Normalizing the Unthinkable

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A few weeks ago, a new television series called “Shrill” premiered on Hulu. Based on a memoir of the same title by avowed feminist and “fat activist” Lindy West, the show stars Aidy Bryant of “Saturday Night Live” and is produced by Elizabeth Banks.

I wasn’t going to watch the show. Since coming to understand the way pop culture is designed mainly to destroy actual culture, my tolerance for all of it—music, TV, movies—has seriously declined. I find it difficult to be entertained by things that I know are designed to hurt me. Some things cannot be unseen. But when Justin Caruso at Breitbart wrote last week about how the show’s pilot episode (which is supposed to be a comedy) features the main character getting an abortion, I decided to grit my teeth and witness what appeared to be a watershed moment in television history.

If we are to understand how degeneracy is memed into reality by Hollywood, we must understand the narrative devices that writers and directors employ to get the audience on the side of he or she who will eventually do evil.

Building a Bond of Pathos
To the tune of some very Portland-y indie pop, the show opens with a glimpse into the day-to-day life of the main character, Annie. It’s morning. Annie has just returned home from walking her dog and goes to get dressed for the day. She’s overweight. Looking in the mirror, her sweater appears too tight, so she bends down to stretch it with her knees. She goes for her breakfast, which looks like (and looks like it tastes like) alien food, from a package labeled “Thin Menu.” This opening scene sets the tone of the show. Poppy music presents the mundane as endearing. The mix of sweetness and vulnerability pulls the viewer in.

When she arrives at the local coffee shop, Annie sees a cheesy flyer for fitness classes (“Get Toned with Tonya,” it says) tacked to the ad board. Giggling that “Tonya” is pictured kicking a slice of pizza, she takes a picture. Surprisingly, the subject of the flyer actually happens to be there. Tonya approaches Annie, smiling, and offers her her number. As Annie takes the piece of paper, Tonya takes Annie’s wrist and comments, “Wow. You’re wrists are so tiny. You actually have a really small frame,” and then in the most demonic example of foreshadowing I have ever seen, “There is a small person inside of you dying to get out.”

Playing off the awkward encounter, Annie makes a few jokes, which causes some other patrons to tell her that she reminds them of Rosie O’Donnell. She laughs along and thanks them for the non-compliment, but the moment she turns away to leave, the audience can see her mask slip. The defeat and frustration in her eyes is hard felt. Annie seems nice enough, just trying to “live her life” as they say, but a source of deep insecurity for her has just been publicly prodded, both intentionally and unintentionally. It’s a painful moment for Annie and for the audience, who having been invited into the story are now living vicariously through the protagonist.

Annie goes to work. Her boss is a jerk who takes none of her ideas seriously. He won’t let her write the stories she wants to write. She struggles to articulate her desires and he does not take her seriously enough to have patience. More pain.

Then Annie gets a text from someone named Ryan. It says, simply, “Fuck?” So she goes to this guy’s house and the two have perfunctory sex in his dirty apartment. She asks if he would get dinner with her that night. He can’t because he’s “working on a podcast.” Playing off the rejection again, she jokes that he should kill his boss and his entire family. He doesn’t get the joke, and in another extremely creepy moment of ironic foreshadowing, responds, “That’s fucked up. His wife just had a baby.” Ryan makes her leave through the back door, which requires that she hop (and fall over) a fence to exit the backyard. Another painful moment.

All of this rising action sets up a bond of pathos between the audience and Annie. Her character is sweet but flawed in a self-destructive kind of way, which makes her pathetic and endearing. She wants what the audience wants: to be accepted, admired, cherished, needed, and loved. In every effort to fulfill these most basic needs, she fails, generating an increasing level of empathy from the audience who, by the third scene, is rooting for her.

It doesn’t matter that the audience may or may not have experienced in their waking life exactly what Annie experienced in the aforementioned vignettes. Having all at some point felt the sting of rejection, of unrequited desire, or of self-deprecation—this much is sufficient. Annie’s experience is meant to reflect that of the audience, not in form but in substance, and that’s what matters. It doesn’t matter that everyone knows that the reality presented in the television show is in fact simulated. We suspend disbelief, allowing ourselves to be emotionally affected because that is the natural role and function of an audience.

Thus the main character is the lens through which the audience will experience this fictional reality, like a surrogate. The audience and Annie are not simply on the same team; they are effectively, if only for a moment and if only in the mind, the same person. Initially, we see that she wants what we want, and as we settle into our symbiotic experience with her, we come to want what she wants.

