‘My Mad Fat Diary’ and Finding Fat-Positive Feminism

[caption id="attachment_8858" align="aligncenter" width="250"]My Mad Fat Diary title card. My Mad Fat Diary title card.[/caption]

Written by Erin Tatum.

The best shows are the ones that are silly enough to make us laugh, but deep enough to make us think. My Mad Fat Diary strikes this balance perfectly in ways that are both clever and heartbreaking. The series chronicles the life of Rae Earl (Sharon Rooney), a snarky yet painfully insecure overweight teen, as relayed in her diary after a brief stay in a mental hospital following a suicide attempt. She begins the slow process of adjusting to life back in the outside world, forming new friendships and battling old demons. As an added bonus, the show could be classified as the fetal equivalent of a period piece, taking place in the mid-90s. Expect a kickass soundtrack and lots of denim-on-denim. I can’t believe the decade of my childhood is now far enough away to be considered fair game for a period piece. Anyway, no matter how old you were, My Mad Fat Diary will make you giddy with nostalgia.

[caption id="attachment_8861" align="aligncenter" width="256"]Sharon Rooney Sharon Rooney[/caption] [caption id="attachment_8880" align="aligncenter" width="200"]Rooney as Rae. Rooney as Rae[/caption]


It’s unfortunately rare to see a show with a fat female protagonist, let alone a teen show. I find Sharon Rooney fascinating because she encapsulates all the contradictions in the media’s perception of plus-sized women. Many interviewers express surprise at how strikingly she contrasts to Rae–whereas Rae is a quintessential wallflower, shy and sulking in oversized T-shirts and baggy jeans, Rooney often wears dresses and substantial amounts of makeup. She has all the self-assurance that Rae longs for.  Now approaching her mid-20s, Rooney has spoken candidly about being passed over for roles when she was younger, including the glamour-obsessed Skins franchise (which, although incorporating a few characters who weren’t stick-thin, curiously failed to feature any plus-sized characters in the main cast, despite two full cast changes and seven seasons). It’s telling and ironic that an actress as confident as Rooney got her big break playing a character whose raison d’être is a self-loathing fixation on her weight.

[caption id="attachment_8862" align="aligncenter" width="300"]Rae frequently doodles about sex. Rae frequently doodles about sex.[/caption]

Featuring an ensemble cast–bizarrely ranging in age from 17 to pushing 30, but all supposed to be portraying 16- to 17-year-olds–the crux of the show centers around Rae struggling to overcome self-consciousness to achieve an normal social life. Rae is also unabashedly sex-crazed and makes no secret of her about her lustful fantasies in the pages of her diary. You’re compelled to laugh at Rae’s antics not because the notion of fat women’s desire in itself is humorous, but because her libido is so expansive and imaginative. Rae is even shown exploring masturbation (and enjoying it!), marking all of three times that I’ve seen female masturbation portrayed onscreen. Predictably for the teen genre, she equates normalcy to hitting various romantic and sexual milestones. She winds up giving herself her first orgasm. For all of her self-deprecation, Rae views sexual expression as well within her grasp (no pun intended), at least in the abstract.

[caption id="attachment_8859" align="aligncenter" width="225"]Chloe is basically "the hot chick." Chloe is basically “the hot chick.”[/caption]

Rae’s childhood best friend Chloe (Jodie Comer) simultaneously embodies everything that Rae wishes she was with everything she knows she shouldn’t want to be. The audience is repeatedly beaten over the head with how thin, pretty, and popular Chloe is. Chloe’s perfect physique is the inspiration for many a gloomy monologue from Rae, with the latter taking every opportunity to lament her inadequacy by comparison. Chloe reinforces Rae’s inferiority complex through subtle backhanded compliments and putdowns, firmly cementing her status as more of a frenemy than a friend. She’s actually quite a recognizable character in that I think we’ve all tried to maintain some childhood friendships that were drifting apart, only to realize that you’ve become two totally different people. Unfortunately, the show has a tendency to pigeonhole Chloe as the bitch and intertwine that with slutiness to indicate a lack of self-respect and moral depravity. She has a clandestine affair with the sleazy married gym coach (of course) and appears to be making her rounds among the boys of the gang. We’re supposed to pity her desperation, but also feel entirely unsympathetic towards her for bringing it on herself. Since Chloe serves to highlight Rae’s naivete and innocence, her characterization falls a bit flat. On one hand, Rae and Chloe illustrate that self-esteem and body image issues exist all across the size spectrum. Chloe may have the advantage of thin privilege, but her insecurities still lead her to squander the resulting opportunities.

