When author Lindy West first shopped her best-selling 2016 essay collection Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman around Hollywood, she did so alone. The former Jezebel blogger-turned- New York Times opinion writer had never stepped foot on a studio lot before she walked all by herself into one of the most body-image-obsessed industries in the world.
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“So, I am a fat lady, and I deserve respect,” she said recently, recalling her mindset on this solo mission. “Here’s a list of all the horrible things men have done to me.”
In an increasingly progressive Hollywood, where cruel jokes about race, sexuality, and gender feel increasingly verboten, punching down at fat people—especially fat women—feels like one of the final bullying frontiers.“Fat is normally one of the bad words, toxic in its blunt monosyllabic force,” Annalisa Quinn wrote in her 2016 Guardian review of West’s book. “Fat can’t be argued with: it is not just an aesthetic condemnation (You’re ugly), it’s a moral condemnation (You’re lazy).”
Three years later, the fictionalized TV version of West’s life is about to premiere , on Hulu—and West has spent the last several months promoting its imminent arrival, while also watching Hollywood get comfortable with its existence. This winter, Hulu senior V.P. of original programming Craig Erwich stood in front of a sea of reporters at the show’s Television Critics Association press tour and, flinchingly, said the forbidden f-word: “fat.” West smiled. Later, when a journalist opened the day’s Q&A by challenging West about the abortion plotline that kicks off the first season of Shrill, the author—now an executive producer—smiled even wider. “I was like, fuck yeah,” she told me later, triumphantly, “Are you uncomfortable? Good. Let’s do it.”
When all six episodes of Shrill premiere on Friday, they will bring some—though not all—of West’s most uncomfortable experiences to life. Still, the usually brash writer is terrified of one specific thing: reviews. “If karma is real, I am fucked. I’m a very mean critic. Really mean to an unwarranted degree,” she said. In her twenties, West was the film editor of Seattle’s alt-weekly newspaper The Stranger; at the time, she said, she was desperate to be funny, and defaulted to what she called a very brutal critical voice. But then, West is also used to criticism. She has absorbed toxic abuse from online trolls for years, which she both wrote about in Shrill and, memorably, recounted to Ira Glass in one of the most arresting episodes in This American Life ’s run.
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Should reviews treat West’s first foray into television unkindly, at least the author won’t have to take those blows on her own. Partway through Shrill’s progression from page to screen, West was joined in the creative process by both S.N.L. mainstay Aidy Bryant —who plays a fictionalized version of West named Annie on the series—and Elizabeth Banks, who serves as an executive producer.
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No longer being the only fat woman in the room was a relief for West.“Aidy and I, particularly, had to go into these pitches and talk about really personal and really painful things in our lives,” she said. West and Bryant’s willingness to lay themselves bare ultimately proved a pull for TV execs looking for new voices. “If you’re making yourself vulnerable,” West observed, “People want to come closer to you.”
Fans looking for an exact replica of West in her TV counterpart may be surprised to see some of the more acerbic edges of the writer’s trademark style rounded off, creating a character who is an amalgamation of West, Bryant, and Samantha Irby, the Shrill staffer West refers to as “our other fat writer.” When asked if she felt she had to compromise at all to craft a more “likable” version of herself for television, West shrugged.
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“My priority has always been to make a good show, and to get some version of this story on television,” she said. “I don’t feel territorial about making sure that everything is exactly true to my life.”
Some of the vicious things that have actually happened to West, she said, were too brutal and dehumanizing to be believed on the small screen. “I had a dude break up with me while we were having sex,” she remembered, her mouth twisting up slightly. She launched into an impression: “’Oh, I met someone and, yeah, we’re dating now. So this is over. Just F.Y.I.’” West pushed the painful memory back down as she smoothed out her dress and gestured at the luxurious, sun-bathed surroundings of the five-star hotel Hulu was footing the bill for.
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“And where are they now?” she asked with a smirk.
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Though West insisted that Annie is a stronger character for being crafted by multiple fat women’s perspectives, she also said that she, Irby, and Bryant sometimes had a hard time convincing their fellow writers, especially the men on staff, that the personal anecdotes they were sharing were completely true: “The depth of the cruelty that was so normal to me, Sam, and Aidy was shocking to them. It was kind of sweet. It was like, aw, do you think that everyone’s nice?”
And though this fictionalized version of West is softer, the circumstances of her story—including a sick father played with tender charm by Daniel Stern and an editor boss brought to life with sneering, scenery-chewing gusto by John Cameron Mitchell —are very much West’s. Mitchell’s snarky turn, in particular, prompts a lot of questions about West’s old boss, the former editor in chief of The Stranger, Dan Savage.
“It’s really not Dan,” she said laughingly of Mitchell’s performance. “I’m not into revenge art. I think that Dan’s made some really important contributions to humanity, and I have no interest in having a feud. The important part is just the dynamic. She has this contentious relationship with a boss that she also really admires. She’s desperate for his approval—he’s this other unattainable relationship.” West conceded that Mitchell’s fictional Gabe and Savage do share a few traits. “He has these notions about fat people that he thinks are kind of progressive in this weird way, and she is correcting him. That is true to my relationship with Dan.”
Mitchell’s character may have been tweaked to distance him from Savage, but other changes were made to protect West herself. Scenes between Bryant’s Annie and Stern as her father originally contained actual dialogue from West’s life: “I was sitting in video village and was like, ‘Oh, I have made a mistake. I cannot watch these people act out my real, lived relationship with my perfect dad.’” West wound up cutting the lines
What remained was the real agony—the sort often truncated for TV—of watching someone you adore slowly waste away. West has said that the unwavering support of her father, who died in 2011, was the source of much of her confidence, and this particular illness subplot “collides with Annie’s narcissism. Annie is having this body-positive journey, which is all well and good and very important, but people are dying over here. You know what I mean? And that was important to me, too.”
