Culture/TV

Netflix’s Insatiable is an age-old lesson of the toxic effects of privilege

The show’s entire framework is contingent on the idea that weight-loss is synonymous with being treated with dignity. 

September 11, 2018

Netflix’s Insatiable has garnered a lot of attention for its fatphobic portrayals of its plus-size protagonist. Critics have called out the show’s depiction of an overweight teenage girl,who is so addicted to food that she punches out a homeless man for a chocolate bar, as two-dimensional and offensive. However, that’s not the show’s only offense as it also relies on racist and homophobic tropes to affirm a specific kind of social privilege that comes with being white, straight, and thin.

The show’s premise centers on Patty Bledell, an overweight teen (played by actress Debbie Ryan in a fat suit) who faces constant bullying for her weight. Food is often framed as Patty’s sole interest and in the first episode she punches a homeless man for trying to steal her chocolate bar. The homeless man punches her back causing her to have her jaw wired shut, resulting in Patty losing over 70 pounds in three months and becoming the skinnier, prettier version of herself that she always wanted to be.

As a result Patty decides to seek revenge against everyone who has wronged her in the past. That’s when she encounters Bob Armstrong, a lawyer whose real passion is to mentor and transform young women into pageant queens, and Patty quickly decides that beauty pageants are her path to redemption. In a key moment during the pilot episode Patty begins to worry about appearing in court and being convicted on her assault charges, that’s when Bob Armstrong tells her that she no longer needs to fuss over that now that she’s skinny, because “skinny is magic.”

Much of Insatiable’s narrative relies on racist, homophobic depictions of characters who exist solely to aid the show’s protagonist, who’s often depicted as selfish and self-destructive.

This problematic mantra isn’t just upholding a harmful idea about body types and bigger bodies it’s also praising the existence of a specific kind of privilege that comes with being white, straight, skinny and conventionally attractive. The University of Calgary define white privilege as “the unearned privileges that white people experience (often unconsciously) because they are not subjected to racism.” The idea that Patty can be acquitted for a crime that she committed now that she’s skinny is linked to some key tenets of white privilege: where people of colour are perceived as being criminals, less than, and undeserving of the same social advantages that are largely available to a very specific segment of the population. Insatiable affirms that this social privilege is the reward for adhering to conventional ideas about beauty, race and sexuality, and nothing in the show’s plotline refutes these harmful ideas.

Much of Insatiable’s narrative relies on racist, homophobic depictions of characters who exist solely to aid the show’s protagonist, who’s often depicted as selfish and self-destructive. Patty uses Donald Choi, an awkward Asian-American boy who she deems to be sexually unattractive to help her get out of yet another potential criminal charge. Dee is the sassy black friend who offers nuggets of wisdom to boost Nonnie and Patty’s morale. Nonnie, who’s struggling with her queerness (while also hiding her secret love for Patty), goes above and beyond to help Patty avoid her criminal past and cope with emotional drama that arises from her pageant pursuits. Even though Nonnie is also a thin, white character it’s clear that she doesn’t possess the same social privileges as Patty. Her image does not spark widely-approved acceptance like when Patty decides to rid herself of her fat body. Just like the other marginalized characters in the show, Nonnie’s needs are sidelined in favor of propelling a character that upholds the ideals that society values.

Insatiable’s creators have said in multiple interviews that their intent was to show the damage that can come from eating disorders and fat shaming. However the show’s framework is contingent on the idea that the rewards of being skinny has eluded Patty her whole life and that once she loses the weight she has finally earned the right to be treated with dignity and respect. The takeaway message is that only certain bodies are deserving of having their stories told in an intelligent way that demonstrates authenticity, particularly if those bodies are thin, straight and white.   

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