Shrill Celebrates Body Positivity; If Only It Celebrated Its Black Lesbian Character, Too

Aidy Bryant’s new series, Shrill, based on Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, landed on Hulu last week to much acclaim for casting a fat actress, tackling cultural and political issues around fatness, or even just using the word “fat.” I really, really wanted to like it because we need fat babe representation, and while I found some things about the series enjoyable — the pool party! the abortion storyline! Aidy Bryant herself! — the pacing, racist tropes and general “Who lives like this?” vibe left me frustrated.

Shrill kicks off with an episode aptly named “Annie,” where we meet Aidy Bryant’s Annie, an emerging writer who is young, pretty and fat. From go, the writers drive home that her fatness is central to the plot via having Annie eat diet meals and grimacing, trying to stretch her clothes to fit better and having a super thin aerobic instructor force shitty fatphobic advice on her. Her mom concern trolls her when she complains that the diet meal plan they’re both on isn’t good. Her boss posts a series of articles condemning fat people as America’s biggest problem. The rapid and intense flagging of her fatness and unhappiness don’t leave room for much else in those first 22 minutes, which is a disservice to the character and the audience. What could have been a build up of small and large indignities is instead portrayed as a never ending avalanche and that’s all we get to know about Annie, other than the fact that she wants to write.

Actually, we also learn she has no self-esteem and is sleeping with the worst man ever, Ryan. Ryan, who makes her sneak out the back door of his house. And yet Annie defends him! She also, horrendously, lets him “raw dog” her — as in, they have sex without a condom — because it’s “his favorite thing.” Instead of getting on birth control, or you know, not having unprotected sex like fully grown and responsible adult woman, she just gets the morning after pill every time.

Surprisingly, the first solidly progressive moments of the show take place as a result of these choices. Annie ends up pregnant and goes to the pharmacy to inquire how that’s possible if she took the morning-after pill. The pharmacist informs her that if you are over 175lbs the pill won’t work. This is a really important and little known fact that was really refreshing to see on screen. But now Annie has to wrestle with what to do and we finally see some real vulnerability in her as she explains she just wanted Ryan to like her and was afraid he’d dump her if she didn’t have unprotected sex. It’s a great moment; we don’t often talk about the ways in which fat women are made to feel that they should cling to any scrap of affection.

Shortly after, Annie admits she’s considering keeping the baby because it might be her only chance to become a mom, her best friend Fran has a come to Jesus moment with her. Fran breaks down why Annie is worth more than the shitty way she lets herself be treated. This pep talk, mixed with a relentlessly humiliating run-in with Ryan, makes Annie take stock of what she wants to do with her life and her pregnancy. In the end, Annie chooses to have an abortion. We don’t just see her in the aftermath. We see her in the waiting room. We see her ask Fran come in with her. We witness the doctor explaining exactly what’s happening during the procedure. It’s a serious TV moment.

Another progressive and transformative moment is the Body Posi pool party Annie attends in episode four. It’s a pool party for all body types to come out and drink, dance, and swim without stares and judgment. (In real life, both Portland and LA host parties like this on a regular basis.) It’s at this party that we see our first wheelchair user and we get to meet Fran’s future love interest, Vic. At first, Annie is too self-conscious to participate, refusing to dance and remaining fully dressed. After she finally loosens up and mingles with the other ladies, we get one of the coolest scenes I think I’ve seen when it comes to fat bodies in motion. Annie decides to finally take a dip into the pool and we watch her swim smoothly underneath the partygoers. She has a solid form and we can see her thighs ripple with her movement. It’s a beautifully shot sequence that shows what active fat bodies look like – strong, free, capable and still fat. It’s glorious and should be shown to teenage girls across the world.

I’ve already mentioned Fran, but let me fully introduce her. Fran is Annie’s Sassy Black Friend. She’s British. She also happens to be a lesbian. That’s really… about it. She calls out Annie over her lack of self-esteem and attachment to Ryan. She’s there to listen to every single complaint, revelation and defense of bad choices that Annie chooses to share. In the midst of Fran’s own break-ups and new relationships, she is first and foremost Annie’s constant companion. Yes, she sleeps her way through the female population of Portland — but we don’t find out much more than that in the six episodes. Almost every time she speaks, it’s in defense of or to uplift Annie. And when she talks, it almost always has a “cool girl” slang twist no matter what the topic – a writing choice that sometimes feels put on or exaggerated (though, I must say, the last character to use the word bitch as frequently and endearingly was Lafayette on True Blood). She’s also the only queer person in the friend group, which is a really unrealistic storytelling choice for a show filmed in Portland.