Fleeting Moments of Lucidity
Annie learns she is pregnant, which shocks her because she’d been taking emergency contraceptives every time she and Ryan had sex. He preferred it unprotected and she “didn’t want him to stop liking me, so I just went with it.”  The first person she tells about the pregnancy (her fat black lesbian roommate who “doesn’t apologize to white people”) reacts insouciantly: “Get an abortion before it becomes illegal or something.”

Before finalizing the decision, Annie has a moment of lucidity about the situation. She expresses to her roommate her deep fears about motherhood—and the prospect that it won’t be available to her because of the challenges that her weight, her greatest insecurity, pose: “I keep having this little thought of like, this is my chance to be a mom. There have been moments in my life where I didn’t think that I would ever get to have that because of what I looked like or because there is a certain way 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 would be enough for someone.”

Instead of listening to her expressions of genuine fear, the roommate brushes them off entirely. She, in all her intersectional omnipotence, assures Annie that this won’t be her only chance to be a mother. She insists that Annie should not carry the child—and she does use the word “child”—of Ryan the loser.

Annie then visits her parents. Her mother asks her how her diet is going. Her father has cancer. She doesn’t tell them anything about the baby. But as her visit comes to a close, she takes a moment to look at pictures of herself that her parents fixed on the wall. She is reminded of the happy innocence she once had as a child—something she has lost along the way.

And then, sickeningly, the show cuts to the abortion clinic. Her roommate is there to “support” her. And of course, the director ensured there is a mother holding her toddler in the background of the waiting room scene.

“Empowerment” or Evil?
We come to the moment when the abortion takes place. She lies on her back, and the camera is angled directly downward toward her face, a bird’s eye view. God’s eye view. With extremely sterile language, the doctor guides Annie through the procedure. “You might feel some light cramping. You might also feel some numbing.”

I can’t get much further into the scene without feeling actually nauseous. She is killing her child. The child she just expressed at least a modicum of desire to raise. The next morning, she discusses the situation with her roommate. Upon reflection, Annie has realized that the little girl she saw in the picture at her parents’ house needed to be resurrected: “Little me was so happy and fat and had big, dumb dreams. And I got myself into this mess . . . but I made a decision, only for me, and I got myself out of it. I feel very fucking powerful right now.”

Knowing that their exceedingly relatable characters act as a proxy for the viewer, the creators of these kinds of shows force the audience into moral quandaries that should, in fact, never be a question. Creators have the immense power to guide the rationalization of immorality in the minds of the audience, through the created character, by bringing the story to a moral gray zone. Inevitably, gray leads to black.

The abortion is the climax and turning point in Annie’s character arc. Afterward, she stands up for herself to the fitness girl at the coffee shop, to her boss, and to the father of the child she murdered. She finds herself. The outro song goes, “don’t worry about me, I’m doing good, I’m doing great . . .”

Effectively, the main idea of this episode is that the protagonist sacrifices a child to obtain or reclaim the energy of her own inner-child. The symbolism is easy to miss, but it cannot be ignored. It is sick and twisted and evil—but it was delivered in the form of a sugar-coated poison pill. The unthinking audience swallows whatever appears in the trough. Before you blink, a generation of women believes that infanticide is empowering.

This is about normalizing the unthinkable. It is a total inversion of poetic justice, wherein the outcomes of the story reward vice and punish virtue. But our sense of poetic justice is closely tied to our waking notions of justice. This is how public virtue is perverted. Hollywood has infected hearts and minds by concealing a philosophy of death in an aesthetic of pathos.

“Shrill’s” positive depiction of abortion is part of a growing number of television shows and movies determined to normalize the unthinkable. Indeed, depictions of abortion on TV are becoming increasingly callous and casual. Beginning in 2011, Shonda Rhimes’ “Grey’s Anatomy” shocked viewers when one of its main characters aborted her child against the initial wishes of the child’s father. In the fifth season of another popular Rhimes show, “Scandal,” the main character Olivia Pope willfully engages in the procedure to kill her own child to the tune of “Silent Night.” The symbolism, again, is utterly satanic and, no, I don’t think that’s an overstatement.

Human beings require the sublime. What we have in pop culture today is sin disguised as the sublime. Trash exalted as treasure. Little by little, the souls of consumers have been worn down by the content of pop culture. Moment by moment, the unthinkable is becoming the norm. “Shrill” is but a drop in the ocean of democratized degeneracy. The battle for hearts and minds rages on.

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Photo credit: Hulu

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