Beauty Pageant

(Wikipedia/Creative Commons)

Dear Netflix,

You did it again. That thing we talked about. The exploitation thing, you know? The one where you commercialize on the trend of “empowerment” by selling audiences emotionally-damaging story lines — while also telling those audiences that these disquieting portrayals are what true liberation looks like?

How many times are we going to have this conversation?

When I first saw commercials for Insatiable, the story of how “A bullied teenager named Patty (Debby Ryan) seeks revenge when she loses weight after an incident forces her to have her mouth wired shut”, I was floored. How audacious of you to design an entire series around the “revenge body” trope, to recklessly portray binge-eating disorders, to perpetuate constant fatphobia — and then tell us that this series, because it is “satirical,” is somehow liberating?

Even the name is audacious. Do you think “Insatiable” is a clever title for a series about a fat girl with an eating disorder who loses 70 pounds because she is physically incapable of eating? Do you think it’s clever to imply that she could have easily lost that weight all on her own if she could just control herself? If she could master her big, fat, insatiable appetite?

Are you suggesting that all she really needed was a more efficient eating disorder?

Netflix, you seem to enjoy making clever jokes at the expense of fat people.

You insist this show is a critique of how society mistreats fat people, and that we should feel empowered. And yet, you didn’t even hire ONE fat actor or actress for this series.You just put Debby Ryan in a fat suit and thanked yourself for giving us this radical, feminist representation of fatness.To make matters worse, you then took Debby Ryan out of her fat suit, stuck her skinny butt in a beauty pageant, and called it feminism.

You don’t seem to understand that beauty pageants will never be a site of female liberation, no matter how many fat girls join in. After all, the beauty pageant is an institution literally built around appraising women’s physical appearances. We don’t need more scrutiny of fat women’s bodies. We need less scrutiny of all women’s bodies.

In fact, we need less of a whole lot of what you’re doing, Netflix.

I had higher hopes for Dumplin, which boasts not one, not two, but three fat actresses — despite its continued reliance on the ‘fat outcast joins beauty pageant to get revenge on beautiful people’ trope. As if we needed another reminder of how much it offends thin people when fat people dare to make themselves publicly visible.

Netflix, you thought it would make us feel good to see Bo, a thin and stereotypically-attractive man, pursuing the fat protagonist Willowdean. You think you should get a gold star just because you put a fat girl and a thin boy in the same room and made them to kiss.

But you didn’t spend any time making us believe in the authenticity of the relationship. If Willowdean doesn’t believe he likes her, maybe it’s because you didn’t think about this as a real romance story: much like queer-baiting, this just comes off as a performative ploy to convince underrepresented audiences that you’re doing us a favor.

You didn’t do us a favor. You just showed Bo pursuing Willowdean, and Willowdean retreating over and over — implying that she was desirable all along, and that the only thing really hurting her was her own shame. Once more, you have managed to gaslight fat people by trying to convince us that it’s all in our heads that others don’t desire us. Like we’re the ones holding ourselves back, instead of the ones being held back.

And all this in the name of love.

Similarly offensive is your tone-deaf, performative decision to give Millie a winning spot in the pageant. You thought you were doing something nice for fat girls, but all you really did was imply once again that we could have been accepted all along if we’d just been “brave” enough to put ourselves out there. Once again, you seem insistent that we are the ones punishing ourselves. Once again, you seem to think it’s empowering for fat girls to have our physical beauty evaluated right alongside the skinny girls. You seem to think we should be thanking you just for letting us fatties stand next to the actual beauty queens.

If I seem ungrateful, it’s because you haven’t done anything that deserves thanking.

More fat-blaming ensues when Willowdean’s thin best friend, Ellen, is accepted into the fold of thin pageant girls and decides that she doesn’t want to help ruin the pageant after all. Willowdean asks her to drop out, complaining that: “you were prancing around like the perfect little pageant girl when that is the opposite of our point… You just wouldn’t get it cause you’re not built for the revolution.”

At this point in the film, I actually thought for a moment: good on you, Netflix.

The moment was fleeting.

I was excited to see an acknowledgement of the reality that physical bodies still move through the world in oppressive ways, even if that is not someone’s conscious intent. An acknowledgement that sometimes true solidarity requires allies to give up their sense of entitlement to visible space in the revolution. After all, Willowdean had painfully carved out a revolutionary space to accommodate herself in a place she was never meant to belong, and Ellen’s was actively reinforcing the status quo.

So when Willowdean says that Ellen isn’t “built for the revolution,” she really means that she doesn’t want Ellen infringing upon the revolutionary space if she isn’t going to act like a revolutionary. Nonetheless, Ellen asserts her belief that somehow she and Willowdean are somehow equally excluded from general membership in the pageant: “Has it occurred to you that I feel just as out of place as you do?”

No it did not, in fact, occur to me that Ellen would feel out of place in a room full of other women who she had embraced and who had embraced her — even as they soundly rejected Millie, Hannah, and Willowdean. Instead of affirming Willowdean’s right to name Ellen’s privilege, the film implies that Willowdean has been the only intolerant one all along. She’s intolerant of her own fatness, intolerant of Millie’s fatness, and intolerant of Ellen and Bo’s thinness.

Ellen, on the other hand, is depicted as more ‘accepting’  than Willowdean: “For your information, Willowdean, I never thought of you as fat.”

Netflix, you make me want to hit my head against a concrete floor. Why do you think that our thin friends are being good friends when theyrefuse to see us?

When I hear “I never thought of you as fat,” I hear: “I’m not willing to see and acknowledge the fact that your body moves through the world differently than mine.” And I hear: “It is more important that you help me avoid the discomfort of acknowledging my power than it is for me to acknowledge your real conditions of existence.”

It isn’t wrong for fat people to hold our thin friends accountable for their privilege. Thin people are not entitled to both the spaces we are kept out of AND the spaces we painstakingly carve out for ourselves. Ellen was welcomed into the beauty pageant, whereas Willowdean fought to be there. So why does Willowdean have to babysit Ellen’s hurt feelings about being left out? And why is Ellen whining about being left out of the revolution when she’s the one who couldn’t decide between being a pageant darling or a revolutionary?

“I’m sorry,” Willowdean says to Ellen towards the end of the film. “I really do want to stop judging.” Ellen gives her a skeptical look.

Netflix, I’m trying to ask nicely. Please stop selling us fat empowerment when all you do is treat fat people as the problem.

PhD student/fist-shaker. My research fields include contemporary US politics and culture, feminist studies, and theory & praxis—with an emphasis on the role of power in discourse. I also teach writing at the University of Oregon.


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