We still have a ways to go, but right now there’s never been more on-screen diversity as far as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender. But there’s one kind of representation Hollywood continues to drag its feet on: body diversity.

Outside a couple notable exceptions (basically anything Queen Latifah has been in), the little representation we do see of fat women on screen usually comes with a heaping pile of missing the point entirely. 

The good intentions of Amy Schumer’s I Feel Pretty or Netflix’s controversial Insatiable, for example, don’t save either from still feeding into the same beauty standards they purport to subvert. I Feel Pretty portrays Schumer’s body confidence as a magical delusion, while Insatiable puts a thin actress in a fat suit for the sake of a skinny revenge fantasy.

Then there’s Shrill, a Hulu original debuting today that quietly yet radically revolutionizes the way fat women are represented on screen. 

At the Television Critics Association in February, star Aidy Bryant made it clear that, “Our show really isn’t about being fat. And it’s also really not about dieting, and it’s really not about her body. It’s about her trying to achieve her goals.”

We want a spinoff for Lolly Adefope, who plays Annie's roommate Fran.

We want a spinoff for Lolly Adefope, who plays Annie’s roommate Fran.

Adapted from an autobiography of the same name, Shrill centers around the life of Annie, a fictionalized mashup of Bryant and writer/journalist Lindy West. Similar to Girls and Insecure, Shrill is part of the (for lack of a better term) mumblecore subgenre of recent women-centric TV shows.

It does nothing more and nothing less radical than honestly portray the world of a 20-something-year-old woman struggling to find herself. Most of that struggle revolves around her terrible boss, who doesn’t like when she voices her opinions. Another part of Annie’s struggle involves her deadbeat sort of boyfriend, and the tension he creates between her and best friend Fran. 

Somewhere in the background of all that, part of Annie’s struggle also involves being fat in a world that seems determined to cut her down to size at every opportunity.

Like Girls and Insecure, what’s revolutionary about Shrill shouldn’t be revolutionary. But a TV show that lets women — particularly marginalized women like the protagonists and writers behind Insecure and Shrill — be at the center of their own stories is unfortunately still boundary-pushing.

What’s revolutionary about Shrill shouldn’t be revolutionary.

In the case of Insecure, there’s no pressure for protagonist Issa to represent all black women or any grand political statement on blackness. She accomplishes that by simply being, capturing the experience of her day-to-day with vivid honesty. Similarly, Shrill lets Annie simply be, needing no further justification for why her perspective is important or worthwhile.

One of the biggest obstacles to normalizing fat bodies is the almost total lack of visibility given to women that don’t conform to that traditional Hollywood beauty standard. 

In a phone interview, Bryant told us that the lack of representation of fat women in popular media often even limits the amount of impressions she can do on SNL compared to other women on the show. And that’s not SNL’s fault, but rather a reflection of just how little body diversity we see in day-to-day culture.

Even when Bryant does get to do impressions — like her pitch-perfect take on Sarah Huckabee Sanders — her size weirdly becomes part of the conversation. In her opening bit as Sanders, Bryant stared menacingly at Sean Spicer (played by Melissa McCarthy) while munching on an apple on the end of a big hunting knife. It was meant to evoke an Indiana Jones villain vibe.

'Shrill' also nails that unglamorous blogger life.

‘Shrill’ also nails that unglamorous blogger life.

“But people flipped their shit — they were like, ‘That’s fat shaming. They have her eating on camera. That’s so fucked up,'” Bryant recalled. “But a fat woman eating on camera isn’t fat-shaming. That’s a human being living. And that was the moment I realized, ‘Oh you’re just not used to seeing a fat woman living her life, eating spaghetti, fucking guys, having friends, having a family. Just seeing them have a normal life. And so that kind of became our manifesto for the show.”

Shrill requires no frills, no ham-fisted progressive messaging, no reductive characterization, and no extraordinary plot to find inherent value in Annie’s story. And it is truly astounding to step back and realize we rarely see that kind of basic human dignity given to a protagonist with Annie’s body type.

Shrill requires no frills, no overt progressive messaging, no reductive characterization, and no extraordinary plot to find inherent value in Annie’s story.

