In the quietly revolutionary Hulu show based on Lindy West's memoir, Aidy Bryant inhabits a radical new protagonist: a fat woman who learns to stop apologizing. We talk with West and fellow series writer Samantha Irby.
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There is a moment in the fourth episode of Shrill, where Annie (Aidy Bryant), our heroine, has a grand epiphany at a plus-size pool party. Surrounded by fat women who are unashamed to bare thighs and upper arms, who are wholly unconcerned that their swimsuits don’t flatten their bellies, who move with the poise and purpose that society only affords to thinner women (and even then, only in certain circumstances), Annie realizes that she doesn’t have to swelter the day away in jeans and a T-shirt. She can strip down to the bathing suit she’s worn underneath her clothes, but never had the nerve to show off in daylight. She can jump in the damn pool and swim. The camera follows her in an elegant underwater tracking shot, holding on Annie’s body with a loving attentiveness as she moves with a confidence and exuberance that is even more arresting for how rare it is in fat women on-screen.
Annie has spent most of the season edging her way to self-acceptance of her fat body, of her ambition as a writer, of her desire for loyal companionship (or at least good sex)—when she leaps headlong into the swimming pool, she’s taking a leap of faith. This moment exemplifies the show’s great deftness—it’s light and buoyant, the kind of coming-of-age comedy one could binge through in an afternoon, but it’s also earnest in a fiercely pure-hearted way. Shrill, which is loosely based on former Seattle Stranger columnist Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, mines some truly blighted and pained terrain—Annie deals with an unplanned pregnancy, sizeist bigotry in the workplace and with her kinda-sorta-boyfriend, her father’s cancer, and her mother’s slow-burn implosion, and an online troll—with a wry, eviscerating wit and a defiant sense of optimism.
By the end of the first episode alone, Annie has reached a point of self-discovery that other shows might reserve for the season finale: After she discovers that the Plan B she’s been taking—because that kinda-sorta-boyfriend (the guy who makes her go out through the backdoor because she doesn’t, like, mind, right?) likes to “raw dog”—doesn’t work as effectively on women who weigh more than 175 pounds, she realizes that, actually, she does mind, that she’s more than somebody’s backdoor booty. Her abortion carries no After School Special agony; it is, instead, a head-clearing catharsis—the first domino that will send the neatly arranged ideal of a more polite life crashing down. It’s tempting to see the show’s creative choices—using an abortion as a catalyst for self-discovery when an unnerving fraction of our political discourse revels in dystopic images of “infanticide,” or showing a fat woman demand respect from her partners and her bosses when our culture is neurotically fixated on the virtues of “health and wellness” and even feminist ethos can traffic in “strong is the new skinny” jingoism—as overtly political.
For West, a New York Times opinion columnist who wrote for the show, portraying Annie’s at times stuttering, at times profound metamorphosis into a more confident woman, meant reflecting the at-times granular, at-times sweeping truth about women’s lives: “Abortion is happening, I mean it’s such a common thing, it’s such a common part of people’s lives,” she tells DAME. “And we don’t talk about it and when we do talk about it it’s some kind of high drama or some kind of shameful secret.” If the show is suffused with a sunny radicalism, it’s because it’s telling stories that are often relegated to the B-plots of other shows featuring more “conventional” heroines: As a plucky fat woman, I’ve only seen my fellow Annies in the funny best friend who exists to sling sassy insights or to sigh over cups of non-fat yogurt, so the “real” heroine can prove how good and kind she is by insisting that no, really, her fat pal is beautiful “inside and out.” West says that the creative team behind Shrill made a conscious decision “[not to] spend a lot of time in self-loathing man, that’s a fat story that we have seen before … it’s a lot of work to figure out how to live a good life in a fat body. So that’s what we were interested in.”
