Ignore “Insatiable”: There Are Lots of Ways to Be Fat on TV

courtesy Wikimedia

courtesy Wikimedia

By Josh Petersen

Before the Netflix series “Insatiable” was even released to the public, the series faced an uphill battle. The show received considerable backlash based on its trailer alone, and to be fair, there were plenty of reasons to be skeptical. The show’s premise is this: Patty (Debby Ryan) is a social outcast who endures constant bullying because of her weight. When a homeless man calls Patty fat, the two get into a fistfight, and Patty’s jaw is wired shut. After losing weight from an all-liquid diet, she becomes thin and popular. Patty decides to seek revenge on her cruel classmates by entering the unforgiving world of beauty pageants.

From the moment it was announced, “Insatiable” was accused of fat shaming. On social media, many criticized Ryan’s use of a fat suit, and claimed the show equated weight loss with desirability. I understood where these complaints were coming from, but I still held out hope for the show. The premise had untapped potential for social commentary, and two-minute trailers often leave out nuance and irony. Acknowledging the privilege of thin bodies is not the same as accepting that reality, and the best possible iteration of “Insatiable” could have been a subversive satire of rigid beauty standards.

Instead, the actual series is just as bad as the harshest critics feared it would be. The show approaches its premise without any subtlety or fresh ideas. “Insatiable” is filled with ugly, cruel jokes, and the show’s many plotlines insult every group of people imaginable, from queer people to Christians to sexual assault victims. The writers may not have intended for these moments to be taken at face value, but the humor always punches down, with marginalized communities bearing the brunt of the jokes. While comedy is always subjective, I found this humor uninspired at best and actively vile at worst.

“Insatiable” is not only offensive — it is also poorly crafted. The series burns through ridiculous plot twists and grating characters faster than Patty binges junk food. Characters disappear for multiple episodes. The show’s tone veers wildly from moment to moment. Character motivations shift on a moment’s notice for no apparent reason. I am all for good campy fun, but the narrative is so convoluted that the end result is numbing.

In both subtle and overt ways, “Insatiable” broadcasts the message that Patty’s story is only worthwhile when she’s thin. Viewers spend very little time with Patty as a fat woman. In these scenes, Ryan wears a grotesque, unconvincing fat suit, and viewers get little sense of her internal life — we only know her as an unhappy victim. Patty’s eating habits are portrayed as a pathological nightmare that blocks her from her true potential. In contrast, when Patty loses weight, she becomes instantly desirable. Her life is suddenly noteworthy and full of exciting opportunities. A more interesting series would have spent time making Patty a three-dimensional character at any size. While “Insatiable” prides itself on pushing buttons, a truly provocative work might have imagined that actual fat people can have interesting, happy lives.

All forms of media, television included, tend to perpetuate fat shaming in some way. This attitude has a long history, and even a few years ago, a show like “Insatiable” would not have caused much of a stir. Obesity was everyone’s favorite dirty word. Seemingly every week, news reports rang alarm bells: the majority of Americans were overweight. Most would argue that this was a public health issue, but mixed in were healthy doses of moral panic and open disgust. Fatness became the symbol of American decay, representing laziness, decline, greed — essentially the worst America had to offer. (A decade later, as white supremacists march in the streets, this notion seems laughably quaint). Shows like “The Biggest Loser” sold the narrative that a thin body was the only pathway to fulfillment and happiness, while an endless stream of fad diets promised get-thin-quick solutions.

In 2018, however, cultural mores about body weight are shifting, slowly but surely. Activists have challenged preconceived notions of body image, and many are questioning why skinny is the ultimate ideal. Fat acceptance has moved from niche blogs to “This American Life” episodes and lengthy write-ups in The New York Times. There is a hunger for different narratives surrounding bodies and fitness. In the past several years, there has been a quiet groundswell of stories about fat people, especially fat young women, on television. These narratives can be problematic, imperfect or divisive, yet they also grapple with fatness in an honest, compelling way.

