After speaking to Insatiable creator Lauren Guiss, you can only come to one conclusion: she is an overwhelmingly well-meaning individual. The former Dexter writer is pro-queer and body-positive, especially after tackling decades of body image issues issues herself, as well as an eating disorder she spoke about on Twitter. Yet, the suburban Chicago native’s brand-new Netflix comedy, about a plus-size teen who rapidly loses 70 pounds and is tossed into the beauty pageant world, has proven to be one of the streaming service’s most controversial series.
So controversial, in fact, a Change.org petition urging Netflix to never air the show received 229,000 signatures over accusations of fatphobia. Trailer visuals of star Debbie Ryan in a fat suit were deemed especially offensive, as was the quick weight loss journey of Ryan’s character, Georgia teen Patty Bladell. Obviously, the petition failed, as Insatiable was fully birthed into the world during the wee hours of a Friday morning, like most other Netflix Originals.
At the beginning of the series, Patty, whose best friend Nonnie (Kimmy Shields) is secretly in love with her, follows her lawyer-turned-pageant coach Bob Armstrong (Dallas Roberts) into the hunt for the coveted Miss Magic Jesus crown. Eventually you realise almost everyone other than Nonnie is a monster.
Although the black comedy proved to be a pop cultural lightning rod before it even debuted — as some reviews also labelled the southern-fried saga homophobic and racially insensitive — it’s possible Insatiable is still fulfilling the goals of its creator. When you chat with Lauren Guiss, you also realise how much she hoped her series would get people talking about the darkest parts of themselves and society around them. “So we can alchemise them into lightness,” as she explained.
Well, Insatiable, partially inspired by formerly closeted famed Alabama pageant coach Bill Alverson (who is now happily married to a man), has certainly gotten people talking.
With the whole world chattering about Guiss’ series, it seemed necessary to hear the TV veteran's own unfiltered explanation of Insatiable’s origin story and her outlook on its many controversies. Find out how Guiss’ identity inspired Patty Bladell’s journey, the reason her show is “pushing buttons,” and why the writer thinks that polarising fat suit was so very necessary.
Refinery29: What inspired the show for you? Especially in the context of your emotional Twitter statement.
Lauren Gussis: “Bill had sold his life rights [for] a reality show, and we realised we needed to also make it a [scripted show with two leads]. Out of that we realised he needed a beauty pageant client. At which point I realized it was an opportunity for me to birth Patty, who was the inner demon of my formerly bullied teenager who would be able to embody all of the fever dream-like intensity and ill-minded fantasies of how I would have wanted to behave and enact my revenge after my own years of feeling really bullied and marginalised.
“It’s a cautionary tale about making your outsides be the most important thing. It was a cautionary tale about what it means to enact revenge as opposed to actually working on yourself. It was a cautionary tale about what does it mean to be beautiful? … What happens when people assume things about you because they like the way your outsides look, and they assume they’re going to like your insides?”
Why did you want to tell this story in this specific way?
“It was very important to me to tell that story through comedy because that’s just my way — and not through a traditional hero or heroine. I worked on Dexter for the entire run of the show. I learned to tell stories through the dark mind of a killer and still make an audience root for that person. So I wasn’t afraid of pushing some buttons and making people a little uncomfortable in the interest of getting them talking.
“Because, if [only] I had seen a character like Patty [while growing up], who’s angry. I was so angry for such a long time and that was the thing that separated me from other people. I was hoping this would be a way to bring people together instead of making them feel separate.”
So we should look at Insatiable as a conversation-starter? Whatever that conversation may be?
“I want to break down the walls. I feel like we’ve reached a point in our culture where we’re afraid of saying things. I feel like we’re in a position where we’re in a lot of danger of censorship. I would much rather get things out in the open, beat the rug and talk about it instead of brushing it under the rug. Sometimes this is what it takes to get people talking about things.
“If you don’t talk about it the right way, you’re not allowed about to talk about it. That doesn’t breed connection — that breeds more isolation and more polarisation.”
Were there ever conversations about not using the fat suit?
“That was always going to be used. If we had cast somebody else to play the other version of Patty, we would have been saying, ‘You are actually a different person when you lose weight.’ It felt important to me to say you are exactly the same person either way.
“We were very careful about who we chose to do the suit and how we portrayed it and trying to make it accurate. I had an argument with one of the [prop] guys about the way the legs on the suit looked because he said, ‘Teenage girls don’t have cellulite.’ I kind of tore him a new one. I said, ‘It’s exactly that kind of thinking that’s the reason I had a problem and hated myself. So you’re going to take the fat suit back and you’re going to put cellulite on it because that’s what real bodies look like.’
“I was very protective of that part of the character. [The fat suit portion of Insatiable] wasn’t used for comedy at all. I actually made a speech on set about treating Debby with respect when she was in it. Like, ‘This is not a place for humour.’ This is showing Patty’s pain and every single person on the set was required to respect that.”
Patty might be the inner demon of your teenage years, but do other Insatiable characters serve as your proxy as well?
“Every single one of these characters is me. I put out that tweet about my body issues because that was the issue being talked about at the moment. Because that’s true. That’s 100% true. But no one’s talking to me about the other character arcs, which is fine. I welcome that discussion. It’s also about my relationship to my sexuality, my relationship to power and accomplishment, and my relationship to wanting to be perfect.