That question of how to live happily inside a fat body animates much of the series—it’s worth noting that Annie’s best friend, Fran (Lolly Adefope), is a voluptuous libertine, a heartbreaker who moves joyfully in her own fat body—but it is most clearly crystallized in that fourth episode, which juxtaposes Annie’s breakthrough at the pool party with the sizeism of her boss Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell), who forces his employees on a bike ride as part of the company wellness program and weaponizes aphorisms like “healthy body, healthy mind.” That episode was written by Samantha Irby, author of the best-selling essay collections Meaty and We Are Never Meeting In Real Life. When the writing team was searching for a moment that would turn Annie’s nascent body positivity into a full-fledged rebelliousness that prompts her to write and post her own version of West’s seminal “Hello, I Am Fat” essay, Irby remembered attending “dance parties and clothing swaps and exercise classes that were made specifically for fat women, and I thought it would be cool to see Annie seeing other women eat food while wearing crop tops and have that be her awakening.”
Shrill is a deeply, uniquely personal work—which, ironically enough, helps it tap into a prime collective of unruly women who’ve yearned, for so long, to see our own awakenings on-screen. “I was just thinking, Wow this feels like a coup, that … they’re gonna let us put a bunch of hot babes in bikinis without anyone having to mention their back rolls,” Irby says. “I think that we could make more shows about fat people with normal lives, starring people who are actually fat, telling nuanced stories about love and sex and work that aren’t centered around waiting for your real life to start the second you drop those extra pounds.” The show arrives at a moment of cultural handwringing over the meaning of “women’s rage” and a clamor for “Strong Female Protagonists” who can save the serial killer’s latest victim before the commercial break or punch planets out of orbit, yet it’s unafraid to portray the more painful, slow-going parts of Annie’s awakening—the parts where she’s only half-awake, still stiff from her prolonged somnambulance, and wiping the crustiness from her eyelids.
For hopscotch toward personal victory, like jumping into the pool or telling off her boss, insisting that her kinda-sorta boyfriend take her out for a real date or going for better sex with a far more handsomer friend, there is a half-step—or sometimes, a full jump—backward. As Annie comes roaring into herself, she treats her long-suffering yet ever-supportive work husband as an afterthought, standing him up for a hook-up; dismisses Fran’s ambitions to be more than a hairstylist who works out of their living room; and fails to consider the formidable stress of being the primary caregiver for a spouse with cancer and, y’know, ease up a bit on her mother. “It’s not like all of her problems are solved once she starts to get an inkling that she doesn’t have to hate herself,” West explains. “Annie, she’s figuring this stuff out, she’s trying hard but she’s impulsive, she’s a little bit selfish, she gets really wrapped up in her own journey and starts to kind of neglect her other friendships. There are plenty of ways to be a flawed person without being a total dick.”
The show strikes that fine balance for Annie, who is teetering between being a flawed, yet fundamentally good-hearted person and a total dick, through the exquisitely raw, painfully tender quality of its writing and Aidy Bryant’s innate effervescence, in full evidence in scenes like one in which Annie confronts her troll, which has a kaleidoscopic intensity and ends on a note that is simultaneously cathartic in its defiance and indicative of a great ache that is ticking inside her with the dark potency of a dirty bomb. “Aidy is just so effortlessly lovable and disarming and beguiling,” West says. She’s particularly excited for viewers who might only know Bryant for her work on Saturday Night Live (in her impression of Sarah Huckabee Sanders, she uncannily fuses a superficial downhome folksiness with a seething menace) to discover her as a dramatic actress: “It just gives us so much room to do stuff with Annie and to give her big mistakes to make and come back from them.”
Toward the end of episode four, right after Annie has returned from a particularly vicious encounter with her boss, she sits with Fran and the woman who’s organized the fat-babe pool party, and the three of them lament everything they wish they’d ever heard as fat women in a culture that is hell-bent on breaking them into smaller (i.e., “prettier”) versions of themselves. It’s not a “bitch session” in any conventional sense; it’s more a communal purging of rage and grief, a scorching of the earth that melts away everything that’s been frozen hard and allows the seedling of Annie’s great rebellion—her great proclamation that hello, she’s fat and should be allowed the full spectrum of wildness and delight—to muscle up toward the sunlight. It’s everything I wish I’d seen as a teenager and a twentysomething starting to scrap for my own dignity. I’m glad I have it now.
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