"I think we are, as a society, getting very close to the dangers of censorship," notes Lauren Gussis, whose Netflix dramedy has been accused of “fat-shaming.”
[This story contains mild spoilers from season one of Netflix's Insatiable.]
The controversy surrounding Netflix's Insatiable sparked well before the dark comedy's Aug. 10 premiere date.
Originally ordered to pilot by The CW but picked up by the streamer after the broadcast network passed, the series follows a bullied teen (Patty, played by Debby Ryan) who loses 70 pounds, becomes a beauty queen (coached by Dallas Roberts' disgraced lawyer-turned-pageant expert) and exacts revenge on everyone who has wronged her.
After the trailer was released, an immediate backlash began — a Change.org petition has received more than 228,000 signatures (and counting) — as many have taken issue with Insatiable' for perpetuating the "toxicity of diet culture," and the "objectification of women's bodies." Reviews of the series have skewered it as "poorly done and misguided." (At press time, the series had a staggeringly bad 7 percent score among critics on RottenTomatoes.com.)
Creator Lauren Gussis, an eight-season veteran of Showtime's Dexter, spoke with The Hollywood Reporter about how her deeply personal story is a "cautionary tale" about how people's worst enemies are often themselves. "I wanted to poke at all those issues through comedy. But every single one of the issues that these characters struggle with — from eating disorders to body dysmorphia, to sexuality to needing outside power and validation, to wanting to be perfect, to mental illness — I have struggled with every single one of those things," Gussis tells THR.
She continues, "It was important to me to just let them all be out in the world, and in a world that I created, where they get to enact all of their terrible impulses to fill a hole. Because as someone who has struggled with all of them, I know my first thought is probably not the right thing. What happens if you act that way? I come from an eating disorder. My brain, about that stuff, is broken. There, of course, is the aspirational tale of someone who is fully healed and who does the right thing all the time. But my truth is that because of all the messages I got fed about the way that I should look or the way that I should be, I got miswired, and the impulses are not good. Then, I got to play them all out to show how damaging that actually can be."
Below, Gussis — who says her inclusive writers' room included men and women who have had eating disorders — outlines why she disagrees with the petition, why she believes the series needed to use fat-shaming language to make its point and more.
What do you think of the complaints that the show is body-shaming and triggering people with eating disorders?
Everybody is entitled to their opinion. I can only tell my own story in my own voice. I understand why it's such a hot button topic. I'm angry about all those issues, too. That's why I wrote the thing. That's why Patty's a rage monster character. That's embodying my rage at the way that these issues have been handled in society for such a long time. I get it. Every single person who was upset, I wanted to hug them and tell them I get it, and that's what I'm going for.
The other piece of it in terms of the trailer, by showing that story of somebody who suddenly loses a lot of weight and becomes hugely popular overnight, to the people that are like, "We've seen that story before." Yes, I am showing the trope, so that then we can comment on it. Because if you don't show the trope, then you can't comment on it, because you don't have context. But I think over the course of the season, this isn't a story that we've seen before.... I wanted to tell in theory a story where the characters' desires are deeply rooted in real human emotion, but the things that happen are so crazy that it's less scary to have a conversation when you know you're in a world that isn't quite reality. It's over the top, so it's OK to talk about it, because the stakes are somehow lower than talking about something that's really grounded and dramatic. It gives people a safe space to talk about these issues.
People are mad, and they're talking about it. I appreciate the room for the conversation. That's my intention with 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. They have the opportunity to eventually find out how somebody else feels about an issue. Then ultimately, they feel more connected to each other. That's the goal: to feel more connection, to feel more community. Not to alienate anybody, but to invite as many people in under the tent to, yes, share your feelings. I want to hear it. Then, hopefully people feel less alone.
In getting to those revelations that you're talking about, there is a lot of fat-shaming language. That's still there, even if ultimately the message you want to show is that it's not right.
That's the reality of what still happens. There's a lot of people in this country who are evolved. But I know that my experience was that there are still people in the world who think that stuff is OK. To portray those people who actually exist in the world, is real. I think we're in a real danger of censorship if we decide that we all have to tell stories in a certain way so that everybody else feels safe. In my own experience, growth comes from discomfort and pain. It's present in nature. Like a snake shedding its skin, it's literally tearing itself from its old self, to emerge in a different way. That is not comfortable. If hearing these things are uncomfortable, I get it. They're sensitive. The wound is deep, but I don't think the solution is silencing myself or somebody else. I think the solution is saying the thing, so that we can talk about it. Is representing the truth, as opposed to some other idealized version of the truth that isn't really true, which actually pushes us even further away from having an honest conversation and coming to a deeper understanding of each other.
You've said that you wanted to show another type of disordered eating other than anorexia and bulimia. But it's hard to do that if it's just treated as a punchline. Like, "Oh, she's sad, so she's going to eat now." Can you show the nuance?
