Over the past decade, shows depicting the millennial experience have started to dominate the screen, especially within the comedy realm. Girls, Broad City, and The Mindy Project are examples of only a few. They explore sex, dating, careers, work environments, and female issues in a way that has started to paint a broader picture of the millennial experience. But with as diverse a generation as millennials are — in terms of race, class, ethnicity, sexuality, and body size — many of the shows currently on TV have only scratched the surface of representation, and there are so many perspectives still left untold.
Shrill, Hulu’s show starring Aidy Bryant and loosely based on the memoir of the same name by Lindy West, is about the millennial experience, too. It is told through the perspective of Annie, a plus-sized woman whose size doesn’t define her but inevitably defines the ways in which most everyone else treats her. She wants to be a writer, but her editor hardly takes her seriously. Her mother, while loving and overbearing, consistently attempts to get her on a diet. And Ryan, her on-again-off-again fling, doesn’t quite give her the relationship or the respect she deserves. While Annie has long ago accepted her size and who she is, in the pilot episode she’s set on a journey to reclaim her self-acceptance from those who think they have a say in it and to exuberate the kind of confidence that many others already have the privilege to exhibit. Except, it’s hard when the world is constantly telling you how you should feel about yourself.
The brilliant thing about Shrill is that it’s a show about so many different things that consume the millennial life and our current internet culture, with body positivity at its core. During a SXSW panel moderated by Bryant earlier this week, Elizabeth Banks, who produced the show, noted West’s ability to tell stories about a variety of situations as being one of the reasons why adapting her book was so appealing. “It’s about a lot of things. But Lindy West has an incredible voice,” Banks said. “She just brings insight to situations and to her life, and she has a way of bringing humor, like cutting humor, into a lot of what she writes about. And I found that tone really special and unique and I wanted to figure out a way to put that into television.”
West is a writer on the show, along with Bryant and Ali Rushfield. What they remarkably convey in the show is a layered experience in which each episode is able to capture various current social issues and intimate topics that Annie as a plus-sized woman might experience a little differently from someone who is considered the “standard” in American media and culture. In the pilot episode alone, Annie undergoes a morning-after pill failure because of the weight guidelines for the pill, which her pharmacist failed to even mention to her. This leads to her getting pregnant, which eventually leads to her decision as to whether or not to have an abortion. The abortion plot point in the pilot is a truly bold way to kick off the series, something that the book has a chapter on but is otherwise something that shows are not always willing to depict so honestly right upfront.
Annie is also hounded by an annoying athletic trainer who sees her as a sort of extracurricular project, assuring her that there’s a tiny person within her waiting to be released and that she can help her get there. As if Annie’s only quest in life is to be thin, which it’s not, or that she’s meant to be a step in someone’s path to feeling good about themselves, which she is also not. Even her editor tells her things which so many millennials hear all the time, that she must “pay her dues” and that she’s “lazy,” which for Annie specifically means in reference to the typical millennial stereotype as well as because of her weight. The show’s title being Shrill is also more than likely a commentary on the way in which women who show confidence in themselves are often interpreted as being abrasive and loud.
These aren’t contrived situations for the purpose of television. On her press tour, Bryant herself has talked about experiencing a similar situation with a person who, well-intentioned or not, told her there is a thin woman inside her and her not knowing how to respond to that. These are real things that people go through each day that others don’t even take the time to consider, in part because we hardly see them represented on screen. But as Bryant emphasized at the SXSW panel, the show tells a story that she has always wanted to see.
“When I heard about it I was like, this is a story I’ve always wanted to see on TV, and it’s something that I long to see just exactly like you were talking about,” Bryant said to Banks at SXSW. “I never quite felt like I saw myself on screen. Someone who had positive parts of their life as a fat person. I don’t know. There were things here and there but never someone at the center of the story. The hero of the story.”
During the panel, Banks and Bryant mentioned West’s point about the only prominent fat representation on screen being Ursula and Miss Piggy, with the former being literally a vengeful villain, and the latter an oversexualized and somewhat abusive pig. Often, common stereotypes on TV are also that fat girls just want to be thin and that they’re lonely outcasts in society who are sideline characters in someone else’s story. Shrill works to debunk all of those things. Annie is a fully-realized character who has a social life, a wonderful best friend, interesting career aspirations and is happy with herself and her appearance. At the same time, the show subverts stereotypical notions of fatness while also addressing how society can constantly force someone to have to deal with them on a daily basis.
So, while it doesn’t portray Annie within stereotypical tropes, Shrill shows just how harmfully others believing in those tropes can impact someone’s life at large, in ways both subtle and overt. Most significantly, the show very much remains true to its core perspective throughout. It pulls no punches and is revelatory in its approach to such open storytelling, being the boldness by which it handles specificity of experience as well as its portrayal of difficult but relatable topics for millennials overall.
Shrill is absolutely wonderful, the comedy is subtle with an excellent performance by Bryant, and the story cuts deep. It is an important addition to our TV line-up not only because of the insightful and honest perspective it provides on being plus-sized in America but also because it advocates for the question: who else’s stories are we not hearing in the age of the millennial dramedy, and how can we get more like Shrill?