When asked by the Today show to explain what her new comedic drama Shrill was about, Saturday Night Live actress Aidy Bryant posed a question that she at one point asked herself: “How much more of my time can I give to hating myself?”
Debuted on March 15 via Hulu, Shrill is that tale of Annie Easton, a bubbly calendar editor at a Portland alt-weekly magazine, who is sweet and bitingly sassy. She can also be a bit self-centered and frustratingly stubborn. She’s aware of her self-worth, but her confidence comes in bursts. Hailed as an empowering display of body positivity, Bryant’s character, tackles a roller-coaster of emotions: She is fat-shamed in a coffee shop, undergoes an abortion, and is called a bitch for her earnestly by a fat-phobic boss.
At its heart though, the show is an honest portrait of a millennial woman’s struggle — in coming to terms with her body, identity, and what she deserves.
“She's someone that, her entire life, the entire world has told her literally make yourself smaller—both in your body but also in your personality,” Bryant told Today about her character. “Be sweet. Be nice. Be polite. She gets to, kind of, a breaking point and decides to stop putting all of her time and money and energy into trying to make her thighs smaller and to start going after her dreams.”
That dynamic—the balance power between dealing with societal pressures to shrink as a fat woman with the desire to ascertain more than what’s expected in life—is what’s the most intriguing element of the show.
In tandem with the current contentions of millennials, Annie bounces between diet crazes, rejecting her sloppy friends-with-benefits adjacent boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones), and constantly campaigning for bigger projects at work that would utilize the years of experience she’s accrued. Even after she delivers a stunning reported piece on a strip club that appealed to readers online, Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell), her boss, continues to belittle her, downplaying her talent.
There are specific turning points when Annie realizes she deserves better and refuses to let anyone dictate her happiness. She starts entering Ryan’s house through the front door, confronting his roommates whom she previously hid from. She curses at the trainer who tells her that there is a “small person” inside her body. She writes an article without permission and publishes it on the website out of rage one night.
But she, too, has moments of weakness in which petty, immature, or poorly thought-out decisions derail her progress. Annie’s growth as a character is surprisingly non-linear; her actions in one episode sometimes contradict her previous episode’s intentions, a root of frustration for her best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope)—and for the audience too.
Annie’s devotion to her unsatisfying relationship with Ryan stems from a deep place of insecurity. She previously contemplated not undergoing an abortion to have his child, simply because she never thought she would have that opportunity again.
“Maybe if I was just sweet enough and nice enough and easy-going enough with any guy, that would be enough for someone,” Annie said, crying to Fran. She has humiliating thoughts about herself, she admits, thoughts she might never be freed from. Throughout the series, viewers see Annie perform the ultimate balancing act: She tries to stay true to herself and revel in self-serving decisions. But her path is filled with unexpected setbacks and safe choices, leading her to accept mediocrity in many forms, simply because that’s what she thinks she deserves.
In a moving monologue delivered in her apartment’s small living room, Annie describes her frustration living as a fat woman with the self-deprecating “mind prison” she’s entrapped in. Her words ring true to any person who exists outside the parameters of what is considered socially acceptable. The burdensome, internalized shame Annie carries convinces her that she doesn’t deserve a caring boyfriend or a fulfilling job. The notion that it’s enough to simply have these things — rather than not have them — has been drilled into Annie’s mind, by her mother, her boss, and eventually herself.
Shrill succeeds in presenting Annie as she is — a fat woman grappling with herself and the world. And her struggles are familiar, even tragically relatable. We empathize with her flaws, and in a way, we see ourselves in Annie. When she overcomes her self-doubt, we rejoice. It offers us hope, that even for a brief second our “mind prison” can be shattered, and that our tendency to accept less than what we deserve can be undermined.