It was not, "Oh, she's sad. She's gonna eat now." It's like she's been holding on this entire time. We haven't actually seen her do the thing, because she had somebody who believed in her. What it took in my own recovery was having people who loved me before I could love myself, and that's Bob for Patty. Bob becomes the thing that replaces the food for her. She says [in the pilot].... "Without the weight, I feel like a raw nerve." And he says, "You don't have to worry about that, because now you have me." And I know for me, as someone who identifies as a food addict, it's a whack-a-mole thing. If I put down one thing, I replace it with another thing, and Patty replaces the food with Bob. He becomes her security blanket.
[In a scene in the second half of the season where Patty relapses into binge-eating], it's not a punchline. The way that we shot that scene, it's one continuous shot so that we could show what it actually looks like for a person who looks like Debby Ryan to eat an entire cake. There was an editor's cut version where they cut so that it wasn't that long, painful, uncomfortable shot, and that played like comedy. That's why there's no music, and that's why all you hear is the sound of her chewing, because — in my experience and in the experience of other people who are on set, by the way — that's what a real binge looks like. It's quiet and it's sad and it's ugly.
The other thing that we were really conscious of doing is we wanted every single teenage girl to know that this isn't movie magic. Debby Ryan is gonna eat an entire cake. We're not faking it. She's actually doing it, and she still gets to go out in the world and be beautiful and successful, and she ate an entire cake, and there's no shame in that. At certain points, everybody reaches a low point where they're gonna do something like that. I don't mean to say "everybody," but other people. If you have eaten an entire cake when you've been at a low point, you're not alone, and it's not because you're gross and it's not because there's something inherently broken about you. Somebody like Debby is a role model for other people — in her life, not the character of Patty. We show an actual actress doing that. For me, it was profound, and for Debby it was profound. It was really important for us to pay respect to that moment.
Obviously this is a heightened world. This is a show filled with humor. Do you think that you can establish enough to make it clear what her disordered eating is, to make that clear that this is something like that?
I know for myself, until I got help for my eating disorder I didn't even know that [other eating disorders existed]. I never would've identified as a bulimic because I didn't throw up, and then I found out exercise bulimia was a thing. I used to work out for hours and hours and hours so I could create a deficit so I could eat more. This was a term I didn't know existed. So if you would've shown me in my life before I got help, it would've looked slippery. I think that we have, in culture, only been given a certain reference point for what eating disorders look like, and so in terms of having enough time and space to show what her disorder looks like, her eating disorder looks the way it looks. It doesn't need to look just a certain way.
Even the show also takes place in a short amount of time, so we want her to fall off the wagon. And given many seasons of the show we'll see more of the deeper nuances of what that looks like. But it's not a show about eating disorders. It's a character who has this thing. She has a hole to fill just like every single other character in the show. And so it looks like how it looks. I knew if I had been a teenager, I'd have been like, "Oh, this is what it looks like. That's a thing." I might've been like, "Oh, there may be a place for me to go." But I didn't go anywhere because I didn't know it was a thing. I just thought that I had no willpower.
Patty becomes skinny before she's able to recognize her disordered eating, to recognize these things that are happening to her. Isn't that just perpetuating the idea that you need to be thin? Why was it important for her to look like Debby Ryan to have these epiphanies versus looking like a fat person who comes to terms with this?
My experience of myself was that I thought that when I looked a certain way I would feel OK. And I think we show Patty as a fat person disordered already. When she passes out in the gym in the pilot, she says, "I went on a cleanse. I started counting my steps." That's what my eating disorder looked like. And that's a [girl] trying to fix herself. And I'm not saying that that's a good impulse. I'm not saying that girls should have to feel like Patty felt, like, "My life will start when." That's how I felt. "When I look a certain way, my life will start," and I think a lot of people feel that way, whether it be about their weight or something else. "My life will start when I get the job. My life will start when I get the guy or girl. My life will start when I get the house and the car," whatever.
So it was emblematic of that idea, and then she gets it in a way that she never would've expected. And then people treat her differently, and it doesn't make her feel better, and then she's full of rage. So the reason that was important to me was what happens when you get the thing that you think you might not ever get but you think that you'll be OK and you're still not OK? So she had to get it, because if she didn't get it, then that's different story, and that's not my story.
But it was only by losing the weight that she was able to have this epiphany.
Well, there wouldn't have been a "why now?" for her in this story had she not. The "why now?" for her is, "I got the thing that I thought I wanted, and it doesn't make me better." If she didn't get the thing she thought she wanted, there'd be no place for her to get angry about it. There'd be no place for her to recognize how damaging those messages were. I mean, maybe there's another place. There's another version of that story certainly, that's just not my story. My story was I woke up to the fact that it was a lie, because I had it.
This is not just about weight, by the way. It's about any time I get the thing that I think, "If things were different I'd be happy," and then things are different, and there's still more work to do. I mean, honestly, it plays against the messages that society tells us.
