Drop Dead Diva is one of a handful of American television shows featuring a full-figured lead actor. The premise of the show is quite silly – Deb, a wannabe Price is Right model dies in a car accident and hits the “return” button at the Pearly Gates when the bureaucrat she meets is trying to decide where to send her. Jane is a successful attorney who gets shot in the crossfire during an altercation at her office. As Jane lies dying on an operating table Deb’s soul enters her body and – voila – Deb is now Jane – a skinny model “trapped” inside the body of a full-figured attorney.
The show picks up on a lot of the themes explored by Fat Studies scholars in terms of body-size prejudice and discrimination, and also generally celebrates marginalized, strange and unconventional people. Jane, her friend Stacy, assistant Kim and Guardian Angel Fred get up to Three’s Company-style high-jinx and misunderstandings, which are mostly resolved at the end of each hour-long episode. The tone of the show is relatively light. Jane and her colleagues take on serious legal issues – discrimination and medical malpractice – but Paula Abdul appears frequently in dream sequences which feature song and dance numbers with the whole cast. See: silly.
Francesca D’Amico is joining me in writing this post. I asked her about the show a few weeks ago and she has now watched the whole series. We interviewed each other on our thoughts about the show.
FD’A: Being a full-figured woman myself, I immediately identified with Jane’s character. I like that Jane is represented as beautiful (both inside and out), caring, positive, intelligent, thoughtful, progressive and fashion-forward. When so much of our popular culture iconography tends to deny these multi-dimensional characteristics to full-figured characters, this kind of character development is refreshing. What keeps me watching is the critique that the Jane/Deb duo provide. Not only do we get a sense of how a full-figured woman interprets the world and her place in it, but how a thin woman re-interprets and revises her own ideas about body image. I think that this is what makes the series so important.
JE: After I wrote my post on Glee’s Lauren Zizes I decided to check out DDD to see how the show dealt with its full-figured lead character. I was a little sceptical after the first episode because Jane/Deb seemed at first to be an “abject fat woman” (imprisoned in a body she didn’t want), but pretty quickly we see Jane/Deb learning to live in her new body and in the process, learning to take pleasure in her size and shape.
Is Jane really different?
FD’A: Most of the popular culture iconography I have consumed that features full-figured women tends to focus on women of colour (particularly African American women). In these instances, there is already a cultural lexicon in place that embraces full-figured women as beautiful and valuable. Jane on the other hand is caucasian, middle class and well-educated, and as such represents a group of women whose popular culture representations stress quite the opposite. It has always seemed to me that when a character like Jane’s, and more simply put—a white woman no matter her social standing or level of education—is represented, she is often understood to be insecure, depressed, lazy, dull and unattractive. And if she is intelligent, she is only that. Rarely do we see women like Jane in popular culture who are full-figured, smart, independent, trendy and upbeat.
JE: Although the premise of the show is a fantasy, I feel like Jane is someone I know. Like you say, FD’A, Jane’s character is complicated. She is fun, sad, silly, beautiful, angry, conflicted etc. etc. I also like that they portray Jane as someone interested in clothes, and only rarely comment on her size. I think this reflects how women of all sizes feel about their bodies, we neither hate them all the time nor love them all the time. I’ve said this to you before, but I’ll say it here: I really like popular culture that takes on average, everyday people and makes them seem fun and glamourous.
What makes DDD good/bad?
FD’A: Through the Jane/Deb dialogue, the viewers come to understand Jane’s ups, downs, insecurities, and pleasures. I think what is slightly troubling for me is that Jane tends to understand her new life through the experiences of a thin woman. While the viewer gets a sense that this is a work-in-progress, the instances in which Jane actually deals with the realities of being larger are not as many as I would have hoped for. Rarely does Jane deal with the anxieties of not being able to fit a small chair or through a turnstile for example. And while these might seem trivial, these are the sorts of things, at least in my own experience, that full-figured individuals deal with in silence most everyday.
JE: Oh, I like the turnstile idea. Turnstiles and other public space issues (chairs, plane seats) came up in my dissertation research a lot, because they are one of the unspoken ways our society sends messages about “appropriate” body weight and shape. I’d like to see how Jane would handle having to ask for a seatbelt extender on a plane!
FD’A: Focusing on women is necessary given how important body issues are for the physical and psychological development of young adolescents. Young girls need to see a variety of body types so that they can understand that popular culture is not representative of the norm. However, I think that had the character been male, the message would resonate even more powerfully simply because the availability of male characters who genuinely deal with body issues is rare, if not invisible. I find this troubling especially because men deal with body issues just as much as women do, and yet the kind of attention granted to male body image, particularly weight, is often reduced and caricatured to ‘the cute cuddly teddy bear type’.
JE: I agree with you that we don’t often see men dealing with body issues on TV, so in many ways finding a funny and engaging way to do that would be really powerful. At the same time I think we’ve had seen TV where unconventional and or teddy bear types are central characters (Roseanne, Mike and Molly, NYPD Blue), and it might be time to get a greater variety of women out there. I think that Jane Bingum is part of a handful of anti-or-unconventional heroines on the small screen right now, like Liz Lemon, Nurse Jackie and Leslie Knope, who would never had made the cut for Friends.