How can Netflix be getting it so right with Nanette and yet so wrong with Insatiable?
With over 150 million global subscribers and counting, Netflix is a behemoth of entertainment. Yet ever since it switched from a streaming platform to content creation, it has struggled to find its voice, producing programmes that are in turn both boundary-pushing and problematic. In a world where the cultural conversation has a quicksand-esque way of shifting, it is more vital than ever for any brand to have a strong and clear point of view.
When Netflix succeeds it is often by putting a spotlight on issues that aren’t seen in the mainstream, offering an alternative to major network and Hollywood releases. Their most popular original show, Orange is the New Black, uncompromisingly breaks down the familiar trope of centering a white, heterosexual female as the protagonist while everybody else plays supporting roles. It beautifully portrays a plurality of personalities across various races, genders, sizes, sexualities, and ethnicities. Refusing to adhere to convention, when it was first released it felt like one of the most progressive television series of its time, truly leading an ongoing conversation around representation and stereotypes.
Netflix’s recent release of Nanette illustrates how they can still lead and shape the cultural conversation by partnering with the right creators. A sharp look at vulnerability and a meta study of the comedy genre today, Nanette has reverberated around the world, and the buzz around it only continues to grow. With content that provokes, shocks and pushes our thinking, and a platform to do so on a global scale, Netflix has the power to influence and galvanize a generation – whilst entertaining them at the same time.
But when Netflix pushes for such refreshing and bold content, it makes it even more confusing that it releases shows such as Insatiable. The series follows an overweight teenage girl (played by Debby Ryan in an unconvincing fat suit) who gets punched in the face, and subsequently has her jaw wired shut. After a summer of starvation, she returns to school skinny and stunning, seeking revenge on all her bullies. The trailer alone has provoked a change.org petition that has racked up over 226,000 signatures for Netflix to pull the “body-shaming” and “fat-phobic” series amidst fears that it will further perpetuate the objectification of women and trigger a surge of eating disorders amongst teenage girls.
This isn’t the first time that a Netflix series has caused such outrage. Despite multiple warnings from numerous mental health organisations, the Parents Television Council and TV authorities for its graphic depiction of rape, bullying and suicide, 13 Reasons Why was still aired and renewed for a third season. While executive producer Selena Gomez argued that it was created as a “catalyst for conversation”, its inclusion of triggering scenes provoked huge debate. Releasing content that feels out of touch with current attitudes alongside more progressive works feels incongruous and perplexing – and gives the impression that Netflix is confused about what their point of view should be.
Is Netflix going to be the voice of a generation or just a bystander watching the drama unfold? In the age of extreme reactions, where one non-woke move can leave you ‘cancelled,’ Netflix needs to continue pushing the boundaries of creativity but in a manner that is consistent and credible.
Rachelle Ojomo and Hannah Robbins