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In 'Santa Clarita Diet,' corporate feminism gets a gory makeover

By Julia GoodmanMarch 16, 2017

Santa Clarita Diet
Santa Clarita Diet Michael Kovac

Sheila Hammond is a fairly boring suburban mother. She wishes she were brave enough to get a new haircut, but thinks better of it. Her husband wishes she’d have more sex and nag him less about smoking weed. Her daughter wishes she’d buy the family a third car. All of that changes when Sheila has a violent vomiting attack and wakes up, just as she’d previously wished, “twenty percent bolder”—plus a few other side effects. After buying a Range Rover and going out drinking all night, Sheila eats one of her coworkers. Thus begins the first season of Santa Clarita Diet.

Like other zombie-coms before it, the show’s plot is largely drawn from the uncanny juxtaposition of everyday life with the trials of caring for an undead loved one. But in comparison to other recent forays into the genre, such as Warm Bodies or Life After Beth, Santa Clarita Diet is unusually focused on the logistics of being a zombie. Which means a lot of time spent on characters vomiting, spurting blood, and gnawing on body parts.

The campy level of gore is matched with a surreal acting style in which characters seem hyper-aware that their reality is, well, unreal. Drew Barrymore as Sheila and Timothy Olyphant as her husband Joel spend so much time on exaggerated gasps, shrugs, and winks that they’re only a hair away from turning straight to the camera and asking the audience, “Can you believe that just happened?”

Somehow, this bizarre combination actually works for the show. Perhaps it’s because it focuses on Sheila realizing her life as a suburban mother is a role she can choose to play—or not. Santa Clarita Diet pokes fun at the unrealistic expectations of upper middle class suburban life by unleashing a mom-turned-monster on them. But it’s unclear if the show, or Sheila herself, is really stepping outside the conventions of this world, or just recreating them in slightly bloodier taste.

 

As with everything else about Sheila post-transformation, her brand of feminism is a bit unconventional.

Watching Sheila as she learns that she can break the rules of her community is quite entertaining. Like any good rampage, hers leads to plenty of damage, both physical and emotional, as she sucks her family, friends, and neighbors into embracing her new desire to take control of her life. After her first taste of human flesh, Sheila begins running around like a deranged Sheryl Sandberg, encouraging the women in her life to buy more things they want and do more things they want.

As with everything else about Sheila post-transformation, her brand of feminism is a bit unconventional—it includes encouraging women to cheat on their husbands and drop out of school. But in many ways, it resembles the style of feminism that Sandberg and others helped popularize, often known as corporate feminism. In this view of things, rather than breaking down structural barriers to success for all women, individuals should focus on consuming as much as they can under the system as it currently exists.

It’s possible to view Sheila’s new outlook in Santa Clarita Diet as the epitome of corporate feminism. In this case, Sheila’s interested in eating people, not climbing her way to the top of the corporate ladder, but the language she and others use to describe her transformation is eerily similar to the language of Sandberg-style feminism. After Sheila announces to her gal pals that she’s just bought a new car, one tells her, “You’re my new role model,” while another responds, “Yeah, if we want something we should have it, dammit! End of story.” Sheila’s personal acts of consumption quickly become a doctrine for other women to follow.

 

She’s become the perfect model of a modern woman who can have it all, with a side of human fingers.

When Joel questions Sheila’s newfound impulsiveness, she retorts, “When life is screaming, ‘This is your new truth,’ you need to accept it! Be bold, be brave, and live your new truth no matter what it is.” Her transformation gifts her with a better sex life, a new confidence that allows her to thrive at her job, and an inability to sleep that gives her more time to do housework. In other words, she’s become the perfect model of a modern woman who can have it all, with a side of human fingers.

The title of the show certainly lends itself to this interpretation. Sheila’s compulsion to eat people isn’t a disease, it’s a “diet.” When Joel doesn’t want to support her habit by killing people, she calls him the “food police,” reframing his moral indignation as a personal insult. By extension, Sheila can think of herself not as a monster ruining the lives of countless people around her, but as a brave individual making a personal choice to live her “new truth.” When it’s a woman gruesomely feasting on human remains instead of rising to the top of an exploitative corporation, the idea becomes funny rather than sinister.

The show isn’t interested in whether that humor serves to subvert the ideals of corporate feminism, or to make them seem safe and insignificant. Is Santa Clarita Diet making fun of corporate feminism, or recreating its ideals uncritically? Is Sheila’s behavior funny in spite of being scary, or is it funny instead of being scary? The show doesn’t question why the limits of what Sheila can imagine for herself are sleeping less, working harder, and buying more things. And it’s not concerned with telling us whether to find her enviable or pitiable, enticing or repulsive. It’s possible to view Santa Clarita Diet either way, or as a failed attempt to do both things at once.

Part of the reason Santa Clarita Diet feels so wishy-washy is that, though Sheila feels no qualms about killing and eating her neighbors, she is pathologically incapable of violating any of the other social norms of her world. Faced with the fact that her transformation makes it increasingly more difficult to be the perfect wife, realtor, and mother, Sheila reaffirms her commitment to normalcy again and again. If anything, except for the flesh-eating, her zombification allows her to better live up to the ideals of her upper middle class suburban society.

As the show goes on, though, it seems clear that Sheila will face a tipping point at which she must either stop eating people, or abandon normal life entirely. What happens when the personal goals of a zombie stop lining up with corporate feminist ideals and suburban social expectations? So far, the show is unwilling or unable to explore that possibility, which leaves us with a premise straining at the seams of its sitcom container. But if Santa Clarita Diet finds a way to venture fully into the absurd, to let Sheila really challenge convention, it might just be able to show us something decisively new.