Shrill’ is a quiet celebration of plus-size women

by Jordan McDonald | 3/28/19 2:00am

 

In Hulu’s original comedy “Shrill,” a TV adaptation of Lindy West’s 2016 essay collection “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman,” Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant gets the spotlight she deserves as the lead character Annie Easton. An earnest writer in her late twenties, Annie is introduced to audiences as a charismatic dreamer stuck in a rut. After years and years of being demeaned or discounted for her appearance as a “fat” woman, she has come to her breaking point in her workplace and her love life. As Annie reclaims dominion over her body and self-esteem, we bear witness to the changes taking place as she resets the standards for those who wish to remain in her professional or personal life. 

Divesting from West’s more infamous crude and abrasive tendencies, “Shrill” resists full commitment to the format of biography where Annie’s story is concerned. Thus, despite its inspiration at the hands of West and her emergence as a “loud” feminist blogger and comedian, the show is, as critic-scholar Andrea Long Chu wrote, “not, by any definition of the word, shrill.” That being said, over the course of its snack-size season which only includes six episodes, “Shrill” still manages to lift viewers’ spirits even when it fails to truly raise its voice. 

As we follow Annie’s day-to-day realities, viewers are reminded of the ways in which body image and self-confidence reflect internal dialogues that are inextricably linked to and compounded by external influences and social pressures. Forced to contend with the unsolicited advice and suggestions of self-righteous people who try to tell her about her own body, Bryant portrays a woman caught between laughing and crying while living in a body that other people feel entitled to comment on. 

As Annie grows to resist outside commentary over the course of the season, the character serves to affirm those who have had to endure the presumptions of others. In effect, the show manages to establish itself as a narrative intervention in the representation of plus-size women on screen, while also leaving room for the characters to stumble their way through self-acceptance. 

Annie’s bumpy road to unapologetic confidence is marked by a series of trials in which she must confront the people in her life who have routinely demeaned or disregarded her. For example, at her job, a small office for a Portland-based publication, Annie has grown disaffected with her boss Gabe Parrish, played by John Cameron Mitchell, who flippantly rejects all her pitches to write for the site. After a dramatic show of assertiveness, however, Annie is finally assigned a piece — a food review of a local strip club’s buffet. Taking on the assignment with glee, Annie turns an arguably undesirable topic into an opportunity to write about the people who work at the club, zeroing in on the women who perform there. In an unexpected turn that resists more stigmatizing depictions of strippers, the scene unfolds into a teachable moment for Annie. From these women, Annie learns about the power of a wax and the life-changing magic of negotiating your own terms within romantic relationships. Still, while the show invests plenty of narrative time in the fledgling “situationship” between Annie and Ryan, played by Luka Jones, Annie’s attempts to apply this empowerment education in her real life often fall flat. As a replacement, the friendship between Annie and Fran, portrayed by Lolly Adefope, rises to the forefront of the show as its most powerful statement about what love, support and acceptance ought to look like. 

Though Annie is undoubtedly entertaining and compelling in her efforts to shake up the world around her and cultivate a tougher skin, her best friend Fran, a queer black British photographer living in Portland, is arguably the show’s secret weapon for comedic and narrative power. Fran exudes a kind of confidence that ought to be bottled and shared with the public. Lighting up every scene with a knowing smile or witty joke, Fran serves to keep Annie on the right track while also modeling an embodied self-esteem. 

However, at times, this unwavering bravado appears as weakness in Fran’s character. Fran often fails to concede to her faults and is never afforded the character development that could explain her steely resolve. For a show that is presumably interested in exploring what it means to take up space as a woman, both physically and socially, it is disappointing that it fails to take Fran seriously in its investigation of body politics and self-love. Instead, we meet Fran as an overly simplistic figure of self-assurance divorced from insecurity or nuance. For all her star power, Adefope’s character would surely benefit from the series had it delved deeper into the ways that race, gender and sexuality have shaped Fran’s world view differently compared to Annie, even as they both navigate the world as plus-size women.  

Nonetheless, there are moments in “Shrill” in which the power of its imagery makes up for its narrative shortcomings. The unanimous fan-favorite episode of the season, “Pool,” which was written by Samantha Irby, author of “We Are Never Meeting in Real Life” and “Meaty: Essays,” showcases the best of what “Shrill” has to offer. When Annie attends a “Fat Babe Pool Party” for the first time, she is astounded by the community of women partying before her. As she watches them all embrace their fat and curves, the party-goers’ joy pushes Annie to go beyond self-acceptance into the realm of self-love, a notable change in attitude despite it lasting just a few hours. In one scene, the freedom and vibrance of the women in attendance speak volumes about the show’s investment in celebrating uncelebrated bodies. In episodes like “Pool,” in which “Shrill” chooses to use powerful imagery rather than bluster, we can see the beauty in the way the show falls does not match its namesake adjective.  

The show is not shouting or being “shrill” because it’s not trying to get everyone’s attention. “Shrill” is in the business of affirmation rather than advocacy. In this way, it reminds us that affirmation is quiet, intimate work­—signals broadcasted on a frequency legible only to those who are already tuned in. 

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