As a fat woman, you could say that I have been hungry for positive fat portrayals of women in media. Since movies and TV rarely showed any normal depictions of fat women, I often went to books to read what I couldn’t see. That’s where I first came across writer and activist Lindy West.
In 2016 Shrill, West’s comedic memoir on fat shaming and coming of age as a woman in a world that wasn’t made for you, was published to critical acclaim. Now, a TV show based on her life and the fat and female experiences, also called Shrill, is coming to Hulu Friday, starring SNL’s Aidy Bryant and produced by Elizabeth Banks and Lorne Michaels. A couple of weeks ago I had the opportunity to chat with Lindy by phone and talk about adapting her memoir, representation, fat people on TV and how comedy has grown in the last five years to include more diverse voices. Here’s our conversation:
So you wrote your memoir Shrill and it came out in 2016. Now you have a show that is sort of based on your life sort of not, um, how did this adaption come about?
The book came out in May 2016 and then, I was approached by TV agents who wanted to shop the book around and see if anyone wanted to option it. And so that summer, maybe in July or August of 2016, I went to LA and just had a bunch of meetings with different production companies or people who are interested. I probably had, I dunno, 12 meetings or something. It was kind of surprising to me. I mean, not that I wasn’t proud of the book or didn’t think that it had something to offer the world, but it was like, it’s hard to think of your own life as a television show. I was kind of like, “Oh, really? People want to do this? Okay.” Kind of over the course of having those meetings, I started thinking about, “What would this look like as a TV show?” I got more and more excited about the idea and it really started to take shape in my head. I ended up going with Brownstone, which was Elizabeth Banks’ company. And then, Ali Rushfield, our showrunner, signed on and then Aidy (Bryant) signed on and three of us put the pitch together and pitched a bunch of places and picked Hulu and then we made a show. (laughs)
So you mentioned, Aidy Bryant and Ali Rushfield. You wrote the memoir by yourself, but obviously, you wrote the pilot with them. What were some major differences and challenges you found adopting your memoir for television?
I mean, it’s just a totally different thing, you know, obviously, mostly dialogue. It’s really character based and you know, real life is character-based, I guess.
Yeah, that makes sense!
Except that, you know, real people are more complicated than TV characters, even the best TV characters. So I guess it’s the challenge was to find the character in each person that we were bringing from my life into the show and also figure out how to move the show away from my real life a little bit. It is a fictional show and we really wanted it to be a collaboration between the three of us and bring some of all of our experiences to it. It was really fun honestly. I can’t even say that it was hard. I mean, it’s sort of hard in that it’s bizarre. You’re taking these really personal, painful things and turning them into something that you have a meeting with a bunch of strangers about. You find yourself discussing like, “Oh, what’s the worst thing my worst boyfriend ever said to me?” And then everyone laughs and then you decide its too depressing to even put in in the show.
Well, I mean, there are some really cringy moments in the show that I thought were clearly made up, that were not made up, that actually happened to you.
Can you talk a little bit more about choosing those biographical elements? Were there things that you really wanted that didn’t get in or things that you’re like, “No, we’re not including that.”
Oh well, for sure the second one and sometimes that’s a battle because other people don’t have the same relationship with your life that you do. So there were things where I was like, “uh, no, we can absolutely not put that in”. And then people will be like, “Well, it’s really good, like really funny or really sad.” And I’m like, “Okay, but that was an actual moment of torture from my real life.” It ended up being a combination of autobiographical elements from all of the writers’ lives. It’s funny, one thing that I discovered is that a lot of times, the real detail, the thing that really happened, ended up being like the most poignant or the most funny, funnier than things that you can write. I don’t know why that is exactly, but it really was a collaboration. So we’re drawing from everyone lives and everyone’s perspective, which is a relief for me. I don’t want this show to just be my life, first of all, because that feels kind of narcissistic, but also it’s terrifying. I feel exposed enough just having written the book and there’s stuff in the book where I’m like, “Oh my God, why did I put that in there?” There’s stuff where I’m still like, “Oh. Oh boy. Okay.”
One thing that I wanted to thank you for was the scene in the show where the morning after pill doesn’t work for our fat heroine, Annie (Aidy Bryant). Not enough people know this!
