Like many people, I have been obsessed recently with the #FatGirlMagic that is “Shrill” on Hulu. Starring SNL alum and all-around comedic juggernaut Aidy Bryant, the show centers on Annie, a fat woman trying to navigate life as an overlooked writer at a local Portland news outlet. There are endless reasons why I wish I had had a show like this when I was a kid. Amidst the many self-affirming, fat positive moments I found myself mesmerized by, the pilot episode’s depiction of Annie having an abortion was chief among them.
Annie discovers she is pregnant after raw-dogging it with casual fuckboi/manchild Ryan and subsequently being told by her pharmacist that the morning-after pill she used is less effective for women over 175 lbs. After some contemplation and support from her best friend and roommate Fran, played by my new crush Lolly Adefope, Annie decides to have an abortion.
The scene itself is quite brief. Annie lies on a table, numb from the waist down while Fran holds her hand. The doctor calmly and carefully explains everything that’s happening, making sure Annie is at ease. Afterwards, Annie and Fran chill in their shared house and talk, the abortion already a memory.
Realistic, non-tragic depictions of abortion, while still rare in mainstream media, are increasing. TV shows like “Sex Education,” “GLOW,” “Scandal,” “My Mad Fat Diary” and movies like “Obvious Child” have all contributed to the normalization, or rather the humanization, of abortion and those who have them. Lindy West, author of the book Shrill from which the series is adapted, has herself had an abortion and was intentional in the lack of sensation with which the scene was depicted. It is simultaneously nonchalant and respectful. It resonates because it is casual.
As someone who has had an abortion herself, I deeply appreciate all attempts to showcase abortion stories that do not follow the typical regret and ruination trope. But Annie’s experience was the first time I’d ever seen a fat character have an abortion. And that is 100% a game-changer.
As rare as positive abortion storylines are on TV and in film, the intersection between them and fat positive storylines was non-existent before “Shrill”. I would argue that, in addition to the general “controversy” that goes into showing abortions in the first place, the main reason for not showing fat people having abortions is because doing so is predicated on fat people having sex. Fat people can be fetishes. Fat people can be desperate for any and all sexual attention. But a three-dimensional, fat character enjoying a robust sex life and choosing to end a pregnancy without shame or regret is something many people refuse to tolerate.
1 in 4 women in the US will have an abortion by age 45 and around 60% of US women are considered to be fat. Those are massive swathes of the population, and the idea that they never overlap is ludicrous. Integral to Annie’s story is her laying claim to her sexual and romantic autonomy. However, instead of an unintended pregnancy being the karmic punishment for Annie’s sexual journey, it is simply just something that happens along the way. It’s complicated. It’s not ideal. But it happens. She deals with it. And she moves on. That’s all.
Annie’s abortion storyline is not without its problems. One critique is that it fails to communicate the financial and political barriers many people face while seeking a termination. One would think that it’s as simple as showing up to the clinic the day after you find out your’re pregnant from the way the show portrays it. Depending on the state you live in, your insurance coverage, and whether you choose a medical or a surgical abortion, the cost of a first trimester abortion in 2011-2012 in the US was between $480 and $504. This does not include potential travel costs, time taken off work, or childcare.
I would also argue that abortion scenes, even positive ones, are over-medicalised with their almost universal surgical approach (“My Mad Fat Diary” would be one exception). While 73% of abortions in 2015 were surgical, 27% were medical. Medical abortions involve taking two medications: mifepristone and misoprostol. Mifepristone stops the development of the pregnancy any further, and misoprostol induces a miscarriage, ending the pregnancy. While this can take place in a clinic, most people take the medication in a clinic and then miscarry at home.
We are all familiar with the standard hospital gown, anaesthetic, and forceps that accompany an abortion scene. Occasionally the character is sedated, but there is always a clear narrative that in order to be done correctly, surgical equipment and a doctor are necessary for the procedure.
While surgical abortions are absolutely the right choice for thousands of people, the ubiquity of the surgical narrative, whether intentionally or unintentionally, divorces pregnant people from controlling their own bodies. It also implies that abortion is incredibly risky and requires strict supervision at all times when in reality it is one of the safest medical procedures you can have. I acknowledge my bias in this area because I chose the medical versus the surgical option. However, I do think it is essential to show the range of abortion options that exist, especially given the hegemony of the surgical storyline.
It is easy to thoroughly pick apart positive depictions of abortions because there is such a scarcity. We know how rare they still are, and we want the little screen-time they have to be perfect and to fully encapsulate every nuance of the human experience. This is of course an impossible feat. But it’s one that “Shrill” comes very close to accomplishing.
And yet negative views of abortion still persist. Past TV and film depictions haven’t helped, with the vast majority associating abortion with death and misfortune. While it is the job of TV shows and movies to dramatize ordinary life, we can’t ignore the influence it has on people’s perceptions of everyday issues.
Abortion rights in the US are under attack now more than ever. Many states have waiting periods, limit the availability of public funding for abortion, and/or overregulate the procedure with TRAP laws to the point where it de facto cannot exist. With the confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh to the United States Supreme Court, this 5-4 Conservative majority all but ensures the overturning of Roe v. Wade in the near future.
In recent months, we have been inundated with the story of Scott Lloyd, the former head of Trump’s Office of Refugee Resettlement, tracking the menstrual cycles of teen migrants in order to stop them from accessing abortions. While Lloyd was head of this agency, all requests for abortions were denied, even after a judge ordered the government to stop blocking migrants’ access in March 2018.
While people should not have to re-enact their personal experiences and/or traumas in order to gain political parity, the most effective weapon we have in protecting abortion is by telling our stories. That was certainly the case when the Republic of Ireland voted to legalize abortion nearly one year ago.
The same is true for protecting fat people from both personal and institutional fatphobia. The more we show complicated, relatable, human characters like Annie, the less they’ll be treated like shit because of their size. Fat characters are flawed for sure, but fatness is not one of their flaws.
“Shrill” is not show a expounding the joy of overcoming fatness in order to live your #bestlife. It digs deep with side-splitting, brutal honestly to showcase the difficulties that come with navigating this world in a fat body while declaring that it is the world and not your fat body that is the problem.
Fat people fuck. Fat people have abortions. It’s time to create a world where neither of these statements are radical nor necessary. “Shrill” is a big step towards doing just that.
The first season of “Shrill” is available to stream on Hulu now.
Carlie Pendleton is an Editorial Supervisor for Popularly Positive. She describes herself as an “American expat” living and working in Dublin, Ireland. She graduated from Oxford in 2017 with a Masters in History. Carlie runs a body positivity and fat feminism group, which you can find on Twitter @BodyDublin. Follow her fat activist Instagram, @YourBodyRebellion.