It’s 2018 and nobody wants to see Debby Ryan in a fat suit.
Let’s just get that out of the way first.
Yet that’s how she appears in the 90-second trailer for her new teen show "Insatiable," which premieres August 10 on Netflix. In the promo, released last week, we meet Patty, an apparently miserable, tormented, fat teenager who has her jaw wired shut following an attack in a parking lot. When she returns to school, she’s newly thin and determined to exact revenge on her high school bullies.
The Twitter backlash was swift with some calling the show “fat torture porn” and others citing it as an example of fat tropes that need to be eliminated. One person asked, "Why was it necessary for Patty to lose weight? Why couldn’t a fat person get revenge?"
When I was a teenager, I was a clerk at a video store hellbent on collecting fees from customers who returned movies after our midnight deadline. After closing one night, I was up at the front of the store alone. A man rapped on the window as he dropped his tapes through the outdoor slot.
“I suppose it would be too much to ask for you to move your fat ass over there and check in my tapes,” he yelled through the glass.
I froze and stood there and said nothing in return, but what was going through my mind looked a lot like the 30-second "Insatiable" teaser where Debby Ryan’s Patty takes a sledgehammer to an aisle of snack food. That guy had to be a special kind of shitty to heckle a complete stranger over a $2 late fee and, in that moment, I wanted to smash it all. I wanted to knock over the racks of microwaveable popcorn and smoosh candy bars into the carpet.
And I wanted revenge.
I wondered what the world would look like if that guy would face real consequences for his casual cruelty. “I’d like to kick his ass,” I told my manager.
“Yeah, but you can’t,” he answered.
No, I could not.
What I could do that night was hit the classic movie section and take home the rarely-rented 1975 version of "The Count of Monte Cristo" starring Richard Chamberlain. On the screen, Chamberlain’s Edmond Dantès achieves a type of vengeance not typically possible in real life. He bests his enemies and is able to set his own world right.
I am a fat woman and I love revenge stories.
Revenge narratives very often involve both torment and transformation. A storyteller must give a character both a compelling motive to seek revenge and a mechanism by which to do it. In the case of Edmund Dantès, without the betrayal of Fernand Mondego there would be no need for revenge, and without the transformation to the Count he’d have no way to deliver it.
For anyone wondering what a narrative that shows a fat person deciding that fat is fabulous and resolving to smash the patriarchy looks like, see the masterfully made AMC show "Dietland," based on Sarai Walker’s novel by the same name. It stars Joy Nash as Plum Kettle, a beauty magazine writer who decides to ditch her diet group for a fight club.
As revolutionary as the show feels to me personally, "Dietland" still faces criticism for its weight loss content and the violence associated with its revenge plotline. Writing over on The Muse, Jezebel Managing Editor Megan Reynolds noted that in the show, there “is a strong misandrist, ‘all men must die’ vibe that runs through this in a way that I found alarming.”
Can a fat person get a little revenge these days? I’m not so sure.
In body positive circles, there’s a deep craving for narratives that show fat people in scenarios that don’t involve weight loss. As someone who has been fat all my life, I get this. And I can tell you that later on this year, my butt will absolutely be in a seat at the movie theater on the day that "Dumplin’" is released. Willowdean Dickson, the heroine of Julie Murphy’s bestselling novel, is the cheer-out-loud, fat-and-proud heroine I suspect many people have been waiting for.
But fat people are people, and people have problems. Sometimes we have problems with our bodies and how we perceive them. Some of us have been hurt and humiliated in real life and sending the message that those experiences are tropes or clichés no longer worthy of discussion is hurtful.
In my house, the "Insatiable" trailer dropped as my teenage daughter and her friend were sitting at the kitchen table.
“Look how hard they’re working to make Debby Ryan look awful. It doesn’t make me feel awesome about myself. To be honest,” my daughter said.
“I’d watch it though. To be honest,” said her friend. “For Debby Ryan.”
For critics of the "Insatiable" trailer, there lies the rub — that even teens who are conscious of how media can negatively impact them might tune in because their "Suite Life of Zack and Cody" sweetheart has earned their buy-in.
But there’s an opportunity as well. Debby Ryan is welcome in spaces where fat people are typically excluded -- in the parts of culture that place traditional female beauty standards above almost everything else. Will she carry our message that fat phobia needs to end into those spaces? Will people listen to her who won’t listen to us?
For that reason, I’m willing to give "Insatiable" a chance. I’m willing to see if the show’s creators are being honest when they say they’ll seriously and thoughtfully explore the toxic elements of beauty culture and the consequences of fat shaming and fat phobia. Like many people I, too, am concerned that Debby Ryan’s fat suit implies that there weren’t enough, or maybe any, actual fat people involved in the creation of the show, but I’m willing to talk if there’s a real conversation to be had here.
If Netflix is watching this controversy unfold, I hope their response is not necessarily to shut down "Insatiable" but rather to increase representation of fat people both in front of the camera and behind-the-scenes.
We have stories that need to be told and some of them involve revenge.