What My Mad Fat Diary Gets Right About Mental Illness, Romance and Female Friendships
Emotional dysfunction and teenagehood have been fodder for popular culture for decades; and while some works have attained legendary status in the process for their outrageous, over-the-top portrayals of party culture, raunchy glamor and/or outright debauchery, not many have been known to err on the side of subtle, hard-hitting realism — or at least, in a successful manner.
Humor often tempers what grittiness brings forth (Freaks and Geeks, Misfits); likewise, unrealistic settings downplay what could have otherwise been relatively relatable storylines (Gossip Girls, Pretty Little Liars). A concern for pandering to fluffy romance sometimes distracts from the potent underlying themes (The OC, One Tree Hill).
My So-Called Life came close. It did away with caution and what would have been considered appropriateness, diving headfirst into homophobia, substance abuse and toxic relationships, among others. And while it did not go all the way, it is commendable for having tried to pull the covers off of what many shows only addressed once or twice in the dreaded Very Special Episode.
Enter My Mad Fat Diary, the BAFTA-winning cult show based on writer Rae Earl’s diaries. Unlike the glitzy (but no less messed-up) teens portrayed in its sister series Skins, the characters in MMFD are relatable, painfully so.
The show, set in 90’s-era Lincolnshire, England, follows Rae who has just been released from the psychiatric hospital she stayed at for a few months, after trying to take her own life. She hesitates between two worlds: on the one hand, she wants to return to the comfort and stability of the hospital, where her friends Tix, Danny, and her therapist Kester (a career best for Ian Hart) help her come to terms with her issues. On the other hand, Rae is trying to navigate a world she has spent a long time avoiding, in the form of her childhood friend and rival Chloe, and the latter’s cool, seemingly unapproachable new clique.
As a result of being unable and unwilling to confront both, she stays afloat by keeping them at bay from one another, not telling Chloe and her friends that she was hospitalized, and not being completely honest with Kester and her hospital friends about what life was like growing up in Chloe’s shadow.
The series boasts a phenomenal grunge-tinged soundtrack and glorious cinematography; but beyond that, what emerges from it is one of the rawest, most impactful tributes to re-adjusting to life after trauma. It carries staggering levels of authenticity and poignancy, chronicling the characters’ trials with self-loathing, mental illness, fractured families and disordered eating. These issues are not treated with condescension, or a by-the-numbers approach.
It is so generous in the deft way it handles its themes, in fact, that even viewers who don’t necessarily have the specific issues Rae and her friends are dealing with can still relate. Additionally, MMFD remains a rare gem in the lexicon of teen shows because of the revolutionary way it treats romance and friendships, especially between women.
Mental illness is at the forefront of MMFD, as the title suggests. Not only that, but it is also that which informs every ensuing subject concerning Rae: her splintered friendships, her inability to love in a healthy manner, her anxieties regarding her future, the tension with her mother...
Without ever being preachy, gratuitous, or on-the-nose, the episodes unveils Rae’s issues: she self-harms, has an eating disorder, self-medicates with alcohol (and even drugs at one point) and has chronic anxiety. Suicidal ideation is her norm.
Chloe, her friend, is seemingly perfect on the outside, but also deals with a crippling lack of self-worth and anxiety, which pushes her to engage in destructive and self-destructive behavior to fit in (bullying, dysfunctional relationships, excessive partying, sexual favors etc.).
Danny “Two Hats” (on account of the two hats he wears to stop brainwave interference), is a sweet co-resident at Rae’s hospital. He suffers from many unexplained illnesses, which can be assumed along the lines of OCD or paranoid schizophrenia. He is a long-term patient, and while this points to a profound dearth of issues, it does not stop him from being one of the gentlest, most friendly characters on the show.
Tix, another of Rae’s hospital friends, is also profoundly sick, and cannot stand her own body: she doesn’t want to be touched in any way, and suffers from a serious eating disorder that, tragically, ends up claiming her life.
Even Kester, Rae’s wise and unconventional therapist, has troubles of his own. His relationships are in shambles, as is his own emotional state; often, he relates to Rae not from a professional standpoint, but from a personal one.
MMFD seems to be wanting to state, through its imperfect characters, that at the end of the day, everyone, even those who seem to have it together (or are supposed to have it together) have something to deal with. Some just have it harder than others.
So much sympathy is given, even to those like Chloe, who at first seemingly do not deserve it, that it ends up flipping stereotypes and pointing back to what we know to be true in real life: everyone deserves a bit of a break, and people can surprise us, if we give them a chance.
Too many teen series portray mental illness with an agenda: to sensationalize, to advance the plot, to try to explain it away in broad strokes, to shock, to make a character more edgy. Not many of them try to show that it is not something one can wave a magic wand at and “fix”. It is not something that friendship erases, that love diminishes, that success eradicates.
