“Shrill” and the Power in Fucking Up

by Merritt Mecham

Spoilers for the first season of “Shrill” below.

Since it was released last week, Shrill has been lauded for everything from its costuming to its celebration of body diversity. It is revolutionary to see a simple, joyous depiction of fat women succeeding, having sex, and jumping into swimming pools. The show refuses to apologize for showing fat women as they are.

Shrill is not unique in showing fat women as beautiful and deserving of love. That’s been done before by Isn’t it Romantic and Hairspray and a number of body-positive marketing campaigns. However, that depiction has skewed toward cisgendered women who possess white skin, conventional proportions, and able bodies. In fact, most representations of fat women simply allow for another rigid recipe for women to conform to. Despite the banner of inclusivity, the current capitalistic iteration of body positivity still requires fat women to be conventionally attractive, submissive, feminine, amiable, and, most importantly, apologetic about their size. In other words, they must be otherwise perfect to compensate for the perceived flaw of fatness.

At the beginning of Shrill, Aidy Bryant’s Annie has internalized this idea. In addition to compulsive “I’m sorry!”s punctuating her every sentence, Annie’s choices show that she is more eager to make others comfortable than herself. She eats “thin menu” food which her friend Fran (Lolly Adefope) says “looks like a stillborn puppy.” She wears dark, loose clothes. She’s overly forgiving to her sort-of-boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones), who treats her terribly. She looks past her boss Gabe’s (John Cameron Mitchell) fatphobic and dismissive comments.

No moment in the show expresses this belief as poignantly as Annie’s pregnancy in episode one— the result of Ryan’s preference to “raw dog.” He asserts this habit and Annie can’t quite bring herself to refuse. “It’s just he liked me, and I didn’t want him to stop liking me… so I just went with it,” she says. Of course, this means Annie must deal with the consequences of Ryan’s thoughtlessness. As she decides to get an abortion, she briefly wonders if she should continue the pregnancy. While talking to Fran, Annie confesses her heartbreaking reality:

“There have been moments in my life where I like didn’t think I would ever get to have [a husband and children]… because of what I looked like or because there’s a certain way your body is supposed to be and I’m not that, and that maybe if I was just sweet enough and nice enough and easy going enough with any guy that that would be enough for someone.”

This idea that she must be “sweet enough and nice enough and easy going enough” permeates through Annie’s life— evidence of her belief that she must sacrifice herself in order to compensate for her fatness.

This changes when Annie gets an abortion. Instead of people-pleasing perfectionism, Annie does something for herself. “I got myself into this huge fucking mess, but I made a decision, only for me, myself, and I got myself out of it,” she says. “I feel very fucking powerful right now.” Her experience serves as the impetus to stop apologizing for existing and start pushing back.

But pushing back is inevitably messy. And this is where Shrill feels most revolutionary: it not only shows fat women who learn to celebrate their beauty— it shows fat women making mistakes.

And boy, does Annie make some mistakes. She continues to forgive Ryan despite his immaturity and bad behavior. She posts on her work website without editorial permission, and then quits her job (though, given Gabe’s fatphobia and rudeness, that’s not really a mistake). She takes speaking her mind too far, consequently hurting her parents and sending her mom into emotional turmoil. She stands up her friend Amadi (Ian Owens) and bulldozes him in conversation. She pushes Fran so far that their friendship splinters, and Fran starts ignoring Annie’s calls.

By the end of episode 6, Annie has alienated so many people in her life that she’s left alone. And alone she decides to confront the troll who’s been commenting on her articles. Having gotten the troll’s home address, she walks to his house and rings his doorbell. “I’m a real fucking person,” she says.

It could be disheartening to watch someone make so many mistakes, but Shrill never loses sight of the fact that there’s power in the ability to fuck up. “I got myself into this huge fucking mess, but I made a decision, only for me, myself, and I got myself out of it.” Annie says in episode one, and that statement could be the show’s thesis. Annie realizes how much effort she’s put into making up for her fatness. “I’ve wasted so much time and energy and for what? I’m fat! I’m fucking fat,” she says in the climactic speech she gives in episode 4. Shrill trumpets the fact that fat women have the right to be independent and to make mistakes, just like everyone else. Annie’s done trying to make other people comfortable, and so starts living for herself.

Leaving the troll’s house, Annie picks up a planter and throws it at his car, breaking the window. She runs away, coming directly toward the camera, demanding attention, relishing her transgression, and wearing an expression of unadulterated glee.

 

About Merritt Mecham

Hello! My name is Merritt, and I’m a writer based in Salt Lake City, UT.

I have work experience in radio, film, and education. These days you can find me working in the Film & Media Arts Department at the University of Utah.

I’m also available for freelance writing. Read my work.

I’d love to work with you! Check out my resume.

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