Body-Shaming and Bigotry: What's Wrong with Netflix's Insatiable
Okay. You might have heard about Insatiable. If you haven’t, it is a Netflix original show which received a lot of backlash from people online, due to the blatant body-shaming in the trailer and, let’s face it, the whole premise. The protagonist, Patty, is a high school girl who loses a lot of weight and then decides to get revenge on everyone who was cruel to her. That premise isn’t great, for a start. It’s based on the assumption that someone who is fat must first lose weight before they can love themselves, get revenge, or have a life. And that a fat person must first lose weight in order to be worth telling a story about. ‘Fatty Patty’, as she is repeatedly referred to, only gets a scant few minutes of screen time she is shuffled off screen to go lose weight. But oh... it’s so much worse than you think. There is actually a whole lot more than what I’ve said here, but for brevity’s sake, I’ve limited myself to the three biggest areas of concern, in my opinion.
This is a show I did not see coming. Brace yourself.
This one wasn’t a surprise given the premise of the show. It’s the most prevalent issue with the show, although I don’t think it’s the worst. In the pilot, the viewer is introduced to the two main protagonists. Patty (formerly "Fatty Patty") and Bob, a lawyer/aspiring pageant coach. At the beginning, Patty punches a homeless man in the face for calling her "fatty". He punches her right back, breaking her jaw, and forcing her to have her jaw wired shut for three months. Charges are pressed.
Here’s where Bob comes in. His father sends him to defend Patty pro bono. When Bob asks, “Since when do we do pro-bono?”, his father replies, “Since nobody cares about fatties or homeless people.” And it’s clear. This show really doesn’t. Bob’s father doesn’t appear again (that I saw, although I only managed to get through the first two episodes). He’s clearly an awful person, but that doesn’t seem to be the joke. The joke is that, in the minds of the creators of this show, he’s right. It’s a joke supposed to be funny because some people really think this way, they just don’t like to say so. It is genuine fatphobia and classism disguised as edgy humour. This is only a few minutes in and I’ve already understood the tone of this show. But I can’t stop watching yet. It’s hypnotic.
The actress playing Patty doesn’t appear in her fatsuit for more than a few minutes. There are only a few scenes in which "Fatty Patty" actually appears. When Bob visits her mother to discuss the legal case, Patty doesn’t appear at all. (Of course, this is so that Bob can be hit with her skinny transformation a few scenes later.) During this first meeting with Patty’s mother, we get some fairly standard jokes. Patty’s assault of the homeless man is reduced from an impulsive response to being insulted, to “he tried to take her chocolate bar” and that she is “very serious about her food”. An explanation happily provided by her mother. Patty herself is reduced to nothing more than a caricature defined by her size.
Three months after the incident, Bob meets Patty and her mother at the courthouse for their first appointment. He is astonished at her weight loss: “Broken jaw, liquid diet. She must have lost 70 pounds.” On seeing Patty’s new, thin body, Bob decides in that moment that she is his chance to make a name for himself in the pageant world. “We plead not guilty,” he decides, contrary to his initial plan to settle, realising that with a criminal record, Patty would never be a pageant queen.
Her mother asks, “What happened to settling?”
“Pretty girls don’t have to settle.”
It’s fairly obvious what the issue here is. Patty wasn’t pretty when she was fat. She wasn’t an opportunity when she was fat. Now that she is skinny, he sees that she has value and is worth saving. This is the message of the show so far.
The one remotely humanising element of Patty as a character is her realisation that losing weight hasn’t made her happy or confident. And this is true. Body hatred is pervasive, toxic, and very difficult to get rid of, no matter what your body looks. If it had been handled differently, this is an element of the show that might have been salvageable. But then, we get this line:
“I wanted to let go of Fatty Patty, but after all those years of torture she was in me, like a demon.”
Do I really need to point out the issue with equating fatness to demonic-ness? There is a strong implication that although Patty suffered horrible bullying at school at the hands of other girls, the problem was not their behaviour, but herself. Fatty Patty is presented as a demonic creation, a collaboration between external body-shaming and Patty’s weight. While it’s never said outright, through the show’s presentation of her Patty is suggested as equally to blame for the bullying as the other girls. After all, what could they do? Not bully her?
