Ian Owens, from left, Luka Jones, Aidy Bryant, John Cameron Mitchell and Lolly Adefope attends the premiere of Hulu's "Shrill" at the Walter Reade Theater on Wednesday, March 13, 2019, in New York.
( Photo by Andy Kropa/Invision/AP
Sarah Gonzalez: It's The Takeaway. I'm Sarah Gonzalez in for Tanzina Vega this week. The third and final season of Shrill premiered on Hulu this past Friday. Based loosely on the book by Lindy West, the show follows the life of journalist Annie Easton, played by Aidy Bryant, as she tries to change her life without having to change her body. Over the course of its three seasons, Shrill has captured the experience of being fat in the US with complexity and humor. That's often included tackling fat stigma and fat-shaming head-on, even from the medical establishment, as in its new season.
Gynaecologist: Everything looks good. We'll call you with your pap results when they come in.
Annie Easton: Thank you.
Gynaecologist: I'm sure Dr. Larchene has mentioned this to you before, but you should think about gastric bypass. You're at a good age for it.
Annie Easton: I'm sorry, think about what?
Gynecologist: Getting bariatric surgery for your weight. That's not healthy, and that might be the most realistic solution.
Sarah Gonzalez: For more on how Shrill expanded fat representation on the small screen, we are joined now by freelance writer and editor Samantha Puc. She is also the co-creator of Fatventure Mag. Samantha, welcome to the show.
Samantha Puc: Hi, Sarah. Thank you so much for having me.
Sarah Gonzalez: What has Shrill meant for how fat people are portrayed in pop culture?
Samantha Puc: I think the big thing about Shrill, obviously, it's not the first show to future fat protagonists, but it is definitely one of the first shows that has fat people both in front of and behind the camera, and that makes such a huge difference for how Annie and Fran and these other characters are presented on screen. You have actual fat people telling our stories, which is so important because this show really digs into some of the micro-aggressions that fat people deal with every day and also deals with every element of moving through the world in a larger body, from small snide comments from people that you don't know on the street to medical fatphobia, which is explored in a couple of different seasons on the show.
Then there's also a lot of fat joy, which I think is also very, very important. There's a lot of nuance, and it's great because there are multiple fat characters on the show, and so no one character has to represent everything about that group of people, which is such a huge thing because it allows them to be very messy and complex. I think that, hopefully, we will see that have an impact on other shows and movies and screen representation of fat folks in the future.
Sarah Gonzalez: Is it unusual for a show to have multiple fat characters, as you say?
Samantha Puc: In my experience, yes. I grew up in the '90s, and it was constantly fat Monica on Friends. It was always like this running joke of like, "When I was fat," or, "That person is fat," and they were always the side character or the friend. It was never like they were a main character, and there were certainly never multiple fat people who all had their own interests and their own lives and got to make their own decisions. I think the earliest example that I can think of for that is actually Gilmore Girls, and that was when Sookie married her husband Jackson. They were both larger-bodied people who got to have a love story, and that felt so revolutionary to me as a preteen.
It's nice to see now that we're getting to a point where there can be a little bit more of that on-screen because it is unfortunately pretty rare.
Sarah Gonzalez: Tell us more about how fat people have historically been shown in movies and TV shows. The common tropes or stereotypes deployed, maybe especially when it comes to fat women.
Samantha Puc: For sure. I know that I and several other fat folks who are around my age distinctly remember seeing the movie Shallow Hal when we were younger and just seeing fat women portrayed as these really disgusting, undesirable monsters who didn't deserve love and didn't deserve affection and didn't deserve even basic human decency. I think that, for the most part, fat characters have really been relegated to either the freak shell plot or the sidelines. They're the funny best friends. They're the ones who are constantly there with the advice and to bring over the sweets and to talk you through whatever horrible thing is happening in your life if you are the thin protagonist who's having relationship struggles.
It's very, very rare that fat people get to be actually human, which is a little distressing. In my memory, the most that I've ever seen a fat character on screen up until recently, the last few years, it's just been a lot of side character, best friend, funny fat person. "Oh my God, they're so fat. Oh my God, that's so funny," or "Oh my God, they're so fat. Oh my God, that's so gross." There's very rarely been any exploration beyond that.
Sarah Gonzalez: Tell us more about how the show has recently tackled medical fat phobia.
Samantha Puc: Sure. Shrill tackles medical fatphobia in a couple of different ways. In the first season, Annie has been taking the morning after pill because she's been having unprotected sex with a partner. She learns that it doesn't work for people over a certain size. She's really horrified to learn this, especially because she's bought the pill a couple of times from her pharmacy and the pharmacist has never said anything. In season three, there's the scene that we just heard the clip from where she goes to the gynaecologist and she gets a pap smear done and the gynaecologist encourages her to get bariatric surgery for weight loss.
One of the things that happens when fat people go to the doctor is that we are often treated for our weights and not for our actual symptoms. This actually happened to me last summer, I went to the doctor for something that was unrelated to my weight, my weight absolutely nothing to do with it. At the end of the appointment, bariatric surgery was brought up, I said that I wasn't interested in weight loss. The specialist that I was seeing actually spoke to my general practitioner after I left the office, and said that she highly recommended me for this surgery. One of the things that we deal with is that there are studies that say that the doctors are more likely to treat fat patients as belligerent or difficult even if we're just there for a basic cold.
Part of that is because if they try to treat our weight, which is such a complicated issue, and we are either not responsive to that or we ask them to treat our actual symptoms, then we are apparently being problematic patients. It's pretty ubiquitous. There're stories of fat folks who have gone in because they can't breathe, and they're told that they need to lose weight. Then they find out years later and several doctors later that they have lung cancer. It's an issue of people, doctors especially, see fat people, see our size, and say, "That person is unhealthy," and don't bother to do any further digging, which is obviously very problematic when you are literally going to those people for care for your body.
Sarah Gonzalez: Just very quickly, has fat positive representation gotten any better in TV shows and movies since the debut of shows like Shrill? Very quickly.
Samantha Puc: I think it's hard to determine that because Shrill came out so recently and there was a global pandemic in the middle of everything. I will say just briefly that I think I see the most fat positive representation in children's animation actually, which is really great because that hopefully has an influence on kids growing up, which is not something that I had as a child. I hope that that begins to extend to live-action television that's intended for older audiences as well.
Sarah Gonzalez: Samantha Puc is a freelance writer and editor and also co-creator of Fatventure Mag. Samantha, thank you for joining us.
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