Whole PersonLindy West Reflects on the Fat Positive Legacy of “Shrill”

Lindy West, executive producer of Shrill (Photo credit: Courtesy of Hulu)

Hulu’s Shrill, adapted from Lindy West’s 2016 memoir of the same name, has been a bright spot as it relates to the representation of fat women onscreen. There are very few TV shows that center the experiences of fat women—and even fewer avoid perpetuating fatphobia. Take This Is Us’s Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz), the most famous fat female character on TV, whose storylines have mostly followed her struggle and desire to lose weight and her unhappiness as a fat person. Kate is, as Bitch Media editor-in-chief Evette Dionne noted in 2017, the epitome of the “tragic fat girl.”

Shrill’s heroine, Annie Easton (Aidy Bryant), begins the series in similar fashion: She’s ashamed of her body, constantly trying to shrink herself literally and figuratively, and willing to date a man-boy, Ryan (Luka Jones), who is embarrassed to be seen with her. But the whole point of the show is to portray her evolution—not in terms of losing weight but in coming to believe she’s worthy of love, care, and respect as a fat woman. The turning point in Season 1 was the revolutionary “Pool” episode, written by Samantha Irby and directed by Shaka King. As a fat woman, it’s hard to describe how extraordinary it was to witness dozens of fat women joyfully and unabashedly shaking their asses on television, with the camera lingering on their fat bodies instead of shying away from them.

Annie’s acceptance of her fatness and her attempts to call out fatphobia around her has been a recurring theme in Shrill—whether she’s taking on trolls, challenging the harmful fatphobia perpetuated by medical professionals, or pushing back on her mother’s internalized fatphobia, a form of intergenerational trauma commonly passed down from mothers to daughters. Still, the show has never been didactic, or only about the travails of being fat in a fatphobic society. It’s a comedy, and we’re often meant to laugh at the situations Annie finds herself in—but her body is never the butt of the joke. It also feels important that the show gave Annie a Black, queer, fat best friend: Fran (Lolly Adefope), who, of course, has different experiences and struggles. In fact, while we witness tension between Fran and Annie in this third and final season, we’re ultimately left with the significance of their friendship. Bitch spoke to West, Shrill’s executive producer, about the show’s legacy and her hopes for a post-Shrill Hollywood.

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What are your thoughts about how fat women are currently depicted on TV, and do you think we’ve made progress since Shrill premiered two years ago?

Things are changing a little bit, but representation isn’t the end goal. The end goal is medical equality, wage equality, accessibility, and all the tangible, structural issues that affect fat people’s lives. But media is such an effective engine of humanization and storytelling that it’s definitely part of the puzzle. We’re moving forward, and I’m really proud to have been some small part of that. I don’t remember growing up and seeing fat creatives living cool lives. I hear from people every single day that the show has meant something to them. One tangible impact is the morning-after-pill sequence in Season 1, when Annie finds out the morning-after pill is not dosed for women her size. I’ve heard from a lot of people who didn’t know that, and that feels like a double contribution to society.

Our goal all along was just to make a great television show, tell a story that people wanted to follow, and create characters that people can fall in love with. We did that. All I ever wanted to do is write comedy and write jokes, and if I could slide some sort of social value in there and wrap it up in a joke so people will swallow it, great! This show was a chance to do that on a much bigger scale, and I’m really proud of what we did.

This season highlights fatphobia in the medical establishment. I think that’s going to have a big impact.

It’s such a profound, deadly problem that affects fat people and their lives, and I’m glad we were able to fit it into a comedy show. I just got a comment today about that moment in the trailer, where someone was like, “I don’t understand why a medical professional telling someone that they’re obese is a problem. That’s for their health and she went to see this person voluntarily.” And it’s like, Actually, I’m glad you’re having this reaction, maybe you could now go learn something about why it’s a problem that when fat people go to the doctor, they’re diagnosed only as fat, and their symptoms are overlooked. People die. People’s cancer isn’t diagnosed because they’re told to go jogging. That’s profoundly harmful and the opposite of medical care. I’ve been talking about this for so many years that it still surprises me that people aren’t fluent in these issues, and I expect to hear from a lot more people about that. There’s documented medical bias—we know medical providers have the same anti-fat bias as everyone else in society, if not more, because health-centric fields aren’t friendly to us a lot of the time. So it means a lot to me to have that in up front, in the first episode.

This final season shows that internalized fatphobia is an ongoing issue for Annie. As a fellow fat woman, it feels important to say that fatphobia doesn’t just vanish once you start to name it and understand how harmful it is. It’s this ongoing fight with yourself, especially for women, to cultivate self-love.

If the series continued, the realistic arc would have been for Annie to fall back into some of her old diet-culture habits and her old insecurities. It’s not realistic that someone has this epiphany like, “Oh, I’m allowed to exist in my body,” and then all of your fears and anxieties and patterns go away; that’s just not how it works. Life is forever a work in progress. Obviously she makes some huge gains, but there’s no doubt that when you live in a fatphobic society and there’s no cure, it’s always a fight to build up your support system and keep yourself focused on care and love for yourself, rather than trying to hide and make yourself small.

How has your own trajectory with internalized fatphobia been similar to or different from Annie’s?

It’s an ongoing project, where you’re just constantly checking yourself and making sure you’re treating yourself with kindness and maintaining a healthy perspective on life, because you’re bombarded with messaging that you’re broken, disgusting, and embarrassing. I’ve been in therapy for years, and I’m just starting to get into the long-term trauma of being told constantly that your existence is embarrassing. How do you even develop a self? And then to become a public figure and have people comment on you all the time—you’re not going to be unscathed. I’m definitely scathed, but I also have an incredible support network, friends, and family, and all you can do is know when to ask for help, know who you can trust, and surround yourself with people who know who you are. That’s the only way to withstand the messaging and all these really toxic, poisonous, nefarious systems trying to tell you who you are from a place of bad faith. All you can do is build up your own truth around you that you can hang on to as a touchstone.