More interesting is the way in which Patty talks about her ‘fat persona’. She speaks of ‘Fatty Patty’ as a different person, someone she has no control over. Someone who is actually trying to gain control over her. Combine this sentiment with the comparison to a demon, and the later episode in which a pastor becomes convinced she has a demon in her that needs to be exorcised... all this makes for a uncomfortable metaphor for fatness. To me, this language is reminiscent of the language used for eating disorders like anorexia, reappropriated to demonise fatness.
Which brings me to the same old ‘fatness is disease’ angle. Patty bonds with Bob when he confides that he was also fat when he was at school. She finds a sense of kinship with him. In the second episode, when Patty is looking for comfort from Bob she says, “I was fat. I was out of control.” He reassuringly says, “You were sick, you were scared.” This can be interpreted in two ways. First, that fatness is a sickness. Or that fatness is a direct consequence of sickness, implicitly mental illness. No matter how you look at it, fatness is presented as wrongness. This show is worse than the message that fat people are ugly, although it definitely hammers that home as well. This is a show that considers fat people to be a disease, a moral vice.
When Bob reassures her that she isn’t ‘Fatty Patty’ anymore, she asks who she is, if not her.
“Whoever you want to be.” The message is loud and clear. Now that she’s skinny, she’s a new person. You are only defined by your weight if you are fat. If you are fat, you are trapped. If you are skinny, you are free and the world is open to you. Fat people are just fat and nothing more.
For information about the ways in which scientific research has been ignored in order to perpetuate the demonization of fatness, take a look at this article.
Now, this isn’t something I expected. I truly didn’t think this show had the gall to wring some humour out of child abuse. And yet...
Let me tell you more about Bob. In his introduction, he is a pageant coach for a diva mother and her daughter versus his arch-rival, both in the courtroom and in the pageant world. When her daughter loses to the resident beauty queen of the area, the cartoonish ‘pageant mom’ yells from the stage that her daughter was “disturbed” because Bob “touched her hoo-hoo”. Which he immediately denies. His internal monologue spits out this gem of a line: “I was an accused molester saying the victim made it up, which was almost as bad as if I’d actually done it.”
I’m... not sure where to begin with that one. It’s the “which was almost as bad as if I’d actually done it”. Presumably, the idea is that his immediate denial is as damning as if there’d been actual evidence. I guess that’s where the joke is supposed to be. I mean, it’s not like abusers usually immediately say that the victim is lying. And there are always people who defend them.
“Regina never pressed charges because she made the whole thing up, but she still ruined my reputation,” says his inner monologue and a passer-by cagily whispers to her friend “don’t look him in the eye” as he enters his father’s law firm.
Everything about this is ridiculous. Indeed, some men do suffer in their careers after accusations. But... there were no charges, never mind a conviction. Even when there are charges, abusers sometimes get away with their crimes. For example, this article. In which the abuser confessed to repeatedly raping his victim and yet still only received a 30 day sentence because the judge felt that the victim was equally in control of the situation. Despite the teacher’s obvious abuse of power.
This bit of ‘humour’ in Insatiable is premised on the fallacy that women can (and try to) ruin the careers of respected men by accusations of rape. Louis C.K. recently returned to comedy after a number of accusations of sexual misconduct. It was a surprise set, which seemed largely well-received. Here’s an interesting article about the dynamic of the audience that night.
Whatever you think about his return to stand-up comedy, it’s an interesting and telling choice to include a joke about a rape whistle. To me it suggests an open disregard for all the women who spoke out about his behaviour. Let’s not forget the many accusations levelled at Trump, before the 2016 election. You know what really happens when accusations of rape are made?
This. (Long read, but an interesting piece.)
More often than not, it is the victim, not the abuser, who suffers all over again when they speak out. Let’s not forget that there are people who do not consider these kinds of accusations to be important. Accusations like this do not happen in a vacuum and they are rarely isolated incidents.
So, let’s leave the ‘career ruiner’ myth now, shall we? Back to the show. Because, believe me, it gets worse.
