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Bomb Girls and My Mad Fat Diary: Two Shows You Should Be Watching.

March 11, 2013

Do you like good stories? Stories that ring true? Do you like stories that revolve around girls and women taking their lives in their own hands, despite their circumstances? Do you like stories that don’t take 22 episodes to come to a climax? Do you like good actors and production teams who take their jobs seriously? Then you should definitely be watching Bomb Girls (Canadian) and My Mad Fat Diary (English). Why? Well, read on (minor risk of spoilers, as one would expect when dealing with media reviews) to find out more!

“Come on, Bets! We’ve got a war to win.”


As Canada’s men left for Europe to fight Hitler and Mussolini, its women were left the job of keeping the ever-growing war machine running. Bomb Girls tells the story of a group of women who work the same shift for Victory Munitions, a bomb-making factory in a Toronto suburb . Though they are from different backgrounds – upper class, middle class, working class, married, single, widowed, straight, gay – and have greatly differing outlooks on life, their work and the hazards that come with it lay the foundation for a relationship based on mutual respect. But don’t worry, this show isn’t nearly as saccharine as that sounds. Because perhaps contrary to expectations, the writers of this show have created not the type of female friendshippy rah-rah-rah-don’t-we-just-love-being-girls characters, but actual women who make a metric ton of questionable, sometimes outright stupid choices. gladys 2As we watch the fallout of these choices occur, however, we cannot help but sympathize, because the reasons for making these choices – love, lust, insecurity, xenophobia, fear, desire for social advancement, hope, patriotism – may not always be right, but they always ring true.

The characters in this show are often assholes, jackasses, and jealous shits (you know, besides being fabulous, charming, wonderful people), but this only makes you love them more. I promise. I don’t want to spoil you to death here, but my case in point is Lorna, one of the best television characters (in my opinion) ever created. And of course the show passes the Bechdel Test (which means that there are at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man) in nearly every scene.

betty and kate

It tackles social issues like (sexual) abuse, abortion, sexual double standards, expectations of masculinity, homophobia, sexism and xenophobia without being heavy-handed – not tacked onto the stories as an afterthought (“oh wait, wasn’t sexism a thing in the 1940’s? Best get some harassment in there!”), but as an integral part of the stories (when first explaining how important workplace safety is – it being a bomb factory and all – we see a young new worker get so flustered by the sexual comments made in her direction that she drops a (thankfully mostly empty) canister of explosives).

There is flawless, shiny hair, fabulous lipsticks, and amazing vintage fashion – with the added bonus that the costume and continuity folks know their stuff and have many items of clothing (and even accessories like scarves) return in several episodes, just like the characters are actual people who wear outfits more than once.

These bomb-ass characters are lonely, loving, lovely, frustrating, fabulous, fantastic, vexing, vixenish, vexatious, hell-on-wheels, hopeful, and heavenly. They will rip your heart out, drop one of their bombs on it, spread the remains on their dance floor and lindy hop all over it. And the weird thing? You’ll thank them for it.

(There are currently 12 episodes of Bomb Girls. The first 6 – season 1 – are out of DVD and available on Amazon.)

“And if anyone ever finds this diary, and reads it, and concludes that I’m crazy? They’d be spot on.”

raeBased on the book “My Fat, Mad Teenage Diary” by Rae Earl, this E4 series features 16-year old Rae Earl, who lives in Lincolnshire in 1996, together with her mom, her mom’s Tunisian lover, and a storage cupboard with which Rae has a very strange relationship. In addition to struggling with all the normal teenage issues – peer pressure, wanting to fit in, dealing with unrequited love and crushes, working through the sting of friends growing apart, arguments with parents, and so on – Rae is also mentally ill. We meet Rae as she is leaving the mental institution where she spent four months “locked away. Four months convincing people my finger is no longer on the self-destruct button.”

Rae writes in her diary as a coping mechanism, she counts to 10 when she panics or is about to binge, takes scalding hot showers when she can’t deal with her feelings, has suicidal thoughts, goes to therapy, can’t look at herself in the mirror, and takes a variety of antidepressants.
rae 2

This show could easily have been a disaster. Instead, it’s a triumph. This, I think, is at least partially owing to the fact that the book on which it’s based is, in turn, based on a true story: a real person’s experiences growing up as a fat teenager with mental illness. As with the choices made by characters in Bomb Girls, Rae’s choices aren’t always logical or productive or healthy, but they ring true nevertheless. And because Rae is such a lovable character, even in all her bad (teenage) behavior (the viewer can’t help but cringe when Rae goes over the worst three things she’s ever said to her mom), it becomes very easy to understand where she is coming from and sympathize with her. It doesn’t take long for you to start rooting for her, and she makes us root hard. After the first episode, in which the reality of being out of the mental institution and back home has hit her hard and, on top of that, she’s had to stand in the street half naked, covering her bits with the blow-up crocodile (to name but one major event), it almost seems a miracle that Rae’s still standing. 

The hits don’t stop coming Rae’s way throughout the 6-episode season, but she mostly manages to power through them, with a lot of help and support from a variety of sources, including medication. There is no shame in Rae’s pill-popping. It’s just a little thing, integrated in her pre-bed rituals. Nor is there any shame in her need for help. When she is truly in crisis, she voluntarily goes over a mental list of people she can ask for help. In this way, My Mad Fat Diary tells a story of recovery which is true, real, and powerful. Things don’t come easy to Rae after her release, just like they don’t come easy in life. But Rae and her wicked sense of humor (the introduces one of her doctors as “Dr. Nick: Expert moistener of lady-gardens”) carry on.

backpack and beltMy Mad Fat Diary is a hilarious show, but it’s also, especially for us 30-somethings, a feast of recognition. From the tiny backpacks, crop tops, and flower-shaped belt buckles, to the AMAZING soundtrack, watching the show is like engaging in eerily real time-travel. If you add the way in which the female friendships are written (jealousy of the ‘pretty friend,’ feeling like your friend doesn’t truly understand you, undermining a friend even though you love her, and then giving up something you really wanted because you know she’s your absolute best friend and nothing could ever be more important), it can even, at times, be painfully recognizable. And even with Rae’s (very realistic, I might add) teenage hormone-induced man-loving ways, this show, too, passes the Bechdel Test on the regular.

Funny, recognizable, lovable, hopeful: those would be my key words for My Mad Fat Diary. For people in recovery of an eating disorder or self-harming behavior, like cutting, it might be too recognizable. That would be my one warning for this show. It doesn’t mince words and it shows, well, a lot. We see Rae’s scars, we see her binge, we see her burn herself with hot water. If these are things that could potentially trigger you, tread with care. But if you’re on the fence, do see if you can give it a go. I think one of the most valuable things about this show (you know, other than it being truly entertaining) is that witnessing a person (especially a young person if you yourself are a young person) going through recovery and actually getting better is an extremely powerful thing. And if you do not have any type of mental illness, the show provides a good window into what life with eating disorders, depression and suicidal thoughts can look like: not just the “illness” side of that life, but all the good, the amazing, the love and the strangeness of it as well.

(The first season of My Mad Fat Diary is out on DVD and available on Amazon. The series has been renewed, so there will be a second season at some point.)

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