Several years ago, in the aftermath of the now-infamous Daniel Tosh rape joke ruckus, the then-Jezebel writer and lifelong comedy obsessive Lindy West wrote “How to Make a Rape Joke,” a screed against Tosh and his defenders that went viral, landed West a TV spot debating the comic Jim Norton, earned her a scourge of Twitter hatred, and solidified hers as a major voice in the discourse on identity politics.
The experience also ruined stand-up for her. “The thought of it floods me with a heavy, panicked dread,” writes West in her new memoir-in-essays, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman. “There’s only so much hostility you can absorb before you internalize the rejection, the message that you are not wanted.”
That passage isn’t a great example, but West’s book is actually the ultimate rejoinder to, as she wrote on Jezebel, “defensive comics wailing about how the ‘thought police’ is ‘silencing’ them.” In Shrill, which charts her journey from painfully shy, self-loathing teenager to outspoken, well-adjusted feminist, West is utterly candid and totally hilarious.
She’s also quite moving, writing frankly about the trauma of puberty; her abortion; her struggles to come to terms with her body (“fat” is her term of choice); the deluge of daily harassment she receives as an opinionated female writer online; the death of her father; and her roller coaster love affair with the man who is now her husband. Interspersed, West offers readers a backstage pass to her high-profile Internet kerfuffles. In what she jokingly calls the “Lindy West origin story,” she publically took on Dan Savage, her then-boss at the Seattle alt-weekly newspaper The Stranger, for his self-righteous diatribes against fat people. More recently, when one of her many Twitter trolls cruelly began impersonating her dead father, West sought out her tormentor and interviewed him in a strange and painfully honest segment for This American Life.
In an age in which Internet umbrage is almost as rampant as Internet trolling, West, as funny as she is incisive, distinguishes herself as a writer who cuts to the heart of the matter. Shrill is no exception. The author chatted with Vogue.com by phone about writing her memoir, calling people out, and why the Internet is ultimately a good thing.
You’ve made a name for yourself publishing these brave pieces on the Internet. How does publishing a book compare?
There’s a lot more at stake. A blog post kind of disappears, once you stop tweeting about it. But a book is a real physical thing that is in stores. People spend money on it.
I was definitely more vulnerable in this than I’ve been before. I didn’t realize until a couple of friends read it. They were like, “Whoa, you really went for it!”
The title Shrill is so good. Did you have it from the outset?
My husband came up with it, which he has been gleefully reminding me of every time someone compliments it. I don’t totally remember [why]. I’m sure some Internet troll called me shrill.
I read a piece where you discussed that: Writing about your daily struggle with Internet trolls is a way of combating them, but it also gives them the time of day. How do you contend with that paradox?
I like talking back to Internet trolls. I want them to feel embarrassed and feel that there are consequences for harassing me.
[But] the fact that this has become part of my beat is really frustrating. It takes time away from the work that I could be doing. They’re trying to distract me by harassing me, then I’m further distracted by trying to combat this distraction in my work. The whole thing sucks. Unfortunately, we have to keep talking about and trying to fix it, because in my opinion, it’s actively driving female voices off the Internet.
You know what I would like? I would like men to pick up some of the slack and try to fix Internet trolling. I don’t really feel like I should have to be victimized by it and also spend all my time trying to fix it.
One of the lines from the book that really stuck with me: “Feminism is really just the long slow realization that the things you love hate you.”
Total bummer. Misogyny in comedy ruined stand-up for you. Are there things you still engage with even though the gender politics are screwed up? Where do you draw the line?
There’s no way to draw a line that’s really ethically sound and still have a fun life. All you can do is support media that manages to be both socially responsible and good. I don’t want to promote someone just because they made the thing that doesn’t have an objectified boob in it. You want to still be entertained.
