For fans of Aidy Bryant or Lindy West’s work, Shrill is a big deal. Hulu’s new show is the first show developed by Bryant and Bryant (along with a slew of other notable writers like Samantha Irby, author of We Are Never Meeting in Real Life), and the first to showcase Bryant’s talents as both a writer and an actor. There have been many reviews of this show, not all of them favorable. The biggest criticisms--which I do agree with--are that the show takes its time getting started. The season only contains six episodes (probably due to Bryant’s SNL schedule) and a tight story arc. I argue that’s part of its beauty.
Shrill is a show about emotional transformations of all kinds, not just from the fat protagonist Annie, who learns how to stand up for herself and value her skills, but from other characters as well. The plotline of Shrill follows Annie as she realizes she is worthy of affection and, more importantly, respect from her coworkers and from her potential lovers. That metamorphosis takes time, takes the entire six episodes, and viewers get to see Annie as she goes from timid pushover to empowered boss. In the first couple of episodes, Annie discovers she’s pregnant by a man who she cannot ask to wear a condom during sex (she’s been using the morning after pill as contraception--which is not formulated for women over 175 pounds); she then proceeds to get a no-fuss abortion. This inclusion of abortion might be shocking for some viewers, but it does serve an important purpose in the plot by inspiring Annie to examine her life and question her own status quo. Annie doesn’t want an abortion as much as she wants to not be tied to a man that doesn’t love or respect her.
After that pivotal first episode, Annie begins to talk back to her snobby hipster boss, Gabe (played by John Cameron Mitchell of Hedwig and the Angry Inch fame--so good to have him on a show!), lay down rules for her would-be boyfriend Ryan (who doesn’t understand how to be an adult, much less a good boyfriend), and demand better from her life. She’s timid at first, stumbling through her journey to self acceptance, but she ultimately finds out that she can love her mind and body at a fat babe pool party. Seeing all those fat women unapologetically enjoying their day in bathing suits and gauzy cover-ups, swimming and dancing to pop music changes Annie, and she ends up joining them in a joyous scene of release.
Towards the end of the series, other characters begin calling Annie selfish, and it’s true. Annie prioritizes herself while she confronts issues of the patriarchy that have made her feel bad about her body and about her self worth. To reclaim her place in the world and see herself as a person who deserves respect, Annie has to demand things of her friends--and sometimes she over-demands. No one is born knowing the appropriate level of selfishness, but it’s true that self-care is a sort of necessary selfishness we must exercise to protect ourselves from the world. Selfishness isn’t always a bad thing, but an imbalance of selfishness and an inability to see the needs of others is. By the end of season one, Annie hasn’t figured out that balance. Taking care of herself, respecting herself is new. She has to practice it in order to get it right.
Annie’s friends make transformations, too. Her roommate and best friend Fran goes from casually dating multiple women (with little concern for their feelings) to dating one woman who she tries to take care of as best as she can. Ryan begins to listen to Annie, trying to understand her feelings and respect her desires. There’s a particularly wonderful scene where Ryan--after telling Annie she’s “in the rotation” of girls he has sex with--finds out Annie slept with another man. “This sucks!” he yells.
“How do you think I felt?” Annie responds.
Ryan had never considered that. It’s a tale as old as time: men wanting the women they date to be devoted to only them, while they in turn date around. The show handles it well, and Ryan begins to understand that his actions have consequences for other people.
Despite criticisms of the shows pacing, it does something no other show (to my knowledge) has done before: shown what it’s like to live as a fat woman and celebrate all sorts of bodies, not just thin ones. In several monologues throughout the show, Annie explains how she feels being a fat woman. In one scene, she tearfully tells her friend that she always thought that if she was just nice enough, helpful enough, compliant enough--men would like her. That would be enough to cover up the inadequacy of her body. W O W. Has that very common feeling ever been articulated on television before?
One critique I’ve heard from friends about the show is that it doesn’t do enough in terms of body positivity, that it takes such baby steps that it’s not even caught up with what’s happening in the real world. However, I argue that we need these small steps because most of the general public doesn’t know about these issues, or hasn’t thought of them. While watching all six episodes with me in one sitting, Todd repeatedly looked to me, an expression of dawning horror on his face, as if to say, is this what it’s really like? And I’d just nod in response. It is what it’s like for a lot of people. Even though he has an arguably closer look at fat studies (because it’s my area of expertise and I’m writing about it for my PhD work), he still had not SEEN how fat women think about themselves or experience weird microaggressions in daily life. Seeing it is something different. If well-informed Todd was looking for confirmation for these horrible thoughts and feelings, who else is looking for confirmation? Who else needs to see? This representation is groundbreaking because it exists in a raw, real form. Even if it feels like a normal or expected revelation to fat women for fat studies activists/scholars, we have to remember that the audience Shrill is much broader than just fat people. I don’t think the show is aiming to preach to the choir, but instead to represent an experience that has previously been overlooked by mainstream television.
Shrill is objectively a very good show. Bryant’s humor is wonderfully quirky and true to her own aesthetic, and West’s experiences--even though they aren’t represented 100% accurately on the show (since it is based on West’s writing, not a direct adaptation)--make for a good story, a funny story. Still, people will criticize the show because that’s what people do. The important thing is that people will get to see an experience they might not have encountered before, and maybe in turn that will allow other women like Annie to see that they too have self-worth and value.