Two weeks ago, Netflix inadvertently created an Internet firestorm with the first trailer for Insatiable. The dark-comedy series from Dexter writer/producer Lauren Gussis centers on Patty, an angry teenage outcast (played by former Disney star Debby Ryan) who, after losing a considerable amount of weight, seeks revenge on the classmates who scorned her. The nearly two-minute trailer depicts Pattys dramatic makeover through the prism of so many Hollywood high-school comedies before it—the “before” showing Ryan in a fat suit being pelted with insults, and the “after” in which a slimmed-down Ryan struts down a high-school hallway in slow-mo as her male classmates ogle her.
Based on the trailer alone, critics accused Insatiable of fat-shaming and launched a change.org petition urging Netflix to shelve the series, which is scheduled to premiere on August 10. Over 200,000 people have signed the document, having determined that Insatiable perpetuates the narrative that women and girls need to be thin “in order to be popular, have friends, to be desirable for the male gaze, and to some extent be a worthy human.”
But this is a misconception, according to the shows creator. “The trailer is not representative of the show as a whole, but it is a representation of where the story starts,” explained Gussis. “The story is not somebody gets thin, becomes happy, and gets everything she wants. Its actually quite the opposite, but the story has to start somewhere.”
The shows full 12-episode season, Gussis would have you know, actually satirizes this “makeover montage” nonsense. Yes, there are scenes of Patty slow-mo strutting down a hallway—but in the series itself, they are explicitly a fantasy, juxtaposed against the disappointing reality of life after being handed what you thought was the only missing piece of your existential puzzle. Within the first six minutes of the premiere, Patty is skinny—the result of a freak incident—and the fat suit Ryan wears is thankfully gone. But Patty finds she is just as unhappy as she was before—dealing with a single, alcoholic mother; crippling bouts of insecurity; and a bottomless pit of anger.
“So many of the messages I believed as a kid growing up were, if you fix your outside, suddenly youre a good person,” said Gussis, who has struggled with binge-eating since the age of 12. Gussis grew up in Chicago during the 80s—the same ZIP code and zeitgeist as John Hughess beloved teen characters—and believed, “If I only looked this way, or did this thing, I would be a popular 17-year-old girl.” But “the more attention I put on dieting or exercise, the less attention I put on my inside. Then I got angrier and angrier and I didnt understand why.”
With Insatiable, Gussis wanted to deconstruct the myth fed to impressionable adolescent moviegoers yearning to fit in. “Pattys actually more miserable because now she doesnt have any protection. She has no tools. People assume things about her because she looks a certain way, but she doesnt know who she is; she never really did. She focused all her attention on what things would be like if only. Then she gets the if only, and it doesnt fix her. Now shes even more mad and devastated, so shes behaving very badly.”
Though Gussis was professionally known for inhabiting the mindsets of serial killers while writing Showtimes criminal drama Dexter, she found herself continually pitching projects about teenagers—because, she said, she still felt 17 inside. Insatiable tracks two characters, Patty—whom Gussis refers to as “the demon of my inner bullied teenager”—and Bob (Dallas Roberts), a disgraced pageant coach loosely inspired by Bill Alverson, the real-life “Pageant King of Alabama.” Patty and Bobs paths converge when Bob—who is battling his own demons—latches onto Patty as his hope at professional vindication.
Patty, for her part, doesnt mind the attention of a male, regardless of his age and marital status. “Every single one of the characters is insatiable for something,” explained Gussis. “Every single one of the characters is looking for outside validation, and only the ones who end up behaving well are the ones who actually make a real discovery about who they really are.”
It was only after creating Insatiable, and piloting her avatar through her teenage selfs “crazy fever-dream revenge fantasy,” that Gussis finally felt her age. “I got to see how it turned out”—had she gotten attention for her looks in high school—and “it didnt turn out great. Thats what was healing. Thats the thing that released me.”
In addition to being an avatar for Gussis, Patty also proved to be an antidote to the teenage archetypes she had seen onscreen growing up.
