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“She’s having sex on screen and that’s important.” How Aidy Bryant broke the TV rules with Shrill.

Shrill may come across as a fashionable and funny TV tale, but it’s also responsible for deftly killing off some of TV’s most stomach-churning tropes.

The popular dramedy, which is now in its second season, is based on Lindy West’s book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, and stars Saturday Night Live veteran Aidy Bryant as Annie Easton, a plus-size woman who sets out to change her life, but never her body.

In season one of Shrill, Annie, a writer living in Portland, shakes up her life after going against her body-shaming editor’s wishes and covertly publishing an opinion piece called “Hello, I’m Fat” on the company website which quickly goes viral.

Buoyed on by her newfound writing rhythm, Annie systematically begins to change up other parts of her life, doing everything from walking away from her useless boyfriend Ryan (Luka Jones) to baring her body at a pool party for the first time and even tracking down a vicious online troll who was mercilessly tormenting her.

What Shrill never allows itself to do is engage in any sort of make-over style narrative with the character of Annie and for series star Aidy Bryant, who also serves as co-writer and producer, that was the one hard and fast rule she allowed no one to break during production.

Listen to Laura Brodnik talk to Shrill star Aidy Bryant about season two, real-life trolls and the magic of bringing Annie to life on screen.

“From the beginning, we felt very strongly that the show should not include any external makeovers,” Aidy Bryant told Mamamia.” It was meant to be an internal makeover for Annie, about how she valued herself.

“For a while, there were conversations about whether this would be clear enough to the audience.  People would say ‘well, maybe we’ll just dress her frumpy and then she starts to dress cool?’ and we said no to all that.

“It was important to me that she was already a fully formed person, she just doesn’t believe in herself sometimes. I wanted her to be a very dynamic and real character. Sometimes with fat characters on TV, they are just ‘the friend’. They are very one dimensional, completely sexless and don’t have any emotional depth. But to that we just said ‘no, this person has many sides’.

“So even though it is a comedy, there were some very raw moments.”

One of these ‘raw moments’ is a scene in season one of Shrill where Annie has a confrontation with a complete stranger in a coffee shop over her weight and exercise habits. To many viewers, especially those who walk through the world in straight-sized bodies, this may have seemed like heightened, just written for TV moment, but for Aidy, it was simply a moment pulled from her real life.

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“I was once in a gym working out and a personal trainer came up to me and grabbed my wrist,” Aidy said on Mamamia’s The Spill podcast. “They then said to me ‘you’re really a small person under there and I can help you’.

“So they basically said to me that I was meant to be small and not be carrying all this extra weight around. I just thought to myself, ‘who are you to tell me what I’m meant to do, I didn’t ask for your help here’. I just felt very accosted but in order to get out of that situation, I found myself actually thanking her, which was a really bizarre experience.

“It’s actually something that a lot of women find themselves doing in any situation where they feel uncomfortable. You make yourself sweeter just to get through it, so that was part of the story we were trying to play with on Shrill. 

“That’s the cool thing about writing television. It’s Lindy’s story and it’s my story along with everyone in the writers’ room.”

“I wanted her to be very dynamic and real,” said Aidy Bryant of her Shrill character Annie. Source: SBS.

Although we're starting to see more size diversity for female characters on screen, it's still incredibly rare to see them in sex scenes, at least in a way that's not done for cheap comic value, which is what makes Shrill's series of carefully plotted sex scenes even more rogue.

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"Over the course of the season, we look at her relationship with her own body in regards to her weight, but also her relationship to her body in regards to her sexual expression," Aidy said.

"It is a cool thing to watch it change from the first episode where Annie is kind of passive in bed, where she is scared to take her clothes off and then she becomes more confident.

"But she’s still having sex on screen and to us, that was also important.

"There are a lot of plus size characters on TV who are sexless, who are comfortable being ‘cute’ but not very comfortable with being sexual. This is actually a way of being reductive about someone's adultness.

"We really wanted her to be an adult with sex life, over the course of season two you really see her and Ryan experiment and begin to really trust each other, but she takes charge."

When Shrill first premiered in 2019 it launched a tidal wave of talking points, but there was one standout scene that would go on to be the show's most enduring and empowering legacy.

In the episode Pool, Annie attends a Fat Babe Pool Party for a writing assignment but is soon swept up by the positivity of the women around her and for the first time in her life is able to peel off her clothes to dance and swim without fear of judgment about her body.

The episode promoted a world-wide movement for women to start holding their own versions of the party, a rare tangible piece of empowerment created by a TV show.

"Shooting a TV show means a long day," Aidy told Mamamia about filming the iconic scene." Yet here are all these ladies in swimsuits for over 14 hours and having a blast, all because they knew what it would mean for people to see this scene play out on TV.

"I still get so many beautiful messages from women who say 'I have not worn a swimsuit in six years but this summer I did because I watched your show'.

"Shooting that dancing scene was one of the best experiences of my life, it was just magical. During my life, I’ve been both the 'free Annie' at the pool party and the uncomfortable person at the pool party and a lot of people can relate to that."

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Aidy Bryant as Annie at the Fat Babe Pool Party in season one of Shrill. Source: SBS.

Season two of Shrill dives deeper into Annie's confrontations and conversations with the man who was trolling her online, based on Lindy West's real-life experience of this.

"I have had people write mean things about me online or call me a fat pig, and it hurts," she said. "I very luckily have not experienced the type of targeted harassment that Lindy West did, and still does, frankly.

"When Lindy confronted her real-life troll there was a lot of empathy there, and sympathy on both sides, so that's what we were trying to bring to the table in season two of Shrill.

"But we did it without giving him a pass. You understand that this man is hurting and so it felt good for him to push someone else down, but ultimately she’s a real person and it hurts her."

2020 is already shaping up to be a year of unmissable TV but with its second season, Shrill has proven to be in a rule-breaking league all of its own.

Seasons one and two of Shrill are available to watch now on SBS On Demand.


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