Warning: This article contains spoilers from the series Shrill.
As a fat woman myself, I can tell you this misrepresentation matters. Any time some misogynist wants to shut me up, or be rude to me, they call me “fat.” To them, it’s a shorthand for “worthless.” To them, “fat” is the opposite of “fuckable,” and fuckability is what gives a woman value.
That’s why Shrill, the new series based on Lindy West’s bestselling memoir of the same name, is such a fat, big, juicy deal (and will now air in Canada on Crave TV beginning May 3). Not just because it’s great TV, though it really is fantastic: tender, fully-realized, hilarious and constantly surprising. Not just because it stars a fat woman, though Aidy Bryant is a total revelation as Annie. But also because there is no way you could watch it and not see the beauty and value in fat women. Because the fat bodies are so lovingly shot you will want to take screen caps and frame them on your wall. Because Annie already says “fuck you” to a fat shamer in episode one, even if it’s under her breath.
None of that is by accident. As West explained to me when I caught up with her in Austin, Texas preparing for the show’s premiere at SXSW, “We talked about this a lot. It’s this complicated contradiction. You want to make a show about a fat girl that’s not about being fat because the whole point is, she has this whole other big complicated life like anyone else. The difference is that she constantly has people intrude on her life to remind her about her body.” In our conversation, we touched on everything: clothes, pasta, abortion, and whether fat-shaming will ever really end.
Jaclyn Friedman: One of the many things I love about Shrill: There’s no makeover! Her fashion evolves some over the episodes, but she already looks great when the show starts. I assume that was deliberate?
Lindy West: It was deliberate! There’s a little bit of science fiction to [Aidy’s wardrobe on the show] because those clothes did not exist and we had to make them. But that was absolutely deliberate that she have a sense of style and a point of view from the beginning. Because it’s just such a trope for someone to come out of their shell using fashion. And the point of the show is that she’s already a fully-formed, dynamic, interesting person who wants to look cute.
JF: And she dresses for herself! There’s this whole debate right now in the body positivity movement about whether we should be fighting for all bodies to be recognized as “sexy,” or fighting for the idea that looks don’t matter at all.
We’re all just trying to survive, and I think you can be critical of a system while also trying to thrive within it.
LW: Obviously, we live in a toxic system that makes it compulsory for women to chase this male gaze “hot” standard. But should fat people have just as much of a right to feel sexy and beautiful by whatever standard of beauty you choose in the bodies that they have now? Absolutely. Should we be spending our time creating new beauty standards? I don’t know. The concept of a beauty standard at all is pretty toxic. But within the current system, it’s powerful to say, I’m beautiful the way that I am. My body is beautiful and deserves respect and dignity.
We’re all just trying to survive, and I think you can be critical of a system while also trying to thrive within it. Expanding the definition of what beauty is, letting people define it for themselves and for their communities, and wrenching it away from the people and institutions that have traditionally gotten to define beauty; that’s really powerful. I always want to expand people’s options and opportunities.
JF: Can we talk about the abortion plotline? In the very first episode, when Annie finds herself pregnant by a guy she really likes but who doesn’t treat her well, she gets an abortion. It kicks off a reexamination of herself and her life, but the actual abortion isn’t that big of a deal. That mirrors your experience in some ways, right?
LW: Certain things from the book were non-negotiable for me to carry over in the show, and the abortion was one of them. Just like Annie, I was in this moment where I was like, Oh, I could bind this person to me, in a more intimate way, for at least the next 18 years. If I choose to carry through with this pregnancy, that would change this relationship into something more serious, which is what I crave. And to realize that I didn't want [to make him commit to me], that was a really powerful moment for me.
I didn't have a big emotional conflict about whether or not to have an abortion. I did not want to be pregnant, and I had an abortion, and I was not pregnant anymore. I was relieved and I was grateful for the kind, compassionate, quick, easy care that I received. And that’s my abortion story. Presenting the abortion as not the big emotional drama at the heart of the story is really really important, because the way that abortion is presented in the media gives people a false impression of how abortion actually functions in real people’s lives.
JF: Speaking of lack of shame, can we also talk about the moment later on, right after she sleeps with her best friend’s brother Lamar, where she goes and eats the pasta from the fridge in the middle of the night? Because that was one of my favourite moments.
LW: Beyond a fat woman eating carbs on camera…
JF: A fat woman eating carbs on camera, out of happiness!
LW: It was important to me, and I think everyone in the writer’s room, to not have Annie’s happiness and fulfillment be contingent on men and male attention. So she has this validating, hot moment with Lamar, but we wanted to end the episode with the real point: that she chose herself over Ryan. She closes the night with this moment alone. Or, you know, alone with pasta.
JF: Alone with pasta! It’s her little nightcap of satisfaction.
LW: Totally. It was a really efficient, satisfying way to show her progression. Just eat spaghetti with abandon.
JF: Of course, that doesn’t mean the whole world is suddenly set right. In the pool party episode, she has the best day of her life, and then has to go get shat on by her boss after. It felt like such a clear demonstration of why we can’t just self-empower ourselves out of oppression.
LW: Totally. People tend to assume that this process [of rejecting the fat-shaming culture] has an end point. That now I am a fully-enlightened being who is never insecure and always comfortable eating in public. And that’s not true. I still live in the same shitty society as I did before I started questioning the way that we treat fat bodies, and it’s still work.
It’s work that I usually have enough energy to do. I’m really lucky that I have a great life, and a great support system, and a great career. I don’t have much to complain about. But there is not really a point, at least for me, where you’re done with the work and you feel great all the time. Society’s come a long way since I started writing about being fat in 2008 or 2009. Certainly people are more careful in the ways that they speak [about fatness], because they’re now a little bit more afraid of getting yelled at. But have people’s actual attitudes changed, privately on a large scale? I don’t know. Are fat people getting better medical care at this point? I don’t know. Are fat people’s access [to basic public accommodations] better? Not in my experience. Everything is a process, and every day is its own challenge.
JF: What do you do on a challenging day?
LW: I find taking a shower very helpful. Take a shower and put on clothes that make you feel good, and spend time with people who know who you are. And watch Shrill, a body positive comedy by Hulu, streaming now.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Jaclyn Friedman is a writer, activist and podcaster whose latest book is Unscrewed: Women, Sex, Power and How to Stop Letting the System Screw Us All.