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In 'Shrill,' Lindy West Made The Body Positive Show That She Never Had

Mar 14, 2019
Originally published on March 14, 2019 7:11 pm

Lindy West did not set out to make an after school special. The new Hulu show Shrill, based on her 2016 memoir about being feminist and body positive, is not "all about the message," she says.

"The reality of being a fat person isn't that every moment of your life is about being fat," she says. "It's that you're trying to live the same kind of complicated, exciting, fun, beautiful, difficult life as everyone else."

The only problem, West says, is that at every turn, society says "you should apologize for just living in your body."

SNL's Aidy Bryant plays West's character in the show. "Annie" is not exactly Lindy, but there are some obvious parallels, like being an aspiring writer at an alternative weekly newspaper in the Pacific Northwest.

When West was writing her memoir, she'd ask herself one question whenever she got lost or stuck: "What's the book that I needed to read when I was younger?" That was the guiding principle for West and Bryant as they shaped the screen adaptation, too: "Aidy and I just said over and over ... We're going to make the show that we needed when we were younger."


Interview Highlights

On the notion that there's a small person "inside" every fat person

I've had variations of that said to me my whole life. ... That's what diet culture advertising is all about — that there is this small person inside of you waiting to be unleashed ... that my body is a prison for a smaller, more important person. ... It's really hard to have a good comeback in the moment when you're being emotionally abused by a stranger, so it's nice to redo that with a writers' room.

On resisting diet culture

It's such a hard transition to sort of wrench your head out of diet culture. We're really taught from birth that the only way to have a good life is to have this one certain kind of body. And people spend their whole lives, you know, struggling to attain that one specific shape. ... I still feel the pull of that. ... I broke through that wall a long time ago and built the life that I want for myself in this body that I have — this fat body — and I can still feel it pulling on me. ...

You don't see fat people being happy on TV. If there's a fat character on TV they are sad. They're trying to lose weight, or they're having a makeover montage, or they get whacked over the head and believe that they're beautiful because it's a delusion. You know it can't just be a sincere truth. - Lindy West

This is why we made the show. You don't see fat people being happy on TV. If there's a fat character on TV they are sad. They're trying to lose weight, or they're having a makeover montage, or they get whacked over the head and believe that they're beautiful because it's a delusion. You know it can't just be a sincere truth.

On depicting an abortion on the show

Obviously there are all kinds of abortion stories and people have all different kinds of experiences. ... We really wanted to tell this sort of smaller, not-sensationalized, true story about a person who ... was pregnant who didn't want to be pregnant and had access to her constitutionally protected right and exercised it. You know, that's a really simple, really common story.

I think the way that we do talk about abortion in media — when we talk about it at all ... is as this sort of high-drama moment. ... It meant a lot to me to get to put this abortion onscreen in such ... an honest and small way, where, you know, it's a big moment in her life, but not because she's conflicted about the procedure.

On sharing personal stories in the writers' room

It [was] super collaborative in the writers' room. It is such a personal, vulnerable show that, yeah, there was a lot of sharing and, you know, commiserating and kind of beautiful cathartic moments. ...

Especially the men really, like, couldn't believe that some of these things had been said to us. Especially when we would talk about the way we've been treated in relationships ... they were just very disturbed and astonished. ... It's not just that these things happened to us one time, but they were like a normal part of dating in our 20s. ...

Society really does not teach young men how to value plus-size women. And it's rough, man. I think that's part of what we wanted to do with the show — was make that experience accessible to people who maybe don't really understand quite how cruel it can be.

West says swimming is "the greatest of all the human activities" and she mourns the many years that she avoided it because she felt bad about her body. Above, Annie (Aidy Bryant) attends the Fat Babe Pool Party.
Allyson Riggs / Hulu

On the "Fat Babe Pool Party" scene

[Fat Babe Pool Parties are] a real thing in multiple cities — there are these body positive pool parties because for generations fat people have been told not to go swimming. ...

We shot it at this gorgeous country club outside of Portland and it was a two-day shoot. And the great thing about shooting a Fat Babe Pool Party for two days at a gorgeous country club is that you have to throw a Fat Babe Pool Party for two days at a gorgeous country club. ... I was just weeping every day because it was so beautiful. ...