I think there’s this idea that to be a fan you have to have this blind allegiance. There should be criticism and discussion. I just finished the second season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt. I really adore so many things [about that show], and there are things about it that are so uncomfortable. There are a lot of things about race that are clumsily done. It’s really cavalier with other people’s historic trauma. So it was hard to watch, because I don’t want to give up my Titus for these other principles, but they’re both important to me. Certainly when I talk about it with friends, we always come back to: “Oh, man, I wish I didn’t have to have these reservations about this show.” And I don’t know what that accomplishes, except to keep the idea in people’s heads that you don’t have to just accept art without comment.
I wrote about the second season of Kimmy Schmidt, and about how Tina Fey made a really big point that she’s not interested in responding to Internet backlash.
I love Tina Fey. I love so many things that Tina Fey has made. I don’t expect her personally to listen to me. I do feel like having these conversations out there in the public sphere eventually has a cumulative effect. You might be defensive now, but maybe next time you make something, you remember, Oh, this really didn’t sit right with a lot of people.
Reading books like yours can make a difference, too. I just watched Chelsea Handler’s new talk show and was suddenly hyperaware of how many of her jokes are at the expense of fat people. It was upsetting to realize that’s something I might not have noticed but for Shrill.
It’s everywhere. That’s really interesting for me to hear. When you write about identity politics, people come out of the woodwork to be like: “No one cares, this is boring, stop talking about yourself, people don’t really hate fat people.“
I don’t know what it feels like not to be a fat person. I don’t know what you perceive, and whether people really are aware of how relentless the messaging is that we’re garbage.
You can just apply the same thing as a white person. I admit that I probably don’t perceive every instance of the sort of subtle, veiled racism that people of color are absorbing all the time. That’s why I think writing about identity is important: It generates empathy.
You include a chapter about the time you took on your then-boss Dan Savage about his fat-phobic crusade against obesity. Were you nervous to revisit that?
I was really nervous. Dan and I are on good terms. Nobody likes other people writing about them.
A former colleague from The Stranger read some early drafts. I asked, “Should I not put this in?” He said, “This is the Lindy West origin story!” It’s the first time that I did this thing that I now do all the time.
Calling people out on their bullshit?
Exactly. Swallowing my fear and doing it because it’s the right thing to do. It really changed the course of my career, and also the course of my personal life. So I emailed Dan and was like, “I have to put this in the book. I want you to know that I really am actually grateful that we had that exchange. It meant a lot to me. No hard feelings. I think I’m really nice to you in the chapter. I hope you agree. Please don’t be mad at me. Bye.” And he wrote back and was like: “Oh, yeah, I figured you’d write about that. Let me know if you want to come on the podcast to promote the book that you trash me in.” Which was funny.
The point of this chapter is not to trash Dan. What ended up happening is that we moved forward, we made progress. And I think he’s done a really good job since then when he writes about fat people. That’s hard to do.
The Internet has been central to your ability to get your voice out there. But you’ve also been witness to its darkest corners. Do you ultimately wish you had come of age as a writer in a different era?
My first job [at The Stranger] was for print. I don’t think my career would have exploded without people being able to easily access my writing for a regional weekly alternative newspaper in Seattle. The Internet has been really good for my career, and it’s also been a great way to reach people who need to hear the kinds of things I’m writing. I get so many emails from women all over the world who say: “No one’s ever told me that my body is not an abomination. That really means a lot to me.” So for all its deep, terrifying flaws, I wouldn’t give up the Internet. I hesitate to say this, but I think it’s a net gain.
No pun intended?
Right! I’m happy with where I am. I have selfish moments where I’m like, God, remember when a cranky old man had to sit down with a piece of paper and write you a letter and mail it to your office? That was great.
What are your hopes for this book?
I just hope it’ll give people permission to feel okay. We waste so much time trying to live up to these artificial standards. It puts your life on hold. That’s how my life used to be: I didn’t think it could start until I fixed my body. That was such a waste of time.
I also just want people to enjoy reading it. I tried to make it a really funny, engaging, entertaining book, and I hope I succeeded. All I really want is to make people laugh, and then for them to tell me that I’m funny. That’s so pathetic.
I hope the fact that it’s entertaining will draw people in who might not normally be drawn to a book with positive messaging about bodies and feminism. I hope I can trick some people into reading it.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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