“I thought that if you werent anorexic or bulimic, you didnt have an eating disorder . . . I think its important to show a character who has disordered eating who doesnt necessarily fall into one of the common categories or look the way I thought people with eating disorders looked. If I had seen a character like this, who kind of moved through space and looked different than what I assumed, I might have gotten help for myself sooner,” said Gussis, who did not seek it until she was in her 20s. It was only then—when “connecting with other people through my pain and vulnerability”—that her insides began to feel better.
“I always had issues with my body and weight. I was always in the 90th percentile for weight. I always felt bad about it. I was bullied when I was a teenager. My friends dumped me. I felt alone without the protection of friends or being one of the popular girls. I got attacked a lot. I think that made me isolate, and I think food became a solution to that for sure.”
Given her journey and how deeply personal the series is, the backlash to Insatiable understandably stung Gussis. “I completely understand the idea of people being triggered by seeing someone bullied and being shamed for anything,” she said. “Sometimes all it takes is one small thing to completely put you back inside the experience you had, even if that thing isnt actually happening. So I have compassion for that . . . I mean, Ive experienced that over the course of this journey myself, more than one time, where I have been triggered and feel like Im right back in the same emotional place I was when I was 13.
“I have so much compassion for everyone who has feelings about this issue,” Gussis continued. “I want this to be a starting point for a conversation. I had a lot of mentors who encouraged me to tell my stories. I encourage other people to tell their story.” Netflix, too, has echoed her while defending the series: “Lauren Gussis, who is the creator, felt very strongly about exploring these issues based on her own experiences, but in a satirical, over-the-top way,” exec __ Cindy Holland__ said over the weekend at the Television Critics Associations summer press tour. “Ultimately, the message of the show is that what is most important is that you feel comfortable in your own self. Fat-shaming itself, that criticism, is embedded in the DNA of the show.”
As for packaging Pattys eating issues in a comedy, Gussis said she believes “the solution to more darkness is more light”—and acknowledged that the punch lines might make some audience members uncomfortable. (In one scene, Pattys best friend suggests celebrating a birthday by getting “sheet-faced,” which means sharing an entire sheet cake.) “There is a history in satire of using humor to poke at things that we feel need to be brought to the surface,” she said. “When I feel alone or isolated, I want to stuff my face so I dont have to have the feelings that I numb out. If Im laughing, Im not alone, so then I dont have to eat, and then the problem gets alchemized. Thats kind of what Im going for—Im using the laughter to alchemize the problem. In terms of making this a comedy, I think it for me was the only way to do it.”
Not every subject is fodder for laughter; a scene in which Pattys body dysmorphia kicks in, and she finds herself cowering in a dressing room filled with self-hatred, is treated sensitively. “Nobodys targeting Fatty Patty,” assured Gussis. “We actually have her best friend hold her and tell her that shes beautiful no matter what. It was creating a balance between the wild comedy and then the emotion and heart.”
If people dont like the dark-comedy tone of Insatiable, Gussis said, “I can only tell my story in my voice and emotionally what I relate to. I think that once people see the show, they will understand how deeply I understand all of the things theyre actually upset about. Maybe their journey didnt happen when they were a teenager. Maybe the details werent exactly the same, but the emotions were. . . . I just want people to feel less alone. I want them to connect. If I had seen some of these journeys or these characters when I was a teenager, I totally would have felt more O.K.”
Before Ryan officially signed on to play Patty, the actress approached Gussis with a concern.
“She said that she had personal experience with a lot of these issues, and wanted to make sure that we were treating them and the character respectfully,” recalled Gussis. “I said, Oh, trust me, Im protective of her too. Shes me.
“Debby kind of cocked her head at me, and I told her my story, and then she shared some of her story, and then we both cried. . . . Were coming at this from a really honest, authentic place. The specifics arent exactly the same, but the similarities are always more important than the differences. In our similarities, we found this healing and beautiful creative relationship.”
Asked whether she imagined Insatiable would stoke such an Internet outcry, Gussis said, “I think the size of the reaction is the size of the wound. Did I know the wound was this big? No. I only know my own wound and how much I wanted to share it with the purpose of connecting.”
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Julie MillerJulie Miller is a Senior Hollywood writer for Vanity Fairs website.