Joy can be so simple, just like the little three letter word itself. A happy puppy, tugging at its leash to meet you. A smile that turns the day around. Someone singing along to a favorite song when they think no one is listening. Yet seeing others revel in joy can do more than just brighten our day. It can change our perception of other people and how they move through the world.
The new Hulu show Shrill stars Aidy Bryant as Annie, an alt-weekly journalist in Portland, Oregon. (The show was created by Bryant, Ali Rushfield, and Lindy West, whose memoir inspired it.) Through the series, we watch Annie as she builds her confidence, stands up for herself, and accepts her body just as it is. The show has been praised for its performances and major storylines, but the little moments of joy can have a big impact too. It’s especially poignant since these are instances that typically don’t get their due. Our lives are made of little happy moments, and they all add up.
In Shrill’s fourth episode, “Pool,” written by Samantha Irby, Annie and her roommate, Fran (Lolly Adefope), head to a fat babe pool party. Annie tells everyone around her that she’s there “as a journalist,” but she’s not on assignment—in fact, her editor has already told her he doesn’t want the story. It’s a hot summer day, but Annie’s shirt is buttoned up to the very top and worn with a pair of black jeans. While Fran gets in the pool, Annie hangs back, not quite sure. There’s an internal battle going on that viewers get a peek at in the beginning of the episode: A quick flashback shows a preteen Annie staying in a hotel room to read instead of joining her family at the pool. She looks with longing as kids her own age run past the closing hotel door.
Back at the pool party, even just walking among the other fat babes puts a small smile on Annie’s face. The bodies around her vary as widely as the bathing suits: an array of colors and shapes, people living comfortably in their own skin. She gets pulled into to a poolside dance party, and at first, she declines, watching the fun from the sidelines, until someone grabs her hand for a second time and brings her back into the fray as Ariana Grande plays in the background.
The dance scene is a blur of beauty, of bodies in motion. In seconds, Bryant’s face goes from intrigue to trepidation to anxiety—and finally, to joy. Her hair flies around her face as Annie lets the music take her away. She dances with the same enthusiasm she felt in the privacy of her own living room surrounded by only her friends, but this is in bright daylight with strangers. There’s nowhere to hide. It’s full, in-the-moment joy. This isn’t happy for a fat girl: It’s happy, period.
Annie’s shell of insecurity is broken, but there’s one last place she still needs to venture.
She sheds those heavy clothes for her bathing suit below and jumps in the pool like she should have done as a child. The camera ducks underwater as Annie swims like a mermaid, the sun cutting through the surface while the legs of fellow swimmers kick around her. She pops up above the surface and looks around at the whole pool full of people living their best lives.
Dancing or swimming may seem like ordinary activities, and they are for straight-size characters. But a simple expression of joy has much greater meaning when it comes from a little-seen point-of-view. Our culture does not encourage carefree living, especially from fat women. To dance and swim and enjoy yourself in the moment without caring about what other people think is a joyful act of rebellion. Compare that to when Fat Monica on Friends would dance—or really, do anything. For a long time, the spectacle of fat women laying aside their inhibitions was a punchline at best, a freak show at worst. For Annie, it’s a way out of what she calls the “mind prison that every woman has been programmed to believe.” Not caring is a way of breaking the unspoken rules. A dance party might not change your life, but it can liberate you.
In the Shrill episode before the pool party, there’s a scene where Annie tries to cross a street but she’s hesitant, letting cars go in front of her, mumbling sorry to no one. She’s afraid to take up space. While she’s still apologizing, a fellow plus-size woman in a striking red jumpsuit crosses the street with confidence. The woman in red walks with a mission, and Annie follows her, mesmerized. The woman stops at a florist to buy herself a bunch of flowers. Annie watches the woman walk away, flowers in hand, and buys a bunch for herself. Maybe these simple moments of joy aren’t the times that define our lives, but they do fill in the cracks. “Pool” ends with little Annie sneaking out of the hotel room in the middle of the night to float in the dark by herself. She found her own joy. And just as seeing the woman in red inspired Annie, Shrill could do the same for a generation of girls growing up right now.