Like many of you, I spent this past weekend binging Shrill, Hulu’s new series inspired by Lindy West’s memoir of the same name. Although I am a huge fan of West’s abortion-stigma-busting activism and body positivity, I have not yet read Shrill, so needless to say, I was in for so many delightful surprises.
I’d heard a lot of buzz about Shrill before its release and a few rumors that it would portray the main character, Annie (played by Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant), seeking an abortion much as West had, but didn’t know much else. As a fat white woman in my 30s who has had two abortions, I was excited to see this show explore some of my identities. And I’m happy to report the show succeeded in the best possible ways.
I started crying in the first five minutes of the first episode and texting my friends with abandon in the first 15; I wanted to know if they had watched it yet. My fat friends got special texts telling them to watch and soak up the validating love present in every scene. I gushed over Annie’s wardrobe while lamenting my own inability to find cute fat girl outfits. (I later discovered this is such a pervasive issue that Aidy Bryant’s wardrobe was largely custom-made for the show.)
In the series, Annie is a Portland-based writer at an alt-weekly who seeks more from her life beyond writing about local events for the website’s calendar and having lackluster midday sex with Ryan, a guy who makes her leave out the back door. Throughout the pilot episode, Annie encounters fatphobic loved ones and strangers who pressure her to eat differently and change her exercise habits in an effort to help her get “healthier,” but in reality serve as reminders for her, and people like me, that our bodies are not acceptable for public display.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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After condomless sex that Annie didn’t enthusiastically consent to, she leaves Ryan’s house and goes to the pharmacy for emergency contraception, which she takes often to prevent pregnancy. Later, Annie realizes that she’s feeling off and hasn’t had her period for a few weeks, so she heads back to the pharmacy where she confirms the pregnancy via a test in the store bathroom.
She immediately returns to the pharmacy counter to demand a refund for the “defective” pregnancy test, but she learns from the pharmacist that emergency contraception or morning-after pills (called “Step Two” in the show) lose their effectiveness for users over 175 pounds. Many viewers were shocked to learn this, and honestly I wish it were more widely discussed.
Unfortunately, the joys of over-the-counter emergency contraception aren’t truly one-size-fits-all. For those of us over 175 pounds, we need a prescription in order to get ella, a more effective emergency contraception.
When I saw the show building up to a pregnancy storyline, I assumed an abortion wouldn’t follow; no series has included an abortion in the pilot. At the same time, I hoped it wouldn’t turn into yet another “unplanned pregnancy, but making the best of it by continuing the pregnancy” plot. While I don’t oppose this narrative, as it’s a real-life experience, it’s all too common to avoid depicting an abortion and doesn’t represent what’s happening in lives like my own.
I was pleased with how wrong I was about the scenes to follow.
While at a furniture sale, Annie sits with her roommate and BFF, Fran (played by Lolly Adefope), to talk about the pregnancy and what she’s going to do. While Fran comes off as a bit pushy about abortion in the beginning, her response fits the need for comedy in that moment as well as helps viewers to transition quickly to the abortion storyline. I also found it refreshing that abortion wasn’t taboo for Fran, and instead was something she was happy to discuss as an option, while also being there to support her friend through the abortion and after.
When deciding what to do about her pregnancy, Annie shares with Fran that she’s worried that this might be her only chance to become a mom—a common concern among people who are seeking abortions—and how the fatphobia she encounters impacts her love life and self-esteem. “There have been moments in my life where I didn’t think that I would ever get to have that because of what I looked like or because there’s a certain way that your body is supposed to be and I’m not that,” she explains to Fran. “And that maybe if I was just sweet enough and nice enough and easygoing enough with any guy, that that would be enough for someone.”
The scene thoughtfully addresses the reality for those of us who have abortions: Our decisions aren’t isolated. They’re based on all of the factors, oppressions, and marginalizations we are experiencing at that moment.
Before I could joyfully process what was happening in that moment, there was Annie at Planned Parenthood, having an abortion. While I wish the abortion could have happened at an independent abortion care provider’s office like the one I work at—and where the majority of abortion care happens—my heart beamed over this incredibly realistic and honest portrayal of surgical abortion care and how empowering an abortion can be.
We also don’t see how Annie pays for her abortion, which is a barrier for the majority of people and was a barrier for my first abortion. Perhaps this is meant to be an aspirational depiction of how abortion experiences should be, rather than as they are for most of us.
At the clinic, the provider, played by June Eisler, describes the manual vacuum aspiration abortion process to Annie, much like my colleagues and I do with our patients so they know what’s happening to their body, what they might feel, and to dispel any myths they may have heard.
