A specific story for a specific audience
On March 15, 2019 Shrill made its big debut on the smaller screen as a Hulu original series. By March 17, I had finished the first season and my overwhelming emotional response was “eh”. I waited for other reviews/critiques to come out to see if anyone else could capture why I feel so indifferent before I could find a way to put it into words.
One critique I love was by the admin of @babyfat.jpeg on Instagram where she called out the writers for the patronizing tone of the sex worker storyline.
It seems to be part of a 3-part critique she’s working on so I will definitely stay tuned for more.
Babyfat critiques a moment in the story that was most likely not included to highlight a character flaw of the lead character, Annie, seeing as how proud she and everyone else was of her and how it catapulted her career. This is simply how it works in mainstream feminism – non-sex workers using sex workers’ images, language, politics as a platform for their own agenda and patting themselves on the back for being “inclusive.” This basically sums up how I felt throughout the whole show. It is obviously a modern story but you wouldn’t know it by how narrow the scope was.
Before I delve deeper into what I didn’t like, let me highlight what I did appreciate. I liked the storyline concerning Plan B because it highlights how fat marginalization is very much an accessibility issue and as usual privileged people – in this case people who weigh less – don’t think about how an everyday task is a huge obstacle for some people. I also like that her love interest is also fat. It seems like fat people’s love interest’s are usually thin in movies and television, but her boyfriend, Ryan, being fat as well adds a much more interesting layer to how their story plays out.
Not all representation is positive or necessary…
One of the reviews I read was by Jenelle Riley on Variety. I related to Riley’s initial hesitation upon hearing about a show with a fat woman lead. Not all representation is positive or necessary and media depictions of fat women have shown us this time and time again. She then goes on to explain the discomfort that later turns to pride when Annie goes from being a timid doormat to a more empowered version of herself. Where the column lost me was in it’s resolution. Riley concludes in the very last line, “In short, Bryant and company have achieved the best kind of art; a specific story that manages to feel universal.”
That’s the problem.
It is a very specific story, one that frankly has been overused as a blanket narrative of the fat experience. There’s very little that is universal about Shrill. This is very much a fat white cis/het woman’s perspective. Not that it’s surprising. Still there was a huge missed opportunity, particularly when it came to Fran, Annie’s black roommate who is also fat.
Yes, I said sassy black best friend… apparently we’re still doing those in 2019.
Fran is the queer, comedic, sassy, and almost aloof black best friend. Yes, I said sassy black best friend because she fits the archetype precisely and apparently we’re still doing those in 2019. Somehow she doesn’t seem to have real problems of her own. Her main purpose is to coddle and inspire confidence in Annie, the fragile white woman that she is, when she is not providing some kind of comic relief with her bizarre antics and “charming” British accent. I don’t think I have to explain why including a black woman to check off the diversity box and then giving her no real story line is tired to say the least. I also shouldn’t have to explain that black women do not exist to make white women feel better about their bodies, but I guess that I do.
Fat Black women are the reason why the fat acceptance movement exists, yet fat Black women are never allowed to be the face or the center of the movement. White women center themselves and use the labor of black women to propel their own narratives and ignore intersectionality where any sociopolitical change is concerned. We’re always the mules or coddling mammy figures and never given credit as the thinkers and the leaders. White women’s victimhood always triumphs over the purview of our own stories and multi-faceted struggles. I hated to see the main characters’ dynamic embody exactly what’s wrong with mainstream body positivity and feminism.
The show’s main theme is fatness and yet we don’t hear Fran mention her fatness even once. In some ways this seemed like a welcome juxtaposition to the experience of the main character, but in other ways it’s problematic. Not all fat women agonize over their bodies the way Annie does. Some fat women are confident, have healthy romantic relationships, and know that they deserve respect. However, Black women are often stereotyped as not caring about thinness and being less affected by fat marginalization than non-black women. We’re just supposed to be these magical unicorns of fat positivity that exist in vacuums independent of social standards of beauty. This of course is not true. Fran’s confidence and all around indifference is a way that this stereotype is perpetuated when the writer’s could’ve taken the opportunity to shed some light on Fran’s own body image journey, especially in the context of her sexuality as a queer Black woman. She’s someone a lot of us could’ve related to, had we been given the chance.
Fat white women are not immune to the politics of who you date vs. who you fuck, both as victims and as perpetrators.
Speaking of stereotypes of black people, Annie’s one night stand with Fran’s brother, Lamar, definitely honed in on another one. The “black guys love me” stereotype employed by fat and thin non-black women alike. Fat white women love to brag about how black men love and appreciate their bodies much more than white men do, a reference to black men’s deviant preference for fuller figures and curvy women. It’s always very clear though, that white men are the real prize. Black men are just there to boost their self-esteem and make them feel desired while they fetishize black men as hypersexual beings. This was made clear by Lamar’s totally random profession of love at Annie’s lowest point. The day after they have sex she immediately goes back to pursuing her love interest, Ryan, not even entertaining Lamar as a real romantic prospect. This is similar to the way Ryan didn’t consider Annie a viable romantic prospect in the beginning, which we’re led to assume is because she’s fat. Fat white women are not immune to the politics of who you date vs. who you fuck, both as victims and as perpetrators.
That being said, none of this is surprising. This is Fat White Women 101. I am, however, disappointed. I know Shrill is based on Lindy West’s “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman” written in 2016 (which I have never read for the record) but since then, body positivity has been something that has been especially lit up on almost everyone’s radars which explains the timing of the show as well. So many conversations are happening but we only got what was scraped off the top. I wanted to see that the more marginal voices (fat sex workers, fat Black women, fat queers, fat disabled people, etc.) were being heard and to see a more nuanced and layered depiction of fatness, even if it is one specific story.
Shrill is going to be an important show for so many people, I don’t doubt that nor do I necessarily blame anyone who enjoyed it. I’ve just accepted that it’s not for me.