I cringed my way through the first half of the “Shrill” pilot. It was all too close to home – the “Thin Menu” pancakes Annie (Aidy Bryant) eats out of a plastic container, Tonya the trainer hitting Annie with a “There is a small person inside of you dying to get out,” Ryan, Annie’s not boyfriend who won’t wear a condom and won’t buy a second pillow for his bed and makes her sneaks her out through the back door so his roommates won’t see her.
Then there’s Annie’s boss, who refuses to let her write anything, but who she douses in compliments anyway. I could barely keep watching. Because even though I had heard rave reviews from trustworthy sources and I knew the brilliant minds involved wouldn’t sign off on any more bullshit fat narratives, my skepticism runs deep.
When you’ve never seen authentic or positive representations of your body in mainstream media, you become a bit jaded. As a fat woman, I’ve been burned too many times by the media meant to represent me.
One of my first views of a fat person in the media was in “Shallow Hal,” in which Hal is hypnotized into only being able to see his fat girlfriend, Rosemary, played by Gwyneth Paltrow in a fat suit of course, as thin. We are meant to believe that he is becoming a better man because he is able to see her “inner beauty” despite her being a disgusting “wooly mammoth.” Us fat women are meant to be so grateful to men like Hal for seeing us as pretty and for treating us like people.
I almost have the same warm fuzzy feelings towards “Friends” as the next millennial except I skip the Monica-in-a-fat-suit episodes and every time a joke about her sad fat previous life sneaks in, it stings as if I’ve been betrayed by a loved one. We are meant to see fat Monica as a “before.” Before Monica was a living, breathing, thin human, she was just a joke.
I really truly wanted to love “This is Us,” but I couldn’t get past the fact that the initial major storyline for Kate was weight loss, and even though she had a romantic prospect, their fatness was what brought them together. Because fat people are only fat and nothing else, right?
The list of botched fat representation goes on and on.
I know it’s nothing new. But I really really wanted “Shrill” to be different and I wasn’t quite ready to open myself up to the possibility of being hurt again. So when our first glimpse of Annie is paired with diet food and she responds to every fatphobic comment with niceties and self-deprecating humor, and she rests her head on Ryan’s chest instead of demanding that pillow, I threw my own pillow at the TV. When she says to her best friend, Fran, “Ryan loves to raw dog.” How could I take away his favorite thing?” and when she doesn’t follow through with confronting her mother’s nonstop diet talk, I screamed, “NOOOO, ANNIEEEE, NOOOO!”
I understand where the nice, people-pleasing, fat girl thing comes from, and believe me, I have been there.
The fat narratives in the media that precede “Shrill” shows fat women settling for less than they deserve. They portray us as undesirable, so if any romantic prospect looks our way, we best not complain. We best not advocate for ourselves during sex because we should be so lucky to be getting laid.
Ableism and fatphobia in the health field have inaccurately trained people to associate fat with poor health, and poor health with immorality. In reality, fat people can be healthy. Fat people can have health problems unrelated to weight, which are often misdiagnosed due to fatphobia. And, no matter the state of one’s health, we all deserve respect and human rights.
However, fat women often internalize the perspective that we are a work in progress, and that our “goodness” depends on health and thinness. We’ve been taught to accept fat-shaming under the guise of concern for our health, that if our friends and mothers and doctors and strangers at the coffee shop comment on our bodies or lifestyles, we must stand by idly. We must apologize, even, for our “disobedient bodies.”
God forbid we fight back and defend our right to exist without our bodies as fair game for debate. Because it’s bad enough to be called “fat.” Much worse to be called a “fat bitch.”
But what if we could untrain ourselves? What if we could become immune to words that are meant to hurt us? What if fat was just a descriptor and “bitchy” was a synonym for “powerful?”
Thanks to her best friend, Fran, Annie begins to find out.
Fran is a black queer woman and Annie is a white, presumably straight woman, but they are both plus size. In some ways, Fran’s character verges on “sassy black friend” territory. Though her lines are sharp and she is multidimensional, most of her air-time centers around building Annie up, and we don’t see Annie doing the same for Fran.
Fran is the catalyst for Annie’s fat bitchdom.
When Annie gets pregnant by dickwad Ryan, she and Fran have a frank talk at the flea market. Annie tells Fran that she thought, “maybe if I was just sweet enough and nice enough and easygoing enough with any guy, that would be enough for someone.”
Fran says, “we need to untrain you from thinking of yourself in such a brutal way.” Easier said than done, but this is when I finally stopped cringing and throwing pillows.
Fran appears to have already done the work that Annie has yet to do. She is kind, in the sense that she does not leave Annie’s side when she gets an abortion, literally strokes her shoulder throughout the whole procedure. But Fran also knows how to stand up for herself.
She says “I don’t apologize to white people,” after macing dickwad Ryan when he shows up unannounced at their front door.
Annie has a lot to learn from Fran about standing up for herself, and the difference between niceness and authentic kindness. Niceness is tiptoeing around the people that hurt you so you don’t get more hurt. Authentic kindness means being there when people need you, calling people out on their shit, and setting boundaries, no matter the consequences.
After Fran gives Annie a red dress and one of many pep talks, Annie finally begins “feeling herself,” and goes on an epic quest for the respect she deserves.
She goes to Ryan’s house to tell him about the pregnancy and the abortion, and to finally advocate for herself in the relationship. She goes to work and demands a story assignment, causing her boss to tell her that she is kind of a bitch, and he likes it.
Then, she mumbles for Tonya to fuck herself.
Tonya finally ditches the peppy, cheerful, health-shaming and says “I was just trying to help you, you fat bitch.”
We see Annie’s face as she walks away. At first, she is stunned, but then, as the theme song swells, she begins to smile. Annie has been called the ultimate insult. Not only is she fat, but she’s a bitch, too. And she’s still alive and okay and powerful.
Annie is just beginning to accept her fat self after years of apologizing for her body. She has a long way to go and her journey is still quite selfish, even by the end of the first season, which, by the way, is only six short episodes.
Later in the season, she learns about bleaching assholes and being a confident woman with tits and ass from the strippers she meets while on a work assignment. Then she attends her first body positive pool party and sees women of all sizes in bikinis, and she finally strips off her jeans and allows her fat to jiggle with abandon. She is still learning from the women around her, many of which are women of color who don’t get enough credit.
I am grateful for Annie because we have never seen anyone like her on screen. She is nothing like Rosemary or Monica or Kate. She is a full human who is beginning to discover her inner bitch.
However, this show desperately cries out for a second season, and a third, and a fourth. We need to see Annie grow beyond the initial selfishness of her body positive journey, especially as a white woman interacting with women of color. We need to see her lift up and make space for her friends. We need to see her provide Fran the same support on the journey to bitchdom that Fran has provided her.
This show is a huge step in the right direction. Now let’s get some mutually uplifting fat bitch friendships.
Top photo screenshot from Hulu's Shrill via Youtube
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