In the season finale of Insatiable, main character Patty is kidnapped, handcuffed to a food truck, and pelted with food. Her kidnapper, Stella, attempts to stage Patty’s imminent death as a suicide, monologuing to her, “When you couldn’t numb your feelings with food, you took your own life.” Patty protests, whimpering, “That’s not who I am anymore”, to which Stella retorts, “Bullshit. You’ll always be Fatty Patty.”
It acts as a wake up call to Patty, who proclaims, in a voiceover that peppers the entire series, “It was time to write my own story. I wasn’t a loser when I was fat, and I wasn’t a loser now.” She proceeds to use whipped cream to lubricate her hand enough to break free from her bindings. The scene is meant to be funny, or inspiring, or both – because food has always kept Patty a prisoner, and now it’s setting her free. It’s a metaphor, see?
But watching that moment, I just felt sad. Sad that I’d sat through 12 episodes of the new Netflix drama, waiting for some moment of triumph that would supposedly redeem all the problematic and fatphobic messages that had come before. Sad that what I was being given instead was a weak throwaway line and a lazy visual metaphor that undid none of that damage, and rather reinforced the same tired old jokes about fat people’s toxic relationship to food. Sad that it’s 2018 and fat people are still treated as less than human, as something monstrous, as the villains in our own stories.
When the trailer for Insatiable dropped, I was not surprised to see the instant and widespread outrage. The backlash soon spawned a petition, currently sitting at over 200,000 signatures, begging Netflix not to release the show at all. My own first encounter with Insatiable had happened weeks earlier, when I read the logline: “A disgraced, dissatisfied civil lawyer-turned-beauty pageant coach takes on a vengeful, bullied teenager as his client, and has no idea what he’s about to unleash upon the world.” It sounded intriguing, and fun, and right up my alley. Not knowing anything else, I requested a preview of the show for review.
I made myself a cup of tea and settled down to enjoy the first episode, anticipating a positive and triumphant story of a teen who turns the tables on her bullies. Within the first 30 seconds, I experienced a familiar sinking feeling in my gut. Disappointment set in as I realised the show wasn’t going to be what I thought it was at all – that it was going to be something that hurt.
The first sign of trouble was when star Debby Ryan appeared in a fat suit. I have never once seen a fat suit used in a positive way (and I watch a lot of TV and movies). They are always, always used to temporarily makeover thin characters, frequently in flashbacks, to show how hilariously unattractive and gross they once were. The most obvious example, of course, is Monica on Friends, but there’s also Schmidt on New Girl, and even Terry on Brooklyn Nine-Nine (a show which I’ve seen trumpeted far and wide as the One Unproblematic Unicorn That Never Punches Down – the rampant fatphobia apparently flying under the radar for many). In movies, it’s even worse – Fat Bastard in Austin Powers, Gwyneth Paltrow’s character in Shallow Hal, much of Eddie Murphy’s oeuvre. These characters are constantly the butt of jokes about their fatness. They’re not treated as human; they’re repulsive eating machines to be laughed at (and never with). The fat suits themselves are employed as a visual joke – because the idea that the thin actors inhabiting them could look so fat is just so ridiculous. Fat suits dehumanise fat people, reducing them to nothing more than bodies to be reviled and mocked.
The use of a fat suit in Insatiable brings along with it all this cultural baggage. The show also combines the costume with scenes of Patty binge eating, set to a voiceover that states, “While my classmates were out losing their virginity, I was at home stuffing another hole”. It’s also used to show Patty fainting because she hasn’t eaten in two days; Patty being tortured by her classmates; and Patty punching a homeless guy in the face because he calls her “fatty”. And that’s only in the first 10 minutes of Episode 1.
The intent is clearly to get us to feel for Patty, and to recognise how awful her situation is. But the execution positions her as a grotesque, something out of control and absurd. The fat suit reinforces the idea that this isn’t the “real” Patty, and the story doesn’t truly get going until Debby Ryan sheds the suit. However unintentional, the message is that thin people’s stories are worth telling, while fat people are relegated to nightmarish flashbacks and cheap jokes.
