Throughout the first season of Hulu‘s half-hour feminist comedy Shrill, Annie is vexed by a troll commenting on her articles. The troll follows the trajectory of Annie’s career – when she’s celebrating her first article and its great reception, the troll first appears, ready and waiting to knock her down. Hanging out with her friends? A notification: “pig fuck tit bitch cum hog.” When she publishes her own personal manifesto of reclaiming her body, an article that resonates with so many others, her troll comes out in force, invoking her father’s cancer.
For many women, the running troll plot on Shrill is all too familiar. It’s a reminder that no matter what women achieve, there will be always someone there to knock you back into place. That goes doubly online, and it’s worse for women who are openly feminist. For someone who’s also fat, black, queer, disabled, or all of the above, it’s nearly impossible to escape the death and rape threats, slurs, harassment, and other hatred that’s heaped on.
In “Troll” more than any other episode, Shrill owes a large debt to its incisive source material and the lived experience of Lindy West. West fictionalized many things when transitioning her New York Times best-selling book to the small screen, and one of them is nature of the confrontation with her troll, and the outcome. Lindy’s troll stopped harassing her and sought her out on his own to apologize, and their emotionally intense conversation eventually prompted a sort of forgiveness. In contrast, Annie has to track her unrepentant troll down. He shows a moment of humanity which Annie acknowledges without letting him off the hook, but he reveals his true, hurtful nature once again.
SNL’s Beck Bennet is particularly affecting as the troll. He comes across as a thoroughly-average middle-class guy with a nice house – not the stereotypical man-baby in his parents’ basement. If you saw him walking down the street or at an office holiday party, you would have no idea that he spends his time terrorizing a woman online. It’s hard to thread the needle of showing the humanity of keyboard warriors without going treacly (“if you just talk to your trolls, it turns out we’re all human after all!”) or selling out the real harm that trolls cause, but Shrill manages to do so.
It shouldn’t be a surprise, though, that the instant the troll starts to see Annie as human, his tone turns flirtatious and he asks her to come inside for a drink. He’s still objectifying her, fetishizing her, seeing her entire existence as subject to his consumption or rejection. This turn is just the reverse of street harassers who whistle or yell supposed compliments, but then switch to some variation on, “fuck off, fat bitch!” the instant they don’t get the response they’re looking for. For men who engage in trolling behavior, whether it’s in the comments section, on a street corner, in Tindr messages, or in the dark corner of a bar, the line between, “I want to have sex with you,” and, “I hope you get raped,” is paper-thin. And women know it.
The one thing that doesn’t ring true? Annie is unafraid to show up alone, at night, to the home of her troll. We see her react to trolling throughout the season in a few ways – she’s hurt, preoccupied, deflated. She talks it over with friends, tries to get her boss to deactivate the alerts to her phone, and eventually enlists the help of a woman IT whizz who actually truly gets it, because she’s been trolled herself. Though, the writers miss a key opportunity for commiseration here – most people I know who have been trolled readily share strategies and swap war stories.
But never does Annie show fear. She doesn’t talk about being scared that the troll might find her, or her parents, or that he may call every editor she’s ever worked with and try to get her fired, all things that I have worried about and seen happen to friends of mine. She doesn’t have to relocate, and no one sends things to her home or appears in her daily life to take stalkerazzi-style photos of her. She’s not even afraid that no one will take the troll seriously, and aside from her flippant boss Gabe, everyone is appropriately horrified, a marked departure from reality for most of us.
This was likely a necessary tonal shift in order to keep the buoyant feel of the half-hour comedy that so joyously carries Shrill through. It’s a tough proposition to make a half-hour fat-positive feminist comedy that also features abortion and online harassment, so I can see why concessions were made. Still, Shrill is perhaps the most realistic depiction of trolling on screen, something that’s vital to understanding our current social and political context.
In the forward of her book, written just after President Trump was elected, West wrote about how the trolls she and other feminists had been warning about for years – Gamergaters, Pick-Up Artists, incels, 4Chan – coalesced into what we now know as the alt right, white supremacists with better branding who helped elect Trump. These groups and their tactics cut their teeth making feminists like Lindy West, Anita Sarkeesian and Brianna Wu unable to stay in their own homes or go to public speaking engagements undisturbed. Now, they organize groups like the one in Charlottesville, where a young woman was killed by someone who deliberately drove his car into a crowd of peaceful protesters.
West says: “I see people who are leaders in the alt right who used to just be little, like, Twitter avatars who used to harass me when I was working at Jezebel and now they have, to some degree, the ear of the president. So it’s just morphed into a different animal at some point. The idea of just doing a redemption narrative with one of these truly toxic and abusive people held no interest for me. I think it’s a different conversation now.”
For those people, mostly women (especially trans women and/or women of color), who have spent years asking for help and warning about the damage from people like the now-deplatformed Milo Yiannopolis, it’s both a sense of vindication and a waking nightmare to see mainstream media realize just how nefarious these groups are. That pickup artist tactics aren’t just something that humorless feminists complain about – they’re born out of a worldview that has been directly referenced by multiple killers.
I don’t know what the future holds for Annie and her troll. Maybe he’ll leave her alone; maybe it will be worse. Either way, as long as she’s a woman in public, she will have to deal with some version of this harassment, of broken men exorcising their demons at the expense of women they deem unworthy in some way. But Shrill is bringing much-needed visibility by showing a woman learning to value herself, and it’s good to see that include learning how to value online safety and the effect it has on our mental health.