deserve joy. Throughout the series, Dietland interrogates how our current beauty culture’s emphasis on ” perfection” encourages self-harm. This is seen from the opening credits where a cartoon Plum, looking sad and dejected, starts a journey up a mountain of confectionary treats. As she moves up the mountain, she loses weight and has a makeover with a red dress, capturing the attention of several male admirers, but she keeps climbing and climbing getting skinnier and skinnier, until eventually a skeleton of herself gets to the top and dies.

Dietland’s aesthetic is simultaneously candy-colored and stinging, which may, at first glance, seem jarring, but it’s also the way that beauty products are sold to women: one portion glossy glisten, two parts you better use this thing, or else. Based on the 2015 novel by Sarai Walker and brought to life onscreen by Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Unreal’s Marti Noxon, the series skewers the goal of feminine perfection by illustrating not only that it is fundamentally unattainable, but also that the pursuing itself is downright frightening. In the opening scene of the first episode, for example, when Plum describes her job as a ghostwriter for an advice column called Dear Kitty, we hear the voices of daughters asking questions about whether forced sex is ever that bad, if it’s possible to fix their scalp, their hair and their bodies, and what it means that they like to cut themselves. All the while, we insure closeup images of women poking, prodding, weighing, gagging and otherwise taming their own bodies into submission using Spanx, hair straighteners and makeup.” I’m ready to kill myself or maybe somebody else ,” one letter writer says, as the scene transformations to an image of a human with his hands tied and mouth videotapeed shut, a gun to his temple.

Dietland doesn’t merely argue that beauty culture is violent, but also asks the unsettling question of whether the violence that girls expend inflicting on themselves is actually a coy display of rage , not at ourselves, but a deeply misogynistic culture. Over the course of the first three episodes, Plum finds herself at various kinds of support groups, each of which praises personal empowerment of various kinds, often through extreme methods. The weight loss programs emphasize a strict caloric regimen that seems unsafe, the secret women’s groups preach secrecy and also advise a rather vulnerable Plum to give up take her antidepressants( called ” Y “) in order to stop feeling numb. And we have constant reminders that there is this bizarre “feminist” group called Jennifer that is running around and killing male predators, leaving bodies all over the streets of New York.

In many styles, Dietland’s exploration of femininity feels incredibly fresh. In particular, Joy Nash does a wonderful job playing Plum as equal proportions timid and driven. We understand who Plum is not only through her character’s expressed believes, but also through her subtle body language, her manner of speaking, and the way in which she holds her body differently in public and private spaces. It is Plum’s desire to be part of a world that she feels as though she is always on the outskirts of due to her sizing that is ultimately the heart of Dietland.

Julianna Julianna Margulies in Dietland. Photograph: Patrick Harbron/ AMC

Other characters are less fleshed out, at least at this crossroad. We chiefly watch them through their interest in and interactions with Plum, so it’s sometimes hard to see them as fully developed characters in their own right. In a show that markets itself about women’s issues, I often wanted to see more interiority in its exploration of how different female characters inhabit this image-obsessed world. I also wanted to understand their motives beyond their concerns about how they appeared. I know, I know: the point of the series is that we live in a culture where women are often reduced to their bodies and I certainly don’t mean to suggest that Dietland shouldn’t focus on the devastating effects of beauty culture. By the same token, I also hope the series eventually allows its female characters to take up space in all sorts of interesting ways that go beyond the experience of female trauma. In the first few episodes at least, girls are often sad or mad, but not much else, and issues surrounding mental health in particular are often steamrolled in the interest of keeping our focus on the ways that beauty culture is toxic.

These issues are certainly timely in a culture that seems as though it is finally ready to grapple with female rage, and that’s how the prove will certainly be marketed. At the same time, it’s impossible to say that Dietland is really about awareness about any of these issues. After all, who doesn’t know that girls are held to impossible, painful beauty standards that impact us from birth to death? That message is constant, and the message that we should somehow be able to simply magically rise above this toxic culture is just as ubiquitous. There are constant ad campaigns telling us to love ourselves just as we are, all the while hawking us new products.

Dietland is most subversive in its insisting that not giving in to these messages is actually productive rather than futile. In my favorite scene so far, Julia, the head of an underground feminist organization that hopes to dismantle this culture, tells Plum that the” frustration industrial complex” is keeping girls tethered to unhappiness, always needing to buy the next best thing to feel good about themselves.” It’s not a conspiracy ,” Plum argues with her,” it’s human nature. People like pretty things .” Julia appears shocked. “You’re not a thing,” she says firmly.” You are a woman .”

Dietland shows in the US on AMC on Mondays and in the UK on Amazon Prime on Tuesdays

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