Fat-shaming is only the first problem with Insatiable

After the controversial trailer for the Netflix original show Insatiable aired in August (which I wrote about here); I vowed to watch it to find out whether Insatiable is as terrible as anticipated. I tried, and I failed, miserably. I couldn’t even get past episode three. I started with trepidation, prepared for the fat shaming the trailer reeked of, but what I got from Insatiable, (the first three episodes anyway) was not what I had expected. It was a whole lot worse. Here are (some of) the problems and why I won’t be returning to watch the last nine episodes of the show.

This does include spoilers, but since I only got three episodes in, it won’t give too much away, obviously.

  1. It’s not funny, just cringe-worthy

I did not laugh once, but I winced, a lot. I accept that this may be my sense of humour, although I like to think I find most mainstream comedies enjoyable. Plenty of people have commented to me about how funny they found Insatiable. I also accept that I only watched three episodes. But to not have laughed once a quarter of the way into a series is not great odds for the rest of it. I understand that the series is supposed to be over exaggerated. But all it did was make me cringe. I could not stand the faux Southern accents and the penchant for theatrics at every turn. Daniel Schroeder commented in his piece about the camp sensibility of Insatiable that “Set in the most theatrical, unrealistic version of Georgia […] none of this is meant to be taken seriously.” Perhaps I was expecting too much since cast members and the creator of the show jumped to its defence stating that Insatiable is supposed to be a satirical comment on society. I do think Insatiable had the potential to be the ‘revenge comedy’ it was pitched as, but unfortunately the mishandling of Patty’s eating disorder and the making light of sexual assault was so distracting, any well thought out, actually humourous writing I missed entirely.

2. Bob’s sexual assault accusation

In the first episode the mother of a pageant contestant falsely accuses lawyer and pageant coach Bob Armstrong of sexually assaulting her daughter. Why? Because her daughter didn’t win a pageant. It’s the laziest trope out there. In the US only 2-6% of sexual assault reports are false. In the current social climate of #MeToo it is also downright inappropriate. It plays into the damaging and frankly incorrect argument that women use false sexual assault allegations to get revenge on men. These accusations subsequently ruined his reputation as a pageant coach (albeit momentarily). However in reality most men who are accused (rightly or wrongly) do not suffer this reputational ruin (see President Donald Trump). It’s even more disheartening because Alyssa Milano, who plays Coralee Armstrong, was a proponent of the #MeToo movement reviving the hashtag in 2017. She jumped to the defence of the show in the midst of the accusations which followed the trailer. Even though she is not responsible for the script, I feel she is well placed to comment on the shows depiction of false sexual assault allegations.

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3. The portrayal of Patty’s eating disorder

For me the most problematic aspect of the series is the utter disregard for how Patty’s eating disorder has impacted her mentally. The cast members and creators rushed to defend Insatiable following the trailer’s release, shouting that there is no fat shaming, it’s all satirical. But the only insight into the lived experiences of fat people is sparse flashbacks to the bullying Patty suffered. The majority of shaming comes from Patty when she is thin, her mother, and Bob, her pageant coach. The second episode, entitled Skinny Is Magic, speaks for itself. Amongst the insufferable attempts for drama what sticks out is, fat = bad, skinny = good. Patty’s relationship with food is a difficult one, going on her first diet at age 8. But the struggle is never addressed, there are constant reminders that her life has just started now she is thin. Although there are fleeting saddening moments where Patty examines her stomach and thighs in the mirror, they are just that, fleeting.

The discourse of Patty’s disordered eating is focused on how disgusting she was when she was fat. “Fatty Patty in me like a demon” is one example. Her bond with Bob is cemented because he also used to be fat. He tells her that the bullying gets better but for me this line reiterates that being fat should be a person’s ‘before’ on their journey to being thin. The intricacies of Patty’s eating disorder are not discussed and thus her behaviour and relationship with food has been difficult for some viewers. Insatiable had the chance to represent individuals with mental health problems in a helpful way. Instead it ignored the battle within Patty’s mind, told her not to eat to stay beautiful and control her body through a pageant to avoid ever being fat and gross again.

