Warning: this article contains spoilers for all three series of Shrill on Hulu/BBC Two.
“I am not concerned with whether or not fat people can change their bodies through self-discipline and ‘choices’. Pretty much all of them have tried already. A couple of them have succeeded. Whatever. My question is, what if they try and try and try and still fail? What if they are still fat? What if they are fat for ever? What do you do with them then? Do you really want millions of teenage girls to feel like they’re trapped in unsightly lard prisons that are ruining their lives, and on top of that it’s because of their own moral failure, and on top of that they are ruining America with the terribly expensive diabetes that they don’t even have yet? You know what’s shameful? A complete lack of empathy.”
So wrote Lindy West in a 2011 article titled Hello, I Am Fat. It would later form the backbone of a storyline in Shrill, a TV show based on her memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, and streamed on Hulu.
When the series first aired in 2019, it felt fresh and radical. Finally, a show set at a magazine where people actually did some writing. And not just that, but writing you might want to read, by people who felt real – because they were.
Shrill follows Annie Easton, an up-and-coming journalist at an alternative magazine in Portland, Oregon. Annie is bright, talented, a little selfish – and she is fat. Many people project their own thoughts and feelings (mostly revulsion and pity) on to her, whether about health or food or sexuality. Strangers insert themselves into her life at every turn, whether it’s the fitness instructor who tells her: “You could be so pretty” (emphasis on the could), the online troll who sends her a picture of a dead pig, captioned: “This is Annie,” or the boss (John Cameron Mitchell’s cutting Gen X-er, Gabe) who sets up a fatphobic exercise regime for his employees. It’s little wonder that even being sent to cover the achingly body-positive, brilliantly titled Fat Babe Pool Party sends Annie into a state of existential dread.
Shrill encapsulates the constant politics of being a fat person. It is also extremely funny, thanks in no small part to Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant as Annie, and Lolly Adefope (Ghosts, This Time with Alan Partridge) as her roommate and confidante, Fran.
In the first season, Annie is treated poorly at work and in romantic relationships. The second focuses on her gaining control of her life. Her “friends with benefits” arrangement with manchild Ryan has become an actual relationship, while quitting the Weekly Thorn and escaping Gabe’s narcissism has afforded her more independence. However, that control ultimately proves elusive; Annie had more opportunities at the Thorn than as a freelancer, and Ryan shows himself to be human garbage. Annie’s standards come sharply into focus when she dumps him in the final moments of season two because she’s “an adult” in need of “a real partner”.
Shrill was cancelled before its time, the likely reason being Covid-related disruption in the TV industry. With hindsight, the end of series two was probably a neater endpoint. However, I’m still glad we got a third season. I like it that we see Annie judge another fat person too harshly. I like that she carves out a bigger, better role for herself at the Thorn. I like the fact that Ryan comes back – and remains a horrible, terrible mistake. I even like the fact that Annie, who has felt the disgust of so many others, in turn feels theirs when she inadvertently gives a platform to a group of white supremacists (and dubs herself a “white witch” in contrition).
We also gain greater insight into Fran – not just a quote machine but a person. Here, she tentatively shares more of herself with a partner, Em, in a coda to the series two episode where she attends a Nigerian wedding and reconnects with the family who struggle with her queerness. We also see the outsiderdom that first brought Fran and Annie together, in a flashback to their college days. Like another series that dealt sensitively with weight, E4’s My Mad Fat Diary, it didn’t conclude with a sense that the changes Annie needs to make in her life are in any way connected to body image.
Although it probably wasn’t supposed to end this way, the finale foregrounded the show’s most important themes: friendship and self-love. Like the most recent series of Insecure, it ended with two women staring deep into each other’s souls and drowning their sorrows. “What if they are fat for ever? What do you do with them then?” asks West of our toxic relationship with overweight people. Shrill just let them live, with all-important empathy.