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Shrill Wants to Give Young Fat Girls a Better Idol than Ursula the Sea Witch

Lindy West wants to expand fat representation

Megan Vick

Before Lindy West became a successful columnist for The New York Times and The Guardian and wrote a best selling memoir, she was a young fat girl who only saw herself on screen in characters like Ursula the Sea Witch from The Little Mermaidor Lady Kluck from Disney's Robin Hood. When West adapted her memoir, Shrill, into a six-episode half-hour comedy for Hulu, she had one main goal in mind: to give fat women (and girls) someone who represented them with a certain reality (rather than someone who had tentacles).

"[Fat female] characters exist but they are like plump grandmothers or a monster. I grew up feeling like those were my only two options," West told reporters at the Television Critics Association winter press tour on Monday while promoting Shrill. "The point of the show is to present another option."

Pop culture has expanded since West was a child, so there is a wider representation, but there's still only a handful of "full-figured" female characters who have three-dimensional lives with romantic interests and actual problems. The U.K.'s My Mad Fat Diary tackled it from the teenage perspective and This Is Ushas Kate Pearson (Chrissy Metz) -- although she's been talking around her weight more than about it since Season 1. Expanding this definition of what a fat woman can be on television is also a huge part of why Shrill star Aidy Bryant took the lead part of Annie in the series.

"I didn't see a lot of fat women on television when I was growing and I always craved that. When I read Lindy's book, there were so many things in there that I identified with, particularly the idea that the whole world is kind of telling you that you're wrong for existing the way you are, even if you don't feel that way. I have something to offer this world and why do I have to do it in a size 2 package," she said. "That part of the book resonated with me so deeply that when I heard that Elizabeth [Banks] had optioned it I thought, 'What are they doing? I will do anything to get in there.'"

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Annie has a career, best friends and a boyfriend (though he sucks) within the series. Shrill examines her plight to make her life better, despite the world around her saying she can't improve her standing just because of her dress size. A key component in making Annie's representation a good one is reclaiming the word fat in the first place and redefining it in a more positive light.

"For a lot of my life, I was extremely afraid of being labeled with that word. Honestly, through reading Lindy's book and growing up a little bit, it can be a descriptor and not a pejorative. I can start to own it comfortably and not let it destroy me if I hear it," Bryant explained. "It's probably going to be hurled at me forever that I am on screen and I can either let it cut me to my bone or, 'Guess what? I am f---ing fat and you have to deal with it.' and it's fine."

By owning the term, Bryant's character Annie can own her power and empower herself to go after the things that she wants in life. It's a message that is hopefully easy to see for audiences watching at home.

"It has power because we give it power. It's no different than tall or blonde or whatever," West said. "Reclaiming terms that have been used to hurt us is really powerful."

However, it's not only big girls who can find inspiration in West's and Annie's story. Executive producer Elizabeth Banks optioned the book and championed the series because it's an underdog story that can empower anyone who feels like they're not reaching their full potential.

"I really feel strongly about female-centric storytelling and about providing an opportunity for more women in Hollywood," Banks said. "I find it really fascinating that the focus on bodies, even on this panel. It was not the most interesting thing to me about this project; it wasn't the most interesting thing to me about Lindy's book. [I found] the strength Lindy found in the face of trolling and everything she's gone through, to be really empowering to anyone in the world."

Shrill premieres Friday, March 15 on Hulu.