“Shrill” and the End of Settling for Less

As a card-toting member of the Lindy West Fan Club, watching the newest Hulu series based on her 2016 best-selling book, Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman, was a no-brainer.

Much has been written about how “Shrill” is changing stereotypes about how “women of size” eat. Many reveled in the chance to watch a “fat babe pool party.” Some have even claimed that West started a “Fatness Revolution.” Beyond body size, the show also approaches revolution in how it confronts other topics—including the decision to give viewers a glimpse into an ordinary abortion and expose them to the onslaught of trolling women writers face.

But the narrative in “Shrill” that most resonated with me was that of a woman striving to make herself “easy enough” to love—and realizing she was playing a losing game.

Fifteen minutes into the first episode of “Shrill,” Annie Easton (played by “Saturday Night Live” phenom Aidy Bryant) admits to her roommate that she has been having unprotected sex with a guy she is seeing, and she needs to pick up some emergency contraception. “He liked me, and I didn’t want him to stop liking me,” she explains, “so I just went with it.”

Women receive subtle and not-so-subtle messaging about how to make themselves most palatable for potential partners every single day. We have learned to be masters in “impression management,” afraid to voice our full opinions or expose our eccentricities. Some experts point a finger at “princess syndrome” for reinforcing traditional gender roles—with the female as a prize to be won, and Prince Charming promising to take care of them for life. Such social scripts rely on “idealistic” love based on fantasy and emotion, rather than “realist” love rooted in rationality and practicality.

But those narratives don’t seem to be quite right for Annie—who explains her overly accommodating behavior as the result of a deeply rooted, people-pleasing disposition. 

“There have been moments in my life where I didn’t think that I would ever get to have that [a romantic relationship],” Annie admits, “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. 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.”

This sounded familiar to me. I interviewed women from 15 institutions of higher learning across the country—from small, private liberal arts colleges like Colgate University to large, public universities like the University of Alabama—in order to write my forthcoming book, The Effortless Perfection Myth. Many of them confessed to me that they strongly identify with the the concept of making themselves “easy enough to love.”

For a recent Duke University graduate, being “easy enough” to love is about dialing back inner emotions to be more palatable for friends and family. “I can get really excited about small things, and passionate or maybe teary-eyed,” she explained, “and sometimes I feel deeply about stuff that others seem to have shut themselves off to, like certain injustices or traumas, and I find myself almost feeling emotions on behalf of others. But I’m not allowed to show it.”

One student from the University of Pennsylvania described being consumed by the need to accommodate others.“Literally my entire life—from childhood friendships, to family relationships, to professional partnerships—I feel like I’ve always tried to make other people’s lives easier,” she told me, “by silently taking things on and helping out others without admitting when I am struggling and need help, too.”

Both report they feel their tendency toward excessive compliance and “chill-ness” has to do with wanting to never be a source of conflict, and avoiding being any kind of a burden to others at all costs—even if it means making things more difficult for themselves.

Society has strong expectations that women act more communitarian, while men are given freedom to act on more individualistic principles. Women receive greater social sanctions for acting outside these prescribed gender roles—think Serena Williams in the 2018 U.S. Open Finals, or Hillary Clinton in every political interaction ever.

These expectations are shaping the experiences of young women like those I spoke to—many of whom expressed to me that they want society to foster space for them to comfortably express themselves more fully, even when the feelings they are putting out into the world connote a less than happy-go-lucky, smiling person. Instead, many young women report they feel the need to coach themselves through moments where they are asking for things from others, no matter how small, because being “demanding like that” makes them feel less likeable and less loveable.

My research suggests that much of this links back to “Effortless Perfection”—the expectation many of today’s young women feel to come across as “smart, accomplished, fit, beautiful and popular… without visible effort.” Effortless Perfection has infiltrated so far into their psyches that they cannot help but think of love and affection as something that must constantly earn from others—by making themselves smart enough, pretty enough, popular enough, agreeable enough

In each episode of “Shrill,” Annie slowly but surely pushes back against this narrative. And viewers learn to love her for it.

As we watch her relationship with her “sort of” boyfriend unravel, we are prompted to think about what actually counts as affection. We are primed to make the connection that love cannot fully be felt by the receiver when the receiver believes such things only come as the result of measuring up to an ideal, or when the receiver believes every bit of love they receive must be earned through vigilant micromanagement of their own nature. 

Love is being seen for all of you—your good intentions, your honest efforts, your sincere vulnerability. If Annie can teach us that alone, it would be enough.


Caralena Peterson is a high school teacher, writer and visual artist. She is at work on the forthcoming book The Effortless Perfection Myth. You can follow her on Instagram at @caralenapeterson or @badasscreative_.