Soraya Roberts | Longreads | March 2019 | 8 minutes (2,283 words)
There’s a thing my psychiatrist likes to say in response to anyone who hints at the idea that they might one day be cured of whatever it is that makes them who they are: Weave your parachute every day; don’t wait until you need to jump out of the plane. It’s a paraphrased quote from Jon Kabat-Zinn, widely recognized as the father of mindfulness in the clinical sphere (this involves the secular meditation you get in a hospital as opposed to a yoga studio, though it is originally adapted from Buddhism). The program he developed in the ’70s, mindfulness-based stress reduction, is used for everything from pain and depression to what I have, which is severe anxiety. It’s kind of hard to explain what the program looks like practically, but basically, it’s rooted in meditation that cultivates awareness of your thoughts and your body, which ultimately allows you to choose your actions more deliberately. To an extent. Mindfulness doesn’t exactly alter how you think — a lot of shitty thoughts are just kind of automatic — and it doesn’t modify your fundamental personality. But it gives you a modicum of choice.
I’ve been doing this for five years and I will have to keep doing it until I’m dead. I’m not jazzed about it either. The point — and the point of that parachute quote — is that this is an ongoing, lifelong thing. It does not take three hours, it does not take a week. Those units of time may sound arbitrary but they refer to three recent examples of self-actualization presented as a switch, as something you can virtually just decide. Most notably, Shrill, the Hulu series adapted from Lindy West’s Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, in which Aidy Bryant plays a fat pushover who in six 30-minute episodes learns to stand up for herself. But also After Life, Ricky Gervais’s Netflix series — also made up of six 30-minute episodes — in which a grieving widower with no filter learns how to be happy again. And Queer Eye, the reboot that just returned to Netflix for a third season, which follows eight people learning how to love themselves … inside of a week.
Welcome to the new makeover scene, which, in the age of branded self-improvement, replaces a little lipstick with a little affirmation, and voilà! Your aspirational insides match your aspirational outsides.
It’s hard to change when you can’t define what it is you are changing, and that’s kind of where Shrill sits. While West’s book is overflowing with personality, if Annie (Bryant) even has one to speak of, it lies somewhere between her fixed smile and the occasional flash of injury at being serially mistreated, which is to say: She doesn’t really have one? Annie is virtually impenetrable in the wake of very real microaggressions and just plain aggressions that are targeted at fat people on a daily basis. “Cool” is her go-to response, with little more to indicate her actual thoughts or feelings beyond the kind of camera-ready monologue New Yorker critic Emily Nussbaum likened, on the page, to a Dove ad. The result is an (ironically) superficial character with all the accoutrements of success — weight aside — who plays as a mere conduit for an increasingly fleshed-out depiction of fatphobia. In the literal first episode, we watch Annie have unprotected sex because a “raw-dogging” hipster moron wants to — “I didn’t want him to stop liking me so I just went with it” is part of another telegenic monologue that reads better than it reveals — and sort of get annoyed when she realizes the pharmacy didn’t inform her (seven times) that the morning-after pill doesn’t work for her weight, which means she has to get a literal abortion. Then, moving right along, she suddenly starts dancing and saying, “I’m afraid that I’m feeling myself.” Wait, what? Per Vanity Fair’s Sonia Saraiya, in the rare Shrill critique, “I believe it’s possible to wake up one day and decide to ask for better treatment from the world; I don’t believe that decision happens without some angst, somehow, somewhere.”
So, not only is the show starting from a fuzzy personality, it’s unclear what is making this moving target start to transform. Or even if she really has beyond everyone’s repeated insistence (“I’m different”). The press around Shrill has played into this narrative, filling in the show’s lacunae with its creators’ intentions. Bryant told The New York Times that Shrill gave her “an interior makeover,” for instance. “[Annie] has style, she’s cool, she has personality, she’s smart, and she’s funny — but she can’t see any of it,” she added to Elle. “I think that’s a new kind of mess to look at. An internal mess.” Meanwhile, the show’s abortion scene has been sold as Annie’s awakening. “It’s an important turning point in her life,” writer West told Vanity Fair. “She is in this process of growing up and realizing that she can make proactive decisions for herself that make her life better.” Whether it’s the way Shrill is performed, or written, or directed — with only two months to write and two months to film, maybe the speed factored in — the moment plays as unremarkable.
Shrill walks around in the body of Bryant, being ostensibly transgressive, until it starts to look more and more like this might be a case of “the rep sweats,” interpreted by one Twitter user as “representation sweats aka ‘I don’t know if I like this, but I need it to win.’” But is it enough of a win that the show features a fat woman who isn’t a punchline if that fat woman is being shoved into a palatable package of hot outfits, hottish career, and, um, no internal life (hot?)? “Aidy has an innate optimism that I think makes you root for her no matter what,” Shrill producer Elizabeth Banks told The Hollywood Reporter. “And we knew that we were going to have controversial subject matter in the show, and we just wanted a lovable heroine.” OK, but the character comes from a book subtitled Notes from a Loud Woman. The very point of that book is that West is deemed by the world to be unpalatable — as big internally as she is externally — but deserves to flourish in it anyway. And as much as the writer has insisted that her show is not archetypically cosmetic — “At no point in the course of this series will the protagonist step on a scale and look down and sigh,” she told the Times — Shrill’s heroine is still painted simplistically. There is still a makeover. And the transformation is nowhere near as subversive as suggesting an outsize woman, in every sense of the word, is valuable; instead it’s buying into the banal wellness mantra of loving yourself despite everyone else.
