Hulu’s Shrill fearlessly takes on some of TV’s biggest taboos

By KANAK GUPTA | March 28, 2019

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Behind the Velvet Rope TV/cc by-sa 3.0 SNL’s Aidy Bryant stars in the new show Shrill, based on a memoir by Lindy West.

Shrill, Hulu’s latest original comedy, is as liberating as it is entertaining. The show, which aired on March 15, 2019 stars Saturday Night Live (SNL) actor Aidy Bryant as Annie and is based on Lindy West’s memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, in which West tackles taboos surrounding periods, abortions and the fat-shaming she faces as a plus-size woman. 

The six-episode series translates the book’s unapologetic brazenness and humor to the screen beautifully. In the very first scene of the show, a self-confident Annie runs into a fitness instructor named Tanya, who takes it upon herself to point out to Annie that she must be unhappy with her body and that her thin wrists are proof that “there is a small person inside of [her] just dying to get out.” 

As Tanya leaves the observers chime in, shaking their heads at “Toned Tanya’s” blatant fat-shaming, only to come to Annie’s defense by telling her how funny she is. This theme of plus-size women being stereotyped into the categories of “funny,” “stupid” or “sad” is addressed repeatedly throughout the show through the assumptions other characters make. Bryant also battles these generalizations through her brilliant performance as Annie, a multi-dimensional, vivacious character who has insecurities but is still confident, sexual, witty and kind. 

Shrill continues its groundbreaking storytelling in just its first episode when we see Annie getting an abortion. And the show does not shy away from portraying it honestly. Unlike most other shows that have broached the topic of abortions (which is quite a short list), Shrill doesn’t make the procedure seem like a life-ending tragedy, something that forever racks the “mother” with guilt or an action the character is forced to take due to her circumstances. Instead it portrays the abortion as an active choice made by a character who does not want to have a baby at this point in her life with someone she doesn’t trust as a partner. 

Moreover the pregnancy is a result of Plan B being less effective for women over the weight of 175 pounds, which I’m sure was news to most viewers (including myself) and calls to attention the marginalization plus-size women face in sexual-health-related conversations. 

The actual procedure is also shown on-screen and only takes a few minutes of the episode, the rest of which is spent dealing with issues more overarching than the abortion itself. For example, Annie’s self-image, her career and her relationships are explored in depth, showing that there is more to her life than an unplanned pregnancy. 

The show also maps Annie’s struggle to be noticed as a capable writer at the publication she works for — The Weekly Thorn — where her boss continuously undermines her ideas. Still, her first article on a restaurant in a strip club that evolves from a review into a feminist piece about the strip dancers’ lives and the power they have by owning their sexuality, ultimately goes viral. The article gives Annie confidence both as a writer and as a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it.

As her self-acceptance and confidence grows, we watch Annie also succeed in her personal life. Annie asks man-baby Ryan, who she has been sleeping with for a few months but who is ashamed of her, to either take her seriously or end their arrangement. And though their relationship is questionable, we see Annie become more assertive as she realizes that she deserves the love she wants, not the love she gets. 

Her biggest moment of self-acceptance occurs when she goes to a “Fat Babe Pool Party.” After years of hiding her body in public, as she watches this party of plus-size women feeling comfortable in their skin and celebrating their bodies, Annie finally finds the confidence to jump into the pool in her swimsuit. 

This breakthrough moment is huge for Annie. She even finds the courage to go against the wishes of her dismissive boss who treats her like she doesn’t work enough just because she is overweight. She takes a stand against him by secretly publishing an article about the pool party and her own experiences as a plus-size woman, titled, “Hello, I’m Fat.”

In the article, she opens up about the experience of having to overcome her insecurities and problems, only to have them shoved in her face again and again by everyone around her — from her well-intentioned mother who is constantly trying to get her on one diet or another, to her boss who thinks she is lazy because she is fat, to fit people who think that being overweight was her choice.

The article, like her last one, goes viral. It is received with wild applause from the internet (much like the show itself) as women with body image issues and insecurities everywhere, regardless of their size, connect with it. We also see the arrival of a troll who calls Annie a “pig” among other creative insults, but it is her moment of victory when she confronts him that becomes an important subplot of the series.

Shrill does well in not only giving Annie a full, comprehensive development, but also in treating the rest of its very diverse cast the same way. Annie’s best friend Fran (played by Lolly Adefope) is a gay black woman, who is also plus-sized like Annie, but is confident in her own skin, showing that not every woman needs to have insecurities about her own body. She is flawed too, in that she can be judgmental and has a habit of not caring enough for her partners, but she remains a staunch support for Annie throughout the show.

Annie’s boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) is a work in progress who begins as someone to dislike (a “loser”) but slowly, and weirdly, begins to grow on you. Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell), her boss and editor of The Weekly Thorn, is a gay man who is revered in his field but has his own prejudices he must get over. Her coworker Amadi (her best friend at work, or her “work husband”) is a supportive friend and a great and rare example of a workplace friendship on TV that doesn’t turn romantic. 

What makes all the characters of Shrill so compelling is that, regardless of the light they are introduced in, they all have room for growth and they work to achieve it (except the troll; the troll is incorrigible).

Shrill is not only an entertaining, heartfelt and well-constructed comedy, it is a revolutionary take on the representation of fat women on screen, on imperfect characters taking the lead, and on the subjects a TV show can broach and how honestly it can do it. Most of all, this show is a must-watch because it’s an eye-opening and inspirational story of a woman all of us can find a little bit of ourselves in.

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