I was very interested in telling a story about someone who people assume that there's a good — just because she's heavy doesn't mean she's a bad person. You should look underneath the hood. But what happens when she's not really that good of a person? She never focused on working on herself. She just was like, "Oh, I'm miserable because people don't treat me well." Bob assumes because she's beautiful on the outside, she's beautiful on the inside, and he's wrong. He judges the book by its cover positively, and it's a Frankenstein story, just like the kids at school judged her for her outsides when she was heavier negatively when they didn't have any idea who she was underneath. It cuts both ways, is what I'm saying.
Other people treat her differently when she's thinner. If other people had treated her differently when she was heavier, that would've been a different thing, but in this story, which I think is still very much a reality despite all of us wanting — I think that there are a lot of people who are more evolved, and I think that that's awesome and I think things are changing, but I don't think we're there yet. To deny the fact that it's still a reality that people treat you differently based on how you look just isn't the truth, and I would rather show what's the truth than try to sweep it under the rug and show some shiny version, because I still want people to talk about what's actually still happening.
But do you want that to change?
Of course I want it to change. I am drawing from a long history of people who show the truth about what's broken about the system in order to comment on how the system needs to change. By just showing what the change looks like, I don't want to sermonize anybody. I don't want to tell them how they should be. I just want to show what the damage is and how that can play out into the dark abyss of the truth. I think that is the history of satire, and I think that that kind of stuff does make people mad, but I think if we only show the bright and shiny version we can't actually dig out the wound and clean it up. So I'm trying to dig out the wound.
So you're trying to dig out the wound, and what do you think the next step is? What does the next piece in helping change this societal portrayal of fat people, what does that look like to you?
I think the next step is talking about the idea that it's an inside job, right? Like, where the series ends is the time Patty comes to terms with the fact that it doesn't matter what her outside looks like unless she cleans up the insides. I think we need to get her there. I think her journey of like, "OK, if I'm going to be beautiful, I need to start from the inside out" and really taking her on that journey.
But does that help when the people around her are treating her terribly if she's fat? Shouldn't the message be people should not treat people terribly?
I think that is the message. I mean, look what happens when you treat her so badly. She turns into a really violent, angry person and that's every action has an equal and opposite reaction, but I also think that in art, "should" is a very, very dangerous word. I think that if we try to tell people how they should tell their stories, if we try to silence them, then we are doing the opposite of what art needs to do, which is to spark conversation and I think we are, as a society, getting very close to the dangers of censorship. And I think that if we tell people, and artists specifically, that you can only tell a story in a certain way and you are only allowed to tell a story in a way that makes me feel comfortable, then we're never offering ourselves an opportunity to grow and that artists have the right and the obligation to tell their own truths and not be told that they should tell it a certain way.
I have a long history of being told that "you're too much," physically or emotionally or spiritually. I'm too much. I'm too out of the box. Get back in the box. Do it the right way. Do it the way that makes everybody feel comfortable and that was related to my insides and my outsides. It was very important for me to express it in a way that I express it because I don't think anybody should tell another person that they're too much or they're too big or they're too small or they're not enough. The feeling of being told that I'm too much led to a feeling of me feeling like not enough. And for me this is the show expressing I am exactly who I am. These characters are exactly who they are and I hope that the takeaway message from the show is whoever you are, you be that. Nobody's too much. Nobody's too little. Everybody's a human being on a journey.
To go back to what you were saying before, put another way it sounds like fat people should be happy with themselves so that other people won't bully them. Fat people should do the work, and it's their fault for not feeling good about themselves.
I didn't say that.
No, but that is a way one can interpret that statement.
I didn't say that at all. I think that everybody needs to do the work on the inside to be a better person, including the people who are the bullies. I mean, the people who are the bullies in this show are villains. Like, there's no part of me that has made anybody a hero whose [behavior is bad]. Dixie Sinclair, who's the worst of the fat shamers in the show, is a horrible person who has been raised by a horrible person. She gets her comeuppance. I think that in terms of punishing the people in the show who are the worst, they get their comeuppance. There's no part of me that's condoning that behavior. In fact, I have infused it into the villains of the show. And the people that do have it, they get redeemed for it by the ones who vocally say that they've had a change of heart and they recognize the error of their ways.
Brick actually apologizes to Patty. Nobody ever says like, "Hey, that was cool that you did that." Or like, "Hey, that's funny." Or like, "I like that." Or "I agree with that." I think everybody is forced to take a look inside of themselves. I would never say that fat people should be happy with themselves [so other people won't bully them]. What I'm saying is, my journey is that I realized I personally did not have a food problem. I had a life problem and I was using food to coat my feelings and protect myself from the things that I did not want to look at in myself. That was my journey. So I'm telling the story of Patty, who realizes that maybe there was a reason she was eating and that maybe she needs to take a look at cleaning all of that out for herself because not doing that is far more dangerous than being fat.
That's from me. That's my experience. I'm not making a general statement about fat people. I just think that for every single person in the show, it's an inside job and that's how we evolve as humans and that's how we become better people and that's how we get to know each other.
Insatiable is now streaming on Netflix.