Celebrating the fat, queer sex of 'Shrill'

Lolly Adefope and Jessica Henderson in Hulu's 'Shrill'
Lolly Adefope and Jessica Henderson in Hulu's 'Shrill' (Image credit: Hulu)

This post contains spoilers for Shrill.

Unless you are also a fat person, it’s exceedingly difficult to explain why Shrill is one of the most important series in a very long time. Based on Lindy West’s memoir of the same name, Shrill centers on a young journalist named Annie (Aidy Bryant) dealing with a lackluster love life, complicated friendships, a frustrating work environment, all through the lens of existing in the world as a fat person and the unique difficulties that brings along with it. In its third and final season, the show finally gives the audience more insight on Annie’s roommate Fran (Lolly Adefope), and her whirlwind and sometimes messy love life. Fran is Black, fat, queer, and all of the relationships in her life are greatly molded by these intersections. It’s hard enough to get Black, fat, or queer representation on their own, but to have all three in one character is monumental. 

In the earlier seasons, we see Fran as somewhat of an inverse to Annie. The two have been best friends since college, but are in two very different places in their life in regard to their relationships. Annie is still coming to terms with her body sexually, still learning to have a better command of her needs, and still struggling to see her value reflected in the people willing to take her home to bed. On the other hand, Fran is unapologetically queer, extremely comfortable in her fat body, and absolutely relishes her fabulous sex life with equally as partners.

In the first season, Fran and Annie attend a Body Posi pool party, where people of all body types are able to have fun together in a judgement free environment. This is where Fran meets Vic (Melanie Field), a fellow fattie rocking a two piece bathing suit and a jaguar print shawl. “Who is that girl? She is so hot. I have to know her.” Fran is immediately into her, and we as the audience immediately root for Fran to pursue her. Their sexual chemistry is electric, and Fran’s confidence approaching her is unseen outside of fat characters like Melissa McCarthy in Bridesmaids or Fat Amy in Pitch Perfect where the comedy is centered around how unlikely it would be for a fat woman to own their sexuality. Fran’s assertive pursuit of Vic isn’t a punchline, it’s an identical presentation offered to a thin character pursuing a man at a club. Annie spends the pool party adjusting her comfort while surrounded by a hundred other fat bodies, whereas Fran is right at home.

When Fran and Vic finally make moves on one another, it’s effortless. There’s no jokey or awkward navigation of each other’s bodies the way we frequently see in romantic comedies featuring (typically male) a fat person. It’s seamless the way they melt into one another with couch cuddling and kissing--Vic’s midriff constantly visible and Fran’s thighs proudly on display. Vic and Fran’s relationship doesn’t work out, another aspect of queer sexuality we never get to see. The “we’re just like you” assimilation movement birthed out of the quest for marriage equality has scared a lot of entertainment industries away from actually admitting that just like straight people, gay people also go through messy relationships and emotionally devastating breakups. Fran’s breakup with Vic is devastating, but Fran’s response is to instead love and date herself. 

Okay, yes, it sounds immediately cringe to have a fat woman go on some personal eat, pray, love journey, but this journey of self-love for Fran has nothing to do with her queerness or her fatness. She doesn’t have to learn how to be okay with her sexuality, nor does she have to learn how to be okay with her fatness. She is more than just these two aspects of her life, and the only problems she has to navigate surrounding them are having to deal with the other people in her life (namely, her British-Nigerian family) who aren’t far enough on their acceptance journey as Fran would like. 

But even her season of self-love isn’t without sex. As Fran tells us, “I’m masturbating tastefully and sparingly.” Women seldom get to talk about their masturbation habits outside of comedy films, but Shrill allows Fran the autonomy to be as proud of her bedroom habits as her post-breakup emotional release singing “Shallow” at a karaoke bar after getting high and devouring a burrito. The season ends with Fran meeting Em (E.R. Fightmaster), who has arrived to crash “FranFest,” a party thrown to celebrate Fran’s life as a single lady, and immediately tells her how into her they are. Em gives the hot queer version of the TikTok “fuccboi face,” and the two have a steamy makeout session on the side of a house. 

Season 3 starts with Fran and Em together, but it also includes a flashback episode featuring a closeted Fran coming to terms with what she’s always known about herself deep down. The discovery is presented in an incredibly romantic and still very hot makeout session with her friend Dia, played by the openly queer Jessica Henderson. Dia and Fran are both Black, they’re both fat, and they’re both queer. Together—lit by the glowing blues of pop and candy machines—a friendly embrace held a little too long leads to the inevitable. Fran and Dia lean in, their bodies making contact before their mouths meet, and it is both beautiful and totally hot. They kiss, a lot, an eroticism personified in Ritz cracker sandwiches crushed still in its packaging. 

It’s important to note that Fran and Em are completely different body types, as Em is tall and slender, but there’s never any awkwardness about the two navigating one another. As Fran and Em navigate their serious and committed relationship (complete with meeting each other’s families), they also don’t shy away from talking about and showing their sex lives. The duo decide that they have such hot sex, they need to document it by making a private sex-tape. The results are hilariously bad.

Our favorite duo sit back to revel in their tantalizing creation, only to laugh in horror as they realize that from an outside perspective, their sex (like all non-pornographically choreographed sex) looks ridiculous. They poke fun at the awkward noises they make, or the cringe-worthy words of affirmation that slip out in the heat of the moment, but are ultimately still completely obsessed with each other. They have sex for each other—no one else—and even seeing how ridiculous sex can appear outside of the throes of passion, they’re still so turned on by each other.

As a fat person with a tall, slender, and gender nonconforming partner, I had long accepted that the only time I’d ever see representation of a relationship dynamic like mine was going to be in fetish pornography, but Shrill changed all of that. Fran and Em’s sex life isn’t just normalizing sex that looks like the kind I enjoy, it’s also de-stigmatizing it from the decades of social conditioning that has taught us fat bodies are “gross” and impossible to find attractive. Fran is Black, fat, queer, and undeniably sexy, and Shrill won’t ever let us forget it.

BJ Colangelo

BJ Colangelo is an award winning filmmaker and film analyst specializing in dismissed cinema and television. She writes about horror, wrestling, musicals, adult animation, sex and gender, kicking pancreatic cancer’s ass, and being a fat queer in places like Fangoria, Vulture, The Daily Dot, Autostraddle, Playboy.com, and a handful of books college students get assigned to read. She’s also the co-host of the teen girl movie podcast, This Ends at Prom, with her wife, Harmony.