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Insatiable and the Problem with Harmful TV

Sure, I get emotionally invested. I spend more time watching Buffy than I would like to admit. I press the pause button out of vicarious embarrassment, and I yell at my screen. I am moved to tears, I am devastated… and I love it.

But this isn’t a love letter to television. On August 10, 2018, the “dark comedy” Insatiable premiered on Netflix. The series is about a high school student named Patty (Debby Ryan) who loses 70 pounds by having her jaw wired shut, after being punched in the face by a homeless man (Daniel Thomas May) who was trying to steal her food. Yes, you read that right.

It gets worse: the “new” Patty seeks revenge on anyone that’s ever bullied her. She decides to compete in beauty pageants, and teams up with Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts), a pageant coach disgraced due to a false accusation of sexual assault and pedophilia. If Patty is crowned Miss Magic Jesus, then Bob can earn back his good name. Which is, of course, just what we need in the era of #MeToo — a narrative that not only mocks sexual assault, but that also features a redemption arc for the alleged assaulter.

I could go on, but I wouldn’t know when to stop. Insatiable is fuelled by jokes about being closeted, about fatness, statutory rape, and racism. In response to the claim that these jokes are meant as satire, critic Linda Holmes writes: “Insatiable is satire in the same way someone who screams profanities out a car window is a spoken-word poet.” And author Roxane Gay tweets: “Satire isn’t a free pass for bullshit.”

The series was panned by critics, and it maintains a low 11% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. An online petition urging for a cancellation from Netflix began circulating as soon as the trailer for Insatiable premiered in July 2018; this petition has now accumulated over 235, 000 signatures.

And yet.

Despite the backlash, and much to my personal dismay, Netflix renewed Insatiable for a second season on September 12. Millions of dollars will be invested in more regressive and hateful material.

Insatiable is but one example of the harmful content that Netflix continues to greenlight. I felt the same outrage when the network renewed 13 Reasons Why, a series about teen suicide and rape that doesn’t explicitly address mental illness (don’t even get me started on that school shooting plot!). I felt it when I tried to watch The Kissing Booth, Netflix’s sexist disaster of a romantic comedy, and when Sierra Burgess is a Loser not only romanticized catfishing, but also featured an unsettling scene with a non-consensual kiss, and another where a character pretends to have a disability.

Insatiable is but one example of the harmful content that Netflix continues to greenlight.

Even more frustrating is the feedback on any negative review of this type of content. Articles about Insatiable have received comments like, “Don’t like it… don’t watch it. Too many big babies out in the world. Boo hoo” and “if you were slim you would be less angry.” You know, dismissing claims of fatphobia with some more fatphobia. Worst of all, I find comments from viewers who say that these negative reviews are what draw them to the series, that the controversy is responsible for the creation of an active fanbase.

This idea — that when writers call out harmful media, they allow it to take up more space in the world — makes me feel powerless. How do I talk about the things that hurt me without drawing more attention to them? Does criticizing harmful content inevitably encourage hate-watching?

I started watching Insatiable because of the lack of accurate fictional narratives about people living with eating disorders. I believe in the importance of telling these stories, but they must be told with respect and compassion for the people who live them. Though producer Lauren Gussis claims to have based Insatiable on her own experience with binge-eating and mental illness, she has not considered how her work might affect a broader audience. Insatiable may have been cathartic for her, but it was painful for many others who were hoping to connect with something meaningful.

How do I talk about the things that hurt me without drawing more attention to them? Does criticizing harmful content inevitably encourage hate-watching?

And when showrunners respond to valid criticism, it’s always with the same excuse: they are very sorry that their art has hurt people, but at least we’re now discussing important issues. 13 Reasons Why creator Brian Yorkey believes in graphically depicting traumatic incidents because “talking about it is so much better than silence.” And Insatiable’s Lauren Gussis says that her intention in making art is to “spark conversation through satire and comedy. Because then at least people are talking about it and not brushing it under the rug, and airing it out.” She also feels that growth “comes from discomfort and pain.”

It doesn’t have to. At least, not from the way in which Insatiable and 13 Reasons Why use discomfort and pain. While both these showrunners’ intentions seem noble, they don’t diminish the harm that this art has caused. There are other ways to break down stigmas. We can make room for thoughtful and nuanced conversations around social issues the way that One Day at a Time, Crazy Ex- Girlfriend or My Mad Fat Diary make it happen: with humour, sensitivity and empathetic honesty.

The reboot of One Day at a Time addresses racism, LGBT experiences, and mental illness through the portrayal of a Cuban-American family. Crazy Ex-Girlfriend tackles feminism and mental illness through satirical Broadway-style musical numbers, and My Mad Fat Diary succeeds where Insatiable fails — the British series is a raw look at the life of a 16-year-old girl who struggles with coming to terms with her eating disorder and related mental health issues.

So, where does that leave us with harmful media? What do we do when all the petitions and negative reviews in the world can’t stop the renewal of a series like Insatiable?

This isn’t a love letter to television; it’s a call to stop amplifying bad content. I acknowledge that perhaps that’s exactly what I have done by writing this piece, but while I have provided a list of harmful material, I have also offered relevant alternatives. Don’t hate-watch harmful content. Doing so gives a series the viewership it relies on to get renewed. Don’t make Insatiable your guilty pleasure.