On the contrary.
Rae and her friends experience amazing breakthroughs and devastating setbacks, sometimes together, sometimes very much alone. But the show never presumes to portray recovery as the flipside of the coin. It is a parallel — even complementary — process of acquiring coping skills while still grappling with symptoms.
Unlike with shows like 13 Reasons Why, I don’t remember once feeling triggered while watching MMFD, even when it illustrated the darkest recesses of the soul with unflinching honesty: if anything, it galvanized me to seek help, because I saw that life could be worth the effort if I had the right tools to survive it.
This, because its gentle intent was always clear. Whenever I came close to feeling overwhelmed, I was welcomed back into Rae’s world: cynical and darkly humorous, yes, but always, always framed by authenticity.
This same authenticity is discernible where love and relationships are concerned. These topics, coupled with mental illness, often result in wildly erroneous portrayals that neighbor on the improbable — at best. At worse, pop culture propagates dangerous ideals.
As previously mentioned, love is often the antidote to illness, the thing that will “save” a person. Cassie/Syd and Effy/Freddie’s respective storylines in Skins are perhaps the best examples of this. In the second case, Freddie goes to amazing lengths to singlehandedly mend his girlfriend, and he manages to get through to her and show her she's worth it. Years later, when we reconnect with Effie, she has seemingly moved on from her trauma: there are no traces that there was ever something wrong with her.
Similarly, the more troubled a protagonist is, the more likely, according to pop culture, they are to attract pining lovers who interpret their damaged psyche as mysterious allure. Gone Girl, The Virgin Suicides and countless other onscreen and literary examples operate on that principle.
When pop culture does manage to portray the less glamorous aspects, it doesn't pursue the idea to its end, into the day-to-day realities of living and loving (or being loved) while dealing with mental illness.
MMFD goes all in: because of her body issues, Rae does not feel beautiful (especially not compared to the flawless Chloe), and finds it impossible to believe that anyone could notice her, let alone be attracted to her. It’s painful and frustrating to see her go through this, because she is objectively gorgeous and incredibly charismatic. But through her eyes, viewers navigate the clattery waters of love and self-love.
No doubt because of her magnetic personality, Rae very quickly integrates Chloe’s friend group (at the latter’s disgruntlement), and instantly falls for Archie, a charming, affable boy. What is more, he seems to reciprocate her feelings. This is unprecedented territory for Rae, and what starts out as fluttery excitement soon turns to anxiety. He couldn’t possible like her, she thinks, even as he asks her on a date and kisses her. When Archie stands Rae up for their second date, her worst fears appear confirmed. She inadvertently discovers, however, that Archie is gay and hasn't told anyone. She agrees to keep his secret, and via this most unplanned outcome, the two eventually become best friends.
It is a win for friendship, but not for romance: clearly, Rae and Archie’s relationship could never blossom in that way, but what Rae’s first serious brush with potential love reveals is the depth of her abysmal self-confidence. Worse yet, it clearly has nothing to do with Archie. This only worsens when she begins her next serious relationship.
Finn is another member of the friend group, and easily the most effortlessly cool. At first, he and Rae butt heads: she can be abrasive, and he is casually blunt. Both, also, are music connoisseurs, and they each bristle at having to share the unofficial title (later, it will be one of the things that brings them together). Misunderstandings and unintentional meanings ensue; and although we can feel the sexual tension underneath, it isn't until Archie is completely out of the picture that Rae lets her thoughts seriously linger on Finn.
Gradually, however, Finn reveals himself to be much more than a broody, leather-clad, chain-smoking, slightly unapproachable young man. He is, underneath his aloof exterior, a protective, loyal person (he punches one of Rae’s bullies at one point, and defends her from snide comments). His rugged handsomeness grows on Rae, as does his straight-shooting personality and steady, loyal temperament. In many ways, he is much less complicated than Rae. This simultaneously attracts and terrifies Rae; by the time she realizes that he may like her, for example, he’s already decided that for himself a long time ago.
When their relationship eventually happens at the end of the first season, after many byways and twisted asides, the moment is so perfect that it’s natural to think the show will fall into the aforementioned “love saves damaged people” triteness: life will become perfect for Rae, as Finn inundates her with his affections.
Yet, the opposite happens: Finn does indeed love Rae, but he doesn’t understand how ill she truly is, and her self-hatred and anxieties end up creating a gap between them that widens as the series progresses. Rae often assumes that she will embarrass Finn and tarnish his cool reputation, assumes that he won’t want to have sex with her because of her weight, assumes that he will grow tired of her (especially when she sees his exes), assumes that she doesn’t deserve to be with someone as loving as him: so she withdraws. Finn’s candor and Rae’s emotional depth often clash: he is frequently bewildered by her actions, and she frequently jumps to anxious, convoluted conclusions. This in turn locks them into a cycle where Rae tries to convince Finn that he should not be settling with her because she is too broken, and Finn tries to convince Rae that he loves her, and is hurt when she pushes him away.