Annie and Fran are both fat. In fact, when a client of Fran’s leaves clothes, Fran gives a dress meant for her to Annie. While Annie’s fatness affects all aspects of her life in huge ways, the same doesn’t seem to be true for Fran. There is so much opportunity to show how being fat can affect similar women differently along the lines of race and sexual orientation. But instead Shrill serves us the usual sidekick role in Fran — and unfortunately, things do not get better for the other POC characters.

Annie’s main professional ally is Amadi, a man of color who’s her work husband with an unspecified job and seems to exist solely to encourage her to grow a backbone and ride shotgun on her shenanigans. All we learn about him is that he has kids and likes to watch miniature horse dressage. Then there’s Ruthie, played by trans woman of color actress and comedian Patti Harrison. She’s the editor’s assistant who comes across as just another Mean Girl. Ruthie’s super extra in her work explanations and bounces between caustic and congratulatory with Annie. Her only purpose appears to be to antagonize Annie and illustrate just how weird Portland is. We never find out a greater motivation for her behavior; she’s just a woman of color prop to populate Annie’s life and move the story forward with one-liners.

There’s also Lamar, Fran’s brother who is a chef in the UK. Before we see him, we’re treated to Fran and Annie chatting about how he’s Annie’s favorite member of Fran’s family. In those 30 seconds, Annie’s already happier and more interested than she ever is when discussing Ryan. We’re not disappointed when it turns out that Lamar, who is lovely and shares memories and music taste with Annie, has harbored feelings for her since he was 15. The night before he heads back to the UK, they have sex. But unlike every time Annie sleeps with Ryan, we don’t get to see it happen on screen. I find that interesting. We get to witness at least three sex scenes between Annie with Ryan, who is all about his own pleasure, but we don’t see the guy who actually cares about Annie and leaves her smiling. We also never get to see where their relationship could go. That’s the last we hear of Lamar. Annie goes right back Ryan.

Annie’s parents also illustrate another issue with the show. Her mom and dad aren’t really that different than the strangers who antagonize her. Her mom puts her on a diet and humiliates her by telling her friends embarrassing stories. When Annie writes about how her mom contributes to her low self-esteem, her mom goes off and a makes it all about herself and how people will view her parenting. Her dad, who is battling cancer and seems like a mostly OK guy, not only takes the mom’s side, but tells Annie she needs to be grateful and just stop arguing.

Annie’s Mom is yet another media example of a toxic parent we’re supposed to find endearing. In a scenario that I hope is only due to time constraints, Annie spends five episodes being demeaned and picked on by her mom, half an episode angry, and then they make up as she inspires her mom to run off to Canada. A lifetime of mistreatment continued into adulthood — all of which was clearly enabled by Dad — and all is forgiven in 24 hours? No ma’am. This is ridiculous. It reinforces the idea that moms are “just like that” and you have to learn to live with it.

More overt in his fatphobic Mean Girl tactics is Annie’s boss, Gabe, who is rumored to be based on Lindy West’s former editor, Dan Savage. I think he’s possibly the show’s the most darkly enjoyable character. Unlike every other person in Annie’s orbit, who seems so unsure or one dimensional, Gabe’s very confident in his fatphobia. He delivers some politically incorrect zingers that infuriate you while making you at least appreciate his honesty. When he gets his ego bruised by Annie calling him out in writing, his hissy fit is something familiar to any woman who has worked with a man who feels he didn’t get enough attention.

Their back-and-forth is also where Annie picks up a troll on her articles, who calls her a pig and posts pictures of pigs in the comment section of all her articles. It’s a low grade depiction of the real life internet harassment that Lindy West (and literally any woman who says words on the internet) experiences. I won’t tell you how this subplot ends, but it’s one of the most wildly satisfying parts of this series – right up there with Angela Basset setting her cheating husband’s car and clothes on fire in Waiting to Exhale.

Through all of this Annie waffles between being bold and essentially emotionally flaying herself open for Ryan and her parents to get what they need. As the series comes to an end, almost everything is left up in the air. Annie’s stood up for herself professionally, but personally her life is in shambles and she refuses to recognize it.

If you’re a fat babe, you’ll find things to like and cringe about in this show. You’ll see your bad choices, your friends’ bad choices and you’ll see hope that you’ll get to a place in life where you can say fuck you and walk out. You’ll probably also be offended by some of the name calling, fatphobia and sidelining of POC characters. Annie’s story is fresh and even revolutionary — but Shrill leans into tired, tired ways of only paying lip service towards being “inclusive.”

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Mack is a story teller, rabble rouser, actress and queer feminist. She also has ALL of the opinions on pop culture. All of them. Those opinions can be found on Twitter: MackMacTlksBack

Mackenzie has written 3 articles for us.

