I’m disturbed. But not in that way.
Last night, in my quest to find some mindless, uplifting television, I found myself thrown into the sick, sad, shamefully amusing world of “Starved” on FX.
Well known for the controversial show, “Nip/Tuck,” which explores in graphic detail the world of flaws both character and aesthetic, freakish vanity, facial reconstruction, body dysmorphic disorder and plastic surgery in general, the FX channel has now added to its repertoire a show detailing (again, rather graphically) the ins and outs (you’ll get that pun in a minute) of characters with eating disorders: bulimics, compulsive overeaters, and anorexics. How should I feel about this show?
It was troubling. Confusing. Disappointing, Thought-Provoking. Sickening, and yet somehow ashamedly entertaining. Don’t hate me for saying that until you’ve seen it. (On the other hand, I’d rather you didn’t see it at all. No reason for you to have to wrestle this, too.) The show details the acts of starving, overeating, binging and purging, and the lives of those who do so. Offensive. Disgusting. Horrifying. And yet it wasn’t so gross that I had to turn it off. Or maybe it’s BECAUSE it was so offensive that I stayed glued to the set. Isn’t that awful? Some Hollywood writer has actually made the concept something that (at least to many) is considered entertaining, engrossing, and probably even funny. But as I watched, I just didn’t know whether I should be light-heartedly entertained, principled and angry, or just terribly, terribly sad. I guess in one degree or another I was some of each. And that made me even more sad. How should I feel about this show?
The show, unfortunately, is really pretty good. It’s well written, and well acted. The characters are quirky, flawed, and extremely likeable. I could see the quality of character development, the creative, interesting story lines, and occasionally even good-hearted and harmless humor, hidden between gag scenes (no pun intended) and offensive nonchalance about the seriousness of the illnesses portrayed. Hours after seeing the show, the images, the characters, the dialogue, and the not-so-subtle jabs about being fat, were still invading my thought processes, and threatening my sleep. How should I feel about this show?
<>There’s a storyline about a very overweight male character, preparing for gastric bypass, who goes on a liquid diet – of liquefied pasta, cheeseburgers, and pepperoni pizza. “Liquid in, liquid out, right?” he asks.
Another character (again, a male) has an unhealthy addiction to Nemo’s chocolate cake. He buys four at a time, and in an effort to exert some kind of self control, keeps them under lock and key in a desk drawer until something triggers an episode, during which he consumes all four (or more if he can find them) in one sitting, and then promptly makes an appointment with his porcelain commode. The opening scene in the episode shows him getting up in the morning, weighing himself, using the bathroom, weighing himself, eating cereal, weighing himself, and then throwing up before weighing himself again.
Another character (another male,) actually teaches a male protégé how to regurgitate on command. “BE the purge,” he tells him, as they share a stall in a public bathroom, proudly demonstrating with a head bow, a silent and unimpressive purge, and then delicately wiping the spittle from his mouth with a smug grin.
And all the characters are obsessed not only with their own weight, but the weight, size, and appearance of others. The Puke-on-Command Guy actually tells his student, “It’s not important how you feel. What’s important is how you look.” The “student,” a good looking, black police officer, takes notes. Literally. And practices his new mantra. “It’s not important how you feel. What’s important is how you look.”
In the middle of the show, the police officer, who has by now mastered the art of purging without so much as lifting a finger (again, quite literally), uses his police power to stop a man on a bicycle for running a red light. The man explains that he doesn’t run red lights. He runs yellow lights. The police officer asks his Chinese detainee, “You got chicken lo mein in there?” motioning to the parcel on the back of the bicycle.
“No,” the man says, in a thick Asian accent. “Chinese egg roll and moo shoo pork”
“Drop the Chinese egg roll and moo shoo pork on the sidewalk, Old Man, and I might just let you off with a warning.”
Cut to: cop eating egg roll, shoveling moo shoo pork into his mouth as quickly as he possibly can, and then finding a place in a dark side-alley where he can get rid of it. Unfortunately, after the first lurch of the cop’s stomach contents, the trash on which he is vomiting moves, revealing the occupant of said alley – an old, homeless man, who now is not only covered with remnants from the trash he was using to keep warm, but the contents of another person’s stomach. The cop, surprised, pulls a gun and says, “That’s illegal! Go get a real house!”
At least they’re all in therapy. “Group” is led by a brash, insensitive female therapist, who starts the 12-step like group by saying that “By creating an environment of accountability and shame, we are helping each other.” One by one, the members of the group introduce themselves, and divulge their eating disorder of choice. After each person in the group reluctantly confesses his or her food-related sins, the whole group, in unison, shouts, “IT’S NOT OKAY!” Some therapy, huh? It’s irresponsible and unethical. So how should I feel about this show?
Keep in mind that the whole thing is done with a dry, tongue-in-cheek, completely irreverent tone that makes the whole thing look and feel more like a drama than a comedy. Very dark. Nip/Tuck-ish.
It’s not funny ha-ha, but somehow funny sad-funny.
Funny “Shame on me for almost laughing“ funny.
Funny “That’s just wrong” funny.
It’s very not funny-funny. So how should I feel about this show?
I’m not sure yet whether the show is glorifying such disorders, or is intending to send a message of some kind. Is it good that there’s a show that brings attention to the diseases, or is it destructiuve to present them as being somehow humorous? Is it good that the show profiles a large number of males with eating disorders, and dispels the myth that women are the only sufferers? Or does it make it cool? Isn’t it size-ism to tell fat jokes (even if the joke tellers are pathetically disordered in their thinking?) Am I making a big deal out of nothing? Taking it too seriously? Feeling guilty for being captivated by the whole thing? Maybe. But maybe not.
All I know is that there is an epidemic in this country of aesthetic perfectionism. We are a country with citizens – most of whom are young females – who are dying from it. Body dysmorphic disorders, self-absorption, bulimia, anorexia, cosmetic surgery addiction, laxative abuse, and overeating. And then there’s the seemingly acceptable form of ‘ism that we’ve adopted: size-ism; weight-discrimination. Young girls commit suicide because they don’t feel pretty. They starve until they can see their rib cages. They punish themselves with food, and teach each other how to stick their fingers down their throats. They even have weight-loss contests, for heaven’s sake, with the winner being the one who loses the most weight without losing their hair! And they’re going on diets as young as nine years old. And where do they learn that it’s okay? So exactly how should I feel about this show?
I still don’t know. I don’t know how I should feel about the show. And I don’t know how I actually feel. And that might just be exactly the reaction the producers are hoping for. In fact, I’d bet on it. I mean – look how it’s consumed my time? My resources? Invaded my thoughts? Gotten me talking? Raised my emotions and made me examine my own personal values? I mean – geez – I just promoted their blasted television show on my blog!
So please. Don’t watch. Just don’t watch. Because if you do, and if you feel any kind of compassion or empathy for people in this world who are suffering – and even dying – from these kinds of illness, then you, too, may have to ask yourself: Is this show irreverent and totally socially irresponsible, or is it really – like they want us to believe – just a little harmless entertainment?