I'm so excited for people to see this show — especially the pool party — and to feel that little sort of tickle of recognition ... That's me. That's what I look like.

On hoping the show helps young women feel good about their bodies

Obviously things are different now than they were 10 years ago when I was going through this process. There is a lot more body diversity on screen and there's a lot more open conversation about this stuff in the media. So probably these ideas aren't as new to young people now as they were to me. ... But I do hope that that message makes it to people and resonates with people. If it changes one person's life a little tiny bit, I'm so, so, so glad.

Sam Gringlas and Sarah Handel produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A few years ago, Lindy West released a memoir called "Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman." The new TV show "Shrill" takes some liberties with that book. It is set in Portland, not Seattle. And the main character Annie is not exactly Lindy, despite the parallels like a job at an alternative weekly newspaper and a world that tries to shame her for being fat. Aidy Bryant of "Saturday Night Live" helped West create the show. She stars as Annie, dealing in this scene with a boss who just doesn't get it.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHRILL")

AIDY BRYANT: (As Annie) I heard about this pool party, and it's all about inclusivity and...

JOHN CAMERON MITCHELL: (As Gabe) I hate that word.

BRYANT: (As Annie) ...Celebrating larger bodies. And they sent it to the calendar, but I think it could be a cool story.

MITCHELL: (As Gabe) Bodies in a pool - that's not a story, Annie.

BRYANT: (As Annie) OK, but it actually is about a lot more than that. It's about people feeling comfortable in their own skin.

MITCHELL: (As Gabe) The last thing we need is everybody feeling comfortable in their own skin. That would be the '70s.

SHAPIRO: Lindy West, welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

LINDY WEST: Thank you for having me.

SHAPIRO: What's it like to see someone else play a version of you?

WEST: I mean, it's great.

SHAPIRO: Really?

WEST: Well, honestly because you can kind of, you know, you can work out all your grudges and your resentments against everyone you've ever met except with this plausible deniability because it's fictional.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: I actually wondered about that. I wondered whether it was more cathartic to see, like, a great comedic actress give these snappy one-liner responses that you wish you would come up with in the moment when you were having the real-life version of that interaction.

WEST: Oh, absolutely. To some degree, there's a chance to do these do-overs, you know, and say exactly the perfect thing that you didn't think of.

SHAPIRO: Is there an example of that from the show that you can give me?

WEST: I mean, really every moment.

(LAUGHTER)

SHAPIRO: Let's take an example from the very first episode...

WEST: OK.

SHAPIRO: ...Where Aidy Bryant, who plays your character, is in a coffee shop looking at an ad for a personal trainer. And she's snapping a photo. And that very personal trainer comes up behind her, and they have this conversation.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHRILL")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) You actually have a really small frame. There is a small person inside of you dying to get out.

BRYANT: (As Annie) Oh, well, I hope that small person's OK in there.

WEST: That's actually something that happened to Aidy, specifically the - a person on the street coming up and grabbing her wrist and saying, look at the circumference of your wrist. It's so small. You're really meant to be a small person. And, of course, I mean, I've had variations of that said to me my whole life. I mean, it's really hard to have a good comeback in the moment when you're being emotionally abused by a stranger. So it's nice to redo that with a writers room.

SHAPIRO: Did it turn into a kind of like sharing of stories and incorporating everybody's experiences into what we ended up seeing in this show?

WEST: Yeah, absolutely. It's super collaborative in the writers room. And it is such a personal, vulnerable show that, yeah, there was a lot of sharing and, you know, kind of beautiful cathartic moments in the writers room.

SHAPIRO: And was it a moment of, like, I can't believe someone actually said that to you, or was it more often, oh, yeah, people have said the same thing to me?

WEST: Well, there's a divide, right? I mean, there were the fat writers and the not-fat writers. And all the fat writers were like, yeah, obviously. And then the skinny writers were like, oh, my God.

SHAPIRO: Yeah.

WEST: Like, especially the men were really like - couldn't believe that, you know, that some of these things had been said to us. And I think that's part of what we wanted to do with the show was, you know, make that experience accessible to people who maybe don't really understand quite how cruel it can be.

