Outraged about ‘Insatiable’? That might be exactly what Netflix wanted
When was the last time you signed a good petition? Was it to protest a social injustice? Police brutality? State signed acts of transphobia? Children being ripped away from their parents? Or was it to stop a TV show you’ve never seen because you didn’t like the trailer? Less than a week ago, Netflix unveiled the first full length trailer for its new teen comedy Insatiable and in that time a little over 160,000 people (and counting) have signed a petition to prevent its release.
The official Netflix synopsis describes the dark comedy as being about Patty (Debby Ryan) – a bullied teenager who turns to beauty pageants as a way to exact her revenge on the bullies who have continuously tormented her. However, the trailer reveals a little more depth to the narrative: Patty is a former “fatty” who is enacting said vengeance after being punched by a dude, having her jaw wired shut, and subsequently losing a whole lot of weight.
Oh, and Ryan also happens to wear the sort of distasteful fat suit last seen used as an objectionable punchline against fat people in Friends (when Courtney Cox became a food-obsessed slobbering moron as a teenage Monica Geller). But this is all presented without the wider context of the actual show which is intended as satire – a black comedy form so nuanced, it’s almost impossible to fully depict within a two minute trailer.
Regardless, body positivity advocates are mad as hell about the trailer and are interpreting Insatiable as being a perpetuation of “the toxicity of diet culture” and “the objectification of women’s bodies.” On the petition to stop the show from being released, petitioner Florence Given suggested, “The toxicity of this series, is bigger than just this one particular series. This is not an isolated case, but part of a much larger problem that I can promise you every single woman has faced in her life, sitting somewhere on the scale of valuing their worth on their bodies, to be desirable objects for the male gaze.”
Given further argues that the show needs to be cancelled because it has the potential to inflict “insidious and sinister” damage, “causing a devastation of self-doubt in the minds of young girls who will think that to be happy and to be worthy, they need to lose weight.” On Twitter, body positivity advocates further rallied against the show with the writer and activist Roxane Gay sniping, “Ahhh yes, a fat girl could never stand up for herself while fat and of course she has to be assaulted and have her mouth wired shut before she becomes her best self, her skinny self.”
Meanwhile, Buzzfeed producer Kristin Chirico laid out in no uncertain terms exactly why she thinks the show is trash. “This is about a fat girl who is treated like shit and then loses weight and gets revenge on people because she’s thin now. It stars a thin actress wearing a fat suit. Please note that you do not have to become ‘hot now’ to live your best life.”
All of which are solid arguments that offer relatable perspectives for anyone who has struggled with body image, eating disorders, or who self identifies as fat. But we also can’t help but think the trailer could be misrepresenting the tone, themes, and story of the show and misleading (perhaps deliberately, because even the most apoplectic controversy makes for great publicity) audiences into thinking that it’s something that it’s not.
We suspect this isn’t an accident on behalf of the Netflix marketing department, who are no doubt throwing up their arms into a cute little shrug and mewing an insincere “oops!” at the scandal of it all. Let’s remember that the SVOD network is no stranger to controversy and even renewed 13 Reasons Why for a second season (amid heaps of controversy) after the story had seemingly finished – it doesn’t get much more finite than a tale where the lead character kills herself.
People rallied against the release of a second season of 13 Reasons Why based on how it could potentially harm vulnerable young viewers. Content warnings were added and intros dutifully put into place where members of the cast explained the gravity of the often disturbing story before each episode. But it still didn’t prevent Netflix from leaning into further controversy with an ending that featured a brutal depiction of male rape, sure to keep people talking about the show in their thousands.
It’s free publicity at its lowest and Netflix may be angling for similar with Insatiable, designing the trailer specifically to provoke controversy and debate across all forms of media. It’s like it saw the spectacular backlash against the trailer for the Paramount Network’s TV reboot of Heathers (another dark comedy satire taking on dicey and timely issues) and thought, “How genius! We can get everyone talking about this show before it’s even been released!” If this is a shrewd and conspicuous effort by Netflix at clickbait, it’s certainly worked, because the internet is eating out of its grubby little hands right now and shrieking about the deliberately tailored bad taste.
The thing with Heathers is that the show was such a spectacular misfire of dogshit (we know, we saw it) that it couldn’t stand up to the swell of criticism and controversy that ultimately buried it. But had Heathers been anywhere near as great as the controversy was, it would have been worth a million adverts, ensuring it a place in pop culture history as a divisive satire that rose above the judgements hurled against it.
This could suggest Netflix is confident that its show is good enough to survive beyond the current panning of it. There’s certainly an argument to be made that the story developed by showrunner Lauren Gussis could be tonally opposed to what the trailer makes it out to be. That possibility becomes all the more feasible when you consider Gussis has seemingly created the show for similar reasons that people are raging against it.
In a conversation with Teen Vogue done before the current shitstorm of controversy, Gussis describes the story as a personal one drawn from her own experiences as a “formerly bullied teenager.” With an aim to use satire to “push the bar forward” in addressing the painful issues within Patty’s story, Gussis insists she was deeply invested in representing the character’s story fairly through a dark comedy lens.