“Hopefully this show is a step in the right direction,” Bryant said. “We made an effort to really create empathy for a fat character so you just feel what it’s like to live in this person’s life — see the other side of the coin, understand that little snarky comments or even a comment you think is helpful really just, uh, isn’t.”

What makes Shrill so fantastic isn’t just its thoughtfulness, though. Bryant’s approach to comedy delivers a subtly complex yet immediately relatable humor. Because by having Annie just be a normal person, it calls to attention how all the people around her act like bone-headed idiots in response to her size. 

Early on in the first episode, a fitness instructor catches Annie glancing at her “fat burning” advertisement in a coffee shop. “There’s a small person inside of you dying to get out,” she tells Annie with all the best intentions, and none of the self-awareness. “You weren’t meant to carry around all this extra weight.”

“It just lets us show how exhausting it is, having to say, ‘Oh thank you!’ to a comment like that,” said Bryant. 

While a lesser show might’ve turned it into a pitying moment, Shrill turns this micro-aggression into a moment of universal understanding, where we can all laugh at just how absurd and ridiculous our skinny-obsessed culture is.

In this way, Shrill reclaims the kind of fat jokes that hacky stand up comics have not only relied on, but defended as an integral part of good comedy.

“I’ve always made an effort to not make a joke of my size — to let the joke be about what I’m saying or doing,” said Bryant. “And that’s what we did with the show. You’re never meant to laugh at Annie for being fat. But you can also acknowledge that she’s fat, and laugh about it. Because talking about it honestly allows you to experience it more fully. It’s not something we feel the need to beat around the bush about.”

I want to live in 'Shrill's pool party scene.

I want to live in ‘Shrill’s pool party scene.

The brilliance of Shrill is doubly as sweet because West’s book chronicled her own difficulties with comedians — whether because of rape jokes or fat jokes. So, West told us in an interview, there’s some poetic justice to seeing her story reenacted by one of the top comedic talents from SNL.  

Shrill‘s leap forward for body diversity on screen also translated to what happened behind the scenes. 

Bryant often mentioned how picking the right kind of outfits for Annie felt both important to her character and the show’s overall welcoming and inclusive vibe. And that required having producers, directors, writers, make up artists, and a costume department that understood why it was so important.

“I really didn’t want to cute-sify the character,” said Bryant. “A lot of times fat women are dressed very cute, all hearts and polkadots. People are comfortable consuming fat women as like cutesy pinups. So I really wanted her to have a more cool, grounded, plugged-in, twenty-something sense of style,” she said. “Don’t get me wrong: I’ve played a million cutesy dorks. I am a cutesy dork. But I wanted Annie to be a bit of a badass.”

“Talking about it honestly allows you to experience it more fully.”

Being able to both communicate that to the team and being heard was a novelty. Not only for Bryant, but for the other women on the show.

“One of the best things is that on set, more than one person — both [Lolly Adefope and Patti Harrison] — expressed to me that costume fittings on previous shoots always felt like people were never equipped or not listening or helping them feel comfortable. But they did on our show,” she said. “And I’ve so been there before, feeling humiliated to wear something on camera and not be in a position to ask for what you want. There’s a lot of pain and shame in that. So I’m proud that we had an amazingly supportive team that was aware of people’s differences and how to make them each feel good and confident, so they could do their best work.”

That kind of environment also led to one of the best scenes in the season, where Annie goes to a body-positive pool party and the experience becomes the subject of her first major article as a journalist.

“That two-day shoot was so special to me. I can probably never put into words how much it meant to me. Because it really became the thing that we were trying to capture from the script,” Bryant said. “This wonderful party where people felt inspired and comfortable. lt was all that and more. A lot of our crew was crying by the end — it was overwhelming.”

But while Bryant is very proud of what they created on Shrill, she continues to rethink and want more representation of diverse bodies on screen.

“The fat women who are in media right now are mostly white. There’s still not as much progress in the actual diversity of fat bodies. And when you start to look at the gatekeepers in Hollywood, you start to understand why a lot of these voices haven’t been getting through the gates,” she said. “Hopefully this show is a step in the right direction, in moving the needle forward — to open the door for other fat women to make shows and content.” 

There’s something effervescent about Shrill. But after a short six-episode season, it leaves you wishing it wasn’t so special. It leaves you wishing there was much more of its kind to watch.

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