Shrill, Fran, and Black queer complexity

Shrill has ended on a bittersweet note. The Hulu original series starring Aidy Bryant (Saturday Night Live) and Lolly Adefope, loosely adapted from Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, ushered in a new discussion surrounding fatness, queerness, and how to navigate a world where fatphobia is deeply embedded.

Shrill begins with the two 30-somethings in Portland, Fran (Adefope) and Annie (Bryant), figuring out the rest of their lives. Annie is a reporter for a local newspaper called The Thorn and Fran is a hairdresser. Together they encounter love, tragedy, orgasms, and wacky hipsters throughout the series. While Annie is the primary protagonist of the show, Fran has garnered her own attention due to Lolly’s divine and superb depiction of a Black, fat, queer woman who comes into her own with every moment.

Fran as a character is extraordinary because she is not seen as a non-sexual being nor as a hypersexual, aggressive threat to unsuspecting men. She is in complete control of her sexual autonomy and apologizes to no one for it.

Our introduction to Fran in season one is a bit mild, but Adefope quickly steals the show. It is clear that there is more to her life than we see, but it isn’t until the latter two seasons that she begins to come out of her shell. Fran as a character is extraordinary because she is not seen as a non-sexual being nor as a hypersexual, aggressive threat to unsuspecting men. She is in complete control of her sexual autonomy and apologizes to no one for it. In short, she is anything but a “mammy.”

Throughout the history of Black representation, particularly that of fat Black women, the “mammy” trope has been leveraged multiple ways in order to make white viewers comfortable, harkening back to the Black sidekick trope, where no additional character development is provided. The Black friend only exists to support the white protagonist and is written to be one dimensional and basic. The “mammy” was created in order to comfort the mistress of the plantation house—a fat, Black woman would definitively not pose a threat because she was meant to be seen as abhorrent and therefore the husband would not feel compelled to cheat. Fran’s existence within Shrill is the complete opposite of this trope and while it is not perfect, it is a start.

Fatphobia is rooted in anti-blackness and while the two friends are fat, the societal response is different. Annie, while facing discrimination and bias because of her gender and size, still doesn’t feel the brunt of Fran’s complex life. It doesn’t remain a side note however—the show leaves no stone unturned, delving into the multitude of cringe moments that encompass the awkward transitions of post adolescence and adulthood in a hostile world. Perhaps this is why I felt compelled to write about my admiration for the character Fran, and the multitudes Adefope managed to bring to the (television) screen. While I do not identify as a fat woman, growing up as a fat child with hypothyroidism left the scars of fatphobia. The blunt comments from family members, the forced diets that ultimately were starvation because of impoverishment, and the consistent pressures of being in the proximity of whiteness entrenched a poor image of myself in my mind. To me, Fran experienced an on screen deconstruction of society’s expectations of her and it resonated deeply with me. 

In Season 1, it seems as if Fran is only there to help Annie discover self love and radical self-acceptance and could have fallen easily within the sassy, fat, Black friend trope. However, in the second season we were given a better opportunity to see the progression of Fran’s character. We meet Fran’s family when she takes Annie along to her cousin’s wedding. A barrage of intrusive questions about her career and personal life overwhelm Fran, quickly dissipating the joy she felt in seeing her parents for the first time in a while. Fran’s parents accept her as a queer woman but draw the line at her laissez faire attitude towards her career ambitions. She has a college degree but chooses to do hair from her home, which is a slap in the face to her family. If Fran couldn’t fit their idea of a perfect daughter by marrying a straight man, she could at least be successful. By standing her ground, Fran levels up in a sense, becoming comfortable with each boundary she creates throughout the season.

As a sign of her growth, Fran throws a party for herself celebrating herself and single life with chosen family. Emily (E.R. Fightmaster) is a nonbinary babe who wants to be with Fran, and at the end of the party, in an almost cosmic manner, Emily confides in Fran about their feelings for her, praising her for the queen she is. 

Naturally, when one has been defined based on appearance alone it makes sense that there would be an automatic defensiveness towards anyone trying to become intimate. After so many failed attempts at cultivating any type of relationship, Fran finds herself unable to resist. With her love life seemingly secure, Fran is encouraged by Emily to be open and firm with her family. Once keeping her private life away from them, she finds that she needs their acceptance in order to become comfortable with herself. As an immigrant, Fran being queer is explored through the praxis of first out-of-the-closet generations. Her parents are not quite sure how to interact with her life, but feel isolated in the fact that they are missing out on it. Since they live in England, Fran is able to keep her interpersonal relationships under wraps. Emily encourages Fran to contact her mom one evening while Fran prepares a traditional Nigerian dinner. She is hesitant, but Emily’s gentle push to embrace who she is results into a meeting that was long overdue.

Together, they introduce their relationship to Fran’s mother over a cell phone conversation. This type of isolation or fear of vulnerability is very familiar to me, especially when it comes to revealing the inner workings of my own personal life. Having to face rejection or discrimination due to your identity can be defeating, and Fran created a perfect system and chosen family to support who she is. 

When you encounter a love so pure, after years of disappointment, it can be terrifying. Fran’s reaction to accepting her relationship with Emily relates to how she became comfortable in her bubble with Annie because of their co-dependent nature due to trauma bonding. In the final season, we flashback to college to see how they became intertwined and how they came to rely on each other for support. Annie has an awkward and shameful first time with a man. She is fully clothed for the encounter, having been pressured into the encounter by her thin friends. Annie tries to force herself to become what society wants her to be: sexually attractive. Fran discovers her sexuality in the sweetest of ways, by making out with another beautiful, Black, fat friend by the soda machines. But she is limited due to her case of consistently defending who she is in a world that refuses to give her a crown. While Annie struggles with her relationship with loser Ryan (Luka Bryan), the subtle changes within Fran’s life—moving her business from the comfort of her home to renting a booth in a hip, queer salon in downtown Portland, the prospect of moving into an apartment with Emily, leaving Annie— cause her to feel discomfort within her own self. This is a classic trauma response and is sometimes just a result of the messy transition to adulthood. 

How does one become familiar with happiness when it becomes too good to be true? What happens when you self-sabotage in order to protect yourself? Interestingly, Shrill leaves it to our own imagination, the two friends sharing a bottle of champagne on a park bench. While it is okay to not have it figured out just yet, sometimes the refusal of the new path can result in a sticky, sweet, and bitter acceptance of the familiar. “We can fix it,” Fran suggests. Though her voice doesn’t sound reassuring. Annie, also having sabotaged her prospective relationship by embracing her own insecurities shares the same lukewarm optimism. It all becomes abundantly clear that fairy tale endings are never a part of reality. Sometimes, we are the cause for our own destruction and we can do nothing but accept the consequences of our actions. That’s the vicious cycle of self-sabotaging when the rainbow and riches of love and acceptance are not enough. 

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