Watching “Shrill”

As I sat down to write this, an article showed up on my screen. It was titled “Help! I think my coworker’s weight is impeding her career!” The headline featured a photo of a smiling white woman with two white men standing at a distance behind her, arms folded, looking at her with a critical expression on their faces.

“Great,” I thought. “Men determining what’s best for a woman’s health AND career. Perfect.”

I did not read the article. I don’t care what it’s really about. It’s enough of an insult to read the headline, to know that the pervasive attitude about women is that their bodies belong to the world around them, that coworkers have some inherent right to make any judgement about a woman’s career. The headline reinforces the belief that weight is inherently bad, and the only factor in determining a person’s success.

The paternalism makes me ill.

Aidy Bryant is starring in a six-episode show on Hulu show called “Shrill.” It was based on a book of essays written by Lindy West, a writer, comedian and activist from Seattle.

The show, set in Portland, centers Annie, a writer with a local newspaper, a la Portland Mercury or Willamette Week. She has been on calendar duty, longing for a more substantial role in the paper. To be a “real” writer.

I went to a fat-positive watch party to take in these three hours of TV. As I was preparing for the gathering, I found myself filled with an eager anticipation I have never felt when preparing for any other outing. This group of complete strangers is arranged around the single identifying feature of being fat/plump/stout/overweight/large/solid/Falstaffian, doing activities together, sharing the experience of being outsiders among typical-sized people.

The thought of watching the show with other women who experience being fat in our culture was exciting. Finally, I could hang out with people and not pretend to be something else–to be hip or fashionable, or comfortable in a rickety chair, or  pretend not to be hungry while surveying the potluck spread. I could skip the step of looking around the room and wonder if I’m the biggest person there. It wouldn’t matter.

I wouldn’t have to see that look in the eye of that person–and there’s always at least one–who sees only the size of your thighs or the spread of your waist, and telegraphs their slender superiority. It happens less in Portland–god love ya–than in suburban Chicago, but it still happens. I’ve been judged on many things, but I can see that fat-phobe look from a mile away.

The group went to great lengths to accommodate people of size, arranging the meeting at the house of a member who has ample, comfortable seating for a dozen people, ensuring that the entry was navigable by people with mobility issues.

Just the planning phase relieved some of my typical anxiety. Imagine a gathering where you are judged solely on your personality! The day of the gathering, I was positively jubilant.

This is not normal for me. Typically, on the day of any social gathering, I have created three or four reasons I can’t go. Some are legitimate, but I could probably overcome them. The combined paralysis of some minor inconvenience with being large in a skinny world often keeps me at home.

But Saturday. Saturday, I bounced around all day with the excitement of a shaken can of soda. My family noticed. This anticipation revealed to me just how much my body, with its menopause-enhanced curvature and lifestyle-induced expansion, factored into my social anxiety. Preparing to go out is a practice of expecting judgement–explicit or implicit–about my person. Once past the initial introduction, I am powerfully charming, capably playful, and intellectually stimulating. But the judgement phase comes first, and withstanding that onslaught while maintaining my natural effervescence is emotionally draining.

Not surprisingly, “Shrill” is couched in just such an anxious mindset, its protagonist timidly asking for more out of life. While its stated objective was to show a fat woman who “was happy”, I saw a fat woman who accepted less in nearly every aspect of her life–less than a woman of intellect and drive deserves. Setting aside for a moment the convenient fiction of her job, in which she works 1) for a newspaper, 2) that maintains an actual, physical newsroom 3) on “calendar beat” she has an actual cubicle, 4) such work–and ONLY that work– financially sustains her, “Shrill” has Annie in multiple sub-par situations that she continues to just TAKE.

When we meet her, Annie is “celebrating” six months of “fucking” a guy. He texts “Fuck?” to her in the middle of a workday, she leaves her job and ends up in a nasty-ass apartment with a seedy, overgrown, paunchy, aging nerd–“norm-core Ted Kaczynski”–and she lets him fuck her. And it didn’t look like much fun for her.

Our room full of women who knew better collectively groaned in disappointment to see her getting “raw-dogged” (sex without a condom) by this clunker.

The show’s creator definitely showed a fat woman who has sex, but geez–with THIS guy? She leaves work for that shipwreck?

