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Netflix’s Insatiable isn’t as bad as you thought it would be. It’s worse

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Hannah-Rose Yee
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As Netflix renews Insatiable for a second season, we watch the fat shaming television show - so that you never, ever have to 

I made a promise to myself, on this very website, that I wouldn’t watch Insatiable.

Netflix’s new miniseries, starring slim actress Debbie Ryan and a squidgy, funny-har-har fatsuit, seemed like everything that I actively try to avoid on the Internet. Full of fatshaming tropes and stereotypes, powered by a plot that sees Ryan’s “Fatty Patty” lose weight and finally become the woman she has always dreamt of being, the show appeared to have no redeeming qualities.

Bolstered by the release of Insatiable’s trailer earlier this month and the backlash that ensued on social media, I wrote a story about how damaging the messaging of the series was and immediately relegated the show to the part of my brain where things I no longer engage with subside, right above Adam Sandler but below all the people who want to remake Star Wars: The Last Jedi without the female characters.

But then came the backlash to the backlash. Netflix’s VP of original content Cindy Holland resolutely stood by the show, urging people to watch a few episodes before they cast judgement. 

This weekend, Insatiable’s creator Lauren Gussis gave an interview to The Hollywood Reporter where she stressed the good intentions of her series. Gussis herself struggled with body positivity and disordered eating as an adolescent. Everything in this show arose from her very personal, very deeply felt experiences, she said. 

Debbie Ryan and Lauren Gussis at the Insatiable premiere

Insatiable’s star Debbie Ryan and creator Lauren Gussis at the show’s premiere

“I think we’re in a real danger of censorship if we decided that we all have to tell stories in a certain way so that everybody else feels safe,” she told The Hollywood Reporter. “In my own experience, growth comes from discomfort and pain.”

I heard Gussis and Holland loud and clear. Writing off this series before I had seen a single episode was wrong. In a moment of weakness – half-heartedly hungover on a Saturday morning – I decided to queue up the first episode of Insatiable on Netflix and do exactly what Gussis and Holland and countless people on social media urged us fat women to do: Give this show the benefit of the doubt.

Reader, they were right. Insatiable isn’t as bad as you thought it would be. It’s worse.

It is a show featuring a scene in which a post-weightloss Patty sobs at her reflection in a bikini at a beauty pageant until her mentor tells her that she’s not fat and ugly anymore, she’s thin and beautiful. It is a show in which lines of dialogue like “It can’t be easy looking like that”, “I was fat, I was out of control” and “skinny is magic” are uttered without a shred of subversion or satire. It is a show in which the most important thing Patty realises about herself is that she was actually conceived as a twin but, in utero, Patty consumed her unborn sibling. “It makes sense that you were a compulsive eater from the start,” Patty’s mentor muses, practically winking at the camera.

It is also a show replete with transphobic jokes, jokes about sexual assault, jokes about closeted gay men and women, jokes about Asian women, jokes about paedophilia… All this before we even dig into just how bad, just how truly, truly cutthroat, just how horrifically cruel this show is to women who are fat.

According to Gussis, Insatiable aims to interrogate societal norms that equate thinness with happiness. Patty was unhappy when she was fat and unhappy when she wasn’t, she had disordered eating when she was fat and when she wasn’t. Being skinny doesn’t solve anything. It might be “magic”, as she repeats, mantra-like, in the series’ voice over, but it doesn’t change who you are inside. 

And who Patty is, Insatiable seems to say, is fat. So fat. So disgustingly, horrifically fat.

The idea that how much you weigh has nothing to do with who you are is certainly an important message but Insatiable is entirely unworthy of it. Shows like Dietland and Mad Fat Diary are doing and have done a better job of really picking at the seams of how truly toxic, how profoundly poisonous the way we talk about women’s bodies – particularly fat ones – is. The television adaptation of Lindy West’s memoir Shrill, starring Aidy Bryant, looks set to usher that dialogue forward. In that show a fat woman will do the remarkable, paradigm-shifting thing of being happy, and existing, and doing things, and taking up space, just the way she is.

Insatiable’s fat woman is the butt of every possible joke. Almost no-one in that show loves Patty for who she is. Not before she loses weight and not afterwards. Not her mother, who becomes jealous of her after she loses weight. Not her various boyfriends, blithely unaware of her existence until she lost weight. (Fat women don’t deserve to be loved and don’t you ever forget it!) Not her school peers, who literally pelt her with food in one pivotal scene. 

Dallas Roberts and Debby Ryan in a scene from Netflix's Insatiable

Don’t watch Insatiable. Just don’t do it

Only her best friend, who tells her that she’s been beautiful all along, loves her unconditionally. But Insatiable plays that like the joke that the show perceives it to be: How could anyone, anyone love someone as grotesque as Patty?

This is Insatiable’s problem. This show does not like its heroine. It looks at Patty with contempt, the same disgust in its eyes as Patty has when she looks at herself in that beauty pageant mirror. I know that look. Every fat woman does. They’ve seen it in countless television shows and movies, in the eyes of people watching them on the tube or walking down the street, or in a supermarket buying a loaf of bread. Maybe they’ve even seen it in their own eyes when they look at themselves in the mirror.

Patty does horrible things in the show, which is Insatiable’s way of saying it’s okay to look at her meanly. She’s a bad person. 

When her outsides change her insides are still rotten to the core, and Gussis says that’s the point. “I had a life problem and I was using food to coat my feelings and protect myself from the things that I did not want to look at in myself,” she explained to The Hollywood Reporter. “I’m telling the story of Patty, who realises that maybe there was a reason she was eating and that maybe she needs to take a look at cleaning all of that out for herself because not doing that is far more dangerous than being fat.” 

Debby Ryan in a scene from Netflix's Insatiable

How did this show get made, Netflix? 

Again, fine. Good intentions. Great message. But in Insatiable Patty’s “life problem” is being fat. The poison rotting her insides is her fatness. At one point Patty describes her former, overweight self as a demon living within her causing her to do all the bad things that she does, from punching homeless people to binge-eating an entire cake in one sitting.

Insatiable draws a line between evil and fatness that can’t be erased. It is 12 hours of damaging television beamed directly into your home via a device held tightly in your hand in a darkened room that wants to tell you that being fat is not only disgusting but evil.

I told myself I wouldn’t watch it, and then I did, and now I’ll never get those hours of my life back. But at least something good can come of it. 

Read this review and then maybe you won’t be tricked into watching the show. Do yourself a favour and watch Queer Eye again instead. 

This article was originally published on 13 August 2018

Images: Netflix, Getty