I love political correctness. I think that challenging the established, offensive status quo and encouraging greater politeness, kindness and compassion can only be a good thing. Only the extremely privileged complain about having their freedom threatened when their power is challenged and shared with a wider group. Also, I believe the media has a responsibility to represent the population accurately and fairly. There is more consumable content than ever, and there is no excuse for making entertainment that does not show the widest possible range of faces and bodies.
But I don’t think Netflix should cancel Insatiable.
More than 120,000 people have signed a petition to make the screening service halt the release of its new teen drama, which stars Debby Ryan as the bullied 'Fatty Patty' who loses a significant amount of weight during the holidays and returns to school to wreak revenge on her tormentors. No episodes have been released yet, just a clip that is a little under two minutes long. Florence Given, who started the petition writes that Insatiable 'perpetuates not only the toxicity of diet culture, but the objectification of women’s bodies.'
However, I think that Insatiable raises some important questions, and the noise of the backlash is drowning out the more curious, cautious, nuanced voices that we need to hear. Certain aspects of the programme are problematic. Putting your lead actor in a fat suit is offensive to the millions of people who have that body shape. In 2018, no-one wants to see a woman on screen losing weight and prioritising her conventional ‘hotness’ in order to be seen, heard and taken seriously. Yet, I want to hear Patty’s story. Between the ages of five and ten, I was brutally bullied and constantly physically and verbally abused because of the size of my body. I don’t think Insatiable is seeking to set a beauty standard, or to fat shame its viewers. I think it’s reflecting the reality of how it feels to be fat shamed, almost constantly, and making stark revelations about how we distribute power to people, based on their appearance.
Insatiable takes the very familiar trope of transformation and turns it on its head. Jane Austen’s characters give each other make overs, and whenever a young woman radically changes her appearance in books, films and TV shows, it is usually in the hope of romantic advancement. I would have a problem with Insatiable if Patty’s character changed her body and then hooked up with the hottest boy in school. But this is about revenge. Based on the trailer, Patty is seeking to destroy every single person who was cruel to her when her body was different. The petitioners have argued that no-one should need to lose weight in order to fulfil their dreams of revenge, or of anything else. This is true. Yet, it’s not the point the programme is making. Patty is not the first protagonist to change her body, and then change her life. She’s one of the few who goes on to rage against the system and hurt the people whose values are so shallow.
Most of the time, I’m thrilled that we live in an era in which the body positivity movement is so vocal. Instagram is full of powerful, thoughtful, compassionate voices that are supporting and connecting people with bodies that have been traditionally marginalised. At its best, the community makes people feel visible when many mainstream spaces mock their bodies or ignore them. However, elements of the movement sometimes seem just as prescriptive and pernicious as the standards they seek to fight. We’re told to love our bodies, no matter what they look like. The Insatiable backlash makes me wonder whether Patty’s greatest hypothetical crime is not loving her body enough before it changes.
I don’t love my body every single day. Sometimes I am ashamed of it, and then I’m made to feel ashamed of my shame. Like Patty, I grew up in a world where I was told it was important to be beautiful, and that the definition of beauty is as narrow as my hips are ‘supposed’ to be. Right now, I would just like to live in a world where I am allowed to unpick some of that shame. I still daydream about suddenly waking up looking like Margot Robbie and immediately running off to humiliate the boy who punched me on the bus. In the past, I’ve written candidly about the debilitating anorexia and bulimia that defined parts of my teens, and subsequently been viciously abused by self-proclaimed body positivity activists who saw my eating disorders as evidence of my ‘fat phobia’.
Living in any body is complicated. The only thing that any of us have in common is that our bodies, and our experience of them, is wholly unique. Women’s bodies especially are seen and judged in a way that is problematic and prejudiced. Surely it is much more helpful to acknowledge this, and the pain it causes, than to keep yelling ‘NO! You have to LOVE YOUR BODY!’ whenever anyone expresses frustration or sadness about the way they look.
While aspects of the Insatiable premise are fundamentally flawed, it’s a programme that is giving us the opportunity to ask ourselves why we value some bodies more than others, and I think we need to understand that before we can start to fix the body image issues that have become endemic in our society. The rage and hysteria that surrounds Insatiable is preventing a vital conversation from taking place, one that allows women to really be honest about their bodies, their feelings and how it’s important that the body positivity movement does not become as prescriptive and problematic as the culture it calls out. After all, this is an argument about not making judgements based on appearance. On that basis, it doesn’t seem right to call for a ban of an entire series based on a single 110 second advert.