In the end, exhausted by the mental hand-wringing, Rae ends the relationship, persuaded that it is only a matter of time before it happens, and wanting to get ahead of the curve. Theirs is a beautiful story, so it is heartbreaking to see it come to a close.
And it is an absolute breath of fresh air.
MMFD, more so than any other show on television, manages to portray how relationships are shattered all the time by the strain of mental illness, and how love isn't always enough to handle the many intricacies involved. This is not to say that relationships cannot succeed, nor that the breakup of two very enamored people is something to be celebrated.
Rather, it’s refreshing for underlining what outwardly happens when intrinsic issues are not dealt with. The true love story of MMFD is that of Rae with her own self: her journey with Finn makes her realize that until she takes care of herself, she will never be ready for anyone else. Although they are heartbroken, they part amicably, choosing to look ahead, despite admitting they still love each other. There is a slim moment of comfort, as both suggest that perhaps in a different, more healthy future, getting back together would not be off the table.
Again, it is a breath of fresh air: because in real life, love does not wrap up the neat bows of our problems, relationships are not single, open-and-shut opportunities and sometimes, closure is a notion we must postpone until we are done dealing with ourselves.
When it comes to platonic relationships, the lesson is slightly different.
MMFD makes a great case for friendships in general: there is none of that "boys and girls can't be friends" nonsense. Also tackles masculinity: when Archie comes out as gay, his two closest friends Finn and Chop have very different reactions. The former is completely unbothered by it: in fact, despite Archie’s trepidation to tell him about it, when he eventually does, Finn casually reveals that he already knew. Chop, on the other hand, is uncomfortable, and even fails to defend Archie when homophobes start picking on him. This is because unlike open-minded, easygoing Finn, Chop is much more prone to brash language and snap judgment. When he understands that this might permanently fracture his bond with Archie however, Chop finally steps up, and decides to cast his prejudices aside. He even encourages a potential fling between Archie and another man.
Where MMFD becomes revolutionary, however, is when it concerns female friendships, which too often die at the altar of cynicism and profound misconceptions. Many shows have attempted the feat: Girls and Broad City, for example, have been pitted against each other for how they take very different stances on feminism, toxicity and codependency. The latter’s open celebration of mutual love and respect easily eclipses Girls’ often thankless displays of narcissism and rivalry. My So-Called Life, Buffy, Gilmore Girls and others have tried to show more nuance, mingling extremes of affection, hatred and resentment. But too often, the pendulum swung too far either way, and remained there in the end.
MMFD also goes back and forth, but ultimately settles itself at a comfortable medium that most, if not all of us, can recognize.
While Finn and Rae occupied a good part of the show’s focus, the true nucleus is Rae and Chloe’s storied, storied history.
From the onset, Chloe comes across as Rae’s total opposite, almost solidifying herself into a caricature in the process. Where Rae is dark-haired, Chloe is blond. Where Rae struggles with her weight, Chloe is thin and athletic. Rae has trouble identifying with people, while Chloe makes seemingly easy connections. Rae’s father is absent and she clashes frequently with her mother, while Chloe is the only child of wealthy, seemingly stable parents.
Rae, in short, is the tragic Foil to Chloe’s perfection. Through flashbacks and their bittersweet conversations, we come to learn that this has always been their dynamic. Even in childhood, Rae floundered under Chloe's long shadow, at times her stooge, and at times the object of Chloe’s light brand of bullying.
The show probes into this ruthless connection, and the repercussions on them both: their “companionship” is strained by the natural fallout old friends experience during the trying years of adolescence, when new people and tempting directions pull at both parties. It’s heightened by old grudges and secrecy (Rae is terrified to let Chloe know she has been in the hospital).
Whereas having known a person one’s entire life should be a source of comfort, here it’s a liability: Rae is not only trying to reinvent herself for Finn, Chop, and the rest of the gang who didn’t know her before the hospital, she is also trying to move on from the pitiful child she used to be, which is near impossible to do as Chloe is only too happy to remind her.
Despite the full weight of their troubled history, both girl still make a tentative effort to be friends again, with the implicit understanding that things are going to be different. The truce doesn’t last: with steely, facetious concern, Chloe taunts and needles Rae throughout (for example: she pressures Rae about wearing more revealing clothes, knowing full well that Rae has body image issues). It could be mistaken for obliviousness and accidental cruelty, but viewers very quickly realize that Chloe's ditzy, people-pleasing personality is only a front for the world: she is much sharper, much more perceptive in reality. Although she pretends to want Rae welcomed into her friend group, she begins to feel threatened when they all take to Rae, and tries to sabotage the process.
