Aidy Bryant’s testament to the independent modern woman, “Shrill,” comes to a close with the third and final season now airing on Hulu. Bryant’s Annie Easton is Mary Tyler Moore in a plus-sized mini dress, taking on the world with a smile and a can-do attitude, balanced by a perpetual feeling that she’s being judged for being overweight. Like Mary, Annie is trying to figure it all out as she goes along, looking to shifting social norms to find her place in the world.
The show is based on Lindy West’s book “Shrill,” and it’s intended to be a show about empowerment. It is empowering in present-day pop morality terms, when the top goal is self-fulfillment.
But like the Teen Vogue and Marie Claire values we are bombarded with across entertainment media on a daily basis, the concepts of what makes happiness are shallow and meaningless. Career success and short-term sexual relationships are what Annie seems to strive for, but none of it brings her joy.
Annie walks through storylines with a combined air of superiority and self-consciousness. Every encounter Annie has is more about how she feels about herself and how she feels other people should treat her than story or character development.
The Primary Concern Is How to Control Other People
The characters in Annie’s world display their ideologies with every word, action, and attitude. First and foremost in the characters’ minds is the question of if the people around them are treating them with the appropriate amount of respect owed to their identity group.
Annie gets mad when a doctor suggests she loses weight. Why? Because it’s insensitive, of course. She uses the excuse that a person can be healthy at any weight, as though obesity is just another identity group.
Annie isn’t the only one. All the identity groups represented get a chance to take on the mantle of victimization. Annie’s best friend Fran, played by comedian Lolly Adefope, is a hairstylist. When a white girl comes in wanting dreadlocks a la Bob Marley, Fran balks. She’s horrified not only that the girl asks, but that the girl doesn’t understand why it’s offensive that she’s done so.
Instead of doing the girl’s hair, Fran kicks her out of the chair. Fran acts as though it is bloody obvious and there can be no other perspective than that asking for dreadlocks meant the girl was racist.
Annie misjudges romantic intentions too. She wants to pursue a relationship with Nick (Anthony Oberbeck), with whom she becomes fast friends. He texts her all the time, takes her to breakfast, and constantly makes plans to see her. But when Annie finally gets up the courage to make a move over dinner at her place, it turns out that Nick just wants to be friends.
Annie is rightfully embarrassed, but also kind of angry. She feels strongly that he led her on by being so attentive. But Nick tells her it never occurred to him to look at her through a romantic lens.
“I think it’s possible that you’ve infused a lot of meaning into everything we’ve done,” he explains, as though his extension of friendship and perpetual communication could only have been interpreted as platonic.
Annie, as a strong and worldly woman, feels entirely entitled to sleep with men with no real feelings for them. But when a man makes her feel vulnerable, which seems to have nothing to do with sex for Annie, she’s unable to understand why he doesn’t feel the same way. For Nick, breakfast is just breakfast. For Annie, it’s making love.
The Bankruptcy of Contemporary Values
There’s an irony in that the creative team didn’t know season three would be the last one because in episode five Annie gets canceled. As a journalist at a local alt newspaper, Annie stretches outside her comfort zone to interview the leader of a separatist movement out at their compound.
She thinks she delivers a hard-hitting investigative article about some alt-right white supremacists, but after her editor slaps on a conciliatory headline that makes it seem like Annie had been charmed by them, even her closest friends turn their backs on her and defame her as racist, that most damning of all insults.
Annie doesn’t stand by her work. The pressure is too much for her, and she asks the publisher to take the story down. “People are really upset,” Annie argues. “And they’re hurt. So doesn’t that mean we should listen to them?”
It’s almost as though the publisher unintentionally exposed what Annie and her friends would consider her unconscious bias, her inherent white person racism. Annie wants to erase it, to apologize, to make people forget that she ate pie with racists and even enjoyed it, but her publisher wants the clicks. She decides to do much tamer writing from then on. Mary Tyler Moore would have learned the exact opposite lesson.
It’s as though Annie and her friends have come up with a set of rules that, if followed, are supposed make them happy. But the rules aren’t based on anything other than an entitled, self-obsessed, victimization complex.
They’ve come up with a morality that is all about making sure other people treat them correctly and has nothing to do with what morality is really about, which is how they should treat others. “Shrill” is a solipsistic show that exhibits the bankrupt virtue of our age: presuming women can find fulfillment in exactly all the wrong places.