I wish I could say that this was the worst of it. But hoo boy, it’s all downhill from there. For starters, there’s the way Patty loses weight – she’s punched in the face, and has to have her jaw wired shut, resulting in a three-month liquid diet. Because that’s a really positive message to be sending to vulnerable teens. Then there’s the fact that Patty is able to use her new Hot Girl looks to get herself out of trouble with the law. Meanwhile, Patty’s lawyer-cum-mentor Bob openly admits to being interested in her purely for her looks, and what they can achieve in beauty pageants. Bob’s dreamy son, Brick, disgustedly rejects Fatty Patty, but wants to be her boyfriend when she’s thin. And another boy, Christian, fights Brick for Patty’s affection – because now she’s worthy of multiple love interests, where before she had none.
On top of all this, there are the many, many jokes and one-liners that mock Fatty Patty, position her as disgusting, and reinforce the idea that it’s better to be thin. For example: (*deep breath*) “She’s very serious about her food”; “It can’t be easy looking like that”; “Pretty girls don’t have to settle”; “I was fat. I was out of control”; “I still want to eat all the time [but I don’t because] I’m afraid if I get fat again, you won’t think I’m beautiful”; “You could show other overweight girls what’s possible”; “You won your case. You got skinny! That’s enough”; “It gets better. Skinny is magic”; “I knew skinny was magic...the new Patty was more powerful, but with much smaller boobs”; “It was such a relief to stuff my face”; “When I was fat, squat was more of an adjective than a verb”; “I’m thinner, but I still need to lose like 100 pounds before I’ll get in a bikini”... *exhale* and the list goes on.
This language rarely gets pushback within the narrative, or if it does, it’s outweighed by other, far more destructive, visuals and dialogue. So while there are scenes where Patty’s best friend, Nonnie, tells her she’s been beautiful all along, and Patty declaring she didn’t deserve to be hurt just because she was fat – there’s also a whole plotline around Patty relapsing into binge eating, gaining 10 pounds, and consequently starving herself and over-exercising at the advice of her hot wrestler boyfriend. There’s even a comedy roast in which Patty has to sit there and listen to everyone she cares about joke about how fat and gross she used to be. Rather than making those people look bad, the structure of the episode focuses on how terrible a person Patty is. Ultimately, that is what the show is all about.
Lauren Gussis, the showrunner of Insatiable, told Vanity Fair that in creating the show, she wanted to deconstruct the myth that being thinner makes you happier. “Patty’s actually more miserable because now she doesn’t have any protection,” Gussis said. “She focused all her attention on what things would be like ‘if only’. Then she gets the ‘if only,’ and it doesn’t fix her.” Meanwhile, in a statement on Twitter, Debby Ryan defended the show, saying, “We’re not in the business of fat-shaming. We’re out to turn a sharp eye on broken, harmful systems that equate thinness with worth.”
Their aim is a noble one. But setting aside the fact that a much more subversive and interesting way to deconstruct the myth that thinness = happiness would be to tell the story of a girl who – get this – stays fat and is also happy, Insatiable does not actually achieve what it sets out to do.
Sure, Patty is absolutely miserable, despite being thin and getting all the things she thought she wanted. But for most of the series, her misery is framed as a result of her still being Fatty Patty on the inside. She even describes Fatty Patty as a demon living within her, fuelling her terrible actions. She later learns she has a chimera – a parasitic twin she consumed in utero. And in case that metaphor wasn’t quite obvious enough, we have Bob to clarify: “It makes sense that you were a compulsive eater from the start.”
The demon that is within Patty – her former fatness – causes her to do some truly reprehensible things, including, but not limited to: almost killing one man, outing Bob in front of half the town, and murdering at least two people (who, granted, were attacking her – but one killing in particular is depicted as another instance of Patty’s utter lack of control). The message being sent is less “losing weight doesn’t make you happy”, and more “being fat can cause you to turn into a literal demon who is never satisfied”.
I am a fat woman. It’s taken me a long time to feel okay saying that. I grew up surrounded by people and immersed in media that told me, in ways both implicit and explicit, that to be fat was just about the worst thing a person could be. To be a fat woman in a society that wants women to take up as little space as possible can at times feel like the ultimate transgression.
When I got fat as a side effect of medication that literally saved my life, I was faced with a whole new set of challenges, primarily stemming from internalised fatphobia that was the result of all the damaging messages contained within Fat Monica, Shallow Hal, and even beloved books like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Harry Potter. Now, I crave stories that show fat people living their best lives, being happy, and most of all, being treated with respect and dignity.
Like the hole in Patty’s soul, it’s a gaping void that can’t be filled.
Not least because I keep being served hollow, harmful, and hateful shows like Insatiable.