“They all become an extension of the opportunity to channel all of [those feelings] into Patty. That kind of bled out into every single person in this world. They all have misguided goals. Which is why they’re not good people. But because their goals are wrong they do inappropriate things. And to me that’s where the comedy comes from.”
A lot of reviews have said some of the humour is homophobic. You’ve spoken a lot about how showing the full range of sexuality was for you. So how do you respond to that critique?
“I’m a member of the queer community. I’m the B in LGBTQ+. For a long time I experienced internalised homophobia around what did my truth mean about myself. I was not homophobic about other people, but I was homophobic about myself. Nonnie goes through a lot of that. I was afraid of what people would think of me. I think that’s a very common experience inside the community, especially for someone who’s bisexual. Because I felt confused. I felt like [sexuality] was very binary … Either you’re one thing or the other thing. I bounced between the two and I couldn’t find a place where I could hold space for all of it.
“To pretend we’re post being afraid of coming out of the closet just isn’t reality. It was important to deal with that with humour. It was important to me to show the whole process and journey and the kinds of jokes people make because they’re afraid and the kind of ways people try to deflect who they are. Because at the end of the day I think if people watch the show, they will see people come to terms with their own insides. Those are the people who actually become better people because they’re more fully who they are.”
Is that why you had the scene of Patty speaking with a trans girl in the bathroom during the fifth episode?
“No. For me, in my own recovery with my eating disorder, I had been taught our similarities are more important than our differences. It’s really speaking to that [idea of], ‘One day my life will start. And if I get this outside thing, I will fill that hole and I’ll be okay.’ Except we’re never, ever going to feel okay unless it’s an inside job.
“It was very important to show two people who were on very different paths on one level, but on another level they’re on exactly the same path because it’s a healing journey. All they had to do is reach across that sink and hold hands to realise they weren’t that far apart at all.”
You mentioned pushing people’s buttons earlier. You’re obviously aware of the Twitter backlash. What is the message you actually want people to take from the show?
“There’s value in expressing the truth and portraying what is. There’s also value in aspirational storytelling. That’s not how I tell stories. I tell stories the way that I hope will expose what’s actually going on and comment on it through comedy. If people are able to hear the things being said, they’re like, ‘Oh, that makes me uncomfortable.’
“I’m hoping to start a conversation. A lot of different issues come up in the show. We’re not making fun of the issues, we’re bringing up the issues through comedy. I’m hoping I can bring people together over the course of a discussion because if they can learn to talk about what they think is funny, then they can learn to talk about other things that are higher stakes.”
“I also think a lot of characters have journeys people can relate to even if they don’t want to admit it. My goal is, [to] make at least one person feel less alone. That one person sees Patty’s journey [and thinks], ‘Maybe I could look at another way to deal with my feelings instead of anger because I see where that leads.’ Or, if someone sees Nonnie and says, ‘Oh my God, that’s me. Maybe it’s okay for me to be who I am.’ Or if somebody sees Bob and Bob’s journey, or Bob and Bob and Coralee[‘s journey, which takes an unexpected turn] and takes a look at what it means to be married and what does it mean to have a long term relationship? Or what does it mean to realise your needs change over time, and is it okay to speak up for yourself? Is it okay to ask for what you need?”
So do you believe people are uncomfortable because it’s not showing our better angles at all? It’s really filled with the worst parts of humanity.
“Nail on the head. These are the parts of myself that I have put out on the table because that’s the way we alchemise them. When I say, ‘Putting these parts of myself on the table,’ I’m not talking about fatphobia. I’m the opposite [of that]. I put out that tweet. I have struggled with my weight and my body my entire life.
“Yes, the idea is, perhaps, there may be internalised phobia. Like, why was I so obsessed with that? Why was I so concerned about that? But that’s real. That’s what girls are dealing with. I've known my whole life it doesn’t matter what you look like and the most important thing is what’s on the inside. And I philosophically agree with that. But because of all the messaging I’ve gotten, I’ve internalised bad messages.
“So I need to be able to, as an artist, as a human, be able to express, ‘Yes, I understand that and agree with that intellectually and emotionally. So then why do I feel on the inside like I’m not good enough?’”
By the way, are you from the South?
“I am not from the South at all. But, Bill Alverson is from Alabama. We spent a lot of time together, and he kind of indoctrinated me into that world, and I absorbed it by osmosis...He was totally down because he got the joke … He was my barometer, he was my true north in terms of ‘Have I captured the feeling of the pageant world? Have I captured the South?’ We have similar journeys reconciling who we thought we were supposed to be and who we really are.”
You said you changed the script from the original pilot. What were the major changes?
“It used to be a half-hour [show]. Then The CW bought it, and we made it into an hour … The characters of Dixie and Regina were characters people just talked about. We showed flashbacks of them.
“The CW encouraged us to have them be involved people in the show. That changed the entire thing for the better … because you could have them say and do terrible things. By having the villains say it, we’re saying this is a terrible thing to say. You know?”
Do you have any parting words?
“Insatiable is meant to be a social commentary. I’m standing on the shoulders of a long history of people who have used satire as social commentary in a way that’s not sermonising … It’s okay to laugh. Art isn’t polite. It isn’t gentle, and if it’s starting a conversation then at least we’re talking about it. Because not talking about it and trying to silence ourselves and other people is the most dangerous thing we could do.”