When his roommates (!) come home unexpectedly, he has her leave by the back door, so they won’t know who he was fucking. She tiptoes (in wooden clogs, no less) down the back steps and has to climb over a fence overgrown with bramble–except for the small portion where she has repeatedly been asked to climb to save her fuck-buddy’s reputation.

And she was just taking it?

Annie has multiple relationships that reinforce her stance of taking what she’s allowed and liking it. Her editor is brusque and insulting, though not ever directly about weight, and dismisses Annie’s requests for increased responsibility without even a glancing consideration. This egomaniacism, I have found, is typical of editors, so while abrasive, I understood it as part of the culture of the newsroom.

Put a pin in that one.

Her mother, played by Julia Sweeney in all her mincing glory, loves Annie but constantly circles back to Annie’s diet and exercise, dragging Annie into conversations that are just fat-shaming candy-coated with health concerns.

Annie encounters street-shaming as well, when she is approached by a fitness trainer who sees Annie taking a sardonic look at an ad for fitness training. The trainer assumes Annie is looking to “lose weight”, and tells her how pretty she could be. A second encounter with the same trainer later in the show reinforced the “fat people are all unhappy because they are fat and only becoming skinny will make them happy” message all of us fat people receive. Realism.

What Annie has in spades is good, enriching friendship with her roommate Fran. With the unbridled support of a female friend who gives zero fucks, Annie relaxes into the certainty of unconditional love. Fran doesn’t expect Annie to look/be/act anything other than Annie, and that relationship makes the show for me. She holds a celebration party for Annie’s first published piece. Fran and Annie together depict how women hold each other together with reciprocal emotional labor. Fran encourages Annie to pursue those things that light her up, including the body-positive pool party that is the center of the show.

Annie pursues the pool party ostensibly as a calendar item for the newspaper. Such an event actually happens in Portland every summer; The Chunky Dunk  is “a fat, QTPOC & (a)gender affirmative non-profit organization that focuses on providing safer shame-free swimming for every BODY!” When Annie and Fran arrive, the party is in full swing, its gorgeous host lounging on deck furniture so alluringly, Fran must go introduce herself. The two eventually become girlfriends, a brilliant example of Fran’s assertive natural attraction. Annie dips her toes in the water, then lounges with Fran and her future girlfriend, and eventually strips to her swimsuit and plunges into the water to perform the handstand she’s been longing to do since she was a self-conscious, pudgy child.

Reveling in the pool has made Annie late for a work bike outing mandated by her editor. When she arrives, soaked to the skin, at the joyless looping cyclists, her boss excoriates her for not being a team player, not trying hard enough, not stepping up to do her job.

Except she WAS doing her job.

His diatribe was laced with implicit fat shaming, accusing Annie of laziness for not participating in an exercise outing that had nothing to do with her work ethic. He ignored all the times she went beyond her job description to deliver something truly remarkable–like her review of the breakfast buffet at a strip club that highlighted the lives and words of the dancers–and punished her for a mistake that inadvertently insulted his values.

Annie’s discussion with the strippers provided one of the best lines of the show. When Annie asks how the women can stand doing what men tell them to do all day, one of the strippers says “Men don’t tell me what to do. I got a fat ass and big titties. I tell men what to do.” Annie later seizes on this power with her fuck-buddy, asserting her will at long last over his half-assedness.

Why she wastes her power on such trash was a source of frustration to our watch-party group, whose joy at the revelatory pool party was dashed the moment Annie reconnected with fuckboy Ryan. The whole roomful of us shouted at the screen “DON’T DO IT” when she knocked on his door again, particularly after she had spent a night with someone who really cared about her–and didn’t make her crawl out undetected the next morning.

I’m still disgusted that she went BACK to a guy who made her do that. You really think your fat ass and big titties are gonna make him a better person?

Much of my response to “Shrill” was tied up in my view of women’s power, and how we give away our lives to other people in the name of being “nice”, or inoffensive, or polite. We teach people how to treat us with what we are willing to accept; every time we say “yes” to some crappy thing someone wants to hand us, we’re saying “no” to ourselves. We’re saying we don’t deserve anything more than this crappy thing.

