I helped record an episode of podcast with K. Tempest Bradford recently on the subject of writing fat characters.* While I was trying to figure out how to talk about this, I really struggled with the concept that full personhood for fat people and fat characters was a radical idea. If you’re an American, you know a lot of fat people. Even if you live somewhere like San Francisco or L.A. where it is illegal to be fat on the street, you can’t miss us. You know our partners and our kids; you know we aren’t sexless and lonely and constantly tripping into vats of pudding for your amusement. And yet we accept the flattening of fat characters into those stereotypes anyway, even though we all know better through immediate and personal experience.
Naturally, right after the recording, I watched “Shrill” on Hulu. (Some spoilers follow. Go watch it.)
“Shrill” the TV series is based on a book of the same name by Lindy West. West has been a hero of mine for years. I loved the book, loved her work at the Stranger in Seattle, and I’ve gotten to meet her and perform with her in San Francisco. The experience she writes about is so painfully like my own that the book was a little hard to read. The act of claiming the fat body is a complicated one, and West writes about it with bitter, truthful, and joyful skill. Shrill was a book I swallowed quickly, but I spit up seeds for months. I expected the show to be the same.
There are moments in the Hulu version of “Shrill” that were breathtaking for that radical commonality that I mention above. It shouldn’t shock me to see a woman who looks like Aidy Bryant (Annie) having sex on screen, but it absolutely did. I can count the number of sex scenes that feature a body remotely like mine in mainstream media on one hand, and I didn’t expect “Shrill” to deliver me one. I immediately thought of the way the internet reacted to Gabourey Sidibe getting a sex scene on “Empire” and decided (as I do so often these days) that I did not need to know what anybody else thought about this. It is common for people who look like Sidibe and Bryant to have sex. But it’s still radical to let anybody see it.
It’s also not unusual in my experience to end up at a pool party or a dance party where fat people use their bodies without shame. It’s a daily occurrence for me to see a well-dressed, fat, powerful femme stomp a crosswalk in a killer outfit as though it were a runway (I live in Oakland, come on), but the main character on “Shrill” experiences this as a rarity and a near-religious experience of inspiration. I’m not mad at the show for depicting these things as radical, numinous, or life-changing. Under the right conditions they all are. I’m mad that it’s taken this long for this story to get told.
“Shrill” is the kind of thing you can watch with a group of friends and hear a lot of different reactions. Some see what I see: a story whose time has come and a brilliant team bringing it all together. I’ve been in Facebook threads over the last few days hearing valid descriptions of the character Fran (Lolly Adefope) as a supportive friend to a white main character who doesn’t seem to get much in return, though a refreshingly dimensional queer character in her own right. A few of my friends focused on the mother-daughter relationship between Annie and her mom (Julia Sweeney) and the always fraught issue of how mothers model their relationship to their own bodies to their kids. There’s a lot of layers to this show, and most of them were taken from a life most of us recognize.
I just learned this morning that many of Annie’s amazing dresses were made custom for the show. I felt a mixture of rage and disappointment reading that article. Rage that no designer would seize this opportunity to show us what they could do dressing a character like this one. Disappointment that these clothes don’t exist anywhere and I’ll never be able to buy them. Finally I realized that I must have known the truth about this already; every time I see a person wearing a size 18 or above dress, I can immediately tell where it came from. There are about five places in the world where I can shop. No matter how rich and famous a fat performer is, I can always buy the same clothes as them. Annie’s sequined dress is quite literally unattainable, unless I have one made myself. If I didn’t immediately clock it as an Eloquii, it’s a unicorn. I should have known.
The script takes liberties with the true story of how Lindy West confronted a brutal, sadistic internet troll with all her rage and humanity. It’s an incredible story about an incredibly brave confrontation that goes straight to the root of everything that is terrible about the internet. It addresses weaponized anonymity and the laissez-fare attitude toward community management that allows trolls to run marginalized people out of the marketplace of ideas. On the show, Annie smashes the dude’s car window after an electrifying exchange between them. It’s satisfying, but it lacks the guts and originality of what really happened. It’s good TV, but I was hoping for more.
That’s been my feeling about a lot of the wealth of fat media I’ve seen lately. I loved “Dietland,” but I was hoping for more. More episodes, obviously, but also more from the crew that clearly had trouble dressing and shooting a fat body. Joy Nash is a beautiful woman, and they seemed to have done their best to ensure she had perfect makeup and a mostly invisible body. I liked “Dumplin'” very much, but I wanted people to realize that “I never thought of you as fat” is an unforgivable thing for a fat girl’s best friend to say. I wanted the feminist liberation from the concept of value-by-beauty hinted at in the first act to pay off in the land of fairy drag mothers and beauty pageants. I want too much.
I want more. I want more shows with fat people who are not constantly miserable and failing their way toward thinness as some kind of doomed life goal (looking at you, “This is Us”). I want one (1) fat character who wears a bra to take it off when they go to bed. I want the camera to just let them live.
And I want more of “Shrill.” I want more episodes written by Samantha Irby, whose entire brilliant career has been made in writing fatness, Blackness, disability, and the frank hatred she holds for most of life. I want, like Lindy West, to redefine the word ‘fat’ through better stories and better images and more stories about the radically common phenomenon of a fat person living an enviable life.
*It’ll be out next year.