No, Debby Ryan, the Fat Suit in 'Insatiable' is Not Okay
As you’ve probably seen by now, Netflix’s Insatiable has not opened to great reviews. Indeed, it has already been labeled the worst show the streaming service has ever released by some critics. The show faced push-back for its fat shaming synopsis when the trailer was released, which led creator Lauren Gussis to plead with everyone to wait until they could see what the show was really about. Somehow it was even worse than the trailer.
The cast and crew have gone into crisis mode trying to explain the show’s real intentions and now none of us appreciate the satirical majesty of feminist liberation of jokes about false sexual assault made by a woman in a fat suit who gets punched by a tramp after he tried to steal her candy bar. Gussis compared the criticism to censorship, a train of thought that always ends well. Now, it’s Debby Ryan’s turn. The star of the show, a former Disney Channel actress, and the one who dons the fatsuit, has tried to claim the show is body positive already. In an interview with Teen Vogue, she dug the hole that much deeper. First of all, I empathize with Ryan’s talk of her own body and mental struggles in the industry.
Child stars are historically treated like shit and unfortunately that hasn’t changed. And it’s not like we’re expecting her to start criticizing her own show, which is one of the more high-profile gigs she’s had since her Disney Channel days. However, that doesn’t make the wilful ignorance of what she says any better:
‘The actor admits she was skeptical of wearing the suit (which is actually not one suit but several different pieces that are applied on different parts of the body). It was a creative decision, she says, that concerned her for fear “it would almost be done in parody like in Friends.” “There was a point where Lauren and I are like, If at any point this is funny, if at any point people laugh, we’re not doing it. We’re not doing the show that we’re trying to do. We’re just trying to portray an origin story. We’re trying to showcase that,” she explains.’
The thing about this interview is how clearly PR trained Ryan has been for it. That’s not unique to her or any former child star but it feels notable given the immense pushback this show has had and how the people involved are forced to deal with it.
You also get the sense that there were things the interviewer wasn’t allowed to ask. When Ryan talks of how upsetting she found the experience of being able to see how fat people are perceived by society thanks to the fat suit, the interviewer follows that up with, ‘Yet a fat suit is still a removable wardrobe piece; it’s not as simple — or in some cases, even possible — for fat people to change their bodies at will to avoid stigma and abuse.’ That part is so crucial to our understanding of why Insatiable and its use of that really terribly constructed fat suit stings to much for so many: It’s body tourism, a grotesque holiday experience you can take off then go back to ‘normal’ after pretending you experienced what you think is empathy. I’ve no idea if the interviewer said this to Ryan’s face as the piece does not position it as a question or part of their conversation.
And the Friends part? Have you watched that show recently? It’s experienced a minor revival thanks to its availability on Netflix and the younger generation discovering it for the first time. Monica’s past as a fat woman is always positioned as a joke. When you finally get to see Courteney Cox in that fat suit - which looks almost as bad as the one Debby Ryan wears - the audience goes into hysterics. She’s exclusively defined in terms of being fat and worthy of derision. She dances and it’s funny because she’s fat and then she gets tired and has to sit down because she’s fat and it’s funny. Even Chandler, the supposed love of her goddamn life, cracks fat jokes about her throughout the many seasons of the show. There’s no empathy for Monica’s life as a formerly fat woman. It’s just a thing to mock but it’s okay because she’s acceptably hot now.
As noted by almost every critic, Insatiable doesn’t position the protagonist Patty as worthy of love or respect when she’s fat. If the meaningful message is that she was always worthy of love then why is she denied it for the brief moments when she is fat? Why is every joke about her weight? Why, in this show of such staggering ineptitude, is the message of skinniness so consistently reinforced?
This isn’t just an Insatiable problem either. Debby Ryan referring to the use of a fat suit as part of an ‘origin story’ just reveals the driving force of why they’re used so frequently. Society hates fat people, but especially fat women. You can turn on the T.V. at any point during the day and find a panel of identical blonde waifs concern trolling fat women over their health or if stylish plus-size clothing is ‘encouraging obesity’. Magazines and brands love to preach body positivity now that it’s popular but it’s still almost exclusively framed around women who have always fit the narrow standards of traditional beauty (white, cis, skinny but with decent sized boobs, preferably blonde, never visibly ageing but with no obvious signs of surgery). Any conversation around taking on fat shaming will always be met with some size 8 women claiming that skinny shaming is the bigger problem.
You seldom see fat women as the heroes of their own stories in pop culture. Hell, you barely see fat women whose stories aren’t framed exclusively as weight driven. Fat women are perpetually a ‘before’ image in film, T.V. and literature. They’re the thing you should never aspire to because fat equals miserable, lazy, sexless, greedy, and so on. That’s why fat suits are so popular - it means you never have to look at a truly fat woman on screen. You just get to see a gorgeous skinny girl who ‘improves’ herself. Fat is also a transformation, be it through a fat suit or old-school weight gain. It’s laudable when Christian Bale or Charlize Theron gains weight for a role, but only when you get to see them on the red carpet promoting that project looking like their typical selves, svelte and in Dior and okay to find hot again. It’s another way to talk up how you truly embodied your character and how now you understand their plight. Damian Lewis is playing former Toronto Mayor Rob Ford in a movie and he’s wearing a fat suit for it. You can already hear the cries of how ‘brave’ he is, right?
Damian Lewis as Rob Ford is nightmare fuel pic.twitter.com/6s8FIJauTN— rob trench (@robtrench) April 24, 2018
Thanks, I hate it.
True body positivity can never shed its radical roots. It is the act of pushing back against a bigoted society that entraps those who don’t fit the mould into a spiral of shame. It’s the rebellion against a crooked diet industrial complex that promises quick fixes at the cost of true health. It’s a cry for visibility beyond cheap jokes and proto-inspiration porn. It’s the right to live your life without being positioned as something to hate. That’s why real pop culture representation matters. So, instead of Insatiable, watch My Mad Fat Diary or Dietland or read Dumplin’ or the Faith Comics or revisit both versions of Hairspray or party to the music of Beth Ditto. You deserve better than a cheap fat suit and wannabe Ryan Murphy train wreck.
I’m sure Debby Ryan believes the message her show claims to convey, but it’s hard to ignore the inherent problem when she says this all in an interview accompanied by photographs of her looking skinny and stylish and exactly like every other woman her age on a fashion magazine cover.
Header Image Source: Netflix
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