“Across the country, a war was starting.” That’s a warning from Plum Kettle (Joy Nash), as she narrates a series of alarming images in the news. Men who have been accused of sexual harassment are being mysteriously kidnapped and killed. A revolution is starting, and it couldn’t be more well-timed to draft viewers into its violent cause.
A #MeToo-era revenge fantasy is just one of the ways AMC’s Dietland, based on Sarai Walker’s 2015 book and shepherded to screen by TV trailblazer Marti Noxon, enlists typically female-centric issues in a broader rallying cry. Paired with the other drama series Noxon is launching this summer, HBO’s Sharp Objects starring Amy Adams, Dietland and its unconventional heroine join a march Noxon has been marshaling stretching back to her time writing for and executive producing Buffy the Vampire Slayer: Women are angry. Let them rage.
For so much of her 20-year career, Noxon has been The One. Or, at least, among The Few: The few name-recognizable female TV writers and showrunners crafting badass female characters. After Buffy, she worked as a producer on Grey’s Anatomy and its spinoff Private Practice, wrote for Mad Men, consulted on Glee, and then launched two game-changing cable series: Bravo’s Girlfriends Guide to Divorce and Lifetime’s UnREAL.
As she’s changed the industry, the industry has also changed around her.
Noxon made headlines after she made a statement in support of fellow Mad Men writer Kater Gordon, who accused Matthew Weiner of sexual harassment and was discredited in a campaign to dispute the allegations. “There are moments in the past year or two where I was faced with situations where I knew what I’d want my characters to do, what I would want a hero to do, what I would to tell my kids to do, which is tell the truth and do what’s right,” she tells me when I ask why she felt empowered to speak up.
When we meet in a Gramercy Park hotel suite, she begins fussily tidying up the remnants of lunch on a table behind her. “I can’t help it!” she says, explaining how she also cleans her house fastidiously out of fear of judgment from her housekeeper. Looming over her shoulder is the poster for Dietland, on which a drawing of Nash’s Plum Kettle is hurling a grenade meant to look like a cupcake, over the tagline, “Join the revolution.”
It’s a unique show, charting Plum’s journey as a plus-sized ghostwriter for a women’s beauty magazine that represents every trigger to her self-esteem. It’s a storyline in tandem with the male abusers who are turning up dead. And so we talk with Noxon about all of it: making sense of those two arcs, her decision to speak up about Weiner, and 20 years of lending her voice to the revolution, one that finally seems to be gaining steam.
AMC is a network that comes up a lot when talking about the “golden age of television,” in that an AMC series telegraphs a certain kind of quality. As it happens, the leads of every single one of the network’s series have been male.
Every single one.
Dietland is the first to have a bonafide female lead. Now we’re telegraphing a quality drama and it’s all female-led, in front of and behind the camera.
I know. It’s pretty exciting. In the last few years, I put UnREAL on Lifetime and Girlfriends Guide to Divorce was on Bravo. In the cases of those shows, the networks were trying to experiment. They weren’t sure if they fit their brand. With AMC, they were like, yes, this is us. They’ve been completely, “No this is us. It totally fits. It’s a totally different voice, but it’s in the same vein of those other shows.”
The Atlantic recently did a piece about Dietland and Sharp Objects titled “Is TV Ready For Angry Women.” What do you think? You’ve been writing angry women dating back to Buffy in the ‘90s. All this time later, we’re still asking the question.
I think that one of the things that both this and Sharp Objects do is deal more explicitly with anger and rage. Sharp looks at it generationally, and how when it’s not expressed in a healthy way it gets turned either outward or inward, but to no good end. But here, I felt it was really interesting to wrestle with how when we wake up to certain injustices, any marginalized person, you start to see the world differently. You do get really angry with things you accepted as true that shouldn’t be that way. The status quo is suddenly upended.
Then the question becomes what do you do about it?
Right: what do you about it? How do you look at that, and how do you affect change? The book asked those questions in a way that I was intrigued by. This is the one thing that is very much AMC, that they love shows that are revolution. This is one character taking us into the heart of a women’s revolution, one that we haven’t seen before. One that’s violent, a disobedient—highly disobedient—version of it.
What do you think about viewers’ catharsis while watching a violent comeuppance for Shitty Men, the harassers who are targeted in Dietland’s revolution?
A couple of years ago, someone asked me if I knew what the most popular shows were for women, and they were almost all really violent. It had a lot of expression of anger. But they were also very male, for the most part. I was like, there’s a reason why women are drawn to this. There’s something cathartic about fighting back, or with bad guys being vanquished. I think there is a catharsis. What I hope is for people, obviously not to be violent—that’s all a metaphor—but to find a voice, to say that this behavior is unacceptable.
Do you think that applies only to women?
I don’t think it’s necessarily a gender issue. I think one of the next layers of the movement we’ve been in recently is looking at ourselves and the way we have conformed to things that may have perpetuated this bad behavior and the way you may have judged or not supported enough other women, or men, anybody who’s being bullied or harassed. Just going along with it because it was not only acceptable, you could be punished for saying it wasn’t OK.
To that end, you’ve spoken out in support of Kater Gordon after her Matthew Weiner accusations and talked about being part of a culture and industry where people are accustomed to not speaking up and how that might make them complicit. How have you reckoned with that when thinking about whether to make a statement about Weiner, and now also being the person creating the environment on your own shows?
