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Hollywood is having a tough time at the moment, what with a new scandal unearthed seemingly every week. Netflix hasn’t been immune to the drama, when last month the first trailer to its original series Insatiable dropped. Soon enough, the internet was in uproar, sparking widespread criticism and a change.org petition to stop the release of the show, which had gained over 230,000 signatures upon the show’s release on August 10.
But what exactly is all the fuss about? First up is the show’s premise: lead character “fatty Patty” is bullied at high school because of her weight, until one summer she’s punched in the face requiring her jaw to be wired shut, only to arrive back in the fall as a skinny and confident hot girl. She then decides to exact revenge on all of those who wronged her.
Why is it so controversial?
There’s a number of reasons the show has rubbed people the wrong way but mostly it’s the accusation that Insatiable is fat phobic. Debby Ryan, who plays Patty, is a thin and attractive young actress who dons a fat suit for the scenes in which Patty is overweight. That’s not unexpected in Hollywood but it certainly doesn’t help the show’s cause.
Until the show’s release some days ago, the public had only the controversial trailer to base their criticisms on. In response to the backlash, Lauren Gussis, Insatiable’s creator, released a statement outlining that the premise was based on her own experience in high school and that the show wasn’t out to fat shame, but rather point out how dangerous fat shaming can be. There was much discussion—with most of it out to stop the show from even getting a release—but ultimately Netflix stood behind Insatiable, hoping that audiences would give it a chance.
Unfortunately for the streaming platform, the show doesn’t hold up. With a 15% rating on Rotten Tomatoes, criticism has included AV Club’s apt comment that “Insatiable purports to be satire, playing every bit of offensive dialogue and questionable storyline for laughs, yet none of it is funny.” While Rotten Tomatoes summed up the critical consensus stating, “Broad stereotypes, clumsy social commentary, and a failed attempt at ‘wokeness’ make Insatiable hard to swallow.”
It’s quite cringe-inducing to think that the showrunners and actors were so adamant that the public give the show a chance after the initial trailer controversy — insinuating that perhaps everybody was living up to a PC-gone-mad culture while the show offered real value in highlighting what’s bad about the world through witty humor. The truth was and still is: the last laugh is on us. Netflix after all was able to air the show and no doubt rack up countless views as everybody tuned in to see what all the controversy was about.
What’s most harmful are the various myths the show holds up — many of which seem so outdated — that it’s surprising they’re still a common occurrence in Hollywood, let alone from a new, young show that’s billing itself as “woke.”
Myth 1: That weight loss makeover stories must be comedies
Netflix has really plunged into the teen movie and TV show sphere in the last year. While some have been successes, there have been just as many fails. It’s certainly true that drama tends to carry with it a more serious meaning and it’s through the platform’s darker offerings that it’s found its greatest successes. For example, 13 Reasons Why. While the show (and particularly its second season) suffered some criticism regarding its portrayal of topics including suicide and rape, overall it lent a genuine voice to the discussion surrounding teen bullying and suicide, while garnering praise for bringing the conversation to the table in such a widespread way.
In comparison, Insatiable comes across as farcical — which considering the subject matter — does not work to its advantage. In real life, fat shaming often manifests as attempted humor where the victim is ridiculed for being overweight. By portraying this story as a quirky comedy instead of a drama, the show’s creators have in turn made light of being fat and the trials that come with it. Being overweight is certainly not the same thing as suicide (which is not to say that the former and the bullying associated with it hasn’t led some to the latter), but when the media constantly belittles the struggles of being overweight as mostly just comedic fare, it lessens the experience of people who live with it.
If Netflix had given Insatiable a darker slant, it might have offered something new to the range of stories dealing with fat shaming and body acceptance in Hollywood, but by keeping things light and comical—though incidentally highly offensive and not funny— it’s failed to provide sincere support within an industry that’s notoriously body negative.