Having caught on to the underlying tension, Rae starts to retaliate in kind: because she, too, knows Chloe after all, and understands where it hurts the most.
Soon, both are locked in the kind of nasty enmity that wears the face of civility, backstabbing each other through gritted, smiling teeth, and dealing devastating takedowns that spare nothing and no one. Their greatest conflict comes to head over Finn, when Chloe pounces on him, having realized that Rae likes him. Finn is only tolerant of Chloe’s affections because he thinks Rae is not interested in him. This nearly tears the already fragile bond the girls share, and it’s only when Finn bluntly tells Chloe he doesn't want a relationship with her that the latter finally relents.
It is tempting to dismiss Chloe.
Her initial portrayal is not just depressing: it hits too close to home for a lot of people. Those old friendships we know too well come back to test us in teenagehood and adulthood, uncovering in the process many untouched, vitriolic issues that only threaten to take all parties involved under.
Why would Rae still want to be friends with Chloe, especially while on the path to recovery? Why would anyone want to be friends with someone like this, when there are so many others to choose from — better people, more supportive people?
Had the show ended on that conclusion, these would be legitimate questions; but as MMFD rapidly proves, it’s all much more complicated than that.
In truth, Rae and Chloe are less “frenemies” than they are sisters, and as such, the show taps into the natural rivalry that occurs between those who have known each other too long: because while Rae may feel helplessly intertwined with Chloe, Chloe, we come to understand, is equally fixated on Rae’s existence.
And just like Rae is more than the sum of her troubled experiences, there is much more to Chloe than meets the eye.
She is much more insecure, much more afraid of the world than she appears, which is not totally shocking. But still, it is refreshing to see her taken down a few pegs, and emerge from the ashes a new person. By the series finale, Chloe isn’t totally nice, but she isn’t completely horrible either. She is a realistic, relatable in-between.
MMFD succeeds where other shows do not, because it is not interested in painting Rae as the victim to Chloe’s cruelty: many teen movies play into that trope, reducing the “villain” to tired clichés, but along the way, also reducing the would-be quirky protagonist to the same trite stereotypes. Rae, for example, is just as capable of shortsighted pettiness as Chloe can be surprisingly tender.
Hence, just when viewers are ready to give up on the two girls ever having a chance at something remotely cordial, the unexpected happens: something so inexplicably sweet and baffling it holds the attention.
Slowly at first, the show tears away at Rae and Chloe’s layers, until what is left is something resembling sincere affection — perhaps the affection that brought them together in the first place, all those years ago. It’s not the same thing they had as children, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
It happens through many crucial plot points.
Chloe is the first to discover that Rae has been staying at the hospital, when she finds her medical bracelet. She confronts her, but comes to be supportive of her issues, even though she doesn’t completely understand them.
Rae, in turn, is the only one Chloe tells when she finds out she is pregnant (by a much older man). Rae abandons all her plans to be there for Chloe when she has an abortion.
Chloe, later, befriends a group of shallow, cruel girls during their last year of high school, and Rae approaches them to keep close to Chloe. When the girls start to turn on her, Chloe stands up to them and defends Rae, even as it costs her her popularity.
Similarly, Rae literally saves Chloe’s life when Chloe begins to frequent a group of older, dangerous men who take drugs and drink to excess: one of them even tries to assault Rae during a party. When they refuse to let Rae take a drug-addled Chloe home, she involves the police and her friend’s parents, helping bring her to safety.
More than showing that girls can be friends, or that sometimes it’s best to leave people behind, MMFD tells us the impossible: that old friendships don’t have to be abandoned, that beauty can emerge from even the ugliest situations, and that in turn, the worst people can change through thoughtfulness.
At the end of MMFD, both girls have come a long way, maturing their friendship into a bond that is more solid, more honest, and more gentle than seemed possible. And while they don’t necessarily see eye to eye, there is something more powerful to behold: two girls on the cusp of womanhood, who have finally learned what sisterhood means — boys, petty differences and internalized misogyny be damned.
It gave me more hope for friendships than I had had in a long time, while also infusing me with weighty melancholy, for the ones I wasn't able to salvage: because the effort was too grand, and because I didn’t understand that there was a light at the end of the tunnel for the both of us.
I forget, sometimes, that My Mad Fat Diary was only three seasons long. I am amazed that in sixteen short episodes, it managed to encapsulate and give voice to issues other have waxed philosophical about, at much greater length (and to much lesser effect).
And while it pays homage to many bold shows that have come before it, it stands very much on its own, and deserves to be recognized for being unafraid to go where other still linger back. All of this is perhaps because Rae and her friends are based on the author's actual experiences: hence, theirs is not a story where things end smoothly.
As a child I would have balked at this notion. But I know better now: for many of the show’s characters, closure and finality isn’t exactly a guarantee — and isn’t this what life is really like?