Insatiable has been making a lot of noise since Netflix dropped its first trailer last month. The minute-and-a-half preview was enough to send shockwaves across Twitter, with people accusing the show of fat-shaming and playing into harmful stereotypes about weight and beauty. “The show Insatiable on @netflix looks like a piece of utter trash. Don’t watch shows where people wear fat suits. Don’t watch shows where they try to turn fat phobia and hatred into a joke,” one user wrote in a thread.
Soon after, a Change.org petition urging for its cancellation was launched, gathering over 231,000 signatures as of press time. “It perpetuates not only the toxicity of diet culture, but the objectification of women’s bodies,” the petition reads, before declaring that Insatiable “will cause eating disorders” and objectify women — all of this based on the trailer alone.
Stars Debby Ryan and Alyssa Milano and creator Lauren Gussis were quick to stand by their work. “The show is a cautionary tale about how damaging it can be to believe the outsides are more important — to judge without going deeper. Please give the show a chance,” Gussis’s personal statement read.
The critics who did give the show a chance largely panned the show. Multiple outlets, including Variety, Vulture, Vox, and Fast Company, exclaimed that the show was even worse than the trailer made it out to be. “Teenagers deserve better,” New York Times editor Eleanor Stanford wrote.
Well, consider the trailer a trigger warning. If you are sensitive to the content in that clip, this might not be the show for you. The show’s dark humor and vitriolic tone is pervasive, just how its showrunner intended. It’s a satire, and as such, unabashedly uses the terrible things people do and say to one another as punchlines in order to “bring to light things in society that really need to be addressed,” Gussis told MTV News.
So, yes, there is fat-shaming in Insatiable, with central character Patty (Ryan) subjected to horrible names and insults — “Smells like bacon,” one girl says as “Fatty Patty” runs by — and characters reinforcing the belief that her self-worth is inversely proportional to her weight. Ryan also wears a highly contested fat suit for the handful of flashback scenes. (It’s worth noting that this was a fully conscious decision on Gussis’s part. “I never wanted to [use a different actress for those scenes] because then, to me, that would be sending the message that you are actually a different person once you lose weight, and I think for me, the show is about showing that no matter what you look like on the outside, you’re still the same person.”) There’s also shaming about sexuality and social class, bits about pedophilia, glaring mistreatment of the disabled, and more themes typically considered problematic.
“I developed a biting and dark sense of humor as a way to cope with my own insecurity because if I was laughing, I felt safe, and so this was an extension of that, on some level,” Gussis said. And so just like the satire of 1988’s cult classic Heathers, in which teens deal with their bullies by murdering them, none of what’s presented is intended to be taken as real-world truths, and the show doesn’t attempt to debate whether it’s better to be fat or skinny, gay or straight, rich or poor. It’s a show that explores our insecurities, why we have them, and what they can do to us.
Inspired by her own experience as a binge eater, exercise bulimic, and restrictor, Gussis realized that letting go of those self-worth and weight equations was crucial to her recovery. In order to get better, she had to shed the very rationalizations her series is accused of perpetuating and turn inward.
“I got those messages for so long that the outsides were what counted, but what if somebody looks conventionally beautiful in the way that the messages of my childhood and all of the teen movies that I grew up with, and then their insides are still not what they need to be?” Gussis said.
So Gussis started where we’ve started many times before — big girl loses weight and becomes pretty — but then turns the trope on its head when things don’t magically and instantly get better for Patty. And she’s not the only one battling inner demons.
“Every single character is insatiable. They all have a hole that they’re trying to fill with something from the outside … and I realized that if thematically the show were to really be working on all cylinders I wanted every single character to have that,” Gussis said. And so, each character is an over-the-top cliché of their suppressed insecurity, which they are relentlessly demeaned for throughout the season.
Milano’s Coralee Armstrong hides her trailer-trash past with nice clothes and her lawyer husband, Bob (Dallas Roberts), who cites loving his wife as proof that he’s not gay, while Patty’s best friend Nonnie (Kimmy Shields) might be in love with Patty, but uses their close relationship to mask her crush. And Patty replaces her lust for food with a lust for Bob, who is also her pageant coach, and the list goes on, creating a conglomerate of every teen-movie stereotype you can imagine interwoven into one meticulously ridiculous and extremely heightened world.
The one character who descends from a place of self-assurance shows up about halfway through the season — and she acts as a healthy counterpoint to Patty. Dee (Ashley D. Kelley), a plus-sized, lesbian beauty queen who can’t be bothered by insults, states the show’s thesis almost as soon as she arrives: “Being skinny don’t mean shit if you’re ugly on the inside.”
Patty may find validation in her newly slimmed look, but her inner ugly — her anger toward her former bullies — urges her to do bad things in the name of revenge. While she’s treating everyone else ugly, she demands to be treated pretty.
As it turns out, Patty isn’t an unsympathetic character because of her weight, as critics feared; she’s unsympathetic because she’s a hypocrite.
And it’s not just Patty who plays into the hypocrisy; it’s everyone. Coralee desperately hides her past, but has no problem throwing gay slurs at Bob as he questions his sexuality, and while Bob is affected by those names, he too continues to torment others for their differences.
The result is a web of characters who are both oppressed and oppressive. “Everybody in the show is a giant hypocrite,” Gussis said, an allusion to the duplicity that we all try not to fall into, but inevitably do at some point: Despite knowing the pain of our own insecurities, we can still be judgmental of others.
And it can be difficult to see that happening so blatantly on TV because it taps into some very sensitive parts of being human. “I, of course, never want to be hurtful, but I do think that sometimes pain is the cost of growth,” Gussis said, later adding, “The solution to darkness is more light [and] laughter makes that easier … and if that transition causes a little bit of discomfort, then I think that’s healthy because without discomfort we don’t grow and change.”
For those who can handle the show’s particular brand of black comedy, the blunt reinforcement of these stereotypes illuminates how wrong we are when we expect our outsides to cure our insides. “The only people who end up growing and changing are the ones who get real with themselves. Everybody else kind of continues to spin in this cycle of looking for outside validation and coming up short,” Gussis said.
Meanwhile, there’s always Dee, who confidently embodies the enlightenment that comes with being truly and passionately ourselves. “What is the dream to be chasing?” Gussis wondered. “Isn’t the way to transform really to become the most ‘you’ you can be?”
It was for Gussis, at least, and she hopes that will be the case for others too. “I kind of decided I have to put all my pain out on the table, all of it, all of my insanity, the fever-dream of what I think is funny, all of my vulnerability in the hopes that maybe it will touch someone else and make them feel less alone,” she said. “Even just one person, if one person sees the show and is like, ‘Oh my God, oh my God, I’m not as weird as I thought!’ then I’ve done my job.”