Aidy Bryant’s Shrill, an American TV series based on Lindy West’s book, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman - which first came to BBC Three in December, just a month before the highly anticipated second season is due to arrive on the platform - introduces the first plus-size protagonist I’ve seen on television in over a year. That is if you don’t include rewatches of Channel 4's My Mad Fat Diary (almost seven years old) or Netflix's Dumplin', which came out in 2018.
Growing up, television’s treatment of fat people was one of disgust and disdain. If it wasn’t Trinny and Susannah showing plus-size people how to hide their bodies, it was The Biggest Loser torturing them until they weren’t plus-size anymore. It is a fact that a lack of representation in the media can negatively affect a fat person’s self-esteem – but representation that exposes and upholds societal attitudes towards fat bodies as revolting, repulsive and wrong, feels so much worse.
The message – repeated to Bryant’s character Annie multiple times even in Shrill's first episode – is that every fat person has a thin person dying to get out of them. And as Annie jokes, "I hope she’s alright in there," the heavy implication is that Annie is the opposite of alright. The endless microaggressions depicted in the show are hard to register as harmful in real life, let alone when repeated throughout the six 30-minute episodes.
Annie’s struggle hasn’t been shown on screen very often, if at all. As the show progresses, fatphobia runs rampant in both small and strikingly awful ways.
Whether it's being compared to the only other fat person someone knows, simply because you, too, are fat (Rosie O’Donnell if you’re brunette, Rebel Wilson if you’re blonde) or dealing with an unwanted pregnancy because the morning after pill doesn’t work if you are over 175 pounds, the hits keep on coming for Annie. Yet the revelation of Shrill is not that it shows the everyday oppression of plus-size people but that it depicts a positive character arc as Annie processes and grows from each individual blow.
It’s also important to note that the fatphobia Annie faces isn’t focused purely on superficiality. As much as loving yourself and finding clothes that fit – and aren’t covered in "postage stamp Eiffel Towers" as Annie remarks – is an important facet of fatphobia, it isn’t the only one.
Annie struggles with a fatphobic boss who simultaneously preaches feminism, a mother who uses a diet plan to control her daughter, and a medical fatphobia that stems not from an ignorant pharmacist giving bad advice but from an entire industry that hasn't developed emergency contraception for plus-size people. These messages may not be portrayed in the commercialised body positivity movement but they are incredibly important nonetheless.
It is especially great that these messages are no longer directed solely at a Stateside audience. Wildly popular when it premiered in America – and with a 92% Rotten Tomatoes rating – the hope is that Shrill will attract a similar following here in the UK. And while we rightly celebrate the existence of shows like Shrill, we need to harness their popularity so that more shows of their ilk can be created.
Annie’s best friend and flatmate in the show, Fran (played by British actress Lolly Adefope) is a black plus-size lesbian whose story could be compelling if brought to our television screens. Similarly, a British take on being a fat woman in the world would make for a great series. There are so many differences between surviving as a fat person in society in the UK and in the US that should be explored for a British audience. Imagine a scene tackling Slimming World culture or a miserable high school PE lesson that isn't a belittling parody à la Little Britain. This sort of nuanced representation is the UK equivalent of the frat bro house party in Shrill to the US audience it was made for.
There are millions of stories out there about being a plus-size person, as well as stories that include plus-size people while not being about their weight. They all need to be heard. As Shrill lands in the UK, we must hope that it is the first of many about this topic rather than a standalone series trying to make a difference.
Shrill season 2 will be available on BBC Three from Saturday 25th January