Shrill Tells the Story of Every Fat Girl's Life
Shrill isn’t the television show I’ve been waiting for. It isn’t the television show I needed to see, either. For me — a woman who has spent a lifetime navigating excruciating body image issues and the social mores that underline them — Shrill is the television show that I’ve already lived.
Co-written by Aidy Bryant, Lindy West (one of my formative fat-girl writer icons), and Alexandra Rushfield, Hulu’s Shrill is based on West’s eponymous 2016 memoir. It tells the story of a fat woman trying to exist happily, despite the fact that the people around her have a very different idea of what that means than she does. Shrill follows Annie (played perfectly by Bryant), a writer working at an alt-weekly in Portland who is trying to build the confidence it takes to assert her right to live happily in a fat body. The 30-minute, six-episode series manages to do this without once cloaking Annie in shame or presenting her as the disempowered, broken centerpiece of her own ugly duckling story. She’s not the sad fat girl saying, “Why am I so fat?” she’s the exhausted, pissed-off one saying “Why does everybody care?”
Every moment Annie encounters on her journey to self-actualization — the good, the bad, and all the way fucked up — I have encountered myself. In fact, I’d say that the only truly unrealistic part of the show is the notion that Annie would have a full-time, stable job at an alternative newspaper. Otherwise, Shrill is a series of Highly Relatable Fat Girl Moments.
Take, for example, what transpires within the first few minutes of the show: In a coffee shop, a personal trainer unsolicitedly tells Annie there is a “thin person inside of her who is waiting to get out.” This idea — that there is a slimmer, happier person somewhere inside of me, if only I could shed the weight that imprisons her — has been presented by gym teachers, bitchy friends, and well-meaning strangers throughout my entire life. In the same scene, another stranger tells Annie that she “looks like Rosie O’Donnell,” though they bear absolutely no resemblance. My own family members have cheerfully told me I “look exactly like Adele,” despite the fact that the only thing remotely similar about me and Adele is our dress size.
Annie has classic fat-girl interactions with the people in her life, too — a sort-of boyfriend, a well-meaning mom, a boss. What straight fat girl doesn’t know the unique horror of sleeping with an unworthy dude who is too ashamed to introduce you to his friends, and texts you to come over to fuck him by the light of a 40-watt bulb in a bedroom littered with dirty dishes and dead plants? Who among us doesn’t have a mom or family member that has monitored your food intake under the premise of “concern for your health?” And which fat girl out there hasn’t had a colleague — in Annie’s case, a thin, white aging punk named Gabe, her boss — who otherwise respects her, but can’t hide his judgment of her “lifestyle” and sees her fatness as a choice?
These are the kind of moments that make up a lifetime of being an awesome human being, living in a body, and putting up with other people’s bullshit. When I was watching Shrill, I felt them all.
I felt Annie’s pain, when she realizes that her boyfriend is a piece of shit, or when people won’t stop harping on her lifestyle choices, or that she will be forever condescended to by someone about her weight. In these trying times, Annie acknowledges she was groomed for a lifetime of self-loathing, that every choice she’s made has been guided by her relationship to her body.
“It’s a fucking mind prison, you know, that every fucking woman everywhere has been programmed to believe,” Annie tearfully unloads on her roommate (played by Lolly Adefope), a queer, plus-size woman who is also Annie’s biggest supporter (I have a few of those, too — thanks guys). “And I’ve wasted so much time and money and energy, for what? I’m fat. I’m fucking fat. Hello, I’m fat.”
I know the exact mind prison of which Annie speaks, and acknowledging how much time you’ve spent in there is both galvanizing and debilitatingly sad. I don’t want to feel like shit about my body, and I’ve always had the vague sense that I shouldn’t have to. But often, that idea feels impossible to actualize, and all I could do was let it wash over me and cry — which I did, both during my own moments, and during Annie’s.
More significant than the shitty boyfriends and the well-meaning strangers and the sorrowful acknowledgments of frustration, though, are the ways Shrill handles Annie’s moments of triumph. Annie sees a beautiful plus-size woman walking down the street, wearing a bright red outfit, buying herself flowers just because. It intrigues and inspires her, at least enough to finally ignore the boyfriend’s text. In an episode entitled “Pool,” written by another one of my fat-writer icons, Samantha Irby, Annie finds herself surrounded by other stylish, successful plus-size women who give her a new point of reference for happiness and satisfaction beyond being thin. Annie arrives at the party wearing jeans (been there), and hesitates to wear swimsuit in front of everyone (done that). But, admidst a group of women of all shapes and sizes showing off their bodies, Annie has a change of heart, a renaissance within a renaissance within a lifetime of renaissances. She dances with reckless abandon, strips off her clothes, and dives into the pool, finally allowing herself some freedom. If that’s not a metaphor for life as a self-actualized fat woman, I don’t know what is.
My favorite moment in Shrill, though, is the one in the life of the fat girl that feels the most hard-earned. When it happens for the first time, it feels virtually impossible recover from — but when you do, you realize that you can recover a million times more. In the show, it actually happens twice, once at the end of the first episode and once at the end of the last. In these scenes, two different assholes shout something at Annie I have heard countless times, from countless assholes:
“You fat bitch!”
Yeah, it might have stung a bit. It might always sting a bit. But Annie walks away smiling each time — and you know what? So did I.