Hulu’s Shrill, based on the memoir of writer and comedian Lindy West, is a story about a woman named Annie (Aidy Bryant) becoming self-empowered after living most of her life with debilitating low self-esteem. It’s a straight-forward premise with a subversive feminist message: Before we can teach people how to treat us, we are taught by society how we can expect to be treated. Then, the impetus is on ourselves to build on — or, in some cases — undo what we’ve learned. In Annie’s case, as someone who has been habitually body-shamed by people for being a fat woman, hers is a tale of undoing the damage of mistreatment by finding out she has a lot to say.
And she can say it loudly, with force and humor, without asking for permission.
In the first episode of Shrill, Annie finds out she is pregnant by her casual, buffoonish bedfellow, Ryan (Luca Jones). And that’s even after she takes the morning after pill, something that she learns — too late, obviously — doesn’t work on women over 175 pounds. Later on, while walking through a flea market with her best friend and roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope), Annie admits she is considering keeping the baby because she didn’t know if motherhood was ever going to be an option for her.
“Annie is fat. Beyond that, she is and has always been told in constant, unsolicited, and seemingly unrelenting ways that being fat is wrong.”
“There have been moments in my life where I didn’t think I would ever get to have that because of what I looked like,” Annie says. “Because there is a certain way your body is supposed to be and I’m not that. And maybe if I was just sweet enough and nice enough and easy going enough with any guy that that would be enough for someone.” It’s humiliating to say out loud, she tells Fran, but it’s the kind of thing going through her mind all the time.
Fran, blessed with an enviable self-possession, is saddened that Annie is talking about herself in “a brutal way.” But we’ve already seen a few solid reasons Annie comes to such self-abasing conclusions about herself.
Annie is fat. Beyond that, she is and has always been told in constant, unsolicited, and seemingly unrelenting ways that being fat is wrong.
Entering a coffee shop in the morning, Annie gets body shamed, with the most benign of the commentary being that she looks like Rosie O’Donnell. Her boss calls her a “millennial dumpling.” Ryan makes her leave through the back door after they have midday on-call sex, and her mother lays on thick judgment regarding her health and weight — even going so far as to order her gag-inducing delivery diet meals that Fran accurately describes as looking like a stillborn puppy. Annie doesn’t complain about any of it. She conducts herself in accordance with the way people have always treated her, both in public and in private.
As writer Lindy West told Refinery29:
[Annie is] pregnant because her self-esteem dictates she can’t demand anything of this relationship. She just lets Ryan do whatever he wants because she’s afraid this is her only chance … She [also] got pregnant because the medical community doesn’t think about fat women.
We come to see exactly what leads Annie into believing that she is unworthy of what she truly wants and that this sense of herself didn’t spring from nowhere. It’s a feat not to feel as though unfulfilling romance is all that’s available to you if that’s all you’ve ever known. Building self-worth is a tall order if you’ve been told your body is a disgrace or unhealthy at best. And if the message you receive from others — and society as a whole — is always that there is something wrong with you, asking for more seems like a pointless and inconsequential endeavor. Honestly, how would you know you were deserving, like Annie is, if you’re told to leave through the backyard and given Special K while your family has a pork roast?
Ultimately, Shrill illustrates the gorgeously cringe-worthy process of what it looks like when Annie reckons with both the particular people and the larger social forces that are to blame for the state of her self-worth. She has to do so while she learns how to take responsibility for her life and her circumstances to become empowered.
“And if the message you receive from others — and society as a whole — is always that there is something wrong with you, asking for more seems like a pointless and inconsequential endeavor.”
But with that being said, while personal empowerment is a universal theme for all people, it simply should not be forgotten that this process is more difficult for some than it is for others, since the more habitually you get mistreated, the more strength you need to battle the damage. To even to begin this mending process usually relies on a personal epiphany. When Annie eventually decides to get an abortion, it (almost miraculously) elicits in her a sense that she can take life into her own hands; in other words, that she is worth more than accepting whatever bullshit gets tossed her way. It’s this lucky realization during a difficult circumstance that sets the ball rolling for her.
The rest of the show lets us see what happens when Annie experiments with asserting herself in other areas of her life, too.
The most exciting evolution comes when Annie starts writing about being a fat woman online. Her work is met with support and backlash but, no matter how you slice it, she gets a lot of attention. Telling her truth is scary-exciting for other people, too. Even infuriating to some, like her boss. As Annie learns, when you grow and stop doing what everyone wants, some people may get uncomfortable.
Many of her revelatory experiences are simple, like wearing a dress, dancing, or going for a swim at a plus-size pool party with a group of other rad, fashionable women. (A note: there has been an online discussion as to whether or not this scene was actually inspired by Virgie Tovar’s book and experiences.) Witnessing these moments enables us to exhale and soften our armor as we watch — ultimately, for the audience to feel such precious miniature freedoms are possible for us, too.
The first episode of Shrill ends with Thierra Whack’s song “Pretty Ugly,” whose lyrics hint at what’s to come. “Don’t worry ‘bout me, I’m doing good, I’m doing great, alright,” Whack raps. “It’s about to get ugly flow so mean I just can’t be polite.”
Annie is about to get pissed off and make emotional decisions that may or may not turn out well. She stands up to people and stands people up. She starts to break shit, succeed, leave, say no, and quit. She starts to use her voice to resist, and, yeah, even to lay some blame for how she feels. But sharing about the bizarre, magnificent struggle towards feeling okay with yourself is one of the ways to get out of it, and it should be encouraged.
Ultimately, that’s what feels so liberating about watching Shrill. It’s a reminder that building self-worth when you start from self-hate is equal parts privilege and burden. It also isn’t due to a fundamental, pre-existing lack. For a lot of people who get mistreated and feel worthless as a result, the realization they deserve more never comes. Life can get uglier, repetitive, and consistently more self-destructive. But as Annie shows, recovery from disempowerment is also possible, and while it’s painful as hell, it can be quite beautiful.