I’m interested in the writers’ decision to make Annie a little problematic this season, with the story she writes about white separatists. Do you want to talk a little bit about that decision?

It just seemed like a natural thing to happen to a young, ambitious white woman. It was important for me to present a more nuanced perspective on “cancel culture.” People really want to act like canceled people are being victimized, and obviously the conversation is complicated. Our collective notions of punishment and redemption are really flawed. All of that is a conversation to be had, but the bottom line in this story is that Annie, as a white person, is fundamentally incapable of seeing outside of herself and her perspective, and she utterly fails every moment of this assignment while she thinks she’s doing something good and progressive. The danger of telling that story is that we still made an episode about a white lady going and talking to these racist white people, and we still had doubts throughout: Should we be making a story about the problematic story?

But there’s something valuable in depicting the ways that white women relentlessly fail. [Laughs.] White people in general [fail], but especially progressive white women who feel some marginalization themselves. Annie doesn’t really see how she can do this wrong—and in that hubris she does everything wrong, and then runs to the Black people in her life and says, “Comfort me.” We wanted to make sure that Fran and Amadi (Ian Owens) had a lot of agency in their reactions to Annie. They didn’t just make it okay for her. We talked about it so much in the writer’s room, and I’m happy with how it came out.

A lot of white people would have a hard time seeing the point that this story should never have been written in the first place. If the story has to be written, Annie’s not the person to write it. Annie chose to write it, and the consequences are hers to own. It’s not cancel culture to be criticized for your choices when your choices are harmful. I’m grateful to the people of color in our writers’ room for doing that labor, because we did have to talk through it so, so much. But I’m glad it’s in there, and I think we pulled it off. And if we didn’t, then the lesson of the show is that you can come yell at me and I won’t cry about being canceled. I’m not the victim of that situation.

Representation isn’t the end goal. The end goal is medical equality, wage equality, accessibility, and all the tangible, structural issues that affect fat people’s lives.

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This season, we see something incredibly rare: Fat people outnumber thin people onscreen in both arcs of one of the final episodes. There was only one thin person, and three fat people. Can you elaborate on why that’s important, and in a larger sense, why it was important for Fran to also be fat?

We didn’t cast Fran to be fat, and I don’t know that Lolly [Adefope] identifies as fat, so I don’t want to put that label on her. But certainly, when we think about the typical Hollywood body, Fran, Annie, and Will (Cameron Britton), [whom Annie starts dating this season], are not what you see on Vampire Diaries or Gossip Girl. But there’s something so beautiful in the way that turned out, because we didn’t necessarily do it on purpose. Obviously Will and Annie are fat on purpose, but it also came out of letting the story grow on its own and casting the people that you want because they’re brilliant, funny, and so deeply talented, and they have this chemistry onscreen.

When people have conversations about media representation, it’s so often framed as a sacrifice, but the idea that there’s some kind of sacrifice or compromise being made is just not true. Those scenes at the beach, and in the flashback with Fran’s first kiss, we didn’t say, “Oh, this needs to be a fat person.” That’s just who we cast, and I love her. We cast her because she’s so good, and it does happen to add this dynamic of fat Black queerness that’s rare to see on television. Neither of those storylines are centrally about fatness. They are tangentially, because of course everything involves Annie’s body, but there’s so much more going on there. It’s really an example of exactly what I always wanted to do, which was tell stories about real people.

I hope that it impacts people, getting to see so many different bodies onscreen, because it impacts me. I’m almost 40, and it’s changing my life to get to see this even as I am making it.

When did you and the other executive producers decide this would be the final season of the show? Did the story just feel finished?

We did not decide; Hulu decided, and we didn’t know until we were already shooting. We had a little bit of leeway to make a couple of changes with editing, but we didn’t get to consciously wrap it up. We never planned for this show to go on for 13 seasons; we always wanted it to be a beautiful self-contained story. And I’m honestly really pleased with it. It was important to me to tell especially young fat women that romantic love will not save you. When you’re denied something or told you can never have something, it’s really easy to idealize it and put it on this pedestal, and I didn’t want Annie to end up being saved by a man, because you can’t be. In fact, if you don’t find love with yourself and really figure out who you are, you will actually undermine any romantic connection. You can’t be half of a person, and the idea that somebody else is your other half is toxic.

I love closing the show on platonic love and the idea that life is an ongoing work in progress. There’s something nice about ending it in this ambiguous way because that leaves it in a place that’s alive. All these characters are going to keep living their lives, and to me there’s a comfort in that. They’re all still out there somewhere.

I know which episode of Shrill had the largest impact, but what are your personal favorites?

“Pool.” I still think about it all the time. Shooting that was so amazing. Shaka King came back for Season 2 and directed the Nigerian wedding episode, which was really meaningful. My husband is half-Nigerian, and Lolly is Nigerian, so getting to go into a Fran universe for a whole episode felt really meaningful. I also love the episode where Annie dumps Ryan. Also, the abortion. When I was first shopping [around] the option on the book, in every single meeting I was like, “FYI, I’m putting an abortion in the pilot of this show. I want you to know what kind of show this is.” Every time I hear from an abortion provider that it meant something to them, it makes my life worth living. I’m so proud of the abortion. I’m just still floored I got to make this show at all.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.

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