Aidy Bryant’s TV series Shrill uncovers the everyday truths of being overweight, and confidently takes aim at common criticisms of being ‘fat’.
Recently renewed for a third season by Hulu, Shrill carefully and authentically delivers the powerful message that conceptions around ‘fat’ have to change.
The ‘mind prison’ involved with living as something other than the ideal body is a fundamental and persistent challenge for journalist Annie Easton (Aidy Bryant). Driven to her breaking point, Annie writes the original, ‘Hello I’m Fat’; and although this article is only ever referred to during the series, and not seen in full, it represents the culmination of her struggles throughout her life.
Adapted from Lindy West’s provocative autobiography, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, the character of Annie similarly embodies an intelligent woman with powerful views that question the norm, but who is dismissed because of her weight.
Naturally, critics were concerned that the series would haphazardly address the topic, and that it would be reduced to being well intentioned but clumsy. Major films with a similar subject, Brittany Runs a Marathon,
By subtly highlighting the unspoken anxieties many of us face when living with body image issues, Shrill’s authenticity shines. From the deceptive figure scanning disguised as a hug, to the indignities of clothes shopping, Annie’s opinion of herself is constantly tested. Being made to deal with intense criticism and numerous social obstacles, Annie’s experience is rightfully depicted not as a creative leap, but a crude reality.
Annie must face these challenges in both her personal and professional life: being confined to writing the calendar at the Thorn because her intelligence is belittled due to her weight, settling for a terrible relationship with partner Ryan out of fear that she is otherwise undesirable, and missing out on social opportunities out of fear of cruel treatment.
Even with the growing acceptance of ‘fat’ as a result of the body positivity movement, the overwhelming cultural attitude still rejects anything less than perfect. The recent Calvin Klein campaign, “Proud In My Calvins”, is geared towards promoting diversity, but has received criticism based on one of their models being overweight, being slandered and labelled as depicting “morbid obesity”.
Historically, ‘fat’ has been viewed as a sign of health, prosperity and strength. It is only recently, in the past century, that an overwhelming anti-fat ideology has gained momentum. This is in part due to advances in technology allowing medical research to draw a causative link between being overweight and certain chronic health issues. Although the results of research funded by concerned sugar companies has redirected the conversation from sugar to fat, potentially skewing opinion, the resounding conclusion is still the same: ‘fat’ is a problem.
To make matters worse, the dominant media perspective compounds the stigma. Working as a journalist, Annie tries to make a change in the way being overweight is represented and thought about, but her editor Gabe disallows her from writing body positive content. Without missing a beat, it is also made clear that Gabe is publishing work that openly targets people that are overweight. As Gabe puts it bluntly, this is because, “the last thing we need is everybody feeling comfortable in their skin”. Without explaining why, Gabe’s editorial redirection is yet another subtle nod to the logic behind the institution, the fact that feeling good about yourself doesn’t sell products.
Apart from advertising content, contemporary cultural representations come in all forms where ‘fat’ is made the enemy: from openly derogatory films
The influence of Annie’s close friends Fran and Amadi, and the times where Annie is surrounded by people with similar experiences, help to develop her inner voice from being one focused on guilt and shame, to one focused on defiance. Rather than seeing her weight as the problem, sticking to her guns, Annie embraces her weight and starts to begin making choices for herself.
Seasons one and two of Shrill meaningfully grapple with what it really feels like to be ‘fat’. By giving ‘fat’ a genuine and relatable voice, it pushes back against dominant cultural views that ‘fat’, and ‘fat’ people, should be intensely rejected. Amidst the seemingly insurmountable obstacles and our fatalistically negative cultural habits, Shrill still manages to cut through. If the first two seasons are anything to go off, the third season is likely to follow suit, striking with conviction, reinvigorating its core message that ‘fat’ has feelings, and that happiness is not necessarily a destination reached due to physical change. Importantly, Annie’s unwavering determination to live a life guided by her own happiness, in spite of all the cruel opinions, is because after all, “I’m the one with the fat ass and the big titties, I tell them what to do.”