When author Lindy West first shopped her best-selling 2016 essay collection Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman around Hollywood, she did so alone. The former Jezebel blogger-turned-New York Times opinion writer had never stepped foot on a studio lot before she walked all by herself into one of the most body-image-obsessed industries in the world.
“So, I am a fat lady, and I deserve respect,” she said recently, recalling her mindset on this solo mission. “Here’s a list of all the horrible things men have done to me.
In an increasingly progressive Hollywood, where cruel jokes about race, sexuality, and gender feel increasingly verboten, punching down at fat people—especially fat women—feels like one of the final bullying frontiers.“Fat is normally one of the bad words, toxic in its blunt monosyllabic force,” Annalisa Quinn wrote in her 2016 Guardian review of West’s book.
“Fat can’t be argued with: it is not just an aesthetic condemnation (You’re ugly), it’s a moral condemnation (You’re lazy).”
Three years later, the fictionalized TV version of West’s life is about to premiere, on Hulu—and West has spent the last several months promoting its imminent arrival, while also watching Hollywood get comfortable with its existence.
This winter, Hulu senior V.P.
Later, when a journalist opened the day’s QA by challenging West about the abortion plotline that kicks off the first season of Shrill, the author—now an executive producer—smiled even wider. “I was like, fuck yeah,” she told me later, triumphantly, “Are you uncomfortable? Good.
Let’s do it.”
When all six episodes of Shrill premiere on Friday, they will bring some—though not all—of West’s most uncomfortable experiences to life.
Still, the usually brash writer is terrified of one specific thing: reviews. “If karma is real, I am fucked.
I’m a very mean critic. Really mean to an unwarranted degree,” she said.
In her twenties, West was the film editor of Seattle’s alt-weekly newspaper The Stranger; at the time, she said, she was desperate to be funny, and defaulted to what she called a very brutal critical voice. But then, West is also used to criticism.
She has absorbed toxic abuse from online trolls for years, which she both wrote about in Shrill and, memorably, recounted to Ira Glass in one of the most arresting episodes in This American Life’s run.
Partway through Shrill’s progression from page to screen, West was joined in the creative process by both S.N.
No longer being the only fat woman in the room was a relief for West.“Aidy and I, particularly, had to go into these pitches and talk about really personal and really painful things in our lives,” she said.
West and Bryant’s willingness to lay themselves bare ultimately proved a pull for TV execs looking for new voices. “If you’re making yourself vulnerable,” West observed, “People want to come closer to you.
Fans looking for an exact replica of West in her TV counterpart may be surprised to see some of the more acerbic edges of the writer’s trademark style rounded off, creating a character who is an amalgamation of West, Bryant, and Samantha Irby, the Shrill staffer West refers to as “our other fat writer.” When asked if she felt she had to compromise at all to craft a more “likable” version of herself for television, West shrugged.
“My priority has always been to make a good show, and to get some version of this story on television,” she said. “I don’t feel territorial about making sure that everything is exactly true to my life.
Some of the vicious things that have actually happened to West, she said, were too brutal and dehumanizing to be believed on the small screen. “I had a dude break up with me while we were having sex,” she remembered, her mouth twisting up slightly.
She launched into an impression: “’Oh, I met someone and, yeah, we’re dating now. So this is over.
“And where are they now?” she asked with a smirk.
Though West insisted that Annie is a stronger character for being crafted by multiple fat women’s perspectives, she also said that she, Irby, and Bryant sometimes had a hard time convincing their fellow writers, especially the men on staff, that the personal anecdotes they were sharing were completely true: “The depth of the cruelty that was so normal to me, Sam, and Aidy was shocking to them.
It was kind of sweet. It was like, aw, do you think that everyone’s nice?”
And though this fictionalized version of West is softer, the circumstances of her story—including a sick father played with tender charm by Daniel Stern and an editor boss brought to life with sneering, scenery-chewing gusto by John Cameron Mitchell—are very much West’s.
Mitchell’s character may have been tweaked to distance him from Savage, but other changes were made to protect West herself. Scenes between Bryant’s Annie and Stern as her father originally contained actual dialogue from West’s life: “I was sitting in video village and was like, ‘Oh, I have made a mistake.
What remained was the real agony—the sort often truncated for TV—of watching someone you adore slowly waste away. West has said that the unwavering support of her father, who died in 2011, was the source of much of her confidence, and this particular illness subplot “collides with Annie’s narcissism.
So while West was happy to compromise and collaborate over some aspects of Annie’s personality, the illness story line was a battle she was unwilling to lose. The same went for sex.
A scene involving the very slim actor DJ Qualls holding up his recent conquest’s giant pair of underwear was played for laughs in the movie’s ad campaign. “I have giant underwear,” West remembered thinking at the time.
“I guess I’m a joke.”
That’s not my fucking problem.” When it comes to film and TV, West struggled to conjure an example of sexually active fat people who aren’t played for laughs or as some thin protagonist’s shame.
“Fat people just never have sex,” she said with a sigh.
Here, again, the male writers on Shrill couldn’t believe what they were hearing. “When Sam, Aidy, and I were talking about dating and stuff, and the ways that men had treated us like garbage, these dudes were like, ‘I would never treat my princess like that.
“I wasn’t anyone’s fucking princess,” she said to me. “I was some trash that they thought they didn’t have to take care of.
You know what I mean? I was like a placeholder until someone better came along. .
West, who has been married to musician Ahamefule J. Oluo since 2015, stared into the distance before continuing.
“I was a secret when I was way younger, I would not—we’re not doing that anymore,” she said.