Myth 2: That being fat means being miserable
It takes some pretty weak character development to come up with the stale notion that fat people must be miserable, but to hinge an entire show’s premise on it? That’s not only lazy scriptwriting but it reinforces negative stereotypes that quite frankly should not even be up for discussion in 2018. The body positivity movement has been slowly gaining momentum in the last few decades, and while there’s still a long way to go — particularly in Hollywood — it’s had a profound impact on changing perspectives, allowing for greater inclusivity of all body types.
As Patty’s voiceover flatly narrates how “high school was a nightmare” while she was fat, we’re shown her depressing experience in scenes: eating ice cream on the couch, struggling to run in gym class, a cartoon pig with her face on it stuck to her locker, and the crude, if not elementary, words her peers describe her with: “Fatty Patty’s huge” and “It smells like bacon.” It’s frustrating because it’s as if the writers haven’t even tried to develop overweight Patty’s character beyond fat high school girl cliché, even though she’s Insatiable’s key protagonist.
This one-dimensionality extends to the entire series, in which Patty’s character does not develop until she loses weight, with only a quarter of the first episode dedicated to introducing her backstory and even that is done through an uninspired voiceover. As the season progresses, Patty is not only revealed to be a terrible friend (spoiler alert: she quite literally loses the trust of everybody close to her while constantly bringing attention back to herself as a victim) but over the course of Insatiable it’s clear that she is not even a good person, leveraging morals and the law in order to make herself feel better even when she’s the reason behind her own misery.
To equip the lead character with no remarkable interests or personality traits in their overweight state is degrading, damaging and simply untrue of real life. In contrast, AMC’s Dietland has created a complex heroine in Plum Kettle — who while struggling with her weight — is not solely defined by it, and afforded a much more complex arc.
Myth 3: That drastically changing your appearance will instantly change your life
Oh if only this were true, both in high school and beyond. Hollywood has had us believing since the dawn of time that if you lose weight, ditch the glasses, dye your hair blond etc., that your life would turn around and suddenly your crush would ask you on a date. Of course there’s a suspension of belief with movie magic, but the fairytale makeover is another Hollywood trope that’s old hat.
In combination with the previous myth that all fat people are miserable, this offers a double blow – change your physical appearance and not only will you no longer be miserable — but you’ll have a completely new life! This is a continued theme within the show, as Patty muses on how she can recreate herself now that she’s no longer fat. This idea is reinforced by Bob Armstrong, her beauty pageant coach, whose aim is to make her a beauty queen and winner, all the while reinforcing harmful notions such as being “skinny is magic.”
Patty’s newfound confidence is clearly integral to the plot, but besides the lack of realism in such an extreme personality change, the message that Insatiable is sending is part of a long history in Hollywood of shunning one’s previous fat persona. One of the most notable incidents of this is Monica from Friends, where the character went from dull and desperate to confident and having it all. A similar tactic was used in Insatiable wherein a thin and conventionally attractive actress donned a fat suit for the part, suggesting that such change in size was voluntary and merely needed taking off of excess baggage.
The fact is that getting a haircut, changing your clothes, or losing weight won’t change who you are fundamentally as a person. These things can help you to feel better about yourself (although it’s important to understand it won’t be the cause of deep character changes) but it’s a long way to go from sad and depressed on the couch to popular girl getting all the guys and wreaking vengeance like there’s no tomorrow.
Myth 4: The reality of teen weight loss
Wacky plot points aside, the crux of Insatiable is certainly not unrealistic – overweight girl loses weight, people take notice, the potential for change arises. It’s certainly common for teenage girls to obsess over their size, to try diets and exercise, or at the extreme end of things wind up with a dangerous eating disorder like Bulimia or Anorexia Nervosa.
What Insatiable conveniently glosses over with its wishy washy plot line that details how Patty loses weight (whoever agreed to the punched-in-face-then-jaw-wired-shut scenario needs to be sacked) is the much darker side of being a teenage girl and how one might lose their unwanted extra weight. It’s not through freak accidents and hospital stays but often from extremely harmful patterns that can spiral out of control and ruin lives. The fact is diseases like Bulimia and Anorexia often lead to unhealthy and destructive habits for years to come, while eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness.