“I’m hoping that if I’m gonna lay out all of my pain for humor, that I’m gonna make at least one person feel less alone. Hopefully a lot of people through the laughter will be like, ‘Oh my God, I’m laughing because I relate. I’m not laughing at, I’m laughing with.’” Furthermore, she suggested Insatiable was created “to look at (bullying) head on and talk about it . . . And what are young women and, frankly, young men taught about appearance and how much appearance matters and whether it’s OK to look different.”
Clearly there may be more to Insatiable than just the outrage-bait of the trailer. So it’s a little preposterous to think that the eight or nine hours’ worth of story Gussis (and the rest of her team) poured her vision into might not be seen because two minutes’ worth of it are deemed to be too toxic to stream. All arguments aside, the act of petitioning for a show to be cancelled outright because thousands of people object to its apparent “agenda” is one that we find alarming.
If we allow for a TV show to be axed based on such outrage, we’re heading down a dark path where all content is up for scrutiny by just about anyone and can be shut down because thousands disagree with it. There are likely thousands of people who object to LGBTQI proud shows like Queer Eye and Pose who would likely argue their horrifying opinion that they’re damaging to society in some way. Should they also petition for such shows to be cancelled and if they receive enough signatures, should they be given what they want?
Since Insatiable is satire, it’s possible that the employment of a fat suit is done as a self-aware commentary, one that tackles the heinous way in which self-identifying fat people are often depicted in the media and have their voices erased. It’s also possible that Patty doesn’t “only take her revenge & become a badass heroine when she’s thin,” but that she’s genuinely pissed that an act of violence has forced her to lose the weight she was primarily comfortable with rocking.
This may not be a story about a young woman who only finds a sense of empowerment when she becomes thin. It could be a story about a young woman fighting back against society because she was (literally, based on her violently sustained injury) forced to become thin in a grossly unhealthy manner. That’s a takedown of society, not fat people – but it still raises similar issues regarding body image, dysmorphia, and weight loss that shouldn’t be oversimplified.
Celebrity hypnotist, life manager, and fitness guru Kimberly Friedmutter weighed in on the debate and agreed the show could harbor some dangerous influence on vulnerable viewers. Over email, she told Film Daily: “After viewing the trailer, my expertise tells me that the dysmorphic viewer may adopt tips, ideas, and rituals from the series, but perhaps nothing more than what’s available on the internet.” Friedmutter also shared an interesting perspective on her unease regarding the tropes at work in Patty’s transformation. “More of the concern is the association between fit girls being mean, bad, and superficial and obese girls being nice, good, and having depth.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Cali Estes – an addiction and mental health specialist who works regularly with clients battling eating disorders – explained that the fury towards the show could be misplaced. “We should acknowledge this show for what it is, a show that highlights how poorly we treat others based on their image. We should focus less on the character with the eating disorder and more on how society chooses to treat her.”
Before becoming a doctor, Estes had fallen prey to a diet pill addiction that nearly cost her her life and as such, she described herself as someone “who can empathize with the primary character” of Insatiable and that she has “a deep appreciation for the storyline” of the show. “It’s clear to me Patty struggled with an addiction to food and was able to overcome (it) . . . Any ‘fat girl’, myself included, that has been bullied such as Patty was would come back with a vengeance.
“Society is far too sensitive and believes they can control it all. I, for one, would watch this show and would recommend it to my clients as well.” Estes’s point is a powerful one and perhaps something that those protesting the show’s existence would take umbrage with. But it’s worth noting that her initial sentiments that we focus “on how society chooses to treat” Patty is actually similar to a view made in the petition against the show – that Insatiable’s perceived “toxicity . . . is bigger than just this one particular series.” Because it is, and that’s exactly why the show deserves to be seen.
Regardless of how well Insatiable may serve up its pitch black satire, if and when it’s released on August 10, it’s clear Gussis has a bold statement she wants to make about some of the callous, shallow, and vicious mechanisms of society. This isn’t an issue that starts and ends with one show – cancelling Insatiable won’t stop fatphobia, nor will it prevent young vulnerable women from absorbing potentially dangerous ideas concerning their body image or eating habits (all of which can be easily found within the thick tarpit of the internet).
However, ensuring that people can’t see the show does stop what could be a vital social dialogue regarding body image, societal norms, health, and feminism that’s worthy of a larger discussion. It isn’t enough to want to be heard – we also need the capacity to listen, whether we agree with an opposing argument or not.
The issues audiences have with Insatiable are part of a wider issue about the manner in which female bodies are vilified in the media and how “healthy” and “unhealthy” women are defined by their body shape and size. It’s a rampant problem in TV and film, but it extends to the publishing industry too, with glossy fashion magazines still maintaining the same size zero models despite constant calls for diversity. Ironically, many of these magazines including Vice and Vogue jumped on the bandwagon of outrage against Insatiable to accuse it of “fat shaming” and “fatphobia” – because they both regularly present such a healthy diversity of body shapes and sizes, right?
Perhaps the most disturbing takeaway from all this is the potential for Netflix to be cunningly manipulating concerned feminists and body positivity advocates for the free publicity of online outrage. And guess what? The bait has been taken and all that the backlash against Insatiable has currently achieved is more publicity for Netflix’s upcoming comedy.
So by all means, cancel bullying. Cancel fatphobia. Cancel fat suits employed simply to service a joke or to avoid hiring a fat actor, and by all means cancel your Netflix subscription. But a TV show you’ve only seen a two minute showreel of? Let it happen and maybe even tune in. You might just be surprised.