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Kate's Secret (1986) - Overview, Synopsis, Critique

kate’s condition eating husband

Principal social themes: disabilities, women’s rights

Columbia. No MPAA rating. Featuring: Meredith Baxter Birney, Ed Asner, Ben Masters, Georgann Johnson, Tracy Nelson, Shari Belafonte, Leslie Bevis, Mackenzie Phillips, Sharon Spelman, Liz Torres, Mindy Seeger, Duke Moose-kian, Summer Phoenix, Liberty Phoenix. Written by Denise DeGarmo and Susan Seeger. Cinematography by Dennis Dalzell. Edited by Millie Moore. Music by J. Peter Robinson. Produced by Stephanie Austin. Directed by Arthur Allen Seidelman. Color. 98 minutes.

Overview

Perhaps the most important and inclusive film about eating disorders, Kate’s Secret manages to encapsulate public misconceptions and accurate facts within a relatively brief time frame. It also delves into the psychological and cultural pressures that nurture the condition, which can even be classified as a disability. Kate’s Secret debuted on NBC on November 17, 1986. Several later television movies imitated it, but without this film’s impact.

Synopsis

Kate Stark (Meredith Baxter Birney) is the wife of Jack, an up-and-coming attorney in southern California. She is obsessive about her appearance, even forgoing her husband’s amorous advances to go jogging. She is equally hard on Becky, her young daughter, forcing her to eat as if she were dieting. When Kate’s mother arrives for a visit, we see the first chink in Kate’s image as the “perfect housewife,” when she stops at a supermarket and shoplifts a package of cookies that she wolfs down, then heads to the alley behind the store and forces herself to vomit. Kate’s secret is that she is a bulimic. Several additional episodes of Kate’s binging and purging occur, particularly after she hosts a party for members of Jack’s law firm. Kate starts to have dizzy spells and collapses during an exercise class. She passes out while driving Becky home from a Girl Scout meeting. When she awakens in a hospital, she is questioned about her “condition,” which she refuses to acknowledge. When Jack arrives, he is told that Kate is a bulimic, and her tests show that her health is at serious risk. Dr. Resnick (Ed Asner), a specialist in eating disorders, recommends that she be hospitalized until her condition becomes stable.

The hospital has a ward that treats conditions such as anorexia and bulimia. The patients are strictly monitored as to their diet and use of the bathroom. Kate feels imprisoned and learns what is expected of her from Patch Reed (Tracy Nelson), her roommate, who is a fashion model and another bulimic. During group therapy, Kate’s denial of her problem is overcome. Dr. Resnick believes Kate’s problem comes from her mother, who stresses the idea that she must be a perfect wife or she will lose her husband. Patch helps Kate sneak out of the hospital to attend another office party with her husband (who thinks Kate was given permission by Resnick to attend). When attempting to binge and purge, she suffers a stomach hemorrhage and is rushed to the emergency room. She recovers and is returned to her ward where she learns that Patch died of a heart attack when she overdosed on diet pills. This event shocks Kate, who then seriously struggles to come to terms with her condition. She is finally released from the hospital, secure that her husband loves her and that their marriage is not in any danger. Kate reconciles with her mother, and she and Jack see her mother off at the airport.

Critique

Kate’s Secret goes through various phases in its attempt to portray the problem of eating disorders. First, the condition is made to appear trivial, even humorous, as Kate gobbles down handfuls of food with her fingers, be it cake, meatloaf, or ice cream. It is only when the scene shifts to the hospital that the implications of the condition take on a serious tone. Kate’s system has become weakened by lack of balanced nutrients; her potassium level is dangerously low. She learns how her repeated enforced vomiting has increased the risk of a deadly stomach rupture. Finally, the psychological pressures that promulgate these disabilities are examined. The cultural pressures of our time play on many women’s fears that they must be thin, so much so that many slender women see themselves as fat even when they are not. These ideas are reinforced from many sources, including advertising, fashion, and peer pressure. In Kate’s case, her mother stressed that she must be thin to keep her husband, a prejudice that Kate was passing on to her own daughter. In other cases, this pressure may come from a woman’s spouse, her friends, or role models. An eating disorder is primarily a condition facing women. The script portrays a clandestine rivalry in the ward between patients with anorexia and bulimia. At times, Ed Asner seems to be an odd choice as the specialist in eating disorders. In one scene, he lectures a patient on the need for sensible eating, but at the same time the camera angle seems to concentrate on Asner’s own rather bulky waist.

Another subsidiary issue is Kate’s rights as a patient. For example, her husband is told the complete details of her medical condition without her consent. She almost appears to be coerced into the ward. True, her husband gives his approval, but how would this have been handled if Kate were single. In this case, would an eating disorder be considered the equivalent of insanity so a patient would have no rights? Inadvertently, the film suggests a husband can arrange for the incarceration of his wife. This is a troubling factor in the overall issue of coercive treatment. Until the death of Patch Reed, it seems that Kate is merely pretending to be a responsive patient. She can only come to terms with her condition until the death of her friend to the disability. Eating disorders is then clearly portrayed as a life-threatening condition equivalent to alcoholism or drug addiction.

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