So while West was happy to compromise and collaborate over some aspects of Annie’s personality, the illness story line was a battle she was unwilling to lose. The same went for sex. While Annie’s relationship with Luka Jones’s immature Ryan may be difficult, their sex life itself isn’t the punch line
“I always think about—this is a stupid reference—the movie Road Trip, ” West said, recalling Todd Phillips’s 2000 gross-out comedy about the sexual misadventures of four college friends. A scene involving the very slim actor DJ Qualls holding up his recent conquest’s giant pair of underwear was played for laughs in the movie’s ad campaign. “I have giant underwear,” West remembered thinking at the time. “I guess I’m a joke.”
West called out the myth that no one is sexually attracted to fat women. “If men have some kind of problem with the women that they’re attracted to, that’s their problem,” she said. “If you’re embarrassed by what you’re into, go get some therapy. That’s not my fucking problem.” When it comes to film and TV, West struggled to conjure an example of sexually active fat people who aren’t played for laughs or as some thin protagonist’s shame. “Fat people just never have sex,” she said with a sigh
It was equally important to West that the series show Ryan mistreating Annie, as he does in the very first episode when he asks her to sneak out the back of his place so his roommates don’t see her. Here, again, the male writers on Shrill couldn’t believe what they were hearing. “When Sam, Aidy, and I were talking about dating and stuff, and the ways that men had treated us like garbage, these dudes were like, ‘I would never treat my princess like that.’”
“I wasn’t anyone’s fucking princess,” she said to me. “I was some trash that they thought they didn’t have to take care of. You know what I mean? I was like a placeholder until someone better came along. . . . I don’t know how to talk about this.” For the first time in a day full of well-crafted rejoinders, she was at a loss for words. West, who has been married to musician Ahamefule J. Oluo since 2015, stared into the distance before continuing
“I was a secret when I was way younger, I would not—we’re not doing that anymore,” she said
It’s impossible to talk about the treatment of female bodies on television in the Peak TV era without talking about Lena Dunham’s work on Girls. Dunham herself has explained time and time again that neither she nor her fictional counterpart, Hannah Horvath, were ever actually fat: “I’m 5-foot-3 and 150 pounds,” she told the Daily Mail in 2015. “That is literally, I think, statistically the average American female body.” Still, seeing Dunham’s naked body on HBO was a revolution in its own right when Girls premiered in 2012
“Whatever you think of Lena Dunham, I’m really grateful to her for the way that she used her body on Girls, ” West said. “She doesn’t get enough credit for that. This is not a blanket defense of every single thing she’s ever said and done, and she’s not remotely fat. But to present her body in that way, in such an unapologetic, visible way, it just really had not been done. People were really abusive and horrible about it. They were so angry, and you can tell that that means something, if people are that angry.”
Not much has changed since Dunham’s naked body sparked so much anger seven years ago. As West points out, the options for who could play Annie were extremely limited; Bryant was her first choice, she said, but also, where else could she turn? Rebel Wilson was too Australian. Melissa McCarthy is not in her twenties, Joy Nash already had a job on the since-canceled Dietland. That was basically the end of the list. “We all have different shaped bodies [in real life], and the only bodies we see on TV are on The Bachelor, ” said West. “We see the same body over and over and over and over, and that’s the body that you’re allowed to have if you wanna have a good life. Like, yeah, sure, we can talk about all the strides that we’ve made, but come on. I know what every single woman on TV looks like.”
West’s thoughts on female bodies also extend beyond size. It was crucial to her that Shrill begin with an abortion story line that comes even before Bryant’s good-hearted Annie has a chance to make any kind of impression on audiences. You don’t have to already know this character, West argues, to be O.K. with her abortion. “I don’t have to make you fall in love with this person so that you think that they deserve privacy and bodily autonomy. They just do, and they do right away, within the first 30 minutes of you meeting them,” she said
Annie’s abortion, like the one West had in real life, is elective and nontraumatic. It serves as an empowering moment for Bryant’s character. “It’s an important turning point in her life,” West said. “She is in this process of growing up and realizing that she can make proactive decisions for herself that make her life better. She’s been a doormat, and letting people mistreat her because she doesn’t think she deserves any better. Because that’s what she’s been taught about her body.”
West’s Shrill is also more overtly joyful about her protagonist’s body, as when Annie attends a pool party in the first season’s fourth episode. “Oh my god, fat people, just go swimming!” West said, laughing, before diving into how “small” fat people make their lives when they’re afraid to go outside and be judged by onlookers. West herself didn’t go swimming for years, and called being cruel to fat people a “recreational pastime.” If you don’t make fun of them to their face, she said, you probably still make fun of them with you friends
The fear of being mocked for eating (anything!), for going to the gym, for wearing the wrong thing, is a largely silent fear that has kept many fat people ashamed and invisible. But West is done with silence, and hopes passionately that Shrill might encourage other similarly bruised women to accept themselves and come out of hiding. Writing a best-selling book about all this is one thing, but coming for Hollywood—ground zero for many a body-image issue—is another
“Making this kind of radical argument for body inclusivity and representation, and saying to people who make television that it’s O.K. to be fat and that it’s time for a fat woman to be the hero in her own story and not be the sidekick,” West said beaming, “was really validating. It felt different than the world that I grew up in. It was really exciting.”
And while Hulu’s version of Shrill may not be quite the confrontational cri de coeur West’s book was, that seems by design. “Even if it’s just 10 people, if I change 10 people’s minds a little bit,” West said staring off at the L.A. sun setting on her first big press day for her very own TV show, “that’s so valuable to me.”