Adapted by Lindy West from her 2016 book “Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman,” a half-hour Hulu comedy series of the same name follows Annie Easton (Aidy Bryant), a young writer who makes her big break by giving voice to sex work and body shaming.
Touted as a comedy despite the lack of laughs, the six-episode season is all about female empowerment, but on very specific terms. Female empowerment is a concept that lots of women tend to get behind, but despite the catchy phrase, it means something different depending on which female empowerment movement a woman is ideologically aligned with.
West invented the awkward #ShoutYourAbortion campaign wherein women speak with pride about their terminated pregnancies. The first episode of “Shrill” shows main character Annie not taking responsibility for birth control, taking one in a long series of morning-after pills, learning that her weight prevents the pill from doing its job, and discovering she’s pregnant.
Unable to talk to her sexual partner about it, she gets an abortion. This is the beginning of Annie’s so-called awakening and empowerment.
“Shrill” briefly shows Annie considering whether to go through with motherhood, something she talks about wanting to have. She considers whether this may be her only chance to have children. No, assures her best friend and roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope), there will be lots more chances.
So Annie jettisons her baby, although not her irresponsible boyfriend (Luka Jones), and the power she feels as a result gives her the courage to change her life in even more ways. She demands better writing assignments at the publication she works for, moving up just about instantly from assistant calendar editor to a writing a feature. Turns out all she had to do was ask, and mean it. How empowering!
The feature assignment—to write a review of the all-you-can-eat Chinese buffet at a strip club—leads Annie to even more empowerment, this time for sex workers. These women, by virtue of their large body parts, are the ones telling men what to do! And all it took was to internalize exploitation.
Annie realizes that she, too, has large body parts, and it’s time to make them work for her! She tells off her parents, the lackadaisical boyfriend, and her boss, the editor in chief, when he has the gall to edit her article on the strip club’s cuisine and female empowerment. The only reason he edited her article at all was probably because she’s overweight and female, not because she didn’t write to the assignment—a food review, not a social justice and sex work piece. Anyway, so empowering.
It was about this point, rounding into episode three, that I realized I’d still not had any laughs in this comedy show. But maybe that’s the point. West has penned numerous pieces in The New York Times about how funny-men who are otherwise not good guys don’t deserve to have their jokes laughed at anymore.
A great way to get around that is to just write jokes that aren’t funny. “Shrill” is part of that great new movement of unfunny comedy, like Hannah Gadsby’s “Nanette,” where you don’t have to laugh so much as congratulate yourself on being woke enough to not need your comedy to be funny.
When Annie gets back together with the aimless, hapless guy she made a baby with, then breaks up with him and gets back together again, it became clear that neither of them are taking any responsibility for birth control still. They continue to screw, but no talk of condoms, IUDs, birth control pills, diaphragms, spermicide, or even rhythm methods made an appearance. And the writers missed a great opportunity for a joke when they didn’t reference the classic Seinfeld episode about the Today Sponge!
For some reason it’s okay to normalize abortion, normalize the concept of using morning-after pills as birth control, but providing a realistic, responsible conversation about birth control is beyond the pale. Super empowering.
After her article goes viral, readers reach out to let Annie know how empowered and seen she made them feel. But Annie soon realizes the internet isn’t all affirmation lollipops and heart emojis. A troll lurks in Annie’s comments, and he makes her feel bad, saying derogatory things about her weight and family. Ouch, no one likes when the anonymous mean people of the internet say nasty things.
Her next pitch, about a body-positive pool party by and for plus-sized women, is shot down by her editor Gabe (John Cameron Mitchell). “The last thing we need is everyone feeling comfortable in their own skin—that would be the ’70s,” he quips, before shooting her down.
Annie thought his homosexuality would give him an understanding of her difficulty in being fat, but his skinny maleness has a greater affect on his perspective than his feelings of being oppressed and unfairly categorized by society at large. (Don’t worry about the use of the word fat, the show lets us know it’s empowering.)
Annie goes to the party anyway, which looks like a great party, and the level of empowerment she ends up feeling gives her the courage to dance like no one is watching. She strips off her jeans, revealing her body in bathing suit—something she wasn’t ever comfortable doing before—and jumps into the pool, smiling and happy.
This pool party and Annie’s associated swim is the best thing about the show, and it may be the only good thing. There’s no reason women should have to feel crappy about themselves for their whole lives for not living up to manufactured, male-centric beauty standards, and that’s true for all shapes and sizes and statures of women. This is the only actually empowering moment, but it was in episode four, with still no laughs, and two episodes without pool parties to go.
Driven, determined, and giving no f–ks, Annie writes an article anyway, about her own fatness, and having lived her life on other people’s terms. She doesn’t wait for permission, but posts the article to the site anyway, without editor approval. The piece speaks to her new readership, goes viral, and gives Annie just the kind of boost and validation she needs after friends, boyfriend, and parents all fail to understand that their expectations for her are not her own.
There’s only one problem, of course—she wasn’t authorized to post the article, since she’s only the assistant calendar editor and not editor in chief, and her boss is pissed. Annie is not to be deterred from her empowerment journey, however, and channels all this creative energy into alienating the people in her life who are closest to her. Creative people will know just how empowering it is to feel badly about how badly you make everyone in your life feel when you take up with your own truth.
In the end, having quit her job, been quit by friends, left adrift by a boyfriend who lost the use of his mother’s car, the only person left in her life who is willing to interact with Annie is her troll. She’s tracked him down. Turns out he was only jealous, and probably even like-liked her, which is what accounts for his meanness.
In a moment that plays on romance and romantic expectations, he invites her in for drinks with a hint of more, and in turning him down, she forces him to again unleash his verbal wrath. The last we see of Annie is her streaking off into the night, after having vandalized the troll’s car, with no way home (she’ll probably call an Uber).
Searching for empowerment through making poor choices then deciding to be okay with them is what so much of this new female empowerment movement is about. Doing something that is probably unhealthy but it’s your right? Empowering. Sleeping with a guy who won’t take responsibility for his own reproductive material (or yours) or even care about you, then ditching the earned consequences of that union? Empowering.
Centering yourself within the bull’s eye of the male gaze and making him beg for more? Empowering. Quitting your job as a writer because you don’t want to be edited? Empowering. But perhaps the most empowering thing is getting people to produce your not-funny show, calling it a comedy, all while critiquing actually good comedians because they don’t meet the ever-shifting standards of wokeness.