This year marks the first time that I’ve made a point to have a Netflix account. It started with me opening what must have been my eighth account under a different email address for another free trail and after I ended up getting charged for one month since I forgot to cancel it, I figured I might as well give this service a try for a year. Thus I too have taken to binge-watch sessions after work well into the early hours of the morning of many shows and movies.
For the most part I’ve taken to watching anime and catching up on shows that my friends were raving about years before, like Sherlock. Yes, I’m “tardy to the party” but hey at least I’m here now, haha. Anyway, I say all this because Netflix originals were on the very bottom of my “To Watch” list and with shows like Insatiable being produced by the service, I feel that I was right in not going that route with my new streaming binge-watching habit.
Honestly, when the online petition reached 100,000 signatures back in July I believed that the show would never be an option to be streamed on Netflix but obviously this didn’t stop production. Sure this is old news by this point but it still warrants a bit more discussion as it demonstrates the significance of narratives that are presented to an audience – well, at least I think it does.
The basic plot of the show is as follows: a formerly overweight teenager turned beauty queen sets out to get revenge on everyone who tormented her when she was bigger. According to the creator, the show is meant to tackle major social issues attached to weight and fat-shaming through comedy and satire. She has even gone on the record to say that the backlash the show got at the release of its trailer was nothing more than a form of censorship. [Insert eye-roll here]
Given the show’s premise I simply can’t watch it morally, but I don’t really need to watch it to know that while it is meant to be a fat-girl revenge story it just fails on many levels. For one, the entire cast is made up of thin women. Yes, even the former-fat protagonist that is meant to somehow bring about a message of female empowerment is a thin actress in a bodysuit. Then we have said protagonist essentially go through crash diet, as a result of having her mouth wired shut no less, in order to lose enough weight for her to gain a socially ideal body which she basically weaponizes to get her revenge. Honestly, who asked for this to be a thing?
If this really was meant to be a satirical story where a plus size girl gets revenge, probably à la Carrie in tone, why couldn’t the protagonist just stay plus sized? Not only that, but why couldn’t the role go to a plus size actress? It would make for a much more interesting story for the character to unlearn societal beauty norms and embrace self love while revealing that the fatphobia she suffered through was actually done by closeted fat fetishists/lovers. It would also be a stronger image to show her winning the beauty pageant over her thinner competitors. And while I’m not going to really get into this now (because we’ll be here all day), the decision to go with an adjective like “insatiable” for a title makes it very clear that the team behind it was just beyond ignorant of how offensive this whole thing is. I mean its 2018, we should be better than this by now!
Interestingly enough, around the same time Insatiable got enough people to hate-watch it to be renewed for a second season, another series was released alongside of it that went about unnoticed with a narrative that could be argued to being one that attempts steps towards body positivity. The Japanese drama, Switched was adapted from a manga entitled, Sora wo Kakeru Yodaka, and being only 6 episodes long making it is a quick binge. The basic premise is that 16 year old Ayumi gets her body stolen by her plus sized classmate, Umine who covets Ayumi’s popularity, her beauty and her new boyfriend.
Granted body-switching is not an original idea by any means and with one of the bodies in question being that of a thin, conventionally beautiful woman that makes it even less so. Yet what makes the narrative here interesting is its subtle commentary of the value society places on appearance with a dark supernatural twist. Unlike some of the body-switching tales of the past which use this as an accidental scenario for the benefit of comedy, this one has it the switch be done on purpose by an antagonist with malicious intent brought on by an incredibly negative self image.
The reason why this series stands out as body positive to me is the act that Ayumi does not lament the fact that she is in a bigger body, or the lost of her “beauty status,” rather she is more upset that her life, family and boyfriend are taken from her. She doesn’t even start thinking negatively about her appearance until the minute her classmates pick on her for it and she begins to second guess if they were only friendly because of the way she looked and not because of who she is. This idea is only re-forced by Umine’s response to studying her body up close when she is confronted by Ayumi after the switch. It is an interaction that is both heartbreaking and relatable for anyone who has ever gone through a period of self hate.
Without going too much into spoiler territory, the first person to recognize her after the switch was not her childhood-friend turned boyfriend, Koshiro, who claimed to love her so much but her other childhood friend, Kaga. How does he figure it out? By basically being such observant friend who can identify such things like a person’s handwriting. As the one person to believe Ayumi that her body has been taken, he makes it his mission to not only help Ayumi get her body back but also help her gain some sense of self love and hope while she struggles with her current situation. He also delivers one of the most empowering lines in the series:
“It doesn’t matter what you look like! I’ll be by your side!” – Kaga
I grew up around some people that would not hang out with me because my “appearance embarrassed them” so I’m not going to lie, hearing that line made me tear up a bit.* The series also wins major points in its realistic portrayal of how the insecurities of a parent can transfer over to their child which in turn can distort their self image, and overall outlook on life. This is especially progressive for a series coming from Asia where thin body ideals are celebrated and considered the height of beauty.
Even though the series takes great strides towards being a body positive narrative, it does have its weak points just like any other. For example, as you could expect with a series that has suicide via jumping off buildings as the trigger for body-switching, depictions of the act leave very little to the imagination. I should note that it doesn’t happen often and its not done just for kicks rather to highlight the sheer brutality involved in the act of switching.
I’m not sure if Netflix realizes about the contradictions found in their streaming queues, yet with the recent release of the Dumplin’ trailer, I feel like they are slowly realizing their unique position in the entertainment industry that gives them the opportunity to present a different kind of narrative that can go against the offensive fatphoic mainstream. One that will hopefully encourage even the more established film makers and television networks to follow suit.
*I should note that this is a sentiment that he later extends to Umine at the end of series. I also will say this, after everything that happens in this series Kaga definitely deserved so much better in the end. People have been talking about finding a guy like Peter Kavinsky meanwhile I’m over here looking for my Kaga.
Have you watched either Insatiable or Switched on Netflix? What did you think about the kinds of narratives they decided to present?
ABOUT THE +SIZE MATTERS SERIES: Whether or not we are conscious of it, what we consume as entertainment has a great impact on our personal growth and identity. In many cases media literacy has been dismissed to be unnecessary, yet the truth remains that media influences social ideals and constructs of such concepts as gender, race and body ideals. Disregarding the significance of media in turn promotes the continuation of stereotypes and fosters a negative self-image especially in girls and women. Critical media consumption aids the fight against the over-sexualization, and under-representation of women, that can lead to the creation of works that aid female empowerment. It all starts with us. With that in mind, “+ Size Matters” will analyze past and present plus size representation in media as doing so sheds light on the beauty/body standards and stereotypes that still need to be broken.