“Oh My God. What’s happening? I’m afraid that I am feeling myself.” These are the words we hear Annie (Aidy Bryant) say to her best friend and roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope) while she’s dancing in a new dress and enjoying some new found self-love towards the end of the first episode of Hulu’s comedy Shrill. The show, which is based off of Lindy West’s memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, follows Annie as she navigates life as a fat millennial woman living in Portland, Oregon. Shrill has been rightfully praised for its blunt and realistic depictions of everyday life as a fat woman and for its nonchalant handling of abortion. For all the care Shrill puts into authentic depictions of Annie’s everyday life, Shrill does so at the expense of showing the larger and more systemic issues fat women face. The omission of these larger cultural forces makes Annie’s transformation seem idealistic, unrealistic, and impossible for the women watching to replicate.
Shrill is set in Portland, Oregon. It makes sense that one of the most accepting and liberal cities in the popular imagination is the setting for television’s first radically positive representation of fat women. Like Portlandia, another socially conscious television show set in Portland, Shrill uses comedy to point out where its liberal audience fails in their liberalness. In Shrill, radical self love, queerness, and anti-capitalist ideals are all casually accepted from the get go. Annie’s parents praise Fran’s – who is a lesbian – love life with her rotating door of queer partners and Annie’s ex-punk Gen-X boss Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell) vilifies “the establishment” regularly. In a way Shrill feels like it teeters on the line between comedy and parody. It is unclear that the Portland represented in Shrill is different from the one created by the sketch comedy show Portlandia. Carrie Brownstein, the creator and star of Portlandia, even directed the Shrill episode “Date” in the first season. The similarities between the show’s representation of Portland is not necessarily a bad thing — Portlandia did a great job at pointing out to liberal people where their liberal ideologies fell short — and Shrill picks up where Portlandia left off and continues this crusade. The issue is that Portlandia was satirical whereas Shrill is meant to be realistic. Shrill, like Portlandia, does not take into account Oregon’s white supremacist past or the fact that Portland is the whitest large city in America nor does it acknowledge how Oregon is one of the most expensive states to live in and that Portland is experiencing an affordable housing crisis.
The fact that Annie and Fran are never plagued with systemic issues leaves room for the show to explore interpersonal ones like Annie’s relationship with her boss Gabe. Gabe is Shrill’s villain. He is the editor-in-chief of The Weekly Thorn, the alt-weekly newspaper Annie works for. At first he frustrates her by passively blowing off her pitches and asking her to keep working her way up, but by the fourth episode, the one titled “Pool” he begins a crusade against fatness. After learning The Weekly Thorn can save “a buttload of money” if the staff can “pry [their] cheese-thighs off the couch more than once a week” he gets rid of the vending machines and requires the staff to do “one heart healthy grouptivity once a month.” At the first “grouptivity” Gabe mutters “lazy bodies lazy minds” under is breath. He goes on to question whether Annie takes work seriously and tell her that “success is about an effort” and that “[she] didn’t [try] today.”
Through Gabe, the show pushes people who believe they are fighting against dominant culture to see that they still have biases they need to work on. Gabe is portrayed as a Gen-X, ex-punk, and “feminist” through jokes about being the “original bassist in Bikini Kill,” by wearing band t-shirts for bands like Quasi (Janet Weiss of Sleater-Kinney fame’s band), and the fact that Gabe is played by John Cameron Mitchell who is an queer Gen-X icon in his own right. We are led to believe that Gabe’s work was once gritty and boundary pushing. He claims when he was Annie’s age he was already “burnin’ shit down and fuckin shit up.” But, what we see now is someone who was on the right side of history, but lost his way as he became older and more financially stable. He is a former radical who is hindering Annie’s growth professionally and personally.
The way Gabe treats Annie at The Weekly Thorn is terrible. Shrill uses Annie and Gabe’s work relationship to drive Annie to find self confidence. The thing is, for women work is not just another place for interpersonal relationships. It is a place that provides people with an income and (hopefully) benefits. Individuals need these to survive. In Shrill Annie never once thinks about the financial ramifications of her actions. At work she is not very professional. She is seen sitting on tables, hugging her boss when he gives her an assignment, pestering him about pitches, and posts an article to the paper’s site without permission. While some workplaces are significantly more informal than others, Annie’s behaviour at work does not make it appear as though she values her job. Gabe is by no accounts a good boss and she has every right to be upset with the way he is treating her, but it is still fascinating to me that Annie never once seems concerned about the possibility of losing her job. She even quits in a fit of rage in the last episode of the first season and drunkenly begs for it back during the second season. It is known that fat women face discrimination when they are applying for jobs and full time jobs in any media industry are nearly impossible to find these days. There is never a moment where Annie stops and worries about what the implications of leaving her job would be. And is never shown really struggling while she is failing at freelancing. Sure she stood up for herself, but at what cost? She walked away from an income and health insurance without batting an eyelash. What other millennial women who work in media could do that?
Annie and Fran’s financial situation remains a mystery throughout the show’s two seasons. How is it that two marginalised women in creative careers can have very little financial anxiety? An inkling of concern comes from Fran when she asks Annie “Are you rich? That’s like $50 every time you have sex with Ryan” when she finds out Annie has been taking the morning after pill every time she has sex with Ryan (Luka Jones), Annie’s casual hookup turned boyfriend. Annie never addresses this, she is rightfully preoccupied with the abortion she needs to have, but it still leaves the viewer wondering how she is financially staying afloat.
