Emotional Health

Living Large in the World of ‘Shrill’

Shrill is a new Hulu series based on the book by Lindy West. Its protagonist is a young woman, based on West, named Annie Easton, who lives in Portland, Oregon and writes for a hipster website called “The Daily Thorn.” But the main thing about Annie is she’s seen by the world as fat. The main thing about the series is that being fat is the main thing about her.

In Annie’s world, her size seems to influence everything that happens to her. The man she hooks up with from time to time, Ryan, refuses to introduce her to his friends or take her out in public. One night, when his roommates come home unexpectedly early, he makes her leave through the back door. She has clearly done this before.

Her boss, Gabe, a gay hipster phony who makes a point of his open-mindedness, treats her terribly. She is clearly third class in his book, by virtue of being a woman, AND a fat woman.

While Annie’s father is portrayed as a loving, delightful mensch who clearly adores his daughter, her mother is a self-conscious insecure woman who worries constantly that Annie’s weight is a “big” obstacle. And it is, sort of, because Annie is convinced of this too.

Annie is a people-pleaser, an affectionate, self-effacing, and generous person whose natural good nature has increased her vulnerability to others’ contempt and abuse. Her roommate, Fran, an African-American lesbian, is much more evolved. Fran is also overweight, but it isn’t even mentioned. Her pride in her body and her sense of entitlement serve as a constant counterpoint to Annie’s apologetic nature.

While Shrill aims for a light tone, and is reliably funny, the pathos of a woman uncomfortable in her own skin is constant. Invited to a pool party for large women, Annie is seen as an adolescent in flashback refusing to go swimming in daylight. She shows up in the pool party fully dressed, and her astonishment at the dozens of fat women around her dancing, swimming, and clearly enjoying being themselves is poignant.

Meanwhile, her boss has organized a compulsory heart healthy biking event (to get a break on the company’s insurance rates) and berates her for being late, suggesting she is unhealthy and lazy. She is also the victim of an internet troll who makes vile comments about her size in response to her articles.

In Shrill we watch as Annie begins to resist the constant drone of mistreatment, stereotyping, and uninvited comments. Though it goes against her natural good-naturedness, little by little, she starts fighting back. She tells Ryan off and demands to be treated like a “real” girlfriend. The more respect she demands, the more she gets, in fact, though some people, like her boss, are incorrigible. Ryan begins to improve into an attentive boyfriend—albeit a slacker who works part-time in a hardware store and lives with two roommates.

The more Annie starts demanding that people engage with  her as more than just a fat woman, the better things go for her. Of course, this is just a TV show, but much of it is based on West’s memoir of her own experiences, and she is an executive producer.  West’s point seems to be, as Eleanor Roosevelt said, “No one can make you feel inferior without your permission,” but that doesn’t mean people don’t try.

I was disappointed that the show had only six episodes. The more complicated questions remained unanswered. Although Annie does become more forceful, she is never “shrill.” West’s anger, a central aspect of her writing, is curiously missing, as is much of the pain and humiliation one would expect a person regularly insulted and abused to feel. While Annie clearly benefits from expecting better treatment from others, it seems a bit facile for her to find it so easily. Fear and dislike of fat is a deeply entrenched problem, shared by people of all sizes. The show does not convincingly portray the transformation from Annie as a girl who only would swim in the dark into her new-found comfort and acceptance of her body.

I hope there will be a season two, because I’d like to see a more nuanced look at her romance with Ryan. Is he the man she would have chosen if she were thinner, or is he the best Annie feels she can do as a fat woman? I would be interested to see Annie as a single woman negotiating dating in a culture that “swipes” away all but the best-looking options.

There’s also the problem of Annie’s mother, Vera. Despite the fact that she’s married to a clearly accepting, loving man, Vera is a middle-aged woman who is obsessed with her looks and her weight. As a character, she embodies everything about our  culture that makes Annie’s life so difficult. By accepting and embracing the values that say a woman’s looks are crucial, and worse, that all women must aspire to one standard of beauty, Vera and millions of other women have put themselves in a prison, partly of their own making.

Annie is trying to bust out of that prison, and Shrill represents another weapon in the arsenal against fat-shaming and prejudice against overweight people. Joining Lena Dunham’s unapologetic display of her “imperfect” body in Girls,and the smash-hit series This is Us, (among others), Shrill is both thoughtful and meaningful. And in the end, it makes its point well: Annie is a warm, intelligent, funny character who is just trying to live her life like the rest of us. And ultimately, her body  is not the most important thing about her.


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