In 'Shrill', Black Characters Are More Than Vehicles for White Stories
The Hulu series doesn't apologize to white people, and that's important.
Photo credit: Hulu
“Shrill,” the new Hulu series based on Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, follows Annie (Aidy Bryant) as she tries to find sure-footing in Portland’s dating terrain, fights for a place for her voice at the alt-weekly she writes for, and cope with her father’s cancer.
Annie is a fat white woman. She isn’t self-deprecating about her body. She isn’t the punchline of her own plot. Shrill feels fresh because of this, but it threatens to get stale fast in the very first episode, when ultra-stylish Fran (Lolly Adefope), Annie’s roommate, sweeps into the kitchen and rolls her eyes at the torture-by-diet pancakes Annie is eating for breakfast. This we’ve seen—The Sassy Black Bestie.
But Shrill does something unexpected. Fran isn’t the early-series Donna Meagle to Annie’s Leslie Knope. She isn’t the Titus Andromedon to Annie’s Kimmy Schmidt. Or the nurse Tamra to Annie’s Dr. Mindy Lahiri. She’s her own full-bodied person and totally unapologetic about it. As Fran says when Annie's deadbeat boyfriend asks her for an apology for pepper spraying him, she doesn’t “apologize to white people.” She simply exists. She rebukes the sidekick role Black women are frequently defaulted to based on race even further, when she tells Annie she’s putting a moratorium on convos about Annie’s manchild love interest—Bechdel test: Passed. The narrative is then free to explore Fran as a character beyond being a shoulder to cry on for the white woman in her life.
Shrill does more than populate its white woman protagonist’s life with a cast of supporting POC whose sole purpose is to bolster her fragile self-esteem, offer never ending sage advice, or spout out catchphrases like “What white nonsense is this?” Fran, along with Annie’s work husband Amadi (Ian Owens), aren’t bizarrely the only POC that exists in an all-white TV world either. And both have full lives outside of their friendship with Annie, talking about it openly and never compromising or allowing Annie to steamroll them with her own issues. And Annie mostly accepts this when he's called out for it.
We see Fran with her romantic partners, meet her brother (whom, spoiler alert, can and does get it), and witness Fran on the brink of a huge career opportunity when their dog Bonkers downs some ‘shroom pills. And surprisingly, when that mushroom pill emergency happens, Fran isn’t expected to back-burner this huge opportunity so Annie can get to the office early, nor does she allow that to even be a possibility. As the series progresses, attention is called to Annie’s self-absorbed nature in subtle and increasingly more direct ways.
In Annie’s relationship with Amadi, he is nurturing and encourages her to take risks at work. He is also who she confides in when their manager is unfair or cruel. After Annie blows off hanging out with Amadi for couch sex with the mediocre quasi-boyfriend, she is forced to acknowledge what she’s done wrong and apologize before their friendship can proceed. But the series doesn’t let Annie off the hook that easily. In the final episode, Amadi directly calls out Annie for being self-centered when there is clearly shit happening in his life. He points out he’s a grown man with a family and children and things are not okay right now and she doesn’t seem to understand that. When she starts to B.S. her way through an apology he stops her. “You’re still just talking about yourself,” he says, and leaves.
In television, and even more so in movies, we regularly see Black characters in supporting roles listening to the woes of white leading characters, putting themselves aside to endlessly support their white friends. This is just how it is. Shrill calls attention to the fact that this is an issue, it is an issue that white women are comfortable participating in, and it’s not okay. So, not only do we see in the show these one-way relationships playing out between Annie and Fran and Amadi, but we see both characters pushing back on this standard and demanding more from their relationships with Annie. Because this tension grows slowly over several episodes, Shrill puts white viewers to question their comfort with this norm while also creating a release for Black viewers and other viewers of color.
This is not to say that Shrill is a perfect show, but it does seem to be a show that is thinking about how to decenter whiteness even when the narrative is centered around a white character. It’s saying you can simultaneously critique whiteness even while addressing (and enduring) misogyny and fat bias. And its signaling to white viewers how to hold problematic faves accountable, even while loving them. We need more of this. Shrill is being celebrated for its body positivity and its feminism, but it’s also a necessary new voice in the White Feminism discussion.
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