Drop Dead Diva

I’ll admit it, I expected watching Lifetime’s new drama, Drop Dead Diva which premiered this past Sunday in the States to be something like watching a house burn – it’s just too dreadful to look away from.

The basic premise of the show is that two women, polar opposites in everything from looks to brains, die at the same time. One, Deb, is so shallow she rates a zero at the P
Pearly Gates – she’s neither good nor bad, she is just there to be pretty. That is the sum total of her life. She’s size zero (but got up to a two during her years at community college, which is why she quit), blonde, tall, gorgeous as the media wants a woman to be. She dies when she’s too busy checking herself out and gabbing on her cell phone to realize there’s a giant truck of grapefruits (oh, the irony – her breakfast of choice!) backing up into her lane of traffic.

The other woman, Jane, is a workaholic do-gooder who everyone likes and takes advantage of. She’s intelligent and has the law degree to prove it, but her self-esteem is in the crapper: she doesn’t see how awesome she is. She’s portrayed in a way that reinforces we are to see her as plain Jane (Pun almost certainly intended) – her clothing is all dark colors, she wears little to no make up and she’s (gasp) a size sixteen. She dies because she walks into the direct line of fire of a man angry at one of Jane’s law firm partners for sleeping with his wife – she tries to talk him down, but trips on a handbag, the gun goes off…

So the set-up is fairly obvious. Deb, the zero, is seen in heaven where she demands to be put back – she’s got an audition for The Price is Right she’s got to get to. She pushes the return button (Heaven apparently hasn’t got modern keyboards) and does return … but in Jane’s body. Jane? Jane’s just dead, except Deb somehow now has access to her remarkable brain, occasionally spouting off facts ala Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz. It’s a double-edged sword. On the one hand, Deb’s suffered a fate worse than death: she’s trapped in a fat body. On the other hand, she’s been given a great opportunity: she’s now no longer a bubblehead.

The idea is, I think, to demonstrate how these two people are halves of a whole. That being pretty isn’t everything, but being smart isn’t everything either – they need to be balanced. In Deb we have the beauty queen airhead stereotype and in Jane the ugly, fat smart woman stereotype. Frankly, I find the simple delineation of roles problematic in and of itself, but I’ll leave that be. The goal isn’t a bad one, though it smacks a bit of trying to create “the perfect woman.” I fear the execution will be so filled with mixed messages no one will truly get what needs to be taken out of it.

I love the idea of a plus-sized leading lady, and Brooke Elliot, who plays Jane, er, Jane-with-Deb-inside does a wonderful job. My initial concerns, however, appeared in the very introduction of the Jane character. We meet her rooting through the work fridge for the ginormous cinnamon bun, with the song “Big Girls Don’t Cry” blaring at us. We see her longing for a chocolate doughnut in a meeting with a client, to the point a catty (ooh, another female stereotype) colleague suggests they take a break and shoves the plate of doughnuts at Jane. We see her craving chocolate again later. We see her needing to have Easy Cheese squirted directly into her mouth as a stress-reliever (she exclaims something like, “My God, that stuff is like Xanax!”).

Because, as we’ve established here before, a person can only get to be plus-sized if she has a diet of high-fat, un-nutritious foodstuffs, right?

Don’t think Deb is off the hook. She’s played as the typical dingbat, who’s relied on her looks to get her everywhere. She’s sweet and sunshiney and vapid. She’s got the attention span of a three-year-old and all she wants is to look good again (read: be a size zero). While she appreciates the brains she’s received thanks to Jane’s soul departing to who-knows-where, she would trade it back for a “better body” in a heartbeat.

I think the biggest problem for me, though, is that this isn’t a story with a fat woman in the lead role. It’s a story of a fat woman playing a skinny woman, often for comedic effect. I’m not sure I can continue watching just to see if someone puts out the fire, or if the house was already lost before it went up in flames.

Comments

  1. Sharon says

    I really liked the show, but will be greatly disapointed if they don’t put the lead character in better clothes, makeup and hair. After all, the character has the knowledge from her past life to make the change.

  2. sbg says

    Of course she will. It’ll be part of Jane’s transformative change. Oh, wait – no, it won’t. It’ll be part of Deb’s transformative change.

  3. K Lee says

    At first glance it’s all “yippee, a smart plus size woman.” But if you sit and watch a minute the story isn’t all we would want it to be. It doesn’t bode well when you’re grinding your teeth over the introductory portrayal of Jane; in fact, I highly resent that scene.

    As you said, sbg, “Because, as we’ve established here before, a person can only get to be plus-sized if she has a diet of high-fat, un-nutritious foodstuffs, right?” Not only that, but she’s wearing no make-up, drab clothing (contrary to what ‘deb’ says later, Lane Bryant doesn’t have suits like that anymore). She is the only person to try and talk to the shooter & dies because of a pratfall–tripping over a purse.

    Jane dies. So what the show is about is Deb wearing a Jane “suit.” As cliched as Deb is, the basic premise is that it will take a size nothing party girl to make fat plain Jane hip & happy. And I agree, Deb would trade the intelligence for her old body on any day. Meanwhile, the old Jane is still dead.

    It’s a bit mind-boggling, and somewhere in the confusion I have to agree that it’s highly doubtful the right message will be found. I do think actor Brooke Elliott did a wonderful job, and it’s so nice to see a normal size leading lady. It’s presented as light, redeeming fun but I too am uncertain that I will keep watching. Though I’m sure it will make for an interesting media criticism paper.

  4. sbg says

    As cliched as Deb is, the basic premise is that it will take a size nothing party girl to make fat plain Jane hip & happy. And I agree, Deb would trade the intelligence for her old body on any day. Meanwhile, the old Jane is still dead.

    Yep. It’s not Jane-the-fat-woman’s journey at all. It’s Deb-the-skinny-woman-learning-to-accept-her-new-”handicap.” I can’t help but find that really bothersome. Jane’s not going to benefit from any of this. The benefit will be Deb’s, and it’ll be everyone around her that starts to realize that Jane’s body and brain are extremely attractive.

    And old Jane is still dead.

  5. K Lee says

    Exactly, sbg. I think the word you use “handicap,” is another source of difficulty. It makes it seem like being overweight is a horrible, disfiguring ‘handicap.’ Smacks of perpetuating the still acceptable practice of size discrimination.

    I’ll probably watch the second episode, simply to evaluate things. It may be that the framing of the show as a comedy is also part of the problem, because god knows there aren’t enough fat girl jokes out there.

    I wonder if we would find it as troublesome if the show’s premise were reversed. Jane gets put into the body of Deb. Something to ponder.

  6. sbg says

    Exactly, sbg. I think the word you use “handicap,” is another source of difficulty. It makes it seem like being overweight is a horrible, disfiguring ‘handicap.’ Smacks of perpetuating the still acceptable practice of size discrimination.

    Funny that the second episode in, and they already tried to use that to win a legal argument. It is discriminatory to take weight and appearance into account, but it is not a disability to be fat in most cases.

    Have you caught the second episode? There are still glimmers of hope, if you can look past the fact that the fat woman is still dead regardless of this amazing body-acceptance journey the skinny woman is on, they might do okay. At least better than I had certainly dreaded.

  7. sophia says

    This show is so stereotypical it’s hard to watch…Apparently ALL plus-size women eat constantly and ALL plus-size women are nice and smart, while ALL skinny/blonde women are stupid, snobby, and obsessed with being skinny…because, you know, you can ONLY be skinny by starving yourself and you can ONLY be plus-size by eating all the time…ugh.

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