The first time you see Annie, the protagonist of the new Hulu show Shrill, eating, her meal doesn’t look particularly pleasant. Played by SNL cast member Aidy Bryant, Annie grabs a plastic container from the fridge, opening it to reveal three white disks — supposedly pancakes — from a Tupperware labeled “Thin Menu.” While standing in her kitchen, she tries to break off a slab, puts it in her mouth, and wrinkles her nose in disgust. Her roommate, Fran (played by Lolly Adefope), walks by to witness the three doughy pucks, and says, “Good God.”
It’s not the only time Annie eats in her kitchen. Later in the series, Bryant opens a sealed container of leftover spaghetti, standing alone over an island near the sink. She twirls noodles around her fork, grinning in anticipation. She looks confident, blissed out, holding her hand under her chin as a noodle inches toward her lips. She scrunches her eyebrows and crinkles her nose, the perfect opposite of her look of disgust eating the Thin Meal pancakes. She nods and smiles while chewing, enjoying the moment.
The annals of TV are full of stories where women change themselves, from Mad Men’s Peggy Olsen to Eleanor Shellstrop in The Good Place. But Shrill, the six-episode adaptation of writer Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, is a different kind of “transformation” story, starring a fat woman. The show tells the story of Annie, a Portland-based calendar editor for an alt-weekly newspaper, trying to jump start her career, earn the love of Ryan, a painfully oblivious loser, and become a more honest, self-assured person. What Shrill is not is a story of body transformation, of a fat woman getting thin. Although it shows Annie eating diet meals and exercising with her mother, her real goal goes beyond the universal challenge of self-acceptance — she wants to feel powerful, as a fat woman and simply as a woman. She wants to demand respect from the people around her.
Those people often fat-shame Annie, whether it’s her obsessive online troll, her perpetually sneering editor, or an invasive personal trainer who eventually devolves into calling her a “fat bitch.” Still, Annie’s relationship with her body is more nuanced. Her insecurities are more often portrayed in physical details or unspoken interpersonal choices she makes because she feels that, in her words, “there’s a certain way that your body’s supposed to be and I’m not that.”
In media where a woman’s relationship with her body plays its own role, the eating scenes are telling. There are countless movies in which women devour ice cream during break-ups or lonely moments. And for years, when a person of size ate on screen, it was portrayed as comic relief, from Melissa McCarthy consuming a napkin in Spy to a cross-dressing Chris Farley on Saturday Night Live inhaling his friend’s french fries while asking, “Can I have some?”
Even in shows and movies celebrated for their representations of non-normative bodies, eating is reserved for emotional distress. In HBO’s Girls, Hannah Horvath (played by Lena Dunham) is often caught eating during low moments, like when she eats cake with her hands after her purse is stolen on the train. In Real Women Have Curves, it takes a conflict with her mother to get the protagonist, Ana (America Ferrera), to eat a bite of flan in a moment of overall positive defiance. Rarely do fat women get the opportunity to eat happily on screen without some tumult, some churning emotional hang-ups or interpersonal conflict. The exception, of course, is when people of size are shot eating healthy foods, like when the contestants on The Biggest Loser marvel over turkey burgers. But if a not-thin character is caught eating a cupcake, the audience is meant to laugh or cry at their expense.
When Annie eats so-called “indulgent” foods in Shrill, she’s not considered a failure, and it’s not used as a comic device. Instead, it’s often tied to a moment of personal or thematic triumph completely unrelated to her weight. By simply showing Annie eating the foods countless people love in a way that’s empowering, Shrill reinforces the idea that people, regardless of size, have the right to enjoy food in its entirety — not just salads and apples and other pious things, but rather the foods that are seen as permissibly comforting and luxurious for people of a smaller size. Like last year’s hit culinary travel show Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat, Hulu’s new series rewrites the rules for who gets to enjoy food on television.
Annie isn’t the only big millennial woman eating spaghetti on TV. In a scene on Girls, Hannah grabs handfuls of noodles from a takeout box, dangling them into her open mouth. There is an element of watching this scene that feels relatable, especially for anyone who lives alone, but nothing about that moment is sexy or empowering. At its best, it’s a moment of comic relief born out of universality; at its worst, it’s Dunham’s self-ridiculing humor shaming herself — and other women — for eating without control while not thin.