Fran is supportive throughout the experience as she holds Annie’s hand, loves on her, jokes with her, and provides her with a soft place to land after the entire process. I believe everyone needs a Fran when going through an abortion: a friend who will meet you where you are and provide what you need. I’ve written previously about the difference support made for my two abortions. This is what unconditional love looks like, and we should never forget that we all love someone who has had an abortion (whether we know it or not!).
While watching, I quickly got a sense that this abortion was a choice Annie did not approach with fear; it was a choice that left her feeling thankful, powerful, and with a renewed dedication to loving herself. Abortion stigma often leaves us limited in words we feel allowed to use when describing our abortions. Our abortions are expected to be difficult choices, ones we agonized over leaving us with grief. But Annie’s is one that serves as her epiphany and turning point in her life.
This depiction of Annie’s surgical abortion is something I could have used before my first abortion. I chose a medication abortion because I was terrified of the idea of an invasive procedure. I had never seen an on-screen abortion, nor had I ever come across the idea that you can have an abortion and experience nothing but positive emotions in the aftermath.
My medication abortion—which involved taking two different medications (one at the clinic, another 24-48 hours later at home)—allowed me to avoid an in-office procedure, but it wasn’t the easiest and was marked by the full range of side effects and extreme symptoms (flu-like symptoms, heavy cramping, bleeding, and blood clots). As viewers saw during Annie’s abortion, her experience with cramping was brief and the whole aspiration abortion only took minutes to complete. Many providers offer a variety of sedation options, which can reduce pain experiences considerably. Choosing medication abortion meant I was in for a very different experience. The cramping came in waves and it took a few days for me to complete the abortion. Due to the fact that this process happened in my own home, there was no sedation available when I was going through the heaviest parts of my cramping.
Despite all of this, my overwhelming emotion during the abortion and after was relief, much like Annie’s. “I feel really, really good,” Annie replies to Fran when she asks how she’s feeling. “I don’t know, I’ve had the last couple of days to think about a lot of shit, like when I was at my parents’ house and I was just looking at all these photos of me from when I was growing up. Little me was so happy and fat and had big dumb dreams. And I got myself into this huge fucking mess. But I made a decision. Only for me. For myself. And I got myself out of it .… I don’t know, I feel very fucking powerful right now and I just feel like I need to go out.”
Annie’s personal revolution after her abortion is something I closely related to as well. She is a new woman. She feels powerful. She understands her ownership over her body and her future in a way she never imagined.
Annie exists in a world where it’s OK to feel great about your abortion. That is a world I want to exist in—a world made possible by destigmatizing abortion in pop culture and the media we all want to consume.
As Shrill depicts, those of us who have abortions are complex people, with complex lives, beliefs, values, goals, and dreams. We exist in our current form because of our abortions.
Later in the season Annie struggles with an internet troll who harasses her about her weight and the articles she writes. I can’t help but recognize the parallels with my own life as both a fat person and a person who publicly speaks out about my abortions. The reality is my fatness is always centered in the trolling of my abortion experience, with many calling into question how I could have ever had an abortion as my body is deemed not worthy of sex. While the vitriol and hatred lobbed at folks who have abortion is unlimited, the hatred takes on a specific body shaming form when you dare to have had an abortion while fat.
I wasn’t shocked to meet an Annie so ashamed of her body that she allowed a partner to not use a condom early in the episode. She exists in a world where she should be thankful someone is sexually aroused by her, and she shouldn’t question it if her partners don’t want to use condoms. Annie is even afraid to take her bra off during sex, ashamed of her body despite it being actively involved in a pleasurable act. She seems so distracted by her concern for how her body appears to her partner it’s hard for her to be an active participant, a reality that sets her up for the need for an abortion.
And all of this, of course, is compounded by the fact that her primary birth control method, emergency contraception, doesn’t actually work all that well for her—a fact she is not made aware of. The truth is that while Annie’s troll is just one individual who comments that her body type means she is undeserving of his respect, these are the same messages the rest of the world gives her in subtle and overt ways daily.
Shows like Shrill are important because representation such as this allows us to tell really honest stories about the most taboo subjects. And only when stigma is acknowledged and discarded, do we begin to see a world where our choices are expanded, and our love for self and for others can grow. As we watch Annie throw a cinder block through her troll’s car window, I can’t help but hope this scene is foreshadowing of the real-world impact these kinds of stigma-busting stories can have. I want to see a world where abortion stigma and fatphobia are decimated, and where nuanced and real stories about these topics become the norm.