Annie’s spending on the morning after pill is not the only unexplained expense in the show. A quick Google search revealed that Annie and Fran live in a home that last sold in 2016 for $500,158 and rents for similar houses in the same neighbourhood are around $2900 a month. It is unclear how they can afford to live there with Annie working for a small alt-weekly newspaper or not at all and Fran cutting people’s hair out of her home. It’s even more baffling when you add in the fact that Fran does not even require payment for her work. The only time we see her compensated for her work she is paid in stolen clothes. How do these two afford a multi-bedroom house in Portland, Oregon, a place that is notorious for unaffordable housing, while working in independent publishing and freelance hair styling?
The walls of Annie and Fran’s home are adorned with art prints like this one, by Modern Women, that used to be sold at Otherwild and Fran is often spotted in Wildfang overalls and coveralls. Both brands have become trendy in recent years and are recognisable in queer urban circles as marker for a type of queer financial stability. Wildfang coveralls are like the velour Juicy Couture track suit of lesbian culture. Rachel Syme explains that the “Juicy’s suit was just pricey enough to radiate status, but attainable enough to become a part of the everyday wardrobes of thousands of high-school girls.” Wildfang’s clothes do the same thing for queer women. Fran’s $188 coveralls signal to queer women watching that she is financially stable, yet still relatable, but it is never addressed how she got this way.
Annie quits her job in a fit of rage after Gabe writes a rebuttal to her article claiming her fatness. In this moment we see Annie stand up for herself. She calls Gabe a “bully” and tells him he is “stomp[ing] over an entire group of people.” We are supposed to cheer Annie on in this moment — she has finally begun to believe in herself — but she just walks out of her job without any real concern about her future. This moment is the climax of the first season. But she does not have a plan… Study after study has found that fat women face major discrimination when applying for jobs; especially in the media industry. I am proud of her for standing up for herself, but I do not see how any real person could do that without some type of financial safety net.
For fat women and queer women Annie and Fran appear to be wonderful role models. Annie is smart, and stylish, and finding her voice in a way many of us hope to and Fran is strong, and unwavering in her sexuality and standards. Shrill does a wonderful job creating inspiring role models, but Annie and Fran’s lives are impossible to replicate in everyday life. Throughout the season we see Annie strutting around Portland in a collection of adorable and perfectly tailored dresses. It turns out that almost all of Annie’s clothes were custom made for the show by costume designer Amanda Needham. Fran’s strength is a linchpin of the show and she is portrayed as the foil to Annie. In her review of Shrill Emily Nussbaum explains that Fran “specialises in brassy self-assertion, a bravado that doubles as a shield and as a weapon.” and later explains that it’s Annie’s “niceness … that fuels the show.” Fran’s self-assertion comes from her ability to opt-out of interacting with straight men, other than her brother or the occasional boy Annie brings home.
Shrill leads us to believe that Fran’s lesbianism is what makes her that brash woman who refuses to take shit and this is why she is able to empower Annie. Although all women are taught throughout their lives to seek the validation of men; coming out as a lesbian frees you from some of those expectations. Although male bosses, relatives, and friends still exist; there is no longer the expectation that one of the men in your life could be your future partner and this alleviates some of the compulsory need to please them. Annie on the other hand still believes she needs to placate a boy and win over a boss and those needs hinder her ability to stand up for herself. The thing is that queerness does not suddenly alleviate all of those pressures. As much as I would love to exist in a world without problematic straight men and the patriarchal nonsense they bring with them it is not possible. Fran has created a life where she only cuts cute girls’ hair and somehow still has a roof over her head a wardrobe full of $200 Wildfang overalls. Her queerness and lack of traditional employment may allow her to accept herself without pause, but the lack of hardship or pushback she receives is implausible and unlike the experiences of any queer women I have ever known or heard about.
Shrill represents a radical hope for fat women’s futures. It presents a nuanced depiction of the everyday struggles of fat women, but refuses to complicate its narrative with the broader and more systemic sexist and homophobic struggles fat women face. By diving deep into specificities it allows Annie to overcome her personal problems but misses the mark on addressing larger structural ones. In Shrill’s universe, Annie can quit her job without ever acknowledging how hard it is for fat women to get hired in the first place and Fran can live a blissful queer life in Portland without ever facing a racist or homophobic person. And both of them never have a financial care in the world while living in one of the most expensive cities and working in underpaid careers. I wish the lessons taught in Shrill were applicable to everyday life. I wish I could call out a fat-phobic boss on the internet without the fear of losing my employment and possibly my health insurance. I wish I could only cut cute girls’ hair and still have a roof over my head and some of the most stylish clothes in queer culture today. But alas, I do not live in the world Shrill has created, and I do not think I ever will.
by Meredith Salisbury
Meredith Salisbury is a freelance writer and indie bookseller based right outside of Philadelphia. They write about pop culture, music, and social media. Previously they were a social media researcher and the music director of WMUH. You can find them online @meresalisbury.