Thursday, October 21

Farewell to Shrill: Truly Radical TV Laughing at Fat Phobia | TV

Warning: this article contains spoilers for all three Shrill series on Hulu / BBC Two.

“I don’t care if fat people can change their bodies through self-discipline and ‘choices.’ Almost all of them have already tried. A couple of them have made it. What. My question is, what if they try and try and still fail? What if they are still fat? What if they are fat forever? What do you do with them then? Do you really want millions of teenagers to feel trapped in nasty lard prisons that are ruining their lives, and on top of that it’s their own moral failure, and on top of that they’re ruining America with the terrible expensive diabetes that don’t even have it yet? Do you know what is embarrassing? A complete lack of empathy. “

So wrote Lindy West in a 2011 article titled Hello i’m fat. She would later form the backbone of a story on Shrill, a television show based on her memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, and broadcast on Hulu.

When the series first aired in 2019, it felt fresh and radical. Finally, a show set in a magazine where people actually wrote something. And not only that, but the writing that you might want to read, from people who felt real, because they were.

Shrill follows Annie Easton, a promising journalist for an alternative magazine in Portland, Oregon. Annie is bright, talented, a bit selfish, and she’s fat. Many people project their own thoughts and feelings (mainly revulsion and pity) onto it, be it about health, food, or sexuality. Strangers are inserted into your life at all times, whether it’s the fitness instructor saying, “You could be so pretty” (emphasis on the might), the online troll who sends you a photo of a dead pig, titled: “This is Annie”, or the boss (John Cameron Mitchell, John Cameron Mitchell’s X-er gene, Gabe) who establishes an exercise regimen Fattophobic for your employees. It’s no wonder that even being sent to cover Fat Babe’s brightly titled and painfully body-positive pool party sends Annie into a state of existential dread.

Lolly Adefope and Aidy Bryant in Raucous.
Lolly Adefope and Aidy Bryant in Raucous. Photograph: Allyson Riggs / BBC / Brownstone Productions / Hulu

Shrill encapsulates the constant politics of being a fat person. It’s extremely fun too, thanks in large part to Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant as Annie, and to Lolly Adefope (Ghosts, This Time with Alan Partridge) as her roommate and confidante, Fran.

In the first season, Annie is treated poorly at work and in romantic relationships. The second focuses on her gaining control of her life. Her “friends with benefits” arrangement with son Ryan has grown into a real relationship, while leaving the Weekly Thorn and escaping Gabe’s narcissism has given her more independence. However, that control is ultimately elusive; Annie had more opportunities at the Thorn than as a freelancer, and Ryan portrays himself as human garbage. Annie’s standards come into sharp focus when she leaves him in the closing moments of season two because she is “an adult” in need of “a real partner.”

Strident was canceled before its time, probably the reason being the Covid-related disruption in the television industry. In hindsight, the season two finale was probably a neater end point. However, I am still glad that we have a third season. I like that we see Annie judge another fat person too harshly. I like that he has a better and more important role in the Thorn. I like the fact that Ryan comes back and he’s still a terrible, terrible mistake. I even like the fact that Annie, who has felt the displeasure of so many others, in turn feels theirs when, inadvertently, she gives a platform to a group of white supremacists (and calls herself a “white witch” in repentance).

John Cameron Mitchell as Gabe and Aidy Bryant.
Gen X Narcissist … John Cameron Mitchell as Gabe and Aidy Bryant. Photograph: Allyson Riggs / BBC / Brownstone Productions / Hulu

We also get a greater understanding of Fran, not just a quote machine, but a person. Here, she tentatively shares more of herself with a couple, Em, in a coda of the second season episode, where she attends a Nigerian wedding and reconnects with the family struggling with her weirdness. We also see the outsider who first brought Fran and Annie together, in a flashback to their college days. Like another series that was sensitive to weight, E4’s My Mad Fat Diary did not end with the feeling that the changes Annie needs to make in her life are somehow related to body image.

Although it probably wasn’t supposed to end this way, the finale brought the show’s biggest themes to the fore: friendship and self-love. Like the most recent Insecure series, it ended with two women looking deep into each other’s souls and drowning in their sorrows. What if they are fat forever? So what do you do with them? asks West about our toxic relationship with overweight people. Shrill just let them live, with all-important empathy.

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