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October 25, 2005

Some viewers find ‘Starved’ tough to swallow

This article was written by Eleanor Kohlsaat who is studying for her master's degree in health and eating behavior at Goddard College in Plainfield, VT. Her email is kohlsaate@goddard.edu.

Although "Starved" was not renewed for a second season, we felt that this article was relevant in fostering useful conversation about eating disorders, body image and our culture.

If your goal is to quit watching TV and snacking late at night, this show just might help you.

“Starved,” the FX cable network sitcom that debuted a couple of months ago, does not exactly inspire healthy eating habits -- instead, it engenders powerful feelings of nausea. In the first three episodes (I couldn't force myself to watch any more), the show portrayed characters variously eating from a garbage can, vomiting prodigiously into the camera, receiving repeated colonic irrigation treatments, and performing various other unmentionable and painful activities related to food and body image.

“Starved” purports to bring out the humorous side of eating disorders. The show follows four 30-something friends, three men and a woman, all of whom suffer from various food and weight issues, including anorexia, bulimia and compulsive overeating. We glimpse their dysfunctional families and learn about their intimacy problems. We accompany them to meetings of “Belttighteners,” a therapy group that offers not support, but snarling derision, as a deterrent to bad behavior. (Sample comment from group leader: “You’re pathetic. If you were a dog, I’d kick you in the face.”)

Are you chuckling yet?

Many critics have applauded the show’s ground-breaking use of a serious topic as fodder for comedy. Time magazine called it “crudely brilliant” and said the show “treats Sam and his friends with sympathy but not sentimentality.” The Hollywood Reporter pronounced the show “divertingly clever.”

Not everyone, however, shares that point of view. “I really didn’t think it was very well done, and I’m amazed that they thought it would work,” said Dr. Karin Kratina, a dietician and consultant for Green Mountain at Fox Run. “The show was very cynical. It had such a hard edge to it, and it had no compassion to it. ...The pain of each of the characters was so palpable. To me it’s amazing that people would take that as funny.”

Kratina found it especially bothersome that three of the four characters on “Starved” are men, when in reality the majority of people who suffer from eating disorders are young women. Not only that, but the woman character, who’s anorexic, is almost never shown eating, while the male characters are the ones engaging in uncontrollable bingeing. Kratina pointed out that women are not often depicted eating on television, even in commercials, unless it’s a diet food or other portion-controlled meal. Instead, they are shown preparing or serving food to others. “In a way, it parallels capitalism and consumer culture. We need to consume, but we can’t look like we’re consuming -- that would be shameful.”

“I think they knew that they couldn’t show a woman stuffing her face and throwing up,” Kratina said. “That would have been way, way too painful to watch.”

The National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) has urged advertisers and viewers to boycott “Starved.” According to NEDA’s Web site, “the portrayals of individuals with eating disorders are cartoonish and inappropriate. ...‘Starved’ perpetuates the stigma associated with eating disorders by depicting characters with such over-the-top behaviors as to make them appear absurd and pathetic.” NEDA also suggests that the show could be dangerous: real-life people with eating disorders may draw inspiration from “Starved” and attempt to emulate what they see.

According to the show’s publicity, all four actors on “Starved” have past histories of food problems. It would be nice to think that the show’s creators demonstrated sensitivity with that casting decision, or maybe it was more calculating: it’s always more acceptable for members of a minority group to lampoon themselves. Some reviews have compared “Starved” to “Seinfeld”: both ensembles are made up of four trivia-obsessed urbanites, and both groups of friends meet in diners to discuss their trials and tribulations. But Jerry and the gang were lovable despite their self-absorption, and the show’s plot machinations were frequently dazzling. The plot on “Starved,” if one exists at all, is an afterthought, and the characters aren’t sympathetic; they’re merely miserable and borderline creepy. Don’t worry, NEDA; no one will watch this show and think eating disorders are cool.

I’m not saying that food and weight issues are off-limits as a subject for comedy. Great comedies have been made about alcoholism, Hitler, and the atomic bomb, after all. The problem is, “Starved” just isn’t funny. See it on an empty stomach.

Posted by Gina V. on October 25, 2005 | Permalink



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