Feminism

Why is Netflix’s ‘Insatiable’ so controversial?

When it first came out, people were not happy - but why?

By Abby Woolford

Bringing out a controversial show is something Netflix has never shied away from. Since the bombshell (or phenomenon, depending on how you look at it) of 13 Reasons Why was released in 2017, their ‘Original’ shows always end up at the forefront of social media debates.

13 Reasons Why was controversial for its graphic and “glamorous” presentation of teen suicide. The most recent Netflix Original to spark outrage is the series Insatiable, starring teen idol Debbie Ryan who many of the shows viewers will have grown up watching in Disney’s Jessiewhich is where the problems start.

Insatiable follows the life of “Fatty Patty”, played by Ryan, who has been bullied for being overweight throughout high school. Patty ends up having her jaw wired shut, meaning that she can no longer eat. She dramatically loses weight and returns to school after summer vacation “skinny”.

Understandably, this plot line is what critics became fixated on after the show’s trailer release. As Emma Nolan explains, ‘the show set a premise that being fat makes a person unworthy and susceptible to being a target for bullies.’

It is Patty’s comically sudden weight loss that drove critics to concern regarding the show’s youngest and most impressionable viewers, who may see this as promoting a message that to be popular and acceptable to society one must be skinny. ‘Insatiable contributes to this toxic ideal that being thin equals being worthy’ (Nolan). 

Whilst initially this plot line invites concerns about the growing problem of eating disorders within society anyway, many of the shows supporters argue that the complete ridiculousness of the circumstances of Patty’s weight loss (spoiler: she is punched in the face) should show audiences that the show isn’t intended to be taken seriously: a message which young viewers could miss completely. 

Defenders of the show argue that Insatiable should be viewed as a revenge comedy, full of dark and borderline sadistic twists that result in adultery, kidnap, and murder. 

In fact, Patty’s life is far from magically resolved in lieu of her weight loss, and the destruction that follows as she seeks to punish those who bullied her for her size is where the show’s comedic value lies, and not in Patty’s obesity. 

Those who believe that this show follows the “old-school” American chick-flick ideal that a physical makeover is the only way to become “popular” in high school could be missing the tongue-and-cheek humour of the series entirely. 

For example, when you view Patty’s transformation within the context of the series as a whole, a series that includes a heist in a hot-dog van, a fist-fight on top of said van, and a charity bikini dog-wash, it simply becomes another ridiculous plot twist within a highly satirical and over-the-top show: and this almost nonsensical plot is what its fans find so appealing. 

As internet-defender Steve Wylie admits, ‘It was uncomfortable because it was morally murky, but I came to like that. I wasn’t being fed a pretty, good girl who just happened to be fat. [Not one] of the people in the show is a very good person, including the protagonist.’ 

That is, Insatiable is intended as very dark and very satirical: the audience isn’t supposed to be endeared towards Patty just because she has been bullied, which is traditionally the way with many comedies, in the same way that we aren’t supposed to see the completely over-the-top plot as a defense of social problems such as “fat-shaming”.

However, the show has also faced criticism for it’s ‘feeble attempts to mine humor from hot-button issues like sexual assault and suicide’ (Anthony Ha). Can issues that put someone’s life at risk be made satirical successfully? Or should a show that relies on it’s audience understanding dark humour have avoided such sensitive concerns altogether? 

Within the first 10 minutes of the show, we see the former lawyer/pageant coach Bob Armstrong falsely accused of sexual assault by a bitter mum who’s daughter Bob failed to help win a beauty pageant.

This plot device runs throughout the series, and whilst it arguably is fiction, it perpetuates the falsehood that people make up sexual assault claims for self-gain, such as revenge or attention: ‘Considering how many sexual assault victims aren’t believed when they come forward, many viewers think that this plot choice is misguided at best and damaging at worst’ (Sam Prance).

Another controversial storyline written into this series is the sexual relationship it shows between Regina, a mother in her 40’s, and Brick, who is underage.

Whilst this relationship is entirely consensual, its black-and-white presentation of a sex-obsessed teenage boy and a sex-starved “cougar” make the relationship a point of humour. It’s then easy to forget the fact that Brick is a minor who is being aggressively pursued by someone who should be looking after him. 

Whilst many argue that Netflix have exceeded themselves in letting down their viewers with this controversial show, it is important to remember the comedic intentions of its plot.

Yes, Insatiable does use sensitive issues such as fatphobia as a plot device in its comedy. However, it also combines these important social concerns with ones such as vampirism, something that should show its critics that the series itself is not serious. 

Its creators do not believe that sexual assault is funny, in the same and very obvious way that they won’t see murder as a solution to a problem (no spoilers). And if you can get on board with this dark humour, you might just like Insatiable. 

 

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