06 September 2009
Sure there are lots of arguments to be made about the representation of overweight people on television. Until Brooke Elliott came along as the star of Lifetime’s series about a skinny girl in a plus-sized body, it seemed that Melissa McCarthy (Gilmore girls, Samantha Who) was the only actress out there representing anyone over a size 2. Drop Dead Diva is remarkable for giving television its first young plus-sized leading lady, and for promoting themes of acceptance and what not, but what truly makes it remarkable is that it doesn’t get caught up with their underdog trappings.
It would be so easy for Elliott’s character Jane to become the ultimate “outsider” figure, the post-modern hero to whom society owes damages for emotional distress. Drop Dead Diva could, like so many before it *cough*Glee*cough*, take the stance that anyone who falls naturally outside of the confines of society’s ideal is somehow superior, more genuine and more deserving of empathy than those who seem to have it all.
But Drop Dead Diva takes a more accepting stance. Yes, Jane is our hero and she is wonderful and smart and deserves to be seen as more than a fat girl: I’m on board, I like it, I especially like that her being deserving of good things seems to be contingent on the wonderful and smart thing, not on the fat girl thing.
But Jane isn’t the be-all and end-all of empathy on Drop Dead Diva, even if she is the only prominent overweight character. Deb, the woman who has taken over Jane’s body, and is, essentially, the main character (though she is played by Elliott and called Jane: I know, confusing), is a thin, pretty shallow girl who has her eyes opened in the pilot episode when she gets stuck with a size 16 frame. The principle arc that we’re following, that’s actually Deb’s. So while she aesthetically has the makings of a teen comedy villain, Deb is actually the character the audience is rooting for, even if she is a skinny insider with a seemingly perfect life (pre-death, that is).
Similarly, Deb’s best friend Stacy (the only other person who knows that Jane is Deb), is a simple girl who counts her calories, talks about eye shadow too much and spends all her time on the elliptical machine. But the show makes a point of showing that grass is never really greener. While Jane has struggled with people judging her for her weight, Stacy’s perfect-seeming life has been coloured by the perpetual assumption that she’s a dumb blond. And Stacy’s a good person. She may not be my kind of person but you can see that she really is someone deserving of the audience’s affection. Stacy accepts Jane into her life with open arms upon realizing that her best friend is in there somewhere, even if she isn’t as pretty. That one act makes Stacy the role model for the affect the show should be having on its audience: love them anyway, whether they’re fat or skinny or smart or dumb or don’t own an eyelash curler.
At the law firm, the show further drives home its point with the contrasting characters of Grayson and Kim. Grayson, Deb’s former fiancee, is both handsome and smart but respects Jane and loved Deb even though neither of them are both those things. Kim, a rival lawyer, on the other hand, is also attractive and intelligent but just happens to be a bitch- and everyone can see through that, making her a lonely villain among a cast full of would-be “insiders”.
That’s what sets Drop Dead Diva apart. It’s not unique just for having an overweight female hero, it’s unique for the way it treats all its characters. No one on Diva is given a free pass just because they’re fat, or because they’re pretty, or even because they’re smart. Every single character has to earn the empathy of the audience by proving themselves as a deserving person, and so most of them do. It’s the anti-postmodern outsider story, one that recognizes that everyone is on the outskirts of something, whether they’re a size 2 or not.
PS: I would just like to put the argument out there that Brooke Elliott (Jane) is in fact substantially more attractive than Brooke D’Orsay (Deb), even with the extra weight.