Of all the TV families on the air in the late 20th century, there was one New York City secular Jewish family that was nearly a mirror image of my own: The Fine family from The Nanny. Sylvia Fine, the matriarch, dressed in skintight sequined gowns while stress-eating ice cream directly out of the freezer, might as well have been my own grandmother. My family similarly used food as a salve for years-long feuds, ate copious amounts of chocolate when we were sad, and offered snacks as the solution to any problem under the sun. And Fran Fine, heroine of the series across six seasons, was everything I wanted to be.
Fran was not only glamorous, but lived in a mansion (albeit as a nanny for the wealthy Sheffield family), sporting an incomparable wardrobe. I practiced Fran’s walk, imitated her accent, and begged my mom to buy me an emerald green PVC miniskirt and vest outfit from the American Girl catalogue because it looked like something Fran might wear. A running gag on The Nanny is that Fran loves Mallomars, turning to these marshmallow-filled, chocolate-covered cookies whenever she’s feeling down—so, naturally, I decided that I loved Mallomars before I ever ate one.
In many ways, Fran’s a progressive role model, full of strong opinions about the importance of talking out your feelings and leaving people room to make mistakes in order to learn from them. But baked into her portrayal is the understanding that she can be her brassy, unapologetic self because she is also conventionally beautiful. It’s okay for her personality to take up space because she is physically small, the show seems to remind us. As a young viewer, I didn’t clock the gulf between what Fran eats and how Fran looks. But when I revisited the show as an adult after its recent release on HBO Max, I noticed something that made this gulf impossible to ignore.
In “The Nuchslep,” the fourth episode in the first season, Fran must cope with the fact that eldest Sheffield daughter Maggie’s crush accidentally falls for Fran instead—ah, the pitfalls of being older and lovely! She deals with the stress by eating, of course, from a box of Mallomars. But when I looked closely, I noticed that the Mallomar doesn’t look anything at all like the seasonal marshmallow-filled cookie. It looks a lot more like a Devil’s Food SnackWell cookie, a hallmark of the particular brand of ’90s diet culture that proclaimed the evils of fat while keeping sugar sacrosanct.
I don’t know for sure that it was a SnackWell’s cookie. Despite going down a Twitter rabbit hole, I couldn’t confirm my suspicion that Fran Drescher wasn’t eating the same cookie as Fran Fine, that the cookie itself was merely playing a role—but the very possibility got me thinking about how often the Fine women’s bodies are used as a punchline throughout the series. Take, for example, the scene where Sylvia (whose figure is the basis of her brand of physical comedy) admits that she’s been mixing ice cream into her SlimFast shakes. It’s a joke informed by the same societal expectations that followed actress Renee Taylor throughout her real life.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Fran, who embodies the “ideal woman” with seeming effortlessness: manifesting boxes of cookies at a moment’s notice, ordering Chinese takeout via cordless phone, all while maintaining the figure Sylvia tries so hard to achieve through discipline and self-denial. The mere concept of Fran’s character dieting seems absurd—yet the real Fran portraying this impossible balancing act appears not to have had the same freedom to eat these foods with abandon. Even when she’s eating what appear to be dietetic cookies, in one deft gesture she hides them in the bedspread between shots, never taking more than a single bite from each one. (You can see it at around 17:20 in this video.)
To see women enjoying food on TV the way Fran did was fairly unique in a time when the pop culture portrayal of the female diet really was all meal-replacement shakes and faux-cookies, jokes that The Nanny heaps on Sylvia. But this is why The Mallomar Incident is so sticky in my mind. It’s a reminder that what Fran represents isn’t an accurate reflection of women in the real world, much less the TV industry that created her. She is, as the opening song proclaims, “the lady in red when everybody else is wearing tan.” And she’s the lady eating what she wants when everybody else was eating a bland approximation.