Oh, yeah, totally. I mean, like the rest of the writer’s room didn’t know that, you know. I brought it up and people were like, “what?”
Yeah! I have certain friends that couldn’t believe that Plan B and other morning-after pills don’t work on women over 170 pounds. And I always respond with, “Yep. The pharmaceutical industry doesn’t think that my body is sexual and might not want a baby!” That being said, there is this educational element to the show. Part of that is just because we’re not used to seeing bigger bodies in a context that’s not being made fun of. So what is one thing you hope thin people or people with thin privilege takeaway from the show?
Oh, I think people that spend so much of their time and money trying to distance themselves from fatness. You know, people think of fat people as thin people who have failed…
That we’re trapped…
Yeah. And that we’re all miserable and that we are all the lazy and we have no self-control and that we’re not smart enough to know to understand “calories in, calories out” or whatever. I really wanted just to make a show about a person who is living her life in a fat body, but that doesn’t define her life. It doesn’t look at her in the ways that we are taught a show should look at a fat person. She has sex and she has relationships and she has professional success and she has all the troubles and all the joys as anyone else’s life. She also has this sort of external pressure put upon her and this constant judging and shaming and needless interference in her journey toward being a happy and fulfilled person. And I think that it’s just really easy and seductive to place people, especially women on a hierarchy and tell yourself that some women are below you on this ladder and you can always climb higher. And if you are thinner than someone else, it’s because you’re better in some way. You’ve done a better job. You’re either naturally, intrinsically better or you worked harder or whatever. I think that the way that you break down those ideas is by humanizing people and this goes for any segment of representation. You know, I wanted to give people like a real, human, fat friend that doesn’t exist to make people feel better about themselves.
I totally understand that, as many people’s fat friend!
Totally. I mean, I always felt like I was a sidekick. I just always felt like I was sort of support staff for women who were doing the real women stuff.
There’s always a tone of surprise when you do something. When I got my first boyfriend, it was very much like, “Wait, you’re with him?” because he was very conventionally attractive. And I know you have a chapter about that with your husband in the book. But one thing that I really did love about the show while we’re talking about significant others was, you show the legitimacy of a fat person’s sexuality. There’s this awesome scene where Annie is straddling a guy and her shirt comes off and you see her back and her rolls. I felt so seen in that moment and I felt so liberated watching that. Can you talk a little bit about how important it is to show any fat sexuality earnestly and not for comedic value?
That was a huge thing that Aidy and I wanted to make a political point, but it’s also just true. It’s also just real. Fat people have relationships and have sex and good relationships and have love that’s real. It would be dishonest to say otherwise, but at the same time, obviously, fatness is sadly stigmatized. I write about this in the book. I definitely have had men tell me openly that they were ashamed to be seen with me. It was really important for us to just spend time on that. I mean, a huge part of, my journey to not hating my body was looking at other fat bodies on the internet. I’m just really proud of that, that we, we did that in the show. It makes a huge difference. I can say that personally seeing that women’s bodies presented, not as a before picture and not with shame and not being picked apart but presented in a positive, happy, sexy way, had a massive impact on my life. So, you know, if we could do that for someone else, that just really means a lot to me.
You say in your book that fat people have to have a “coming out moment” with their own bodies and have that realization of, “Oh yeah, I am fat and that is okay.” The first season very much feels like Annie’s full coming out journey. What do you hope that fat ladies like me, or fat people in general, take away from the show and can apply to their own lives and journeys?
I just want women to feel powerful and that they’re not alone. And I know I’ve spent so much of my life waiting to lose weight before I felt like I deserved anything. Before I felt like I deserve happiness or success and the moment that I stopped waiting, is probably the most pivotal moment in my whole life. So, I just want people to stop waiting and just go, just go. Just go. I mean the other thing that we were really conscious of making the show that it’s not just a show about being fat. The whole point is that she has this whole other life, not just walking around, you know, 24 hours a day. It’s actually kind of incidental. She has all this other stuff going on and the only reason she has to think about being fat is because other people remind her that she’s fat all the time.