SHAPIRO: Well, tell me about the conversations you had about the stories you wanted this show to tell because obviously a lot of it is the experience of going through life as a fat person, a fat woman of a certain age dating, working. But there's also more than that. What were the stories that you sat in that room and said, this is what we want to convey?

WEST: Well, you know, we didn't want to make a show about being fat. You know, the whole point of expanding representation is to tell fully realized three-dimensional human stories. And the reality of being a fat person isn't that every moment of your life is about being fat. It's that you're trying to live the same kind of complicated, exciting, fun, beautiful, difficult life as everyone else. And then on top of it, you have this extra sort of external pressure from the world telling you that there's something wrong with you and that you should apologize for just living in your body. So it was really important to me that we had an abortion in there.

SHAPIRO: I don't know that I had ever seen an abortion depicted on screen without it being like a very special episode of a very dramatic TV show.

WEST: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there's really something valuable in portraying abortion maybe a little more faithfully to the way it actually functions in people's lives. Obviously there are all kinds of abortion stories, and people have all different kinds of experiences, and some of them are traumatic and regret it. There are all kinds of stories out there. But we really wanted to tell this sort of smaller true story where, you know, it's a big moment in her life but not because she's conflicted about the procedure. It's a big moment in her life because of all the other things in her life.

SHAPIRO: The Hulu tagline for this show is that it's about a fat young woman who wants to change her life but not her body. And I realize that might not have been a line that you ever wrote. But in the first scene, she's trying to choke down some inedible diet pancakes that her mother bought for her. And there is clearly some conflict in this character about whether to jump on the you-should-look-different bandwagon.

WEST: Oh, yeah. I mean, of course. It's such a hard transition to sort of wrench your head out of diet culture. You know, I still feel the pull of that. And I broke through that wall a long time ago and built the life that I want for myself in this body that I have, this fat body. And this is why we made the show. You don't see fat people being happy on TV, you know.

SHAPIRO: Yeah. Yeah.

WEST: If there's a fat character on TV, they are sad. They're trying to lose weight or they're having a makeover montage.

SHAPIRO: This is a perfect segue way to talk about the scene that I think is going to have the biggest impact of this entire show. I don't remember ever seeing anything on TV like it, which is the swimming pool scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHRILL")

BRYANT: (As Annie) I'm just having so much fun.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: I'm having the time of my life.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: Good. That's what this is all about.

BRYANT: (As Annie) I know. And, like, I've met so many people. And I'm honestly thinking about buying a crop top, which I got to say was not in the cards for me before. But I just got to get in that pool.

SHAPIRO: We should explain this is a pool party just for fat women.

WEST: Yeah. It's called Fat Babe Pool Party. And this is a real thing. In multiple cities there are these sort of body positive pool parties because, for generations, fat people have been told not to go swimming, which is very, very cruel. So we - it was I think very clear as soon as the idea came up, everyone could just see that set piece in their mind. And the great thing about shooting a Fat Babe Pool Party for two days at a gorgeous country club is that you have to throw a Fat Babe Pool Party for two dats at a gorgeous country club. And, you know, it just had such a great vibe. I just got an email the other day from a woman who was there that she had made a bunch of friends there and they were having a reunion to watch the show, which is so sweet.

SHAPIRO: Wow.

WEST: So yeah, it was really, really, really special.

SHAPIRO: You've talked about how part of your path to accepting your body was looking at images of fat women, and this show is putting a lot of those images out there in the world. Do you think or hope that this show can help do for other people what that experience of looking at photos online did for you?

WEST: One thousand percent. And, you know, when I wrote the book, I always said, if I ever kind of got lost, I would just think, OK, what's the book that I needed to read when I was younger? And then when we made the show, Aidy and I just said over and over, this is the show. We're going to make the show that we needed when we were younger. And if it changes one person's life a little tiny bit, I'm so, so, so glad, so grateful.

SHAPIRO: Lindy West, it's been great talking with you. Thank you.

WEST: Thank you so much.

SHAPIRO: She is one of the creators of the new program "Shrill" on Hulu. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.