22 Comments

  1. There’s a scene where Annie is talking about being fat and Fran’s love interest whose name escapes me gets a few lines in but Fran doesn’t get to talk at all? I remember watching and thinking that was a real missed opportunity again.

    Also could really have done w/o any Ryan redemption arc. He sucks.

    • That was one of the most frustrating things about the show for me — I know Annie was deliberately written as insufferably narcissistic and she was surrounded by people trying for a back-and-forth by sharing their own experiences, but she always ignored them and steered the conversation back to herself. They had Fran handwave it by saying that Annie was going through a “selfish phase” but the problem was that the show was as self-absorbed with Annie as Annie was (if that makes sense). I feel like we never got a POV from any other characters, and they ended up very thinly written as a result — they only existed to tell us things about Annie. I get that she’s the central character, but it got exhausting. There were certainly moments of potential in the show, but I hope they course-correct if they get a second season.

      • yeah it was like annie was monologuing and Vic and Fran were just there to nod? and they’re both fat! they have faced the same societal fatphobia! that could’ve been a cool discussion! but we don’t even get to see Vic and Fran talk about it after Annie leaves

        • And she does the same thing to her work friend when he tries to get a word in edgewise. And she also stands him up for plans and briefly apologizes (after he has to spell it out for her) and then goes back to obsessing about herself. He calls her on it later, which is good, but it doesn’t seem to make much difference!

  2. Thank you for this review! Shrill! Like in some ways it was so cathartic and felt so important and I think you hit on all of those! I cried a lot during the pool party episode.

    And also tho everything you hit on about where the show failed/disappointed/needs to grow, thank you for writing about it, yes!

    I would love a show about Fran? I love Aidy Bryant, I love Lindy West, I loved Shrill the book, but in this show, between Annie and Fran, Annie’s the one who should be a secondary character, honestly. Annie feels mostly interesting because of the people (of color) surrounding her, which is obviously kind of a problem! And like you said, it would be SO interesting to see more about how Fran has navigated fatness, as it seems to be a non-issue for her by the time the show starts, but I’m not sure if that’s by design or because she is such a secondary character.

    I’m not certain the parents were actually intended to be endearing? I wanted to punch the mother nearly the entire time.

    Finally this is neither here nor there but were there any straddlers in that pool party scene? Because it looked like an A-Camp pool party and I kept assuming I would recognize at least a few of the faces! Who were those extras? Was it anyone we know? TELL US, FRIENDS!

  3. I don’t really feel your review.

    Annie’s the main character, season 1 she’ll be the centre of the universe. Season 2 they’ll flush out the secondary characters and it will be a more rounded out ensemble. That is the way of TV. The fact it isn’t flushing out your fav immediatly doesnt mean it’s a fake inclusivity show.

  4. yeah i really really wanted to like this show! aidy bryant is brilliant and underappreciated, but between uneven/underdeveloped writing and only being like 30% comfortable with my own fat body, it was hard to get through

    side note Vic-the-pool-party-host-slash-Fran’s-love-interest looks eerily similar to a person i went to college with that i always carried a candle for. not like a full on torch but a small flame

  5. Honestly the first couple episodes were pretty meh to me, but then around the end of episode 3 where she sort of moved on from Ryan made me start to like it a lot more. I just don’t have any desire to watch a shitty man treating a woman badly – that’s not enjoyable television for me, and it certainly isn’t the reason I’m watching this show. Lamar was a great love interest for Annie, but for some reason I was supposed to care about Ryan and his ridiculous facial hair’s journey to be slightly less of a garbage human? Like I said, not what I’m here for.

    I don’t think this was meant to be as relatable as it was, but I REALLY loved how completely and utterly DONE Fran was with Ryan. It felt very real, as the person who’s always the lesbian friend going “your boyfriend is treating you like shit, I don’t know WHY you can’t see that, but please stop talking about him cause it’s making me angry.”

    I genuinely really liked the parts of the show that didn’t involve Annie moping over a guy who barely acknowledges that she’s a human being! The pool party sequence and Annie telling off her shitty boss were standout moments to me. Hopefully the show will get a 2nd season and they can delve into the other characters (NOT Ryan) then!

  6. Thank you so much for writing this! I couldn’t agree more. I kept thinking that as funny and talented as I think Aidy Bryant is, I would much rather watch a show about Fran. I’m glad that they addressed Aidy’s selfishness at the end but it didn’t go far enough, in my opinion. I’m echoing what was said in another comment here but you can’t just admit that a character is self-centered and then use that as an excuse to continue to center them at the expense of the other characters on the show. I get that Annie is the main character, but I would have loved to hear more from Fran about, well, anything other than Annie’s problems.

