Sorry Netflix, but your response to the Insatiable backlash isn’t good enough

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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Dallas Roberts and Debby Ryan in a scene from Netflix's Insatiable

The streaming service wants you to give their show a chance. But we think it’s fatphobic and dangerous 

The most damaging blow to my body confidence was delivered by one of my closest friends. The kind of woman you joke you’ll smuggle wine into the nursing home with, the kind of woman who knows the exact longitude and latitude of the location of your first kiss.

“I don’t know how you do it,” she marvelled, when I arrived at her housewarming party a few years ago. “You manage to make plus size clothing look so chic.”

I have read that when you feel truly livid with rage you see spots. But my particular pain wasn’t visual but aural: all sound disappeared instantly, as I tuned out of every conversation and wondered whether this was how all my friends saw me. With pity, and a little mild surprise. I was so embarrassed and humiliated by that throwaway comment that I left the party less than an hour later and went home and cried.

My friend – and yes we’re still friends, I am a glutton for punishment as much as food, I suppose – later told me that she hadn’t meant to upset or hurt me. Her intention, she stressed, had been good. 

But I was hurt. And I was upset. For many, many months afterwards. Maybe I still am a little bit, even though I told her that I wasn’t.

Debby Ryan in a scene from Insatiable

Debby Ryan plays “fatty Patty” in Netflix’s Insatiable, who has her jaw wired shut and loses weight, inspiring a revenge plot. 

I was reminded of that comment today when I saw the response from Netflix to the backlash to its new show Insatiable

As a bit of a primer, Insatiable tells the story of “fatty Patty”, an overweight student who is assaulted and forced to have her jaw wired shut to recover over the summer. When she returns for the next school year she has lost weight, is now conventionally attractive, and vows revenge on all the schoolyard bullies who taunted her.

It’s an absolute nightmare of a premise, coursing with fatphobia and the very damaging message that life – happiness, popularity, romance, hell, even getting revenge – can only happen to you when you’re thin. 

“Ahhh yes,” Roxane Gay wrote on Twitter. “A fat girl could never stand up for herself while fat… Good to know!” A petition calling for Netflix to immediately cancel the show before it airs in August went viral, garnering almost 210,000 signatures.

Overnight, at the Television Critics Association, Netflix responded to the backlash for the first time. “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,” Cindy Holland, Netflix’s VP of original content said. “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.”

I think Holland is a smart woman. She is responsible for some of the best, most diverse programming that we’ve ever seen on television, from Orange Is The New Black to Sense8 to G.L.O.W.

But she’s wrong.

It doesn’t matter what the intention of the show is. It doesn’t matter that Gussis is writing from a place of personal experience. (“The show is a cautionary tale about how damaging it can be to believe the outsides are more important – to judge without going deeper. Please give the show a chance,” Gussis wrote in a statement on Twitter.) 

When you put a thin actress into a fatsuit you make the point that being fat is a costume – a repulsive, demeaning one at that – that should be peeled off as quickly as possible, like one of those masks from Mission Impossible. They’re also, you know, profoundly unfunny.

When your protagonist’s weight loss is prefaced by an assault you suggest that if you’re fat you are a victim who deserves to be attacked. When weight loss comes from having your jaw wired shut you’re reinforcing the idea that all fat women are lazy over-eaters who have to be physically restrained from putting food in their mouths. 

When you hang your plot on the idea that you can only do all the things you’ve dreamed of – from turning someone’s head in the street to enacting a full-on revenge plan – after you’ve lost weight you are saying that nothing, good, bad or otherwise, can ever happen to you when you’re fat.

These are very damaging messages, whether or not they’re couched in good intentions. 

Debby Ryan in a scene from Netflix's Insatiable

How did this show get made, Netflix? 

Full disclosure, I haven’t seen Insatiable yet and even if I had, I wouldn’t be able to talk about it. Netflix has placed a review embargo until the show’s release next week. 

The series may be the satire that Netflix believes that it is, but even so, its message is dangerous. Even if this show makes you laugh, or cringe, or reconsider your own relationship with your body, the premise of this show is flawed.

Why couldn’t Insatiable have told the story of a happy and empowered fat woman clapping back at her critics? She could even have been driven by violent motives, have been positively incandescent with rage for all I care. I’m fine with that. Fat women can be angry too. Fat women can want to hurt people, fat women can make mistakes, fat women can be terrible. (They can also be ecstatic and struggling and successful and in love and broken-hearted and sporty and stylish and shy and confident and I could go on, and on, and on.)

The key thing is that she be fat, and not have to lose weight in order to do, well, anything. Because fat women can do anything they want. And this fat woman won’t be watching Insatiable.

Insatiable streams on Netflix from August 8.   

Images: Netflix