The final season of "Shrill" unpacks internalized fatphobia and the "smaller body, bigger life" myth

While not as triumphant as last season, the comedy's final run offers a realistic view on building self-esteem

By Ashlie D. Stevens
Published May 8, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)
Shrill (Hulu)
Shrill (Hulu)

In the first episode of the third and final season of Hulu's "Shrill," Annie (Aidy Bryant) immediately tumbles into the weird, wild world of modern dating following her much-needed breakup with Ryan (Luka Jones). One of her first attempts is with a man who, after suffering from a bizarre ejaculation issue and subsequently trying to go down on her with barbecue sauce-covered fingers, locks himself in the bathroom weeping. 

After he begs her, through sobs, not to leave, Annie ends up sleeping in the hallway next to the locked door. The next morning, as her date hands her a plastic container full of leftover barbecue ribs (!), she asks him if dating is always this bad. Oh no, he assures her, this was exceptionally bad. 

That moment of near-surrealism is quickly grounded, however, when Annie goes to the gynecologist. Annie's regular doctor is out, and the substitute, Dr. Montevista — a slim, brisk woman — conducts Annie's pap smear and then, without ceremony, suggests that she consider bariatric surgery. 

"But we didn't do, like, any bloodwork or anything today," Annie says. "Isn't that something that maybe you should look at before you recommend major surgery?" 

"I don't need to do bloodwork to know that your overall health will be improved by losing weight," Dr. Montevista responds, handing her a pamphlet titled "Smaller Body, Bigger Life." 

While Annie's date the night prior may have been unusually horrible, as anyone who is or has been overweight knows, Dr. Montevista's actions are unfortunately par for the course. Will that ever change? Hopefully, especially as the wider public becomes more educated about health at every size, body positivity and body neutrality movements. 

But in a final season that largely centers on ideas of personal growth and closure, "Shrill" excels at showing how accepting your body —and saying that you deserve a bigger life, regardless of your size — is a start-and-stop process with some occasional missteps, something that mirrors the pacing of the third season as whole. 

The weird date combined with the Dr. Montevista narrative very smartly mirrors the "Shrill" pilot, in which she has unfulfilling sex with Ryan and then runs into a personal trainer who tells Annie that she is actually "very small-boned" and that there is a small person inside her just dying to get out. 

The trainer (who later calls Annie a "fat bitch" when she refuses her services) doesn't even account for the fact that Annie's health goals could have nothing to do with weight loss. That she might want to work with her to get stronger or train for a specific goal like a 5K race. She looks at Annie and assumes that she would want to change her physical appearance. 

People in positions of relative authority — this trainer, the doctor, her boss and, to some extent, her mother —  judging Annie's health by her weight is a persistent theme throughout the series' three seasons, which both rings true to life and inevitably impacts Annie's sense of self-worth (i.e. dating someone like Ryan who forces her to leave through the back gate after they're done having sex because he's embarrassed to be seen with her). 

This new season shows how far Annie has come in terms of accepting and loving her body. She pushes back against Dr. Montevista, ultimately writing a scathing piece about her in the alt-weekly "The Thorn," and enjoys the prospect of having sex with, as she puts it jokingly, "lots of nasty boys." 

Where she used to insist upon having sex with a bra on, as we saw in her first season encounters with Ryan, there's this fantastic moment in Episode 7 – by far the best episode this season — where she's on a beach vacation with her new love interest, Will (Cameron Britton), and she confidently takes off all her clothes in front of him to take a plunge into the nearby hot tub. He, of course, delightedly follows suit and, as viewers, it's fulfilling to watch Annie be with someone who recognizes and fully appreciates her hotness, especially after seeing her go through the relationship with Ryan which she describes in this season as "devaluing." 

However, a lifetime of judgment from others about her appearance and said devaluing relationship have also impacted how Annie feels about fat people – both herself and others. Midway through the season, "Shrill" unpacks the concept of internalized fatphobia with a tremendous amount of nuance. When her close friend and coworker Amadi (Ian Owens) sets Annie up with Will, she initially balks at the pairing because she thinks that Amadi just thought they should date because they are both fat, when in reality, he just thought they'd hit it off because they're both smart and funny. 

As a result, she does and says some really hurtful things on her date with Will with which she has to reckon as she unpacks her thoughts about the connection or lack thereof between weight and worth as a sexual or romantic partner. 

Alongside this, we see Annie try to push past just being seen as only a "fat writer" in her professional sphere. While her piece, "Hello, I'm Fat" in the first season broke traffic records at "The Thorn," as did her subsequent piece taking down Dr. Montevista, she wants to take on assignments where her or others' weight isn't the central throughline. 

This lands Annie in some ethical trouble when she snaps up an assignment about a white nationalist separatist family whom she describes as "charming, but racist." That narrative arc raises the apt question: "Can I do or make something where my weight isn't the central focus?" 

It's an interesting question to toggle with as we're talking about "Shrill" itself because creator Lindy West, who wrote the real "Hello, I'm Fat" article for the "The Stranger" in 2011, and Bryant are using Annie's weight and struggle with self-worth to subvert the "Smaller Body, Bigger Life" line of thinking. 

However, they make it clear that the road to self-acceptance is not all "Fat Babe Pool Parties" and, as the stripper in the first season put it, having a "fat ass and big titties so you can tell men what to do." 

Season 2 of "Shrill" ended with Annie making the bold decision to break up with Ryan. Fireworks erupt behind her and, as Annie's face glows in their light, the whole thing feels triumphant. The series finale, however, is decidedly more somber. Annie and her best friend Fran (Lolly Adefope) have both made decisions that put their relationships in peril because of their respective insecurities. 

As they console each other, they realize that in order for things to change in their lives, they will have to change their internal selves. While perhaps not the euphoric ending "Shrill" fans would want for Annie — and while Aidy Bryant has stated in interviews that she originally wanted "Shrill" to run for four seasons — it's one of the most realistic meditations on self-esteem I've seen on television. 

In a world where our exterior appearance is conflated with our health and worth, the concepts of both closure and self-acceptance can feel like moving targets. 

All three seasons of "Shrill" are streaming on Hulu.


Ashlie D. Stevens

Ashlie D. Stevens is a staff writer at Salon, specializing in culture and food.

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Aidy Bryant Body Acceptance Commentary Fatphobia Hulu Lindy West Shrill Tv