How Shrill takes on toxic relationships (because we’ve ALL been there)


In Hulu’s Shrill, Annie Easton is all of us as she navigates a terrible relationship with a man who is equally as awful.

Warning: This article contains spoilers for season 1 of Shrill.

A lot has been written about Hulu’s original series, Shrill, starring SNL actress Aidy Bryant. It’s based on Lindy West’s memoir, Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman, and offers a lot of conversation about body and sex positivity. However, Shrill also (somewhat irresponsibly) tells the story of Bryant’s Annie and her very toxic relationship with her (sort of) boyfriend Ryan, played by Luka Jones.

In the short, six episode season, we meet Annie who struggles with her self-image and battles societal expectations about weight while trying to maintain a relationship with a man who is so obviously bad for her. The show presents Ryan, almost immediately, as a major jerk. Our first encounter with him is a text which simply asks Annie, “F–k?”

This triggers some real warning bells in viewers’ minds, but Annie is unfazed. This is a very, very familiar situation to a lot of women, as we inadvertently allow our romantic partners to treat us less than we deserve. In fact, toxic relationships are so normalized in our modern media, we often don’t even realize we’re watching women get mistreated, emotionally abused, and disrespected. Shrill isn’t breaking ground in this area, and low-key rewards the abusive character, Ryan, with a redemption story.

Back to that gross text, instead of protesting, Annie leaves work in the middle of the day and heads to Ryan’s house. After sex, he makes her sneak out the back door so his roommates don’t see her, and she slinks back to work, covered in grass from the fall she took climbing over a fence.

Shrill – Episode 101. Photo: Allyson Riggs/Hulu

When you look at it in black and white, here as it is written, it seems like this would be a “turn and run” situation. However, when we’re so close to a thing, and our boundaries have been blurred by years of negative self-talk and cultural conditioning, it’s often harder to identify when a situation becomes toxic for us. Annie performs this female tendency to the letter.

Our knee-jerk reaction is to judge Annie, because all of us have been conditioned to do so. We want to scream at our television screen for her to get all the way out of this situation. But Annie is just too close to it. Like so many of us, she doesn’t realize how badly she’s being treated. Like a lobster in a pot, she can’t feel the water getting hotter until it’s too late, and she’s boiled and ready to be dipped in butter.

Annie gives Ryan a chance to make up for being such a douche, and allows him to take her on a date. It quickly devolves into a bro session when his roommates show up, totally uninvited, and cause a giant scene. She still goes home with him, but she feels emboldened by the advice she received from a stripper: “you have a fat ass and big titties, and you should be telling men what to do.” She sets some boundaries, and we think she might be turning things around for herself and her relationship.

Shrill – Episode 103 – Photo: Allyson Riggs/Hulu

She’s not. In an all too familiar paradigm, things get worse for her, probably because women are conditioned to give endless chances — to see what a man can be instead of what he really is. Annie has her hopes up about Ryan. Because she is seeing this very toxic relationship through the blurring lens of her own feelings, she can’t see how little this man cares for her. They have wildly differing perspectives of their relationship, and she even goes so far as to invite him to a work event.

Obviously he’s selfish and thoughtless, and stands her up. She turns up at his house, a misstep so many of have made, to find him hosting a “pencil fighting” party. He really is so, so awful. In Annie’s words from the episode before, he’s “a disrespectful baby, but a man who should know better.”

Also at the party is another women that is in Ryan’s “rotation,” and Annie has to stand by and watch him hug and kiss her goodbye as she exits. Annie’s reaction is appropriate. She gets angry, swears him off, and leaves the party in a (much deserved) huff.

Like the abuser in a lot of toxic relationships, Ryan acts sorry and abashed. He texts and turns up at her work, feeling very sorry for himself. Whether he actually is or not isn’t clear, and Annie seems like she might finally be ready to  move on. She attempts to get her groove back with her roommate’s sexy younger brother, but feels guilty about “cheating” on Ryan, demonstrating she isn’t really ready to exit this situation.

The objective opinion is that this is absurd, and he doesn’t deserve her kindness or honesty.  We can all see the flawed logic, but Annie is so entrenched in the poisonous dynamic. It’s almost like she’s brainwashed. Or addicted.

Shrill – Episode 103. Photo: Allyson Riggs/Hulu

Her roommate tries to set her straight, repping all the best friends in in the world who have had to stand by and watch us make our bad decisions over and over again. Fran, Annie’s bold roommate, offers love and support, and points out how mean Annie is being to herself. She says flat out, “That’s what I’ve always wanted for you — a relationship that’s better than nothing.” Fran, unlike Annie, understands that she shouldn’t have to beg to be treated like “a normal girl” or even more basically, “a human being.”

It’s poignant and heartbreaking that Annie can’t see her own worth, but it’s not completely unsurprising or out of the normal. Women who struggle with self-esteem or body image are often willing to accept less than they deserve from their romantic partners. The saddest part of this idea is that so many women grapple with these issues, so the paradigm of “a good woman with a dirtbag man” has become far too pervasive in our culture.

A hungry heart will eat anything, so Annie accepts scraps  – the least possible offerings – and feels grateful for them. Annie acts as a rehab for her poorly behaved boyfriend, and the show doesn’t really indict this mentality. In fact, it sort of rewards it, suggesting that Ryan might change after all.

For any woman sitting at home, looking pale and wringing her hands over a man, this is dangerous rhetoric. The show offers some really positive messaging about self-love, ambition, and the evolution of American beauty standards, but it’s not so responsible when it comes to relationships.

The final moments of the last episode featuring Annie standing up to her online troll. She’s confident and assertive, and she doesn’t back down from his vicious insults. However, this is not the man Annie needs to confront, and the show leaves us without much resolution to the very toxic relationship on which she is doubling down.

Shrill has been picked up for a second season, and I only hope it offers Annie a better romantic storyline. The show should not allow Annie to accept Ryan’s nonsense, and offer a model of setting boundaries, self-care, and wise decisions.

Heaven knows we could use more women who say “no” to dirtbags on TV.

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