There are moments in the past year or two where I was faced with situations where I knew what I’d want my characters to do, what I would want a hero to do, what I would to tell my kids to do, which is tell the truth and do what’s right. Then to also put into context and perspective whatever risk I was taking. You think about people all over the world going through the cost of not speaking up or not being spoken up for. Kater and I, if the worst thing happened to us, it wouldn’t be that bad. But it really did put into perspective how frightening it is. It’s your career. To just say, yes, I remember that. Or for Kater to come forward. Then part of what motivated me, too, was that the narrative started to shift to victim-blaming and to ‘oh she just didn’t have the right stuff’ or ‘she’s not a very good writer.’ Just, no. That wasn’t the narrative then. I was there. That was the moment when I was like, nah...screw this.
What’s interesting about where we are now in that movement is that there is now an opportunity to change the industry. Movies and TV series being made now are setting the standard for a new culture behind the scenes. What did you learn from your time on other shows that you wanted to change now that you're creating a culture and a writer’s room and a set for these series?
I never understood why certain shows would have a culture of mutual harassment. There was just sort of a frat club mentality that I think infiltrates a lot of industries. In ours, I was just very blind to it. I did accept it as normal. Then when I started to challenge it and had the opportunity to build a show from the floor up, it was with Girlfriends, and I saw that it could be different. I didn’t tolerate it. And this went for women, men, any person who wasn’t in the decent person boat. And guess what? It didn’t flourish. And with this show, because again doors were being kicked open, we had the opportunity to hire women. In the last few years, women I could not get hired on shows, now I can’t get them because they’re working. So on this show we were able to give opportunities to women who maybe had only done one thing, who in the past I would not be able to get them hired and give them the chance.
One of the backdrops of Dietland is a women’s magazine, which surfaces lots of conversation about self-empowerment, self-confidence, and beauty. Then you have the separate storyline of the sexual harassers being killed by someone on a revenge mission. What is the power of these different throughlines on the same show, and how did you grapple with how they coexist with each other?
One of the things I wrestled with in the book is drawing those lines and bringing them a little closer together. As much as I studied feminist theory and was raised by a lesbian hippy, I really struggled with why these two stories were being told together. Then I started to look at the modification of the body and what happens when we think of ourselves as objects. When you’re seen as less than human, when you start to look at the laws and the ways that women and marginalized people have been treated, we don’t have the same rights and freedoms as men. The laws just don’t protect women in the way that they should. I just started to think about why do women accept that, or why does any marginalized person accept that. I think it’s because we buy into the idea that we’re not quite there. We’re not quite equal to the person who’s aggressing on us. So I wondered, why don’t we defend ourselves more robustly?
What is the root of that, do you think?
There’s something about being told every day that if you were just a little younger looking or just a little prettier. I pass the Cool Sculpting ads all day long on the street. Whether you pick it up or not, that message is going in that you should be better and you should probably spend a lot of money to be more pleasing. And maybe that makes you feel that you deserve what you get. We go very directly with that idea. Very.
I believe you refer to it as “the industrial dissatisfaction complex” in the show.
That was fun. I got to write that. One of the problems with social justice movements sometimes is that we become too absolutist, right? We become too siloed. That doesn’t mean that beauty products or wanting to make yourself pretty or taller or shorter with heels, anything about that is wrong. But it should be a personal choice, and not something you feel compelled to do because then you’ll be fuckable.
Because there are so few female showrunners, you shoulder all the conversations about gendered issues in the industry and with the characters you create whenever you do press. What has that experience been like? Has it ever gotten to be too much? Do you enjoy it?
I feel like I’m very lucky that I’ve always had a desire to put my heart in my shows and really try to move conversation. I always joke that I’m trying to build an empathy machine, to help people see other people’s points of view through the work I do. It does. It takes a toll. It gets tiring because what do I do with my feelings? But I realized that I could write them there. And I go to a lot of therapy. (Laughs) I’m proud of this moment. I feel like I worked really hard to get here. So I feel proud that I get to answer more sophisticated questions and the conversation is moving forward and it isn’t “how are you managing as a mom and doing this job?”
I don’t even want to think about how often you’ve been asked that.
For years that was the question. Finally, that’s not the question anymore. But the answer has changed. I used to say that I thought there was a world in which you can kind of have it all, but now I know you can’t. You can’t have it all. Just like anybody who has children and a job, which is for most people not even a choice. It’s such a privileged question to ask how do you do this.
We’ve mentioned the #MeToo movement several times. The book was written in 2015. Isn’t it wild that it anticipated this moment? I’m also curious about the timeline of when you started adapting this and where that hit in the timeline of this moment?
I do think if you look at UnREAL and Girlfriends, I’ve been feeling this percolation of how difficult it is for men and women when those roles are changing so quickly. So I’ve been feeling that tension boiling. When I read the book I was like, yes, this is the next thing in this movement, really robustly saying fight back, enough. Then I was out selling it while That Guy was running for president and we thought we’d have a woman in the White House right now.
Didn’t we all.
It seemed impossible that the man who was calling women “threes” and talking about grabbing them by the pussy would be president. So if anything we went into production and then the Weinstein thing happened, and it just kept getting more and more “wow, we need to have this conversation.” But we also need to have the conversation about not breaking into warring factions about whose story is the most important. That was the exciting thing about what we were trying to do with this show, which is bring these voices together and be like you know, it’s really a power issue. It’s those that have it who really don’t want to share it. So we gotta throw some cupcakes.