Fuck Shame

Writer-director Megan Griffiths watches the new Hulu series Shrill, and sees an important, landmark show – and herself.

In episode four of Shrill, a flashback shows the young version of our protagonist Annie declining her mom’s invitation to go out to the crowded pool, instead choosing to read her book in the dark hotel room. Years later as an adult, Annie shows up to a pool party fully clothed, buttoned up to her neck, clearly mortified by the prospect of revealing the body she’s spent years hiding beneath carefully cultivated “flattering” layers. I know her, I thought, as I watched. As the Instagrammers like to say, “it me.” Annie’s experiences dramatize the pitiful truth of so many — a life lived opting out of countless fun opportunities due to internalized shame.

Shrill tackles shame head-on, taking its cue not just from Lindy West’s incredible memoir Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, but from Lindy’s revolutionary blog/manifesto “Hello, I Am Fat,” which I (along with every other woman I know) read back when it was first published in 2011. In this piece for Seattle’s alt-weekly The Stranger, Lindy “came out” as fat, acknowledging to the world that she saw the way they looked at her and felt their judgment, but that she was choosing to reject it in favor of falling in “unconditional luuuuurve” with her entire body. I’ve watched Lindy pass many milestones of success since she wrote those words, becoming a shining example of just what’s possible when you stop letting shame guide your life.

Shrill takes Lindy’s memoir and builds on it, telling the story of Annie Easton, an upstart writer for a Portland alt-weekly and a gal trying to pursue success and love while simultaneously battling the insidious effects of constant societal side-eye.

The cast is fantastic, with standout performances by the wonderful Julia Sweeney and Daniel Stern as Annie’s parents, Lolly Adefope as her powerhouse roommate Fran, and Luka Jones as Annie’s deadbeat, just-charming-enough boyfriend Ryan. The people who surround Annie inhabit all kinds of bodies and all shades of melanin. Their world feels vibrant and full of everyday joys and disappointments.

Aidy Bryant and Lolly Adefope in Shrill

Aidy Bryant is luminous as Annie — like that flower in E.T. that blooms in fast-forward. It is amazing to watch as a character actively gives herself permission to let go of the self-hate conditioned over a lifetime, to embrace her power and understand that she has worth because of exactly who she is, and not in spite of it. Aidy understands Annie and allows her to be simultaneously sweet and sharp, oppressed and flawed, loving but often selfish, relatable in her insecurities and ever more radiant as her confidence grows.

There are glorious moments all over this show: Annie catching sight of a beautiful, self-assured fat woman and becoming so transfixed that she just starts following her down the street. The incredible body-positive pool party, where Annie dances with absolute freedom amongst a group of women brazenly letting their bellies and their thighs jiggle to the music. There are big transgressive moments, like when Annie goes to get an abortion and feels perfectly fine about it afterwards. And then there are moments that feel radical even though they totally shouldn’t, like watching Annie have sex and flirt and enjoy eating and announce excitedly that she’s going to get candy — all things society says fat people should do in private and not on a mainstream television program.

The lineup of directors is wonderful — Jesse Peretz (who did the pilot, “Annie”), Carrie Brownstein (“The Date”), Andy DeYoung (“Pencil” and, unrelated, the amazing “Posh” episode of PEN15), Gillian Robespierre (“Article”) and Shaka King (“Pool” and “Troll”) — but I can’t help but wish that even one of the show’s six episodes had been directed by a fat person. I realize that the shame Annie carries is resonant to many people (this culture is capable of shaming just about any body, whether it’s for being too fat, too thin, too dark, too pale, too freckled, too weirdly proportioned, or anything outside of the norms dictated by beer commercials) but there is a specificity to the shame Annie carries and someone who knows that particular shame might have brought added dimension to a few of these stories.

The season just flies by. This is in part because it’s only six episodes (Hulu better be getting ready to make a whole lot more of these, because I’m betting demand will be high), but also because a huge amount of story is crammed into these episodes. The show covers so much ground so quickly that it doesn’t allow much time for some of the more powerful moments to build (such as the confrontation in “Troll”) or the thrilling moments to reverberate (like the realization of a mutual crush in “Pencil” and the professional triumphs and personal breakthroughs across the season). But what the show does accomplish in these six episodes is something very special: the airing of thoughts and feelings that have been hiding just under the surface in our culture, and a public service to many who have been unkind to themselves in private for far too long.

Shame eats us up inside, it makes us cruel to ourselves and others, it is the enemy of joy. Shrill gives us a hero whose journey is to actively and purposefully free herself from the hate and doubt that has plagued her for her whole life. A hero who pushes back forcefully against shame itself. Shrill gives us a hero I can look at and proudly say, “it me.”

Megan Griffiths is a writer and director working in film and television. Her latest film, I’ll Show You Mine, starring Poorna Jagannathan and Casey Thomas Brown, opens in theaters on June 23. She has directed episodes of the Duplass Brothers’ Room 104 for HBO, Animal Kingdom for TNT, Prodigal Son for Fox, as well as shows for Netflix, Hulu, Amazon and EPIX. Her most recent feature, Sadie (starring Sophia Mitri Schloss, Melanie Lynskey, John Gallagher Jr, Danielle Brooks and Tony Hale), premiered at SXSW 2018 and is now streaming on Amazon Prime. Her feature work also includes The Night Stalker (starring Lou Diamond Phillips as serial killer Richard Ramirez), Lucky Them (starring Toni Collette, Thomas Haden Church, Oliver Platt and Johnny Depp), Eden (starring Jamie Chung, Matt O’Leary and Beau Bridges) and The Off Hours (starring Amy Seimetz, Ross Partridge and Scoot McNairy). More on Megan can be found at thecinechick.com.