4. The treatment of Nonnie

Nonnie’s character development was in its infancy when I gave up on watching Insatiable. Her adoration of Patty is obvious and the lack of reciprocation of these feelings is disheartening. I feel sad for Nonnie, she doesn’t appear to know her own sexual identity and is definitely not comfortable with it, as seen in the first episode where following Patty’s court case she says “we should celebrate. Make out… with guys not each other.” But even Patty’s mother warns Nonnie away from her. Positively, the internet came to Nonnie’s defence with some declaring her the best character on the show (not that this is a difficult thing to achieve). The spoilers I’ve read also reveal that by the finale Nonnie is comfortable with her queer identity. So the show has one saving grace.

5. Patty and Bob’s inappropriate relationship

Patty’s obsession with Bob is uncomfortable from the beginning. She calls the middle-aged man her soulmate and vows to seduce him break up his relationship with his wife. But Bob seems so oblivious to Patty’s obsession he is dangerously close to falling into her trap. He also uses her to his own advantage and manipulates his way back into the pageant world. He tells her “she is his great white hope” and “pretty girls don’t have to settle” (and ugly girls do?). Bob also uses a poor choice of words when telling Patty she reminds him of his wife which serves to validate her feelings about him.

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6. Bi-erasure

Ok fine, I got this one from reading the spoilers online. But in my defence, Bob’s campness was clearly being overworked to end up as the punch line for a joke. Bob is obsessed with pageants, he is effeminate and camp from the start. His characteristics mirror those of his feminine wife Coralee’s and they seem both friendly and sexual with each other. As the show progresses Bob realises his attraction to a fellow lawyer, also called Bob (who spent most of the three episodes I watched shirtless). Multiple quips are made about bisexuality including “bi is just a stop on the train to gayville” and bisexual individuals being described as “demons or aliens”.

Lauren Gussis, the creator of the series, who is herself bisexual said she wished to display the discrimination she has faced throughout her life. The examination of internalised and social biphobia and homophobia are important topics that need light shedding on them, but once again Insatiable’s problematic content does not allow space for education and self-reflection on these issues.

7. Patty’s absurd obsession with getting revenge

At the end of the first episode Patty genuinely considers setting on fire the homeless man whom she punched in the face. Clearly avoiding going to jail and ending up skinny and typically beautiful following this altercation was just not enough for Patty. Yes, revenge is a common theme in teen dramas and comedies. There was a whole television series called Revenge, but in Insatiable it seems farcical. Patty’s main route to getting revenge on those who bullied her is the pageant circuit. The problem is, she’ll never achieve that. In the first episode Patty comments “I’ve heard stories of girls who grew up happy and well-adjusted, with a healthy relationship to food and their bodies”. Pageants will never gift her that, because pageants require one to be overly focused on their body. How Patty could truly get revenge, but also peace, is by finally accepting herself and her struggles.

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Insatiable has already been renewed for a second season and it should take this opportunity to right the wrongs of its first. I have little hope that it will, Netflix loves the drama – people hated the trailer but watched the show. It is strange that fat-shaming was the least of Insatiable’s problems and I haven’t even mentioned the slut-shaming and jokes about mental health, it was not at all what I was expecting. It’s odious and ultimately boring, the characters are dull and the intended satirical take on social issues fails spectacularly. I know for sure I will not finish watching the series.

Once again I call for well-written shows, with multifaceted, interesting fat characters who are clever, beautiful and funny. There needs to be fat actors playing fat characters as well. We need to show that being fat is not always the before and is not always a thin actor playing inside a fat suit. Insatiable is definitely not the show for this, but perhaps one day Netflix will start to understand the need for diverse and truly representative shows. Here’s hoping.

All photos are screenshots from the Netflix show ‘Insatiable’. 

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