“Skinny is magic” is a sentence used twice in the first episode of the Netflix’s new show Insatiable.
It’s beyond problematic, and it’s also just the tip of the iceberg as to why this TV show is so damaging. However, after speaking to an expert about the issues it raises, I discovered it’s also an excellent teaching opportunity for parents.
Netflix faced significant backlash online after releasing the first trailer for their new original TV series because it promotes ‘fat-shaming‘ – despite what the creators claim. The 12-episode series follows a high school student named Patty, who is nicknamed ‘Fatty Patty’ by classmates and bullied for her weight. Everything changes, however, when she’s punched in the face and has to have her jaw wired shut. When Patty (Debby Ryan) returns to school after summer break, she’s thin, ‘hot’ and thirsty for revenge against her bullies.
That is seriously the plot of a show that Netflix has made in 2018.
Revenge is the main aim of the game and it’s served cold, not just in terms of Patty’s emotions but also as in “a cold, dead fish.” Forget about the fat-shaming for a moment; the show is utterly uninspiring, and completely bereft of humour. There’s no wit. There’s no sass. There’s actually even barely a plausible plot.
One of its taglines is “it’s a coming of rage story”.
But as all parents know, the more controversial a show is, the more likely it is that our kids will want to watch it. So, anticipating that it will be discussed by his mates at school, I sat down with my 11-year-old to watch the first episode of Insatiable.
From the first scene I wanted to turn it off, but I hung in there because I believe in teaching my son resilience. (Yes, I mean that tongue in cheek.)
So how did my son feel watching it? Well, here are the questions he asked me:
- Why are you making me watch this? It’s not even funny. Isn’t it meant to be a comedy?
- Why do they make her look bad just because she’s overweight? People who aren’t skinny don’t look sad and wear horrible clothes all the time. Just like you, mum. You always look beautiful. (Yes, he wanted something from me.)
- I know lots of people who look like that who are happy and don’t get picked on for being fat.
- Why is Patty so mean when she’s skinny? I thought she would be happier now that people are being nice to her?
My response? “I’m just as confused as you are, buddy.”
— insatiable (@insatiable_) August 8, 2018
If I was confused by the mean-spirited, uninspiring and socially irresponsible show, I could see how my tween had so many questions – but I wasn’t sure of the right answers to give him.
So I asked an expert. I spoke to the CEO of Relationships Australia, Elizabeth Shaw, about the show and she had some excellent ideas on how to talk about it with impressionable tweens and teens.
“The show is an excellent opportunity to start a discussion with your child about the conflicting messages the world sends them,” she said.
“Rather than simply rejecting what the show asserts, talk about how it feels to not be in ‘the cool group’, or to be teased for being you.”
Shaw observed that the show is about “the fun and horror of revenge”, and how interesting it is that when Patty changes into someone outwardly ‘attractive’, she actually becomes a terrible person. But that’s something she thinks can make for useful conversation.
“You can talk about how, if a person has the attribute which make them fit into the popular group, they can still be good on the inside”, she said, adding that the principle also applies in the opposite situation.
“A person so-called ‘blessed’ with those qualities can still be community-minded, gracious, and empathetic. Similarly, just because someone doesn’t fit that ‘ideal’, doesn’t mean they are sad and bitter, or even unlikable.”
If the show raises issues that a child has been experiencing, Shaw emphasised that it’s important to not “gloss over” their feelings, but to allow them to process them.
“That’s how parents can build resilience. Not by dismissing an experience, but by acknowledging how it effected their child, and talking about how to move forward.”
In that way, Patty is an excellent example of what not to do.
"We want our kids to be strong from the inside out," said Shaw.
But if the hurt is too deep, and a situation unrecoverable, as it seems to be with Patty, Shaw encouraged parents to engage professionals through the school or privately, so everyone can work together.
"As a parent, ask yourself, how do I help my child in the face of this?"
Patty receives no such acknowledgement in Insatiable, hence her revenge rampage. Shaw explained that revenge is essentially an attempt to show someone how deeply they have hurt another - to get an empathetic reaction. But children will benefit much more if they look elsewhere for more constructive validation.
"It's so important for children to have multiple sources of self-esteem. It's not just school and home. Via social activities, and other social groups. They need to have a social life that is productive, and an identity that's their own, so it can't be easily eroded by just one group."
Shaw added, "That's how self esteem that is teflon coated is achieved."
The other important thing parents can do is be realistic. "If there is a weight issue, engage with that in an empowering way. Don't just say 'ignore people' - that's not helpful advice alone."
"We can absolutely talk about weight without relying on 'the skinny ideal'."
If only Patty - and Netflix - knew that.
Insatiable is currently available to watch on Netflix.