This is far from the only moment when a woman eating sugary, greasy, and otherwise “bad” foods on television works as a boiler-plate scene representing rock bottom. In her essay “Why is it sad and lonely women who turn to chocolate?” Telegraph culture writer Rebecca Hawkes recalls similar moments in romantic comedies, like when Renee Zellweger devours chocolates under a blanket in Bridget Jones’s Diary, or when Sandra Bullock turns to ice cream in Miss Congeniality. “When you look at the trope in more detail, the implication is that eating chocolate is something ‘naughty,’” she writes. “It’s something that (calorie-counting, figure-obsessed) women shouldn’t be doing, but can’t help resorting to in moments of extreme trauma — or simply due to a comedic lack of discipline.” In her essay, Hawkes also brings up another classic plus-sized person comically shamed and punished for their gluttony: Augustus Gloop, the rotund little boy in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, presumably killed for wanting to eat some of the chocolate in a literal river of chocolate — as if anyone wouldn’t.
But still, beyond little boys, beyond thin ladies, it’s plus-size women whose eating is most often used as a thematic example of a psychological and/or personal failure, whether it’s comical or supposedly tragic. “With any overweight, unruly woman, there’s always a tendency to pathologize their relationship with food,” says Kathleen Rowe Karlyn, author of The Unruly Woman: Gender and the Genres of Laughter. “[For] women who dive in to the quart of ice cream or the box of chocolate, food is a source of comfort because life is not giving them other types of comfort.”
If women get fat as a plot device, they’re often shown eating something like pizza, ice cream, chocolate, or other sweets — take, for example, Goldie Hawn gorging herself on frosting post-breakup in Death Becomes Her. If a character appears to get them out of a slump, a chicken wing might be yanked out of their hands. And they won’t reach personal fulfillment until they’re skinny again. Meanwhile, women who are thin and confident — whether it’s Drew Barrymore in Charlie’s Angels, or the titular Gilmore Girls — are free to eat as much as they please, to the delight of all who watch them.
Annie didn’t originally eat the spaghetti. It was made by Fran’s brother, Lamar (Akemnji Ndifornyen), who spends the third episode, “Pencil,” visiting his sister and her roommate. For most of the first few episodes, Annie is busy obsessing over a man (Luka Jones) who is so embarrassed by her that he sends her out the back door of his apartment so his roommates can’t see her. On their first date, she eats a salad. When she arrives home after Ryan has stood her up, Lamar and Fran offer her the spaghetti. She turns it down.
Lamar, a chef, spends the episode quietly fawning over Annie. When he arrives, he gives her a box of chocolate turtles, an elaborate reference to a memory from their past. He lights up when she enters the room. And later, when she comes back after choosing not to see Ryan, he admits that he likes her, and that he always did. After they have sex, Annie tiptoes downstairs to the kitchen, where she finds the pasta he made. The scene is romantic and almost sexy, in a totally subtle, maybe even unintentional way. He didn’t make the pasta for her, specifically, but it was made by him.
But beyond the romantic arc of Annie and Lamar, the scene’s impact comes directly from what it means for her, in her path to self-respect: she’s giving herself what she wants and deserves, on her own terms. And the bewildered delight in her face as she eats is so contagiously joyful that the context of her weight becomes irrelevant.
Beyond the men in her life, one of Annie’s most fraught relationships is with her mother, Vera (played by Julia Sweeney), who’s responsible for the Thin Menu meals. During a pivotal rant, when Annie describes the ways the people around her have made her size seem like a moral failing, she says, “At this point, I could be a licensed fucking nutritionist because I’ve literally been training for it since the fourth grade, which is the first time that my mom said that I should just eat a bowl of Special K and not the dinner that she made for everyone else so I might be a little bit smaller.” One of Annie’s most significant plot developments with her mother, when she pushes back against her health policing, starts with a meal of meatball subs with her father. And when the season ends, we leave Vera lying on the ground with a bag of chips, suggesting that Annie’s number one advice giver also needs respite from controlling everything.
“Whether they’re very curvy like Mae West or they’re slender, I think what we haven’t seen in a long time is the ability of women just to be seen enjoying food,” Karlyn says. “Food is enjoyable (to women), not because they’re neurotic, not because they’re crazy, not because they’re sex-obsessed, just because food is a natural pleasure of life.” That’s how Shrill treats food, but also most of life’s joys: dancing at a party, swimming in a pool, having sex, being honest. Counter to the ways television and movies have previously presented plus-size women, as victims of their own lack of self-control, Shrill shows how restrictive life as a plus-size woman can be, and how often that’s a direct result of their self control. Shrill seems to be advocating for more self-designated freedom for fat women — the freedom to live with abandon. As Annie says, lying in bed and taking charge, “I’ve got big titties and a fat ass — I make the rules.”
Brooke Jackson-Glidden is the editor of Eater Portland.
Edited by: Greg Morabito