From That Girl to Fat Girl, We’ve Come a Long Way
Immediately after finishing Shrill, now streaming on Hulu, I texted both my parents. I want them to watch and understand me, because it’s the first time I’ve felt so closely represented on screen. The recent wave of projects featuring plus-sized babes has done wonders for my sanity. Dumplin’ had three fully realized fat female characters, and Isn’t it Romantic? had a plus-sized lead who never once mentioned her weight.
Perhaps because it’s a series rather than a feature film, Shrill was the most relatable and realistic of the three to me. I’ve also read the book and enjoy Lindy West’s sharp, insightful, and hilarious writing.
Six episodes explore Annie and her life in multiple story arcs, exposing the multi-faceted life of fat people. We fuck, we love, and, surprise, we think! Nearly everything that happened to Annie in the first episode has happened to me. My doctor, because I was fat, neglected to tell me my birth control wouldn’t work. Instead, my mother, a nurse, told me. How could a doctor simultaneously chastise someone for their weight while completely ignoring their needs? I don’t know. But it happens to fat people all the time.
Aidy Bryant is relentlessly charming in every scene, even when she’s a selfish asshole. The only unforgivably selfish thing she does is miss a mini-horse dressage competition, because I really wanted to see that. In this show, every character is unique, with different sizes, shapes, and ethnicities, but there are no “token” representations of anyone. The Shrill episode “Pool”, written by Samantha Irby, is my favorite. It shows hundreds of fat bodies joyfully existing, splashing in cool blue water and shaking their bodies in abandon. It’s a wonderland to Annie and the viewer.
I do have a personal method for dealing with street harassment I endure for being fat. I tell people I’ve recently given birth to stillborn twins, and it’s my first night out. If you think that’s horrible, remember that I’m the hero in this story.
The happiness stops when Annie shows up late to a forced fitness event for her office. Her hilariously petty boss Gabe, played by John Cameron Mitchell (Hedwig!), flat-out calls her lazy, and implies her size makes her so. “Lazy bodies, lazy minds,” he intones, perched on his bicycle built for two. Lindy West claims that Gabe isn’t based on her former boss Dan Savage, but the similarities are kind of hard to ignore. Regardless, their interactions create some of the most hilarious moments in the show.
It’s important to note, though, that Gabe isn’t the only one who feels that way—most of society, even now, acts stunned when fat people are active, smart, or, gasp, both. Joel Kim Booster, as Gabe’s husband Tony, has a small role but is excellent at being hot and looking shady as he backs up his husband’s thoughts. Annie strikes back at Gabe’s vitriol with a well-received article titled “Hello, I Am Fat,” mirroring Lindy West’s actual post on the Stranger. Even though people respond positively to her pieces, Gabe is incensed.
Most places she turns, Annie deals with people making assumptions. Gym rats assume she hates herself and wants their help. Her “boyfriend” Ryan assumes that never introducing her to his friends, forcing her to leave out the back door, and not wearing condoms is all acceptable behavior. Her mother (the excellent Julia Sweeney) assumes that her concerns for Annie’s health are helpful and not unkind.
Meanwhile, her roommate and best friend, Fran, is her rock. Fran supports Annie without condescension. For example, she acknowledges that Annie is fat. Fat people know we’re fat! It’s OK. You don’t need to tell us “You’re not fat, you’re beautiful!” because what you’re saying is, “you’re beautiful despite the fat.” We can all learn from Fran. Fran allows Annie to be selfish while she gains her strength.
The scenes where Annie stands up for herself are among the best in the show. They made me want to go back in time and yell at every past love interest who wouldn’t take me on proper dates, and tell the trainer at LA Fitness who insisted I needed a weight-loss goal to go fuck himself. I do have a personal method for dealing with street harassment I endure for being fat. I tell people I’ve recently given birth to stillborn twins, and it’s my first night out. If you think that’s horrible, remember that I’m the hero in this story. The harasser deserves to feel bad.
I don’t hate my body. Other people do, and that’s the whole problem. I have a right to a full life, and I’m not insecure. I’m angry. Shrill captures the anger and motivation felt by fat women while allowing its lead to live a full, fat life.