This is a spoiler-free review of Shrill.
What happens when you take the work of one of the sharpest feminist minds of our time and filter it through a feel-good half-hour comedy? I’m honestly not sure, and therein lies the problem.
Hulu has adapted Lindy West’s 2016 memoiristic essay collection Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, which deals predominantly with themes of gender, size, popular culture, and what it means when women take up space, as a vehicle for the incredibly talented Aidy Bryant. The show isn’t a straight adaptation of West’s best-selling book, which is similar to her work as a staff writer for Jezebel, New York Times contributor, and co-founder of Shout Your Abortion, but rather a fictional show that’s inspired by its themes and sometimes draws on similar events from the book and her life.
On the show, Bryant’s Annie is a writer at an outlet not unlike Seattle’s The Stranger, which West wrote for, where her reliable and supportive work husband Amadi (charming newcomer Ian Owens, who you’ll wish wasyourwork husband) cheers her on in her quest to finally publish instead of being perpetually looked over. Her roommate, a charisma-exuding Fran (Lolly Adefope) urges Annie to fight for the life she deserves, instead of taking scraps at work and in her personal life, like with her perfectly insufferable no-respect hookup Ryan (Luka Jones). No woman’s story of body image is complete without her mother’s, and we see her mother’s devastating influence (and very real pain) played by Julia Sweeney, and her father’s place as family peacemaker, often in surprising ways.
Her arch boss Gabe is played impeccably by John Cameron Mitchell, who frequently expresses the very real fatphobic (and often non-factual) ideas that our culture [opposite of vilifies] but does so with enough of a sneer that he holds up a mirror to our own beliefs. He typifies a specific archetype of skinny, cis white gay man who harshly criticizes the appearance of straight women (among other things) and wears his identity as a defense from all accusations of prejudice. (See also: Ryan Murphy and the term gaycist.)
The show is written predominantly by women, and it shows. West, Bryant, and Alexandra Rushfield wrote most of the episodes together, while Iranian-American comedian Sudi Green (SNL) and Craig DiGregorio (Chuck) have stand-alone episode writing credits. Unfortunately, the show is mostly directed by a parade of white men, except for a couple of episodes directed by riot grrl Carrie Brownstein and Gillian Robespierre of Obvious Child fame, and a couple of episodes by black male director Shaka King, including the arresting “Troll” and “Pool,” a proud and sumptuous parade of big bodies, filmed with love and whimsy.
When we meet Annie, she’s at the precipice of something new. Aidy Bryant was inspired casting – she has both the comedic chops and the heart required to bring this story to life. It’s impossible not to root for her, which makes it that much harder to stomach her boss’s putdowns, her mother’s casually cutting remarks, or the BS from her situationship who she hopes will become something more.
If you have no knowledge of Lindy West, Aidy Bryant should be reason enough to check out the half-hour comedy, which often reads like any other millennial quarter-life crisis show, except that it happens to feature a fat woman. If you take offense to my using the term fat, you should probably watch this show, or at least read up on Fat Acceptance Movement, Body Positivity’s more radical (and harder to co-opt) precursor.
It’s unfair that a fat person has to be cute and likeable to convince an audience of their humanity, but it certainly works in the favor of Bryant and Shrill. It’s also one of the biggest differences between the show and the book – while the show wants to win you over with a big beating heart, Lindy West’s book cackled in the face of “likeable” and then washed it down with some male tears from a mug labelled “misandry.” Is this how you bring fat positive feminism to the masses, with a sweet smile and a story that’s easy to root for?
Certainly not all art about people with less privilege has an obligation to a political message, but that’s baked into Shrill’s source material, so it goes with the territory here. There is something to be said for simply making someone who looks like Annie the main character, giving Aidy Bryant the leading role she so richly deserves, and having her aspire to be the fabulous woman in the red dress she spies in an early episode rather than starve herself into moral virtue and being obligated to hate herself in the mean time. But with spikier, bolder source material from a few years ago and in a world where less palatable women, including queer women of color, lead this movement, doesn’t that make the show feel a bit behind, a bit quaint, a bit too little, too late?
I have some concerns about the way that Fran, Annie’s best friend and roommate, is sidelined. If Shrill is serious about confronting fatphobia and embracing true body positivity, it must include fat women of color, queer fat folks, low income fat people, and others beyond cis, straight fat white women with college educations and middle- or upper-class upbringings. Eventually Annie is called out for the way she ignores the real needs of other people in her life, a positive sign and hopefully an indication of the direction for the rest of the season. Being fat (or any other marginalized identity) doesn’t absolve you of being an asshole.
I enjoyed Shrill’s charmingly earnest approach, but I wonder – without the background knowledge, will the (unfortunately still) radical message get through? Conversely, will it matter how palatable the messenger if the message is that fat people are worthy of humanity? I don’t know the answer, but I’m eager to see the critical and popular response to Shrill. I know it’s a largely well-made and enjoyable show at a time when we’re looking for optimism in our pop culture, but to what extent will it achieve the social and political aims of its source material? And if it falls short, will that be because it was too incendiary, or too dulled down? Check out Hulu’s Shrill and see for yourself.
Shrill debuts on Hulu on March 15.