Maybe I’m late to the party, but I’ve spent the last two weeks watching the entirety of My Mad Fat Diary. The show recently began its second season, and let me tell you, Tumblr was crazy for this series, so I checked it out.
We follow the charming and foul-mouthed 16-year-old Rae Earl as she leaves a psychiatric hospital and returns to her home and school. Rae (played by Sharon Rooney) was admitted due to mental illness and unhealthy body image issues. Although we’ve seen characters in teenage dramas who have eating disorders or depression in the past, in this show it is different. For one thing, Rae is not a conventionally “attractive” woman, which is refreshing after show after show of stick-thin teenagers convincing themselves that they aren’t thin enough, and then in the span of one or two episodes the issue is forgotten (Gossip Girl, anyone? Glee?) Of course, people of all sizes can (and do) have body image problems, but it can negatively affect those who don’t fit the mold much more.
Unhealthy body image problems aren’t solved quickly or easily. Rae’s problems aren’t completely solved in one fell swoop; the entire run of the show so far has seen Rae struggle to keep her body image issues at bay. This show challenges traditional standards of beauty in every episode and reveals the harmful effects of perpetuating them. This is not a subversive challenge to beauty myths, but a direct affront to everything they stand for. Rae hasn’t overcome anything. She overcomes it every day.
This isn’t just a passing plot point for the show, as eating disorders and mental health usually are in similar shows. Her past is part of who Rae is, and yet it does not define her character. She is more than her illness, and as a character she is treated with the respect she deserves.
In fact, every facet of Rae’s experience is treated with total respect. Teenage dramas have a tendency to play up teenage experiences for comedic effect when, in reality, as a teenager these issues are real and all-consuming. Rae is shown discovering her sexuality, through relationships real or imagined, in a serious way. There are other shows featuring teenagers who have their characters suddenly begin dating or having sex with no warning. But Rae doesn’t: She discovers things slowly and incrementally, like real life. Things don’t happen all at once, changing the face of her reality. They happen slowly and inch toward a different reality, without losing Rae’s grounding. What most strikes me is the fact that this is a young woman exploring her sexuality in ways that we never see on screen. Rae deals frankly with periods and masturbation and relationships and bullying with poignancy, and it rings with truth for audiences.
If all of this wasn’t enough to convince you that you should be watching, do I need to mention that it’s set in the ’90s? All it takes is one Oasis song playing in the distance to remind you of that. But more than reminding its target audience of our childhood and the clothes we already regret wearing, the time period also draws our attention to the fact that these issues are not new. They aren’t “hot topics” that will pass in the night. Teenagers have experienced body image issues and all these things for years, and they continue to struggle with them today.
Are you watching My Mad Fat Diary? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!
Written by Shelby Rosten