My first attempt at keeping a diary was in 1995, when I was 14. The diary itself has long since been destroyed – by my own hand, at the age of 15, when I set about grimly tearing it up, page by page, in the manner of a spy destroying evidence to avoid it falling into enemy hands (aka my old-school Nigerian parents, whose understanding of the concept of privacy was often as elastic as okra soup).
The content was often feverish, random, and vivid, in the way that the minds of teenage girls can often be. I left out a lot of things – the scariest things – because these were not things I wanted to remember. Turns out I remember most of them anyway; sometimes your heart is a living book. Still, the absences I created left space for meandering debates with myself concerning my three main loves: music, books, and teenage television dramas and/or sitcoms of variable quality. Dawson’s Creek. Party of Five. Roswell. Blossom. Boy Meets World. All glossy American shows that gave me what I thought I wanted – the ability to pretend for a short while that I was someone else, somewhere else.
It’s a shame, then, that I had to reach the age of 32 before I stumbled across the best teenage drama I’ve ever watched.
E4's My Mad Fat Diary began in 2013. Based on the bestselling real-life diaries of author Rae Earl, it depicts the life of a teenage girl growing up in Lincolnshire in the 1990s. We follow Rae through many of the ups and downs of adolescent life: strained relationships with parents; complicated, shifting friendships; social anxiety; the agonies and delights of being near your crush; and the art of making the perfect mixtape. Business as usual, except that Rae also happens to be trying to manage her mental illness.
On Monday night, the show concluded after a three-series run and I, like so many of its fans, didn't feel entirely ready for it to end.
Rae (Sharon Rooney in an outstanding breakout performance) often feels like she is too...much. Too fat, too loud, too bothersome, too mental. The success of the show lies in the fact that many of the familiar television tropes are absent or subverted. The main subversion is the fact that Rae isn't relegated to being a sidekick, only good for comic relief. She's a fat girl who is allowed to express sexual desire, and be the object of such desire, without being made to be the butt of any joke or something to be fetishised.
The main love interest in the show, Finn Nelson (Nico Mirallegro), likes Rae not in spite of, nor primarily because of, her looks – because physical appearance is just one of the indivisible number of reasons that make up the complex chemistry of how and why you love a person.
The show doesn't suggest that the so-called beautiful people have it easy either. One of the most fascinating relationships it depicts is between Rae and her childhood friend Chloe (Jodie Comer). The uneasy, difficult friendship of the early episodes gradually evolves into a wonderful exploration of the healing power of a deep, genuine love and affection between two young women. This development occurs in part because it is revealed that Chloe (whom Rae is at first often envious of because she feels her to be more conventionally attractive) is racked by issues of poor self-worth that in many ways parallel Rae's. As the show teaches us, everyone is caught up in their own struggles, but we can help each other along the way.
In some of the favourite shows of my youth, mental health issues were usually dealt with (if at all) in Very Special Episodes where a guest star was parachuted into a plot that revolved more around spectacle than any useful, nuanced exploration. Their storylines were typically resolved in a short, neat arc before the character disappeared, rarely to be heard from again.
MMFD, through the vehicle of Rae's diary, refuses to pull any punches in showing the reality of living with a mental illness – recovery is rarely ever a straight, clear line. Still, we're reminded time and time again that Rae is never just her illness. Yes, sometimes her narration is unreliable and biased: As the show points out, we can all be unreliable when it comes to telling our stories, even just to ourselves. The essential point, however, is that her choices – her life, and what she does with it – belong to her.
There are so many things I love about MMFD – the splendid cast, the soundtrack, the heartbreaks, the humour – but one of my favourite aspects is the fandom. Comprised mainly of girls and women of varying ages, the MMFD online community (often found on Tumblr) can be a truly gladdening place. So many have seen something of themselves in Rae, after perhaps a lifetime of not being able to find genuine reflections of themselves in anything else they've watched.
They commiserate with Rae during her difficult times but also have a genuine delight in her successes, and many describe how watching this character forge a path through life has helped them find the strength and inspiration to face their own particular battles. As the series drew to an end, a number of fans wrote heartfelt open letters, testifying to the impact the show has had on them – reflected in the glorious fan art, friendships, and fan fiction that they have created. To read some of their exchanges often means seeing someone blossoming in real time: people learning to raise their voices for themselves, and in communion with each other, because they have found something which helps them to believe that they matter, and that their happiness is not only possible, but deserved.
A show like MMFD could have taught my younger self so many things.
Here is a show that tells you that you don't need to pretend that you are someone else, or somewhere else. As Kester Gill (played by Ian Hart), Rae's therapist, tells her in one of their sessions (often standout scenes in each episode): "From now on, people can either accept you for who you are, or they can fuck off."
Sometimes life will be horrifically messy, awkward, and painful, full of missteps. You will do hurtful things and people will hurt you. Relapses will leave you wondering what the point of it all is, and you will want to hide yourself away from the ones that love you because insidious little voices in your head will tell you that it is for the best. MMFD is exemplary in showing that your life is yours to make the best of when and where you can. That life will be difficult is clear, but it can also be glorious, joyful, intimate, and healing. The best part? You don't need to be perfect to have those experiences; you just need to be yourself, even if you're not entirely sure who that is yet.
The very first episode of MMFD is titled "Big Bad World". Three years later, in the series finale, we watch Rae prepare to go further into the world as she readies herself to leave her family and friends in Stamford to take up a university place in Bristol. During this episode, Rae comes to the realisation that she can't spend her life waiting to be saved – she'll have to do that on her own. Yet in the closing scene, as she sits on the train speeding away from everything that’s familiar, she imagines herself surrounded in the carriage by all the people who have been important to her over the years – family, friends past and present, Kester, and Finn.
Rae knows now that only she can do the hard work of saving herself, that she has to love herself (and as Kester tells her in another session, learning to do that properly is a lifelong project) but you get the sense that she also understands that it's OK to look for help and support when you need it. That you can take the love of your loved ones with you.
Like any good series finale, the ending of MMFD was bittersweet. I’d watch Rae Earl and her adventures for as long as they kept making the show, but equally, I’m satisfied with where they left it. Rae in transition, Rae becoming, Rae on her way to explore the world.
I didn't feel ready to say goodbye to the show, but as Kester might say, perhaps many of us are more ready than we realise. Because whatever happens, we'll be able to take the best of Rae Earl with us, just in the same way that we can take the best of ourselves, and the ones we love, wherever we are, wherever we go.