Two controversial TV creators, Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham, regularly address body image in their work. Schumer’s sketch comedy series “Inside Amy Schumer” often used the premise that Schumer was fat or unattractive. This template allowed Schumer to explore a particularly feminine condition of insecurity. Her comedy argued that women had no choice but to play a sexist game of calorie counting and beauty regimens. At other moments, however, Schumer’s self-deprecation became suffocating. Self-loathing was in her contract with the devil — she could only find fame by tearing herself down in the process. It doesn’t help that Schumer is the ideal in many ways — one Twitter critic pointed out that she is “blonde, white, able-bodied, femme and yes, thin.” Still, Schumer’s brand remains deeply relatable to a lot of people. For Schumer and her fans, the elusive “perfect body” is both a source of anguish and desire.

In her show “Girls,” Dunham approached similar territory with a more openly defiant attitude. Dunham is fat, yet her character Hannah is never overwhelmed by shame or guilt. She has a lot of sex, and the show makes a point to show her fully nude in both sexual and non-sexual contexts. Sure, the sex Hannah had was often humiliating, and sometimes even traumatic. However, “Girls” never suggested that Hannah was unworthy of desire, nor did it turn her sexuality into a cheap punchline. Dunham’s depiction of sexuality often galvanized viewers, further proving that in pop culture, fat bodies are othered and marginalized.

In the popular drama series “This Is Us,” one of the main characters, Kate, is a woman who faces many setbacks due to her weight. Kate’s role in the show inspires mixed emotions. On the one hand, it is a quietly radical move to have Kate be a protagonist in a network drama in the first place. Kate is not, to borrow a term from Roxane Gay, “Lane Bryant fat,” and “This Is Us” is thoughtful in its depiction of how fatness affects a person’s everyday life. It feels refreshing to see a fat character whose concerns are taken seriously and to know that a talented actress was given the chance to play this significant role.

However, there are other aspects of Kate that leave something to be desired. In an excellent essay from his book “My Life As a Goddess,” Guy Branum explains how pop culture’s conception of fat people is cruel and dehumanizing. In this essay, Branum shrewdly points out that Kate’s characterization is consumed entirely by her weight. Her body is treated as a tragedy and an obstacle, and the narrative of her weight loss suffocates any hint of her personality. This dominant narrative is problematic and unrealistic, and actual fat people can have dynamic, interesting lives. Branum says, “A real Kate, in the real world, would be awesome. She’d have tons of gay friends and go to drag bingo a lot. She’d have learned to be fearless with fashion because people are going to judge her anyway. She’d have a joke to make when she’s too sweaty. She’d have broken a chair before, and she’d know what to do when it happens the second time.”

One of the best TV shows about being fat comes from an unexpected source — a British teen soap opera. “My Mad Fat Diary,” which was released on Hulu after developing a cult following, may not have the prestige of “Girls” or even “This Is Us.” Yet the series is an underappreciated gem, and one of the most realistic and heartfelt portrayals of fatness and mental illness you can find. The series follows Rae (a fantastic Sharon Rooney), a 16-year-old living in suburban England during the mid-1990s. During the first episode, Rae has just been released from a mental hospital — Rae struggles with depression, self-harm and an eating disorder. Throughout “My Mad Fat Diary,” Rae attempts to navigate adolescence while coming to terms with her body image and mental health challenges.

“My Mad Fat Diary” achieves a tricky balance — it doesn’t sugarcoat Rae’s problems, but it also doesn’t treat her body as an all-consuming heartbreak. The show never pretends that Rae’s problems would go away if she lost weight, or that her body disqualifies her from a happy life. Rae is a fully realized character, who progresses in satisfying ways throughout the series. She has great friends, excellent music taste, future ambitions and dates with attractive men. (Rae’s filthy descriptions of her sexual desire are regular highlights of the show). “My Mad Fat Diary,” which premiered in 2013, is as ahead-of-its-time as “Insatiable” is retrograde. It achieves a depressingly rare feat — it allows a fat female character to be fully human.

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