I’m an Emu
This post may contain spoilers and large images that may compromise slower internet connections. Read at your own discretion.
Some time last year, I stumbled upon a television show while browsing through Tumblr. Episode snippets would grace my dashboard in the form of animated GIF screen captures that gave away very little about the premise of the series to the average outsider, and I would find myself scrolling past… at first. What triggered me to finally give “My Mad Fat Diary” a chance is that its soundtrack clued me into the fact that it is set in the 1990’s, and the central characters are teenagers. It was an interest out of personal resonance, since I, too, was growing up around that time, and still harbour an attachment to the era, musically. Sure enough, it was as though people took my playlists from back in the day, and threw it into the telly.
To summarise, the British comedy-drama is loosely based off My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary, a darkly humourous memoir by Rachel “Rae” Earl. It focuses on the author, then a 16-year-old girl (played by the brilliant Sharon Rooney), whose issues with body image as well as mental health come to a head, and she lands herself in a psychiatric hospital, after attempting suicide. “My Mad Fat Diary” itself starts on the day of her release.
During Rae’s recovery, she is told to keep a diary, and the entire show is mostly narrated from Rae’s hilariously crass, heart-rending, and brutally honest point of view. In fact, just minutes into the pilot, the viewer gets a look into Rae’s tumultuous relationship with her mother (played by Claire Rushbrook) and her inner demons regularly confronted by her therapist (played by Ian Hart), as she regains her footing back into a life she had temporarily left behind. She is a hormonal, boy-crazy teenager who demonstrates good taste in music — Blur, Oasis, Ocean Colour Scene, Eels, The Stone Roses, plus other bands on which the storyline is brilliantly contingent — and looks forward to a reality in which these would be her central focus. But, she continues to shoulder the burdens of her past and present as she reunites with her childhood best friend Chloe Gemell (played by Jodie Comer), while also trying to rub shoulders with her mate’s new clique: the sweet Izzy (played by Ciara Baxendale), party animal Arnold “Chop” Peters (played by Jordan Murphy), token hipster Archie (played by the dashing Dan Cohen — admittedly, the one who caught my attention), and smouldering-bad-boy-slash-fan-favourite Finn Nelson (played by the adorable Nico Mirallegro).
Novocaine for the Soul
Television is now saturated with sex, drugs, and violence, many of which distract the public — perhaps intentionally — from demographics fighting for media representation. Rae not only finds herself as the poster child for those who are subjectively outside conventional standards of appeal, but one who is also portrayed as fully capable of many colours of experience. Popular culture has long shied away from writing in big people — especially women — as fully actualised individuals capable of a healthy sexual appetite and awareness. “My Mad Fat Diary” confronts this ridiculous and unspoken ‘rule’ head-on.
I wasn’t kidding.
Rae fantasises about men, and not just in terms of run-of-the-mill pre-packaged literary kind that often presents itself in the form of a book with a shirtless adonis slathered on the cover. She knows what she fancies, and expresses it — autonomous agency, and all. In fact, “My Mad Fat Diary” approaches sexuality — female sexuality, in particular — with a refreshing frankness. Here, women’s pleasure and their anatomy are no longer products of myth, hidden away from the limelight as punishment for existing, but fact. Though out there, it doesn’t cross over into the vicinity of gratuitous. It also tackles other sensitive topics like self-harm, eating disorders, bullying, divorce, nudity, homosexuality, pornography, drugs, abortion, consent, assault, death, to name a few, in a similar manner. Had this show been around during my own vulnerable years, I can imagine it being incredibly helpful, and it’s heartening to see it have precisely that impact to some today.
Between moments of female fantasy and outspoken crudity, Rae constantly belittles herself for her weight, her appearance, her brashness, and more often than not, finds herself in a crippling state of existential crisis. Sometimes, they are funny, but none of these moments serves to be in any way self-deprecating. The opposite sex takes an interest in her, and she can’t see why. Her inner turmoil is real, with no degree of mincing, and the hurtful comparisons she makes of herself to Chloe are just as painful to the viewer as it is to the characters rooting for her.
The writers of “My Mad Fat Diary” have also managed to craft her as someone who fits snugly between a heroine and anti-heroine, because she isn’t always aware of her capacity to be the former, even when she is. Her multi-dimensionalism is a reflection of every single one of us: flawed and perfectly human. We’re not consistently brave nor prudent as heroes are so often painted, but there are times when we can and are. Rae isn’t always likeable. In fact, sometimes, she can be downright exasperating. The decisions she makes when under the influence of insecurity and occasional self-absorption makes you want to shake her shoulders as much as the other characters would.
On and On
But, by being able to disagree with her choices, the viewer is able to see the struggles of everyone else. Izzy, with her rosy outlook and occasional ditziness, fears confrontation. The teenaged me would have related to her the most. Finn, even with his keen ability to understand Rae and the rest of the gang, lacks direction of his own. Chloe, despite her conventional beauty and an external confidence that drives Rae into fits of jealous rage, constantly bases her self-worth on beauty magazines and the approval of the men in her life. Her low self-esteem and relatable suffering is a product of issues still prevalent to this day. Viewers cry and triumph with her, the latter particularly after she survives rape. Archie, the good-looking and seemingly well-adjusted history aficionado, finds no solace inside nor outside the closet. He questions his friendship with Chop when he falls prey to homophobic bullying. Chop, who is so caught up with his image of bringing humour into the group, fears standing up for the vulnerable and being it himself. In fact, it can be argued that Chloe, Archie, and Chop are victims of the patriarchy in their own ways.
That does not include the trials of any of the secondary characters. The adults of the show, too, suffer and grapple with their identities, proving that suffering does not start and end at one’s teens. Yet, it is Rae who brings them all together. She makes the right connections when it is needed the most.
To Be Continued
The third and final series is being filmed as I type this, so if Oasis still speaks to you on a spiritual level, get watching. “My Mad Fat Diary” is riddled with wild scrawls of an era comfortable with glorious chaos. Clever references to the 1990’s are abundant: flannel jackets, Dr. Martens boots, giant watch wall clocks, fuzzy pens, raves, tie-dye shirts, camouflage fabric, tracksuits worn in public for reasons other than exercise, that yellow smiley face we all know, blue eyeshadow, you name it. But, between all the nostalgia, there are some really beautifully composed scenes.
“My Mad Fat Diary” is the first show I’ve found myself emotionally invested in after a long time… which is saying a lot for someone who doesn’t watch much television. The accessible quality of the story also closed the gap between screen and couch, so when its future seemed very nebulous for months after the end of the second series, many were just waiting. Now, with only three more episodes left, I can only begin to imagine the pressure that all involved are going through to ensure the swan song is perfect. My own hopes are the same as theirs, with exception to a small musical request: the inclusion of “Don’t Go Away” by Oasis somewhere.
No pressure, of course.