However, it makes me uncomfortable that we are still encouraged to demonize Chloe. Why? Because she’s promiscuous? Rae is just as sexual as she is, “experience” be damned. Because she’s two-faced? Rae spends most of the first season lying to almost everyone about almost everything. Because she’s mean to Rae? Rae frequently insults and slut-shames Chloe in her diary, especially when Chloe unknowingly begins to pursue Rae’s crush. All I’m saying is that it smacks too much of the obnoxious “I’m not like other girls” Manic Pixie exceptionalism mentality. Rae and Chloe aren’t as different as Rae would like us to think. The narrative shouldn’t be using Rae as a vehicle to tell the audience what bad femininity supposedly looks like. Much like Chloe, she doesn’t need to put other people down to validate her own perspective. She’s a worthy protagonist in her own right. The whole idea of the plain Jane underdog is completely pointless if it merely flips the social hierarchy.

(Significant series 2 spoilers ahead)

[caption id="attachment_8857" align="aligncenter" width="245"]Rae and Finn grow closer throughout the first season. Rae and Finn grow closer throughout the first season.[/caption]

Despite some bumps in the road, Rae integrates with the gang and even starts a budding romance with softhearted bad boy Finn (Nico Mirallegro, my future husband, packing enough eyebrow game to kill a man). The opening scene of the second season cuts straight to the point and shows Finn fingering Rae. A sex scene between two teenagers focused exclusively on female pleasure, imagine that. Rae continues to grapple with poor self-image, exacerbated by the start of school. Her nagging anxieties force her to confront her biggest fear – how Finn, a traditionally attractive boy, could ever want to be with someone as allegedly undesirable as her. It’s definitely hard to watch her go through all the same triggering things over and over, but I guess that’s true to life when you’re dealing with lifelong psychological scars. She seems to be teetering on sabotaging her own happiness. After all the trials and tribulations of last year, it’s depressing to think of her stability as a flash in the pan. A mysterious new boy looks to be shaping up as a new love interest, because apparently a love triangle is mandatory to signify a female character’s ascension into Everygirl Protagonist territory. Barf. Romantic angst is the last thing Rae needs. Body insecurities and fear of vulnerability also prevent Rae from going all the way with Finn. On that note, I can’t think of a show that objectifies male characters as much as My Mad Fat Diary objectifies Finn. We don’t usually see the adolescent girl gaze and it’s really refreshingly weird.

[caption id="attachment_8856" align="aligncenter" width="300"]What is normal, anyway? What is normal, anyway?[/caption]

Ultimately, fat-positive shows remain evasive. My Mad Fat Diary certainly has its pros and cons. Rae is indeed a smart, likeable plus-sized protagonist. Still, the message persists that self-acceptance for fat people (and fat women in particular) is only accessible by way of obligatory despair, self-hatred, and the need for constant outside validation. Hands down, Rae’s biggest obstacle is not the the prejudice of others, but her own internalized toxic mentality. It’s almost as if Rae has to admit society has broken her umpteen times before finally settling in to a niche of lukewarm tolerance. Give her some degree of agency, for fuck’s sake. The perpetual broken bird routine is wearing thin. Why can’t she just be allowed to like who she is? Rae appears to be challenging herself with that same question.

My Mad Fat Diary is a fun step in the right direction, but it still has a long way to go.