“There is a small person inside of you dying to get out.” A fitness instructor says this to Annie Easton (Aidy Bryant) in the opening of Shrill. Annie isn’t in a gym or an exercise class; she’s just in a coffee shop minding her own business when the ultra-toned woman takes it upon herself to tell her that she “actually has a really small frame” and “could be so pretty” if she lost some weight…
Shrill, based on journalist Lindy West’s memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, follows Annie’s journey as she strives to dismiss the shame and self-loathing she has always felt, and been told she should feel, as a plus-size woman. When we first meet her, she’s struggling her way through pre-packaged diet meals at the encouragement of her mother (Julia Sweeney) and politely shrugging off comments about her weight from people such as the aforementioned fitness instructor. She is also sleeping with a man who asks her to leave his house via the back, which involves climbing undignifiedly over a fence so that his roommates don’t see her.
Annie’s self-esteem is so low at the outset of Shrill that when she falls pregnant (because the morning after pill isn’t effective on women who weigh more than 175 pounds – something her pharmacist failed to warn her about), she briefly considers going through with the pregnancy, worried that this might be her only chance in life to have a baby because nobody else could possibly want to be with her. Thankfully by the time episode 1 comes to an end, Annie has reached a turning point and, with some crucial support from her charismatic roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope), resolved to start standing up for herself.
Throughout the first six-part series, we see Annie become more assertive both in her personal life and at work. She demands that useless man-child Ryan (Luka Jones) – who takes part in ‘pencil fighting tournaments’ and has an amateurish podcast about Alcatraz called Talk’n Traz – treat her with respect and take her out on proper dates. And once she starts to be more bold at the alternative Portland newspaper where she is ‘assistant calendar editor’, she catches the attention of caustic editor Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) and gets opportunities to write articles.
Episode 4, in which Annie goes to a ‘Fat Babe Pool Party’, is arguably Shrill’s standout episode to date. Surrounded by other women who look like her, and without a man in sight, Annie starts to become visibly more comfortable in her own skin, having fun and eventually shedding her jeans to dive in the pool. It’s all beautifully shot, with the camera celebrating and lingering over these women’s bodies in a way it never usually would. This makes it all the more heartbreaking when Annie has to leave the empowering party to attend a mandatory bike ride with her co-workers and is reprimanded for arriving late by Gabe, who implies that she needs to lose weight in order to be taken more seriously at work. It’s difficult to not share Annie’s rage as the episode culminates in her railing against the “mind prison that every woman has been programmed to believe” and publishing an article entitled ‘Hello, I’m Fat’ on the paper’s website without permission.
In addition to its groundbreaking protagonist and premise, a key strength of Shrill is that its characters feel realistically complex and imperfect. The show acknowledges that in her new, more confident form, Annie can sometimes behave selfishly or recklessly, such as when she chooses to track down a man who has been trolling her online. Watching episode 1, you’d be forgiven for assuming that Annie would quickly ditch Ryan on her path to self-discovery, but she instead chooses to give him a chance, and he goes on to frustratingly fluctuate between building her up and letting her down. An episode in series 2 also shows us another side to the brilliant Fran, who has a seemingly never-ending supply of self-confidence, when we see her at a family wedding and relatives accuse her of being a disappointment.
Similarly, there are no straightforward villains in the show – just complicated characters with believable flaws and prejudices. The most vocal fat-shamer in Annie’s office is Gabe, a gay man who claims he can’t be ‘the establishment’ because he’s wearing nail polish. In series 2, we get to learn more about his own insecurities related to ageing and he becomes less of an antagonist, developing a relatively productive editor-writer relationship with Annie. As a result of her new mindset, Annie also becomes increasingly frustrated with her mother (Julia Sweeney), who has a habit of dropping well-meaning but unhelpful hints about her daughter’s health, i.e. weight, and has an attitude (shared by many women) that eating is something to feel guilty about. However, there is never any doubt that Annie still loves her mum and they are shown to share just as many laughs as they do tense moments. Shrill treats everything it covers with this level of nuance – for instance, when Annie is sent to report on the WAHAM (Women Are Having A Moment) conference and interview its founder (played by guest star Vanessa Bayer), the show manages to get across how these types of pink-heavy ‘girl power’ events can be problematic in some ways but beneficial in others.
If the first series serves as a sort of origin story for Annie, the second series moves things along by focusing more on her identity as a writer and a girlfriend than as a plus-size woman. After starting out with the belief that she was unworthy of love and then accepting that she was deserving of a real relationship with Ryan, Annie progresses further throughout the second series, ultimately realising that she is deserving of more than what she has and should perhaps raise her standards. So far there is no news on a third series of Shrill, but if it happens, Annie looks set to enter brand new territory and I’m eager to explore it with her.
Written by Sophie Davies.
Series 1 and 2 of Shrill are available on BBC iPlayer