Why Shrill Sabotages Its Own Empowerment Message

(If you plan to watch Shrill and care about spoilers, definitely don’t read this until after you’ve caught up.)

Shrill, one of Hulu’s recent contributions to original television content, is emphatically marketed as “empowering,” mainly because its protagonist (Annie, played by Aidy Bryant) refuses to go on a diet. It is, according to the Hulu press release, “the story of a fat young woman who wants to change her life — but not her body.” We are supposed to cheer for Annie during every empowering step she takes toward realising her best life. And then, maybe, we are supposed to feel empowered, in turn?

Unfortunately, any positive or empowering message woven into the tapestry of this television show is completely and utterly upstaged by the incredibly shitty way Annie allows herself to be treated by her love interest Ryan (played by Luka Jones), brilliantly described as “Norm-core Ted Kaczynski” by Annie’s roommate (played by Lolly Adefope), who is an all-too-small breath of fresh air in this depressing show.

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So yeah, that’s him. Annie describes him as “dirty,” but I guess that’s supposed to be endearing?

I would like to recap the way Ryan treats her.

We are first introduced to him via text. He texts Annie at work, efficiently and concisely: “Fuck?” (And no, he’s not too busy being a brain surgeon or something to type a couple more words; he’s unemployed.)

We then find out that he pressures Annie into having unprotected sex because he “likes it” — horrifying enough but even more so because, as we find out later, he’s not even being monogamous. Yes, Annie gets pregnant, and yes, she has an abortion (he’s not involved or supportive of this decision because he refuses to have a conversation with her, despite her requesting one) — but that aside, can we review STD rates for a second?

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(If you want links to read more, I suggest you go here or here.)

Right. So “the systems to prevent and treat sexually transmitted diseases are ‘strained to near-breaking point,'” but we really want Ryan to be happy, so what’s a little STD here and there?

And yes, I’m sure he’s TOTALLY up to date on his STD tests and the fact that he impregnates Annie (as well as requiring her to spend $50 on the morning after pill repeatedly) is no big deal. It’s all a small price to pay for his happiness, right?

So we’ll move on.

Ryan forces her to leave his house (after the “fuck” sessions) out the back door, which also requires her to climb over a fence, because he doesn’t want his roommates to see her. Classy dude. Somehow she’s okay with this.

When she eventually ends things with him (after the abortion and a pep talk by the roommate), he pleads for a reconciliation — and his approach to this is also telling. He wants her back because he needs her, in much the same way a blind person needs a seeing-eye dog. Not for the complex conversations or the emotional intimacy, but merely because she makes his day a bit easier.

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So he wants to go back to fucking (to recap: they were not in an exclusive relationship, literally all they had was the occasional booty call followed by a climb over the fence) because he needs her, like a blind person needs a seeing-eye dog — a metaphor which is pretty apt considering how one-sided their relationship is.

Her response to this wonderful analogy is to tell him that he’s saying all the right things (uh what? I almost wanted to rewind, but the memory that Annie is A-OK being described as a “seeing-eye dog” was too fresh), but that now he has to DO the right things. Sure, ok. What are the right things?

He uses that as impetus to ask her out on a date. She is delighted to accept for reasons that elude me.

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That date is a real winner because…he invites two of his friends along, and the meal deteriorates into a shouting match between the three dudes as they disagree about the name of their podcast. (Yup.)

I would think that all this would be leading us (as sympathetic viewers with an ounce of self-respect) to be rooting for Annie to ditch this dead weight and go live her best life.

She doesn’t. In fact, somehow her empowerment is intertwined with keeping Ryan close for reasons that also elude me.

What doesn’t elude? Reasons why Ryan needs to go, yesterday.

  • Ryan only has a bicycle, borrowing his mother’s car on occasion, so he is unable to pick Annie up when she needs him. Yes, I know not everyone has a car, but he does not offer to take a cab or even to suggest any other alternative.
  • He’s unemployed and has no motivation to find a job or forge a career or do much of anything except play frisbee and nap.
  • His mother does his laundry for him.
  • His mother cooks for him.
  • He stands Annie up at an important work function while spending time with a different girl he’s dating (his excuse is that he “mixed up the date”). The fact that she had thought they were monogamous appears to be irrelevant and quickly forgotten.
  • When she has a particularly gruelling day, the only suggestion he has for helping her feel better is to fuck.

Etc.

I could go on, but I won’t, because I’ve already spilled my lunch all over my shirt in anger.

Over and over again, Annie goes back to this guy, despite the protestations of her breath-of-fresh-air roommate, and somehow we are supposed to find this behavior in sync with the “empowerment narrative” so boisterously celebrated by the show and Hulu’s PR team.

Only I don’t care if Annie stands up to her boss, or buys herself flowers (because you better believe Ryan would never), or declares “no more dieting,” or has an empowering exchange with some strippers. Literally none of that matters when Annie goes back, over and over, to a guy who treats her like dirt, whose only justification for wanting her back whenever she does try to leave him is that she makes him feel better. Of course she does. She’s thoughtful and kind and pretty and smart — and she lets him “raw dog” her whenever he wants. Seems pretty win/win for him.

(But how does he improve her life? Unclear. Maybe that’s in season 2?)

And this is why I’m so mad, and this is why I have food on my shirt: White male privilege is as powerful as it is because the rest of us allow it to be. If we allow ourselves to be treated this way by all the Ryans out there, if we encourage the behavior by not deterring it, by, in fact, enabling it, we have no one to blame but ourselves for the fact that the Ryans and Bretts and Brocks and Donnies get away with this abhorrent behavior, over and over again.

Annie can do better. We can do better. Ryan can certainly do better.