That is not to say epiphanies don’t exist. There is no change without the realization of what has to be changed first, whether that comes in a flash or over the course of several years. That’s kind of the easy part (it’s not easy); actually evolving is the thing that takes time and daily upkeep. Which is part of the problem with Queer Eye. Marketed as “more than a makeover,” the Netflix series has been praised for improving the lives of its subjects both outside and in. The problem is that this implies fixing the outside is equivalent to fixing the inside. While a shy low-income barbecue entrepreneur is clearly transformed beyond her appearance when she is given new teeth — she no longer has to hide, in any way — when a socially awkward gamer has his life dressed up, it doesn’t appear to penetrate beyond the surface. Meanwhile, a program director at a wilderness camp who doesn’t really wash and lives in a dilapidated and filthy trailer seems to have a real come-to-Jesus moment when he sees how he should be behaving as a dad, but the underlying roots of his previous alcoholism don’t really surface.
It’s hard to fault a show with such good intentions, but Queer Eye brushes over the fact that not only does it take time to acknowledge who you are, it is even harder to evolve. I was particularly irked by an episode in which the self-deprecating humor of a groom named Robert was pathologized to the point that it was presented as the manifestation of all of his bad experiences growing up. “You really make me want to not have to self deprecate,” he tells the guys at the end of the episode, before telling his bride, “When you stand next to me you’ll actually see someone that loves themself.” And this is how it goes over and over: We are left with a bunch of people bidding us farewell with interchangeable bromides about self-love, a one-size-fits-all internal Band-Aid paired with, paradoxically, more personalized external surgery.
The idea of aspiring to a decorative Pottery Barn pillow in order to improve oneself does not entirely throw to After Life but it doesn’t entirely not. In Ricky Gervais’s new show, he plays Tony, a widower whose caustic wit is styled as a choice he made when his wife died and he was left caring about no one, least of all himself. “If I become an asshole and I do and say what the fuck I want for as long as I want and then when it all gets too much, I can always kill myself,” Tony explains to his brother-in-law. “It’s like a superpower.” (“That’s the worst superhero I’ve ever heard of” is the reply.) Five episodes into the six-episode series, when Tony’s brother-in-law threatens to keep his nephew away from Tony, it plays as a rock-bottom moment. “I’m in fucking pain all the time and I do shit like this because it makes me feel better for a split second,” Tony confesses, his voice breaking, recalling the self-effacing groom in Queer Eye. Following encouragement from two women, in the finale Tony is a changed man, thanking everyone in his office, one by one, for their support. It’s a cloying letdown that made me wonder why Tony couldn’t have just been as much of an asshole as Gervais himself with the conflict being his need as a widower to lean on the very people he has alienated. Sort of the way Gervais relies on Twitter for his material even though Twitter hates him. Like, how does that effect you? Or not?
One of the more disheartening (and there are many) things to hear your psychiatrist say in response to how difficult it is for you to change is: Think about how long you have been this way and think about how hard it is to break a habit. The apparent insurmountability of, well, yourself is one of the reasons it’s so frustrating to see people’s internal lives being characterized as just another thing to easily make over. In The New Yorker last year, Alexandra Schwartz wrote a feature entitled “Improving Ourselves to Death” on the estimated 10-billion-dollar-a-year self-help industry. “We are being sold on the need to upgrade all parts of ourselves, all at once, including parts that we did not previously know needed upgrading,” she wrote, adding to the list of marketable qualities, “niceness, which the gig economy and its five-star rating system have made indispensable to everyone from cabdrivers to plumbers.” So not only is everything fodder for improvement, that improvement is immediately accessible with money, which inevitably buys you the affability of Shrill, Life After, and Queer Eye.
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That formula is so misrepresentative that not even the people behind those shows embody it. A recent Cut profile of Lindy West notes that her identifiable core personality remains but that she has spent time maturing. “She says her work, and her thinking, have gotten more sophisticated over the years,” writes Madeleine Aggeler. “That same barbed sense of humor that got her so much attention hasn’t gone anywhere, but she is more cautious with it now.” Last year, Queer Eye cohost Jonathan Van Ness, meanwhile, personified the difficulty of respecting our various iterations. “After my stepdad passed away I gained 70 pounds in 3 months,” he wrote on Instagram. “I didn’t like how I felt or looked, it’s so important for me to look back and tell that man from 5 years ago he was lovely and gorge. I can celebrate where I am now as long as I send love to the ‘me’s’ along the way.” And then there’s Ricky Gervais, whose recent Q&A with David Marchese is an exercise in how hard it is to be self-aware, let alone to change:
Marchese: How do you reconcile your need to be an outsider with the fact that you’re clearly not one anymore?
Gervais: I can still be an outsider by reminding people that the Establishment hates me.
Marchese: They can’t hate you that much. You make TV shows. You play arenas.
But disliking Gervais’s or West’s or Queer Eye’s self-deprecating groom’s personalities is not the same as pathologizing them. As Schwartz noted, in the book Selfie: How We Became So Self-Obsessed and What It’s Doing to Us, Will Storr encapsulates the more complicated reality of self-improvement: It’s not always clear what you should adjust (if you should at all), it’s a lifetime of work, and in the end, you aren’t actually transformed — but you are living more honestly. As Storr wrote: “Since I learned that low agreeableness and high neuroticism are relatively stable facets of my personality, rather than signs of some shameful psychological impurity, I’ve stopped berating myself so frequently.” I want that on a pillow.
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Soraya Roberts is a culture columnist at Longreads.