When was the last time you saw a TV show starring a plus-sized character, whose role was more than subsidiary and characterized by more than being deeply unhappy with their weight? Somehow, the concept of Lindy West’s Shrill is revolutionary, as West is well aware; from the start, she set out to make the series unlike anything she'd ever seen when she was a kid (or, for that matter, as an adult). The show's six episodes, which premiered on Hulu on Friday, star Aidy Bryant as a self-described "fat" person who (by the end of the series, anyway) is entirely at peace with that. (She's also at peace with getting an abortion, which the show welcomely depicts not as a major plot point, but as a fact of life.)
It’s refreshing to hear West’s voice, which has been loud and clear on the internet for several years now, in the space of TV. (She was formerly a staff writer for Jezebel, and is currently a columnist for the New York Times.) And while those interested in topics like feminism and fatphobia may have listened the most intently, West's voice has apparently been loudest to a whole different group: That of the internet's cruelest trolls. Ahead of the show's premiere in Portland, West opened up about how she's been able to weather "thousands and thousands and thousands of abusive comments" she still gets to this day, plus Bryant's influence on the show, in her culture diet, here.
Why is Shrill the show that you needed when you were younger?
Especially in Hollywood, there’s really almost no diversity in terms of body size. When I was growing up, there were no stories on TV about girls having any kind of a life outside of a weight loss narrative, and it really makes it hard to conceive of anything outside of that when you’re growing up and trying to figure out who you are if you aren't presented with any counter examples. It would have meant so much to me as a teenager to get to watch a show about a young, fun, funny, happy, dynamic fat girl who has relationships and friendships and aspirations and cute clothes and a real, full life. It’s not without challenges, but it isn’t only about being miserable because she’s too fat and trying to change her body so that she can have a good life. The idea that I could have a good life in the body that I have was never expressed to me, so I hope that that message gets through to young people—and especially to young women.
Right—I was surprised, actually, how comparatively late any mention was made to Annie's body.
Absolutely. There’s so much more to Annie than her body, and that’s the point of the show.
How and when did Aidy Bryant get involved?
I sold the option to Brownstone, Elizabeth Banks’s production company, a few months after the book came out, in the summer of 2016, and then the following January, in 2017, Aidy heard about it and reached out to say she was interested—which was a dream come true. We were just over the moon about that, because she was by far our first choice, and she also wanted to be part of the creative team, working on the writing and development of the show. She was still at SNL then, and it took forever because we had to figure out her contract, but eventually, we revamped the outline with Aidy’s input. We worked together really closely, the whole way through.
What was the rest of the writers room like? Was it all women?
We weren’t all women, and we weren’t all fat. There were a lot of moments of shock—I think, anyway—especially from the two male writers we had. They seemed to be scandalized by some of the stories of how we’ve been treated. You know, I think it’s easy to be aware that we live in a fat-phobic society and that people are cruel to fat people, but it’s an abstraction until you actually ask fat people what our experiences are, and what that actually feels like to be stigmatized to be mistreated on a systemic level.
So, there were definitely some revelatory moments for the dudes in the room, but also, I think everyone can certainly relate to feeling like an outsider at times, to feeling like people don’t understand you and aren’t taking care of you in the way that you need. And I mean every single human being—even straight, cisgender white guys have body standards pushed on them. Not to the same degree as women, but we have standards of beauty for men, too, that I’m sure men are aware of throughout their lives. There’s a certain male body type that you’re supposed to strive for, just like you’re supposed to strive for a female body type. So I think there was a lot of learning in the room, but also, it was really cathartic and special to be able to build the story with such a smart team, and to bring everyone’s experiences and perspectives into it.
There are definitely similarities, but you've already had to remind people quite a few times that the series isn't fully true to life. Was it painful to relive some of the things that you have experienced, though, like the comments from trolls?
I can’t say it was painful to relive it, because I’ve processed it so much at this point in my life that I feel, like, nothing. [Laughs.] I’ve read thousands and thousands and thousands of abusive troll comments. I’m very, very good at not letting them get to me. But there is something sad about doing it to a character you care about. Having to write those comments myself and be the troll is very sad. Every day we were working on that storyline, it was like a reminder of how unfair it is that women who work on the internet are expected to just suffer through really extreme torment and abuse, and how little people are doing to fix it, and how little tech companies are invested in actually protecting their users. I mean, that’s always on my mind, but yeah, definitely having to construct this narrative from scratch about Annie making her first foray into this online culture was a really depressing place to go back to.
Especially since you've since deleted Twitter, I'm sure.
I’m not going to search my name on Twitter after making this show, you know, because it’s gonna be really bleak. Because people are invested in maintaining this world where women strive to be thin and small and quiet and compliant. And as much as I believe in [Shrill's] message, I have to just accept that I’m going to be tortured for it. Which sucks, you know? [Laughs.] But luckily I’m not Twitter anymore, so they can’t get me.
Do you still look at Twitter at all?
I mean, I don’t spend time searching my name on Twitter. That’s a dark pastime. But I’m still on Instagram.
Well, getting into the culture diet questions, what are your favorite accounts to follow on there?
I love to follow any cat. I can’t have one because I’m allergic, so I’m obsessed with online cats because they make me swell up and die.
What’s the first thing that you read in the morning?
My emails, to see which deadlines I’m behind on and who’s mad at me.
What books are on your bedside table right now?
I’m writing a book, so I haven’t been able to read anything in a million years. I can’t think of the last book I read—it’s really depressing. My book is due a week from now, so all I do is toil in my office all day.
Wait, the whole series twice?
Well, I was like… You know, yeah. [Laughs.] It was very bad. I fell into a procrastination hole (thanks to PEN15). Though to be fair, the second watch through I was trying to work at the same time. But really, that was the only fun thing that I’ve done in months.
What’s the last song you had on repeat?
This is such a weird answer. [Laughs.] I don’t know if it’s like… I’ve been only able to listen to women lately because, uh, I’m depressed by the behavior of men. but there’s something so witchy and perfect and outside of culture about Kate Bush and I’ve been listening to "Wuthering Heights" over and over and over. I open Spotify and I’m like, I’m going to listen to a song that’s not "Wuthering Heights", and they’re like, "You’ve been listening to 'Wuthering Heights a lot lately,' and offer it to me, and I’m like, Yeah, I have, and I click it again.
I’ve been thinking about that song a lot, too, actually—she’s amazing.
Last thing: What’s the last thing you do before you go to bed?
Umm… I don’t know, take a Zantac? No, what’s a cool answer? Check my email.
Zantac is definitely cooler than email.
Yeah, let's do it. Tell everyone about my heartburn. [Laughs.]