Hulu’s “Shrill” Shirks Reductive Stereotypes

Released on March 15, Hulu’s new original series “Shrill” accomplishes the unprecedented. “Saturday Night Live” cast member Aidy Bryant stars as Annie, an aspiring journalist living in Portland, Oregon who is smart, capable, vivacious and, yes, fat. Contrary to the common portrayal of fat women in popular media, Annie is not the butt of any joke, nor is she the funny, sexless fat friend. These belittling portrayals are familiar and pervasive. Recent movies such as “The DUFF” (designated ugly fat friend) and “Sierra Burgess Is a Loser,” in which the main character, an unpopular, overweight high schooler, catfishes her crush online by pretending to be a conventionally hot, stick-thin cheerleader, have only served to enforce toxic fatphobia in popular media as normal and, even worse, acceptable.

“Shrill” succeeds in eschewing these harmful cliches and instead creates a complex main character whose weight isn’t seen as problematic, nor is it the show’s central focus. Instead, the series manages to cover a variety of different topics, including a radically realistic representation of what it’s like to get an abortion in today’s world. The majority of Annie’s struggles feel universal, from lousy boyfriends to a father battling cancer, and throughout the six episodes of season one, Annie strives to change her life for the better without it being connected to changing her weight.

“Shrill” was filmed right here in Portland, Oregon throughout September of 2018. The show features classic shots of Portland neighborhoods and the city’s skyline as well as the common cliches of hipster coffee shops and avid bikers. Characters frequent Portland thrift stores along with trendy restaurants that will feel familiar to any Portland native. Annie even works as the calendar editor for an online publication called “The Weekly Thorn” which is situated in a large, typically-Portland warehouse overlooking the Willamette River and Hawthorne Bridge. Because the show was filmed in such a short period of time, it features more interior than exterior scenes yet still manages to feel authentically Portland thanks to colorfully-designed sets and an eclectic cast of characters.

Bryant and journalist Lindy West, who grew up in Seattle, adapted the TV series from West’s own 2016 memoir, “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman,” which follows the arc of West’s journalistic career. Additionally, the book details her personal struggle with body image and confidence and condemns the popular idea that people, women especially, should feel shame simply for existing in their own skin. Rather than merely advocating for body positivity, West goes a step further and actively argues for fat acceptance. One of her favorite scenes in the show is the “Fat Babe Pool Party,” during which dozens of women come together for a body-positive day in the sun. “I’m so excited for people to see this show,” said West in an interview with NPR, “especially the pool party — and to feel that little sort of tickle of recognition … That’s me. That’s what I look like.” West’s refusal to tolerate the dominant societal narrative of shame translates effortlessly to the screen in this masterfully created, revolutionary new series.

Despite “Shrill” being a huge departure from the energetic sketch comedy of “SNL,” Bryant shines in her role and imbues Annie with a vibrant charm that comes across as utterly believable. She delivers heart-wrenching emotional monologues as well as some of the show’s most hilarious one-liners. Bryant’s versatility as an actress is impressive and indicates that there is plenty of room for her career to blossom beyond “SNL.”

Bryant also performs alongside an incredible cast of supporting characters including Annie’s roommate and best friend, Fran, played by English comedian Lolly Adefope. Fran is Annie’s strongest ally and dishes out tough love as well as encouraging words in a relationship that fully embodies the idea of women supporting women (yet another underrepresented concept). After Annie delivers a tearful speech regarding her invasive, negative self-talk, Fran responds, saying, “Honey, you’re being so mean to yourself… It makes me so sad.” This impressive cast of well-developed characters and the relationships between them manages to bolster the show’s allure, and “Shrill’s” authenticity tells a story about much more than weight. As West said in her interview with NPR, “The reality of being a fat person isn’t that every moment of your life is about being fat. It’s that you’re trying to live the same kind of complicated, exciting, fun, beautiful, difficult life as everyone else.”

Written by Mattie Sienknecht.

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