    Also, as a white woman, I’m really sick of watching TV shows about self-centered white women, and it feels like there are SO MANY of them? Like, Girls, Weeds, you name it. And I’ve enjoyed some of those shows for what they are, but like, come on! Why can’t Annie stick up for herself and take up space without being selfish and self-centered? I feel like this show equates those things to some extent and that’s dangerous.

    I also wish that Fran had been able to express some of her thoughts on fatness. I think it would have been interesting because from my perspective she is someone that is closer to the idealized version of a plus-size woman (like, hourglass figure, could be a Torrid model, etc), but that doesn’t mean she shouldn’t be allowed to have thought and feelings about it, and there’s no way she wouldn’t in real life.

    I did find it interesting about most of the other fat women that were featured at all in the show appeared to be (again, from my limited perspective!) super conventionally attractive? Like, the woman that Annie admires walking down the street, not to mention Fran and Vic (Fran’s girlfriend) were all drop dead gorgeous. I liked that the pool party showed more body diversity, though. I also know that that phrase may be controversial, as race plays certainly plays a role in who is considered “conventionally attractive” due to our super fucked up Eurocentric beauty standards. Idk, just a half-formed thought.

    This probably comes off super negative and that’s not my intent. Overall, I really liked the show. I just see many ways it could potentially go off the rails (please, please don’t make Amadi have a crush on Annie too, ahhhh), and that makes me nervous. But I think it’s definitely deserving of a second season and I deeply hope they use that opportunity to flesh out the other characters and also have Annie actually act like a decent friend, lol. I too thought the abortion scene and the pool party scene were absolutely revolutionary things to have on TV and I really appreciated them.

    Thanks again for writing this review! I really enjoyed it and the discussion that it engendered!

  7. Thanks for writing this thoughtful and honest review.

    I agree with @Weez ‘s statement that “Annie was deliberately written as insufferably narcissistic and she was surrounded by people trying for a back-and-forth by sharing their own experiences, but she always ignored them and steered the conversation back to herself.”

    I was pretty sure that it was intentional that she’s both really shitty and self-centered and also growing in ways we are meant to (and do!) cheer for, but that doesn’t mean that the show needed to completely go along with her perspective. Like, it would have been incredible to hear Fran and her gf bring out what is different about their experiences to each other AFTER Annie’s monologue, even if she wouldn’t listen.

    anyway, as a white person, I’m not going to tell any POC how to feel about (lack of or poor) representation. I echo your call for better POC representation on this show, Mackenzie (and other commenters). I hope the writers and creators can take the criticisms and use them to build on the flashes of brilliance they included this season.

  8. I’m so glad I can finally talk about my instant love for this show. Ive been waiting for Autostraddle to cover this one. I really connected to Aidy Bryant’s character- in my 20s I was fat, insecure, low self esteem, sleeping with assholes, selfish, just like her. The scene where she sees the woman in red and follows her-I cried. What it would have meant to see someone like Annie on tv when I was young! It means something to me now.

    I’ve never seen a show celebrate fat bodies in this way before. The pool party was magic. The realism of stretching clothes to fit your boobs (I’ve done it!) How unafraid they were to show fat bodies fucking (not under a blanket), kissing, dancing, and swimming.

    I can’t wait until the second season. I’m assuming we’ll get more of the other characters’ stories then. Just hopefully not the fatphobic editor. That guy can fuck off.

  9. I also felt like Fran & Amadi were not fleshed out enough as characters, but I assumed that was because of how short the show is. The entire first season is a little over two hours. It could honestly function as a film and then I think that the shallowness of the secondary characters would be a little more understandable.

    That’s not really an excuse, especially when it seems to be the marginalized characters who get that treatment, but yeah. Thinking of it like a film they could’ve cut… a lot of the Ryan stuff and still have the story work.

  10. “I won’t tell you how this subplot ends, but it’s one of the most wildly satisfying parts of this series – right up there with Angela Basset setting her cheating husband’s car and clothes on fire in Waiting to Exhale.” ill watch just for this tbh and my feelings are hURT cause i was really excited about fran but im glad to know going in thats shes not gonna have a huge storyline or anything thank you mack!!

  11. I appreciate this show so so much but it has real room for improvement — and I hope the writers WILL improve because I’d love to see this show be as great as it can be.

    Also sidebar — Annie’s outfits were cute AF but those backless clogs look really uncomfortable? I’d be afraid of stepping out of them all day but I’ve never worn that style so maybe they’re dope??

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