07.13.09

TV's New Super-Sized Heroine

Lifetime’s new hit Drop Dead Diva celebrates the life of an adorable plus-size woman. But does it promote positive body images in an obesity-obsessed culture?

On Sunday night, 2.8 million viewers (OK, 2.8 million women) tuned into Lifetime to watch the premiere episode of Drop Dead Diva—in which size 0 model Deb dies in a car crash and is reincarnated as size 16 Jane—making the show the network’s biggest hit in almost three years. Even up against HBO’s surprise ratings bonanza True Blood, Diva did an admirable job of enticing the coveted 25-35 female couch brigade— an advertiser’s dream demographic, especially if the women are watching to feel inspired. What better way to sell a deodorant or mascara than by buttressing a show that screams girl power and body pride? How better to push shampoo than by supporting this show—the first show in recent memory to feature a plus-size actress as the lead, not the comic relief, but the show-carrying, scene-stealing lead?

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Because of this mission, Diva seems to have an extra coat of buzz on it—Rosie O’Donnell, Liza Minnelli, Paula Abdul, and Delta Burke have already signed on to guest star. The L.A. Times and The New York Times both raved about lead actress Brooke Elliott, and women’s blogs have exploded with conversation about the debut episode. Is it good or bad for feminism? Does it preach fat acceptance with too heavy a hand? It is not easy for any network to generate this kind of media heat around a summer show—and Lifetime has done it.

And all by casting a woman in a size-16 suit.

Americans have long been obsessed with food, but recently, we have also acquired a voracious interest in the people who eat it with abandon. In this week’s New Yorker, Elizabeth Kolbert asks, “Why Are We So Fat?,” arguing that corpulence has ballooned in the past decade, and now, literature examining weight gain is overtaking diet books. We simply can’t get enough of deconstructing the results of overeating. This summer saw two full-figured reality-TV debuts: More to Love (a plumper version of The Bachelor) and Dance Your Ass Off (a super-size Dancing With the Stars)—on top of hits like The Biggest Loser, Bulging Brides, and Celebrity Fit Club. If, as Kolbert argues, it’s now “possible to go to the grocery store and purchase enough sugar or vegetable oil to fulfill the average person’s energy requirements for a week,” and we are devouring those calories, it is no wonder we are completely fascinated with our fellow zaftig Americans. We want to know why we eat butter almost as much as we want to eat it. And later, we want to see people in various stages of working it off, or at the very least, grappling with heaviness.

It was only a matter of time until a plus-size actress got her own show—the demand is at an all-time high. The question now should be: Is the resulting show a success, without promoting either obesity or weight mockery? In the case of Drop Dead Diva, the answer is…sort of. The show offers a refreshing image of an overweight character, but with little help from the script. Brooke Elliott is sunny and mischievous, and a joy on screen—one just wishes that her prowess had a little room to move beyond the trite confines of the plot.

Drop Dead Diva’s premise is Freaky Friday on Twinkies. When ditzy Deb’s body morphs into whipsmart Jane’s, she conveniently gets to keep her giggly demeanor and memories while inheriting Jane’s legal abilities and intelligence—but she is stuck with Jane’s figure, permanently. On top of that, Jane/Deb must now work alongside Deb’s former boyfriend who doesn’t recognize her underneath the pounds, and she cannot tell anyone of her transformation—save her shallow blond best friend, who immediately accepts the switcheroo tale. Throw in a guardian angel for comic relief, a skinny-and-scheming female coworker, a misogynistic boss, and a quipping assistant played by comedian Margaret Cho, and you have the standard recipe for schmaltzy summer fare. The legal battles on the show aren’t anything revelatory—with cases taking on dog cloning and trucker’s rights, the best drama doesn’t happen in the courtroom.

What Drop Dead Diva does have to offer, though, is Elliott’s charm, and she has it by the ton. Showrunner Josh Berman—previously of CSI and Bones—searched the country for his lead, and in Elliott found an actress that is seamlessly able to play both the quick-witted legal mind of Jane, and the dopey ebullience of Deb. And because she is so talented—able to change characters and facial expressions with a snap—Elliott is transfixing, sexy even, both transcending her size and doing it proud. After watching three episodes of the show in succession, it was difficult to even notice Elliott’s figure—she becomes more of an actress carrying a show than as an icon of body love.

That said, the show’s producers have done Elliott no favors by constantly returning to stereotypes to illustrate Jane’s obesity; in the first scenes, the character salivates while looking at donuts, and later, in a moment of despair, finds solace in a “shot” of Cheez Whiz, straight from the can. She eats éclairs openly around the office, and confides to her best friend about craving chocolate, though admits that as a model she would never eat after 7 p.m. and preferred a “grapefruit with two Splenda” to a pastry breakfast. These clichés drag down a show that might otherwise be about promoting a healthy body at any size—Jane is overweight because she loves cookies and nachos and cannot seem to stop eating them, a trope that has accompanied most overweight characters from Roseanne to Family Guy’s Peter Griffin. As Dodai Stewart of Jezebel asked of Diva, “The creators have come up with a nonconformist premise, why can't they think outside the box when it comes to plus-size humor?”

Still, in a sea of bloated and exploitative reality shows, Diva is the closest thing television has churned out when it comes to fat acceptance. Jane—even with Deb’s mind—often doubts her body, but never apologizes for it, and in succeeding as a lawyer and friend, she humanizes and adds complexity to a woman who many might otherwise pass on the street without a second glance. If the show can evolve—and with the kind of guest stars and press it is getting, it very well may—it could be a powerful vehicle for Elliott and her character’s message, and perhaps a step in the direction of the real best-case scenario: a show starring a plus-size actress that doesn’t need body-swappery or processed cheddar to make a statement.

As college professor Kathleen LeBesco told The New Yorker, “Fat people are widely represented in popular culture… as revolting—they are agents of abhorrence and disgust,” and Elliott is anything but revolting in Drop Dead Diva. She is likely one of the most appealing actresses on television at any weight—and if her size entices more women to watch her, then at least—for now—the donut props will have not been eaten in vain.

Rachel Syme is culture editor of The Daily Beast.