Friday, 28 February 2014

My Mad Fat and Frankly Wonderful Diary

If you’re unfamiliar (I’m unsure of its availability in other countries, although apparently there’s a US version in the pipeline) My Mad Fat Diary is E4’s comic drama about the highs and lows of being a teenager in the height of the Cool Britannia of the mid-90’s, and the beginning of the second series has just aired in the UK.

Why am I telling you this? I picked up the first series all in one go during my period of temping interlaced with unemployment when I first moved to York. I expected it to be something which would pass an afternoon without expending too much brain power, be mildly entertaining in the process and leave it at that.

What I found in actual fact was a show with an almost revolutionary take on mental illness and overall health and appearance.

(Image from

The main character Rae Earl is an overweight girl who in the first episode has just been discharged after a stay in a psychiatric ward to treat a variety of psychological conditions which have led her to self harming and binge eating. She also suffers from self image problems and a lack of confidence surrounding her weight.
Something else – Rae Earl is a real person. The show is based on My Mad Fat Teenage Diary – a book written by Earl using extracts from her teenage diary entries.

I had initially avoided the program when it first ran on television because Channel 4 and its group of channels aren’t exactly known for being sensitive in their handling of various topics like these. I will honestly hold my hand up and expected it to be a rather cruel car crash of a programme.

How wrong could I have been? Aside from Rae we also meet the other young people who live in the psychiatric ward, most notably Tix who suffers from an eating disorder, over exercising and an undisclosed problem which leads to her lashing out when touched by anyone or when she is feeling stressed.
At no point are any of these things trivialised, looked down upon or given to be anything less than the serious illnesses they are. On no occasion does My Mad Fat Diary make any distinction between physical and mental illnesses – the characters are ill, and no further categorisation is needed.

There’s something of the female equivalent of a mixture of Adrian Mole and The Inbetweeners about the show, and Sharon Rooney should win something for her performance in the lead role of Rae because she’s nothing short of fantastic.

(Probably the core message of the entire show. Also I should probably give you a language warning, because teenage girls are both rude and at times disgusting. I know, because I was one.)

Whilst the show does a brilliant job of exploring the consequences of mental ill health on young people (particularly anxiety and depression), I think one of its strengths is in its “everybody has problems” approach to the portrayal of adolescence. Within five minutes of meeting the character of Chloe I rolled my eyes and assumed instantly I was to be whacked over the head yet again with the hammer of “traditionally attractive people have horrible personalities and never have any problems whatsoever.” Oh how wrong I was.

The pretty and thin “popular” girls have their own insecurity problems too, and this is explored yet more in the opening of the second season. But lo! The male teenagers have issues too – the homosexual character of Archie’s desperate attempts to remain “under the radar” when the group progress from secondary school to college are disturbingly poignant in this respect.

There's no "You're a healthy weight, so you can't have an eating disorder", or "But you're attractive, you can't have insecurities."

My Mad Fat Diary deserves so much praise for both its effective handling of mental illness and the consequences they have on peoples lives and for its point blank refusal to play games of stereotype or comparison. It doesn’t treat the mentally ill characters as yet another statistic – they are all fully fleshed out and realised as human beings.  In short, it accepts that teenagedom was a scary place for us all.
I think there’s something to be learned from that.

I really recommend giving the show a try if you haven't seen it yet. I'm reliably informed that it is all available on Youtube!

Wishing you all many spoons xxx

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