From how Patty’s relationship to food and eating is portrayed, it appears she has a Binge Eating Disorder, which is a more recently diagnosed eating disorder. Characterized by excessive eating binges without the purging that’s associated with Bulimia, BED is a problem in its own right. And while the show more than willingly details Patty’s struggle in moments where she’s attempting to binge at low points, it doesn’t open a genuine discussion of how she does eat the rest of the time. It’s as if her entire fat-turned-thin narrative is secondary to the revenge plot and over-the-top drama that ensues, making it even more of a throwaway aspect.
By wholly ignoring the realistic and harmful behaviors that many young people undergo in order to lose weight and substituting that with a quirky backstory in order to fast forward to the fun part where “Patty’s hot” and payback is sweet, is beyond ignorant and should not be taken lightly.
Myth 5: That high school revenge violence can be entertaining
One of the most upsetting aspects of the show is the lack of forethought regarding the topic of high school revenge. By now high school shootings have moved past the point of commonality and are tragically simply expected in America. The Guardianreported in May after the Santa Fe High School shooting that “elementary and high school students have grown up practicing ‘active shooter drills’ along with fire drills, preparing for how they should respond if a gunman attacks.” While The Washington Post’s ongoing analysis into the true figures of high school shootings “has found that more than 150,000 students attending at least 170 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus since the Columbine High School massacre in 1999.”
So we must ask ourselves, should we be creating light entertainment focused on high school revenge violence? Is this responsible in 2018? The free-speech advocates will no doubt point to previous teen revenge comedies like the cult classic Heathers, in which two students routinely kill off their peers as payback. But that was 1988 and the world was a very different place. And while a Heathers reboot was planned for this year—all of which was filmed and completed— in the wake of the Stoneman Douglas High School shooting the release was put on hold temporarily, only to be dropped entirely by Viacom out of concern regarding its inappropriate nature. It was undoubtedly in poor taste for the Heathers reboot to come so far in the production process, however it was a move in the right direction that such a huge company such as Viacom would pull a series in its entirety so late into production.
Where Insatiable drops the ball is in its laissez-faire approach to violence. A body count of three people might not be a big deal in an action blockbuster movie, but in a show that exists as a fairly realistic take on high school only Hollywood style, is concerning. And all enacted by the former bullied-turned-bully protagonist Patty. The message that’s being conveyed is that payback is sweet and it’s only fair game to off someone that did you wrong.
No matter how you repackage it, we’re living in a day and age where high school revenge porn is no longer a fictitious joke we can vicariously live out through movies. These scenes haunt us in real life, with countless real people—teenagers and adults alike—hurt and killed while others are forever traumatized. It’s not only irresponsible to protest otherwise, it devalues any potential for progress in what is a crisis in modern America.
What’s the verdict?
After the trailer scandal, but before Insatiable aired, Netflix’s original series vice-president Cindy Holland backed up Insatiable by stating: “Lauren Gussis, who is the creator, felt very strongly about exploring these issues based on her own experiences, but in a satirical, over-the-top way. Ultimately, the message of the show is that what is most important is that you feel comfortable in your own self. Fat-shaming itself, that criticism, is embedded in the DNA of the show.”
Vulture’s Jen Chaney put it quite succinctly in her review of Insatiable when she said: “It turns out the show is not as bad as you imagined. It’s actually worse. Like, worse in ways that you can’t even anticipate. Insatiable is an equal-opportunity train wreck. It doesn’t merely traffic in stereotypes about fat people; it does the same thing with regard to the LGBTQ community, Southerners, women, Christians, conservatives, African-Americans, and probably some other groups I’ve neglected to mention. It makes jokes about pedophilia and statutory rape that made my skin crawl.”
Whoever thought this brand of so-called humor was necessary and a modern way to take on universal problems, teen and adult alike, is beyond me. What is for certain is that Insatiable doesn’t succeed at anything it set out to do, except for perhaps bringing discussion to these topics but undoubtedly for all the wrong reasons.
For more Netflix news, here’s how the streaming service decides what to renew, and what to cancel.