And there’s that expectation there too that she should hate her body.
Absolutely. A big part of making the show was a making piece of art that people will enjoy. It’s really about modeling what I needed to see when I was younger, which was someone whose body looks like mine. Having a dynamic, interesting, complex life.
One thing I’ve noticed in the past year is that we’re seeing a lot more content directed to fat women, movies like Dumpling and shows like Dietland and now Shrill. Why do you think, studios are getting fat stories from literary adaptions opposed to like original scripts and experiences? Why do you think we are getting more body diversity, but then why do you think studios are more willing to greenlight an already existing work opposed to like a real-life experience?
If I had to guess I would say, that a pre-existing work has already been tested. I would say that Hollywood has not been traditionally a hotbed of body positivity. (laughs)
Oh really, you don’t say? (laughs) I never would have guessed that. I’ve always felt like my body has been represented positively onscreen. (laughs)
(Laughs). Right. So, you know, maybe it’s just that people don’t have a handle on these concepts and they may not quite know where to start with it and publishing is certainly more friendly to body diversity. No one needs to know what you look like to be an author. In terms of why we’re seeing more diversity general…the culture’s changed in the last five years or so. Like when I started writing about being fat 10 years ago, it was a totally radical concept and you would just be abused on the internet for saying like, “it’s okay to be fat!” It would just blow people’s minds and now, I think we’ve seen the rise of some of grassroots storytelling movements but like people are starting to talk more candidly about their lives and open up about their struggles. As much as we’re trapped in this right-wing hell, I think socially people are evolving. I think that as a society we move forward. In general, the Trump administration is a backlash to progress. And so we’ve been moving, and thanks to a lot of really great people who have spoken up and said, “I don’t deserve to be treated this way. Fat people deserve medical care, jobs and accommodation, and accessibility and dignity and humanity.” You know, that works and progress is slow. There’s a lot of fat people in this country! (laughs) I’ve seen like major brands starting to get on the train, which is good and bad in a way that doesn’t represent everyone. But I do think we are more forward a little bit.
You were talking just now about representation and talking about how voices have kind of come forward. There’s a couple of chapters in your book where you talk about comedy and how comedy helped you through your adolescence, it helped shaped your identity in your early twenties. Then in like 2011-ish, there was an incident regarding male comedians telling rape jokes. You wrote about it and threats were made against you after a televised debate with a well-known comedian. That experience understandably changed your perspective of comedy. In your book, you wrote that comedy “broke your heart” and you don’t watch much stand up anymore. But as you said, in the past five years we’ve seen marginalized individuals really own their voices and take comedy in a better direction. On your show, you also have like really awesome up and coming stand ups like Patty Harrison and Joel Kim Booster and other awesome people. How has your perspective on comedy changed since writing the book and what was it like working with these groundbreaking and talented stand up comics? Also, I know that you and Patty have an Instagram relationship that is hilarious.
(Laughs) Yes! Patty and I send each other important lizard content on Instagram, I cherish her. It’s really exciting to me how much standup has changed since I was writing about it in, you know, 2011. People like Patty have fully restored, maybe not fully, but you know Patty is part of new generations of comedians who are absolute masters of this art form and have also made it their own and are staking out space in a really radical way that’s not pedantic. I mean, they’re just making incredible comedy. It’s undeniably the funniest thing happening anywhere right now. And it’s completely outside that framework of like, “oh, comedy has to be edgy to be funny. We couldn’t possibly stop writing misogynistic material or homophobic material or transphobic material because then comedy will die and that would be censorship.” I mean, it’s just like Patty and Joel, I mean Jo Firestone and Lolly Adefope are on our show, there are all these comics just proving that wrong in like such a definitive way, like there’s just no argument that this is the future of comedy. And those dudes were wrong and they can catch up and adapt or they can perish.
I mean I still don’t go see a ton of comedy, but that’s mostly because I am a hermit. But I am so thrilled with where comedy is right now and like, I’m just so excited. But you know whatever tiny part I played in pushing comedy along a little bit, I’m so proud and I’m so grateful to this generation and the next generation of comics who are making incredible shit.
All episodes of Shrill are available Friday, March 19.