Shrill Expands Television's Treatment of Fatphobia and Body Image


Everything you need to know about Shrill happens in its fourth episode. Written by best-selling author Samantha Irby and based on the memoir by former Jezebel staffer Lindy West, “Pool” is a mini-manifesto that serves as the grounding thesis for the show; a tight, arch depiction of the radicalization of a fat girl.

Annie Easton (Aidy Bryant) is an under-appreciated writer at a small Portland alt-weekly who’s living with her best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope); navigating shame with her not-quite boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones); and dodging the pointed barbs of her boss (John Cameron Mitchell). Friends and strangers alike interact with her on the premise that both parties agree to the facts of her body’s unruliness. Her fatness makes her body public property; a fixture open to comment from anyone who comes across it. She has perfected the grim-polite “smile and nod” of frustrated restraint. She has accepted that passing cruelty is all she is entitled to.

Spoilers ahead.

Unlike AMC’s now cancelled Dietland, which tended to marinate in self-loathing and the grotesqueries of the fat body, Shrill finds beauty and light where most merely see ill-discipline. The brilliance of the show is that Annie is still on her journey of self-acceptance. She isn’t a magical fat girl who is “body positive” and never feels badly about herself. She is mired in messaging that tells her she is less than, precisely because her body is more than, and she has internalized these damaging ideas just like everyone else. When we meet her, Annie is all but apologizing for her own existence. Dressed in dark, drab clothing, she is begging for more responsibility at work, negotiating pillow privileges in bed with her sometime boyfriend and making herself smaller in the hope that she will be loved. But over the course of the season’s six episodes, she recognizes she deserves respect regardless of the state or size of her body, and starts demanding that she receive it instead of asking permission to want it.

Shrill is undeniably a show about navigating the world while fat, but it’s also about self-esteem, loneliness, friendship, and righteous anger. The first episode features a devastatingly accurate read of the emotional calculus many fat people perform to justify the ways in which they diminish themselves; finding elaborate ways to try to be “enough” and finally deserve affection. But it also features a guilt-free abortion that ends not with the patient feeling sad or regretful, but proud and powerful that she was finally able to take control of her life. That, too, is a radical moment of television in an increasingly conservative political landscape.

“Pool” brings all these threads together in a perfect storm. At a “Fat Babe Pool Party,” Annie is practically dragged onto the dance floor, nervously eyeing fat bodies that jiggle and bounce with mirth, in stark contrast to the implied disgust of the way fat people are usually depicted: trundling, faceless and always from behind. Instead, these “fat babes” are clad in bright colors, bikinis, and robes with bold patterns flowing behind them as they dance, inspiring Annie to finally let go and be her full self in public. It is a beautifully shot sequence that brought me to tears and ended with Annie discarding the jeans and button-up shirt she’d been hiding her body underneath. Seeing other fat women existing, enjoying their bodies, and finding joy in their corpulence is a lightbulb moment for Annie. She is free to have this, too, if only she permits herself to step into that joy with them.

As the latest show to explicitly tackle body image and fatphobia, it succeeds as a measure of how far these cultural conversations have come.

And when she does (beautifully, jubilantly, and set to Ariana Grande), only to be dragged back to earth again by her catty, fat-shaming boss, she hits back, emboldened by a series of small successes and the knowledge that she has earned some small measure of deference for her demonstrable skill. It is a moment that makes the consequences she suffers that much more tolerable, the confrontation with her troll that much more delicious and the resolutions they bring that much more satisfying.

At times, it is hard to forget that these characters are broadly based on real people in West’s life, and the temptation to compare to them to their counterparts is great. But the cast brings a vicious and stinging quality to the show that makes it crackle with energy from the first episode to the last. Adefope is magnetic as Annie’s black, queer best friend begging her to move on from a man who mistreats her, while also displaying her own recklessness and immaturity. Jones’s turn as the oblivious boyfriend is as painful and accurate as it is recognizable, and Mitchell’s passively misogynistic boss is somehow both hateful and gratifying in the worst way. But it is Bryant herself that carries the show, finally given the chance to show what she can do outside the confines of Saturday Night Live’s strict format. It is fulfilling to see her finally get her star turn, in a role she was born to play. Shrill gives Bryant the opportunity to demonstrate her range, while still bringing the familiar, absurdist glee she is best known for.

That said, Shrill is one of the few shows that should have expanded outward and taken up more space. The story could have used a few more episodes to truly hit its stride and settle into its momentum. As the latest show to explicitly tackle body image and fatphobia, it succeeds as a measure of how far these cultural conversations have come. Our protagonist is the heroine of her own story rather than the supportive best friend or the nameless object of pity. Shrill is a show about how society’s attitudes about fatness and obesity have warped our perception of each other and ourselves, and skewed our ideas about how we measure worth. There is a need for more stories like this, but the season ends just as Annie is finding her voice and as a consequence, the finale feels unsatisfying. Shrill’s one flaw is that it is over just as you’re deciding that you’re fully onboard for the ride.

Shrill is available to stream on Hulu as of March 15.

Cate Young (@battymamzelle): smugsexual, thundercunt hagbeast.

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