By Matt Hanson
Shrill picks up narrative strength once we see Annie slowly come to terms with the yawning gap between who she is and who she has been told to be by her family, her friends, and society at large.
The comedic actress Aidy Bryant is probably best known for her work as a cast member of Saturday Night Live, but she has recently expanded her profile by starring, writing, and executive producing the new Hulu series Shrill which is based on the memoir by Lindy West. Bryant plays a character named Annie Easton who lives in Portland Oregon and is a writer for an alt-weekly, which West herself was as well. Annie seems to have all — or most — of her ducks in a row, but there’s a nagging issue that keeps holding her back in obvious and more insidious ways. In a word, she’s fat.
Believe me when I say that I felt awkward writing that just now, and I really don’t want to seem crude or ungallant — the word is the one Annie uses to describe herself most often, and a large part of the show’s power lies in how she defuses the word by fiercely taking it back and using it as a badge of honor. What Shrill charmingly but trenchantly demonstrates through deceptively winsome storytelling is how this term affects her life in both superficial and existential ways — it isn’t just an adjective to describe how she feels when she looks in the mirror, it’s also how she has been implicitly taught to define herself and her value as a human being.
Very early in the show, this gauntlet is thrown down in the form of an insufferably perky fitness instructor (and what a creepy term that is) who chirps her way through a sales pitch to get Annie to join her workout classes. Her rhetoric is all the “you go, girl” palaver of self-help but, when Annie politely tells the woman that she really isn’t interested and that, sorry, she didn’t particularly ask for any lifestyle suggestions, that sleek, tanned face instantly turns into a rictus of disgust and outrage. She self-righteously stomps away, mumbling about she was only trying to do the dumpy bitch a favor. Annie takes it in stride, but the point is made about the two-faced nature of the wellness industry: live your best life by buying jars of our super-organic snake oil; if you don’t, you’re clearly just a hopeless, slobby loser.
Things aren’t much better in Annie’s love life. She’s involved (sort-of) with a bearded, slovenly doofus named Ryan whose only ambition is to start a podcast about Alcatraz, a topic which he evidently knows little about. Their relationship consists almost entirely of his booty-calling her on her lunch break every now and then with a single vulgar word by way of wooing and then blithely ushering her out through the back door when his roommates come home. Annie isn’t terribly pleased by this arrangement, but she takes this indignity in stride. And she’s compliant: she lets Ryan avoid using a condom because it just totally ruins his buzz.
Annie begins to take stock in her life by examining her passivity, questioning what attitudes of hers led her to this point. Annie explains to a friend that she has always felt out of place, different, unattractive, and judged throughout her life. She is so grateful for any male attention that she will put up with a lot just to have something that even slightly validates her. It’s a moment where the show’s light tone breaks; you feel how Bryant is speaking from a lifetime’s experience.
Aside from the its crisp writing and its genial tone, Shrill picks up narrative strength once we see Annie slowly come to terms with the yawning gap between who she is and who she has been told to be by her family, her friends, and society at large. Eventually she works up the nerve to demand that Gabe, her boss, listen to her pitching ideas for feature-length stories for once. John Cameron Mitchell (the auteur behind the delightful Hedwig and the Angry Inch) plays Gabe as a brittle, self-involved hipster who loves being editor in chief of his hip weekly so much he’s turned the magazine’s office into a snobby fiefdom — that he rules. Gabe thinks he’s progressive and edgy because he rages against the lazy bourgeoise, but his insufferable hipper-than-thou attitude is far squarer and more conservative than he realizes. Word on the street is that the character is based on the real-life sex advice columnist Dan Savage, who was West’s editor at a paper in Seattle. I can only hope that the portrayal is intended to be an affectionate tease.
Gabe doesn’t realize that encouraging Annie to talk about her own personal experience of her body as well as letting her cover events that pertain to it — such as a visit to a body-positivity pool party welcoming to women of all shapes and sizes to shake their respective groove things without judgment — is entertainingly subversive as well as good journalism. The idea is to give readers access to experiences they otherwise would seldom ever think about.
Defying her editor, Annie unilaterally writes and posts her own story, and it becomes a sensation. Readers start pouring into the website emitting hallelujahs of recognition and appreciation. Finally, their stories have been told — a surprising amount of people tell Annie how they too have been carrying these burdens for far too long and thrill to hear someone else tell their story. All except one — there is a troll amid all the congratulation and, writers being what they are, one person’s snide comment outweighs the praise of hundreds. Spunky Annie decides not to take this lying down. She tracks down her troll; a potentially funny narrative arc that doesn’t quite work comedically, which is an unfortunate misstep in a generally sure-footed series.
An issue like body-shaming is talked about a fair amount in our culture but, unfortunately, it is often denigrated as another example of whiny PC liberal self-pity. The usefulness of a show like Shrill is that it’s anything but — if anything, its charm lies in its frankness about entirely non-charming topics. Bryant animates Annie’s emotional travails with wit and heartfelt sensitivity, which is a great service for people who need to hear the message, which is pretty much everyone. And, given the enthusiastic response the show has rightfully gotten since it recently aired, Bryant is speaking for far more people out there than just herself. It reminds me of Allen Ginsberg’s answer when asked about how one becomes a prophet: “tell your secrets.”
Matt Hanson is a critic for The Arts Fuse living outside Boston. His writing has appeared in The Millions, 3QuarksDaily, and Flak Magazine (RIP), where he was a staff writer. He blogs about movies and culture for LoveMoneyClothes. His poetry chapbook was published by Rhinologic Press.