All women have been told to be less; to be less loud, less large, less demanding, less intelligent and articulate. For centuries, women have been fighting to get out of the shell of the limitations placed on us. Millions of women have fought their way out and are living on their own terms, an example for the rest of us.

“Shrill” demonstrates the vestigial tendency toward smallness to which many of us still aspire, both in size and in pursuing our lives. Annie is clearly more capable than just being the “calendar” person at the newspaper, and any boss worth his salt will see that and foster that ability because it makes the whole newspaper look good. But she asks for more only tentatively, with an abashed hope that the editor pounces on as weakness–because males in our society see that politeness as a vulnerability, and see only that vulnerability, and stab at that tender spot until we bleed.

Strangely enough, the show “Shrill” makes no mention of the trope of women’s voices being harsh or offensive. Aidy Bryant’s delivery is decidedly deferential at all times, even when she is asserting her will. (Bryant is, by the way, delicious in this show.) While it’s the name of the book, the title of the show has little to do with what happens in the show.

“Shrill” has funny moments, and we hollered and cheered at the pool party. It was a beautiful scene of women jiggling their thighs as they danced and joyously cannonball-ing into a pool full of women. Not a single side eye was cast, not a sneer from a skinny onlooker, no tsks or eyerolls; just women in bathing suits playing in the sun.

You know, like “regular” people get to do when they go to the pool.

Our group agreed that this pool party was better than any party we’ve ever been to; there was music, and dancing, and a bar with a live bartender (Hey there, Ayanna Berkshire! I see you!), a photo booth, that freaking deck SOFA that everyone was lounging on, and kickass inflatables everywhere. That is a fucking POOL PARTY!

Episode 104



The rest of the show, however, was downhill from there. Sure, Annie reunited with the deadbeat (whose mom washes and folds and puts away his clothes every week. COME ON ANNIE) on “her terms”, and she confronted her mother about her fat shaming.

But we could not get over the fact that, right when Annie is starting to build her backbone, her friends and family complain that she’s going through a “selfish phase.”

Um, what?

How could a show that purports to be about self-acceptance put a character through these shitty relationships and situations, and then just when she is starting to stand up and say “no, this isn’t acceptable,” call her “selfish”?

Way to go, creators of Shrill. You just undercut your whole message.

Annie wasn’t being selfish. When she stood up to her mother, she wasn’t being selfish. When she chose to have sex with someone other than DoucheCanoe, she wasn’t being selfish. When she didn’t tell her roommate she’d had sex with the roommate’s brother, she wasn’t being selfish.

Maybe she was awkward, and maybe she didn’t get through those moments without stepping on some toes, but to label her “selfish” just when she’s starting to stand on her own two feet–that was just too much for me.

The show has gotten a lot of attention for highlighting a fat woman. And that’s great. She’s a woman who has a job and has sex and has friends. Great.

That’s true of most of us, by the way. Fat women have jobs and sex and friends. We do. It’s true. Take a moment to absorb that, if you need to.

What we *don’t* have–and the show doesn’t address at all–is good-looking, well-fitting clothes that we could afford on a calendar-person’s salary. Much has been made about the clothes on the show, which are super cute–but had to be created for Aidy because (ahem) NONE OF THE CLOTHES SHE WORE were available in stores.

Shrill Rainbow dress
Here she is confronting the douche. See the inviting, adult living space he inhabits?

Annie, however, never struggles with finding an adorable rainbow-sequined mini-dress to wear to an office party, or fidgets with sleeves that are too tight, or has to roll her pant legs because she had to buy pants two sizes too big so she could accommodate her mid-section. That would have been a realistic thing to put in the show, and not hide behind the camera.

But the show far too easily slips back into shaming Annie for growing, for becoming more than she was, for no longer being small enough for “regulars” to accept. Despite the exuberance of the pool party, the rest of the show left me and my fellow watch-party-goers deflated and discouraged. We wanted more than a single moment in sunshine, thighs bared to the public; we wanted Annie to claim the space she needed to become more than just the calendar person, more than just some loafer’s comfort object.

She deserves more. And we deserve more. Showing a fat woman on screen, in cute clothes, at a job in a funky city, and (GASP) having sex NAKED is a start.

It didn’t go nearly far enough.


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