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If 'Insatiable' Wanted to Skewer Fatphobia, It Should Have Cast a Fat Actress

There are better ways to joke about body shame, and 'Dietland' pulls it off.

by Shailee Koranne
Jul 24 2018, 7:30pm

Images courtesy of Netflix 


This article originally appeared on VICE Canada.

More than 100,000 people have now signed a petition calling for Netflix to stop the release of their new show Insatiable—one of the strongest reactions to a trailer we've seen in recent memory. The show has come under fire for its plot, which stars actress Debby Ryan as Patty, a formerly fat high school girl who sets out to seek revenge on everyone who bullied her. Insatiable depicts Patty rapidly losing weight over a few months of being unable to eat after having her jaw wired shut following an assault.

Ryan reaffirmed her excitement of working on the show, which she said confronts body shaming through satire. On Twitter, Ryan’s co-star Alyssa Milano also responded to criticism, saying, "We are addressing (through comedy) the damage that occurs from fat shaming." Producer Lauren Gussis shared a short statement as well, writing, "I was bullied… I'm trying to share my insides—to share my pain and vulnerability through humor."

We have only seen the trailer for Insatiable so far, but the show's many critics have pointed to some seemingly irredeemable plot assumptions that could derail meaningful discussion about fatphobia. Among them is the idea that appearing thin is itself a kind of revenge. It sends the message that losing weight is like gaining social currency, and ultimately creates a toxic relationship between a person and their body instead of making a real change in the way we talk about fat women.

Since the release of the trailer, many people have shared their thoughts on the show, covering concerns like "toxic" representation, as well as personal experiences with fatphobia and weight loss:

People also shared photos of themselves under the hashtag #NotYourBefore to protest the idea of "transformation" from fat to thin and to share positive messages of acceptance and self-love:

This seems painfully obvious, but if the team behind Insatiable really wanted to shed light on the dangers of fatphobia, they should have cast a fat actress in the role of Patty. Instead of creating a fat character who discovers self-worth and empowerment after losing weight, we deserve a story about a woman who is learning to find worth in the body that she has without changing her appearance.

Thankfully, alternatives to Insatiable exist—lost in the fray of Insatiable criticism is another upcoming Netflix comedy, Sierra Burgess Is a Loser, which releases on September 7, and stars Shannon Purser of Stranger Things and Riverdale. Purser, who has spoken out about being body-shamed before, plays a high-school girl struggling with her body image while accidentally-on-purpose catfishing a boy who she thinks won’t like her if he finds out she’s not thin and conventionally attractive. Sierra Burgess cast an actress with the body type of the main character and seems like it will send a more responsible message than Insatiable.

As far as more direct comparisons go, Joy Nash currently stars in Dietland, a multi-layered dark comedy based on the novel of the same name by Sarai Walker. Dietland centers a fat actress in her own complicated, many-sided story because Nash’s character Alicia, also known as Plum, is not defined by her fatness. In fact, the show is about a lot more than Plum and her relationship with her body—it’s also about how she gets involved with an underground feminist group that takes matters of violence against women into their own hands. While Dietland devotes plenty of time to the group’s vigilantism, it also pays close attention to how Plum moves through the world dealing with microaggressions and direct fatphobic violence.

In the first two minutes of the first episode of Dietland, we see that Plum has a towel draped over her mirror so she doesn’t have to look at her body in the morning. She wears only black clothing. As someone who got into the habit of showering in the dark and still worries about patterned or bold-colored clothing for reasons similar to Plum, I wonder if Insatiable will capture the same nuances of everyday life for people living with negative body image if most of the show is devoted to Patty’s life after she loses weight.

Later in the first episode of Dietland, Plum attends a “Waist Watchers” meeting. The meeting is interrupted by Janice, a woman with a body like Plum’s, who is attending the meeting to get tips on how to lose just enough weight to fix her back problems. Janice is confident and feels good in her body, and leaves in shock and anger when she realizes that the group is there to lose weight because they think they’ll look better thinner. The group facilitator, a thin woman named Suzy, is aghast and refuses to believe that Janice is actually happy, saying “so sad” as Janice leaves the room.

The scene is earnest but funny, with the joke landing on how out of touch Suzy is, rather than getting us to laugh at fatness itself. More importantly, Dietland’s inclusion of a fat character who is outspoken about loving her body acknowledges that many fat people are happy with their bodies and don’t want to lose weight, especially for the reason of being thin.

Dietland is dark comedy with a fat protagonist who is ashamed of her body, but her story leads toward self-acceptance while deconstructing the way that fatphobia marginalizes people. Her life is captured in nuanced ways that don’t make her the butt of fatphobic jokes and stereotypes that make thin audiences laugh. Insatiable will also be a dark comedy with a fat (or formerly fat) protagonist; however, watching how Insatiable plays out its own main character’s relationship with fatness will be very telling as to who the story is for.

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