Patty becomes a little obsessed with Bob. She bonds with him and develops a crush. Patty’s friend, Nonnie, who is understandably uncomfortable with Patty’s new crush, expresses disgust at Patty’s lovelorn doodles. “Are you crazy? He’s a child molester!” To which Patty replies, “Which means I might actually have a shot.” In another world, this might have been funny if it had been played as a joke. But Patty means it. And while she feels in control, she is actually being groomed by Bob. It just isn’t for sex. It’s for the pageant world. One of the running jokes is that Bob is constantly having underage girls throw themselves at him, although he had no interest in them. It’s like someone watched American Beauty and thought it was a comedy.
Less than a minute later in the show, I gagged again. Bob is giving Patty a makeover for her court appearance (and a test run for pageantry!) and they are buying clothes. Patty emerges from the fitting room, dressed in a virginal white dress that Bob says will make her look “innocent, beautiful and like someone who would never throw a punch”. When she asks how she looks, Bob says direct to camera, with a knowing look, “Like you need a pearl necklace”. Then he holds up a literal pearl necklace in a box.
Ew. This screams Madonna/Whore complex.
Bob tells her that her court appearance is primarily a “seduction”, so Patty decides to practice. Both for court and for Bob himself. She enters a store with eyes on the checkout guy, a red lollipop in her mouth, a visual nod to Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1962). Patty is underage, as we are frequently reminded, but only when it’s supposed to be funny. And yet, she is still repeatedly objectified, sexualised and I can’t count how many times there are references to her boobs.
Again, this is all seriously creepy.
Ah, another offensive feature of this show. There are two main characters that embody this brand of joke. Nonnie and Bob.
Let’s start with Bob. His orientation is frequently hinted at. This show seems to think that pink ties, 80s aerobics videos and manicures are what define being gay. The ultimate joke (I thought at first) of all the paedophilia jokes was supposed to be that Bob has no actual interest in women of any age. I didn’t want to have to live through the rest of the episodes, but from what I understood from summaries, Bob is actually bisexual. Maybe this is what the show thinks representation is?
Patty’s friend, Nonnie, brings in the rest of problematic presentation. When Nonnie discovers Patty’s crush on Bob, she brings her concerns about Patty’s feelings for Bob to Patty’s mother. I half-expected something genuine to emerge, perhaps about how Patty’s feelings of self-worth were directly tied to being found attractive by men. Nope. Instead we get a snide comment about Nonnie’s “obsession” with Patty and a heavy-handed hint that she is gay and in love with Patty herself. Later on, this is just reinforced when Patty wins her session in the courtroom and Nonnie cries, “We should celebrate! Make out... with guys, not with each other.” And in the second episode, while trying to remember Patty’s drunken antics from the previous night, Nonnie suggests they re-enact the night to trigger any memories. This is all yet another depiction of the predatory gay character in love with their straight friend. This trope presents non-straight people as a threat to the heterosexual status quo. There’s a sense of gay people being even more threatening when their orientation isn’t immediately obvious because then they can lure you into a false sense of security. Like, maybe they can trick you? There’s a name for that feeling. Homophobia.
Despite the promise of a pageant called Miss Magic Jesus, I would rather poke out my eyes than sit through another episode of this offensive garbage. It has no redeeming features. This isn’t a show that could have been promising. The entire base for this story is built of shame, misogyny and bigotry. Don’t even get me started on the “Anal Cancer Awareness Gala”. The main joke is that the ribbons are brown. Even trying to put aside the offensiveness of the whole show, it isn’t even well written. The dialogue is weak, the plotline is meandering and awkward, the offensive jokes are delivered with little life, as if the actors were aware of the garbage they had to perform.
This show tries at once to be dark and edgy, but also light and frivolous. It ends up being the worst of both. The darkness without the intelligence and the lightness without the sincerity. Insatiable normalizes body-shaming, misogyny and homophobia, and does show under the veil of ‘edgy humour’. There is nothing ‘edgy’ about this show. It’s just cruel. But the bit that really makes me despair for humanity? It’s been renewed for a second season.
Don't let them make you internalize this awful view of the world.
Now, please excuse me, I’m going to go eat cake and tell some body-shamers to fuck off.