Powell’s Interview: Lindy West, Author of “Shrill”
by Rhianna Walton
In a broadening field of smart, comedic feminist essayists, Lindy West stands out for her authenticity, her vulnerability, and the clarity of her arguments. West is a columnist for The Guardian and a freelance journalist who has written for Jezebel, GQ, and Seattle’s The Stranger. She is also a performer and founder of the #ShoutYourAbortion campaign and the advice blog for teens I Believe You / It’s Not Your Fault.
In her new memoir, Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman (also subtitled Women Are Funny, It’s Okay to Be Fat, and Feminists Don’t Have to Be Nice), West traces her coming of age in a culture that can be hostile to women, especially those whose bodies and beliefs run counter to social norms. Raucous and candid, whip smart and hilarious, West’s anecdotes and analyses of being female in America are thought-provoking and accessible. It was my great pleasure to speak with Lindy about Shrill and her path to self-love and feminist advocacy.
Rhianna: I read recently that you use comedy to draw readers into your essays, helping to ensure that they stay with you as you segue into more political or intellectual material. Does the autobiographical component of Shrill serve a similar function?
West: Yeah, I think so. The power of personal storytelling is really strong. Part of the explicit purpose of this book was to humanize feminists, and humanize fat people, and deliberately draw people in to me as a person, make people like me because I’m charming or whatever, hopefully. Then say, “Ha, ha, you like a feminist,” or “You like a fat person.”
Letting people know you as a human being is really, really powerful. Comedy and autobiography aren’t really separate for me. I definitely feel like I write humor about myself. I guess combining them is one of the more powerful things that I do in my work or that I’ve discovered in terms of getting the point across.
When I did my This American Life episode about Internet trolls, I and other female writers, especially people who are really active on Twitter, had been asking for help for years. We’d been compiling data. We’d been writing essays. We’d been begging these tech companies like Twitter to figure out ways to protect us when we’re online.
Nothing ever came of it. I did this story on This American Life that’s really personal more than anything. There’s no data in there. There’s no technical jargon. It’s just a personal story. Within days of it coming out, we had this memo from the Twitter CEO saying, “We have to fix this.” There’s something about making yourself vulnerable and really baring who you are as a human being that connects with people in a profound way.
One of the explicit purposes of Shrill is to tell a personal story in a way that connects with people in hopes of maybe changing their minds about a couple of issues.
Rhianna: You’re well known as a writer who doesn’t shirk from creative metaphors for sex and body parts or using culturally taboo words like “vagina” or “period.” It’s a really powerful strategy because it highlights how rare it is to read about bodies, especially female bodies, without everything being couched in euphemism or shamed in some way, but sometimes the language you choose seems pointedly crass, like when you use the word “hole” to refer to your vagina. What’s the relationship between the language you choose and the arguments you’re making about gender and bodies?
West: First of all, I’m just trying to be funny a lot of the time. Being funny is important to me. Second, I’m really put off by dishonesty, and euphemisms are often dishonest. I think that we could all be served by talking about things in a clearer, more honest way — to actually say what we mean instead of dancing around some of these topics. Especially when you’re talking about taboos that confine women’s lives in a lot of ways. If you can’t talk about periods or vaginas in a frank way, how can you trust your culture to take care of you?
I also chafe at empty standards of morality that don’t mean anything. People accuse me of being a censor for being critical of certain ideas, but I’m very critical of… how do I phrase this? I swear a lot in my writing, because the pearl-clutching, negative reaction to swearing is nonsense. It’s just hollow etiquette that we use to make ourselves feel superior to other people or to stratify people by class or whatever you want to call it. I reject those ideas in an aggressive way.
There are certain things that I don’t say because those things are harmful and cruel and uphold systems of oppression, but the taboo against swearing is meaningless. I also think it’s definitely gendered. I get so much criticism for swearing, as an adult woman. I guarantee you my male peers don’t get people sending them emails being like, “I like your work, but the language that you use is a little vulgar. Do you have to use so many swears?”
There’s definitely something gendered in that women are supposed to be meek and gentle and pretty, even in our words, even in our speech. Using ugly speech, to me, feels like my one little feminist rebellion.
Rhianna: Your writing refers to disenfranchised and disembodied groups beyond women, like the LGBTQ community, racial minorities, and people who fall outside of America’s rigid idea of body size. Has 21st-century feminism evolved to incorporate everyone victimized by patriarchy?
West: Sure. It’s changing all the time. If you’re advocating for women, that means that you’re advocating for queer women, and women of color, and impoverished women, and sex workers. There isn’t a way to do it responsibly without being intersectional, because then you’re erasing those groups, and you’re ignoring them, and you’re not serving their needs.
Probably the biggest problem with feminism throughout its history is that it has been perceived publicly as sad white women who are trapped in domestic lives that they don’t want. Which is a legitimate concern, but it’s not comprehensive.
It’s very damaging to pretend that’s what womanhood is. To define womanhood as white women’s experience. It’s the responsibility of feminists — especially white feminists — to be conscious and hold themselves accountable and make sure that they’re always listening and making space for people from these other groups. Women and people of color are not separate. When we talk about women’s issues and then race issues separately, it’s really dangerous ground, because it erases people whose lives are not compartmentalized like that.
Rhianna: At a literary moment when feminist writers like Kate Bolick and Rebecca Traister are exploring the ideas of spinsterhood and remaining unmarried, I found it really interesting that your marriage to Aham is central to Shrill’s autobiographical story arc. Are you subverting the traditional marriage plot?
West: I don’t generally write about my relationship. I don’t write about sex. There are a lot of things that I do in this book that I didn’t ever plan to do. I have absolutely zero interest in writing a book where, like, the moral of the story is that you can get a boyfriend and get married at the end. But as I was writing, the story just came out that way.
I don’t mean that the moral of the story came out that way, but that story just found its way into the book because it combined all of these things. It was about my sense of self and figuring out how to unlearn self hatred. It was about my dad’s death. It was about figuring out where I am in my career. All of those things were happening at that exact time. It was also about growing up, figuring out that I can survive this unbelievably painful moment in my life and move on, and be stronger and more myself than I was before.
To me, the marriage plot is incidental. That’s just what was going on at the time. It’s more about me figuring out how to be okay in myself that made that marriage possible. It’s not like, “I found a magical man who fixed me.” It was like, “I fixed myself and then incidentally this thing happened that is so great.” [Laughter]
It’s not like, “Oh, I lost weight, and then I was happy,” which is how stories like that often go, and how I always pictured it going for myself. It’s not like my marriage made me whole. I made myself whole and then I found this relationship. The relationship doesn’t make my life worthwhile. It’s the opposite.
One of the things that I love about feminism is that it’s a collection of individual human beings. You can wind up in this traditional mode of a relationship, without believing that that’s the best, that there’s one model, that that’s the way relationships should be. I just happened to have ended up like this.
Rhianna: I sometimes worry that women are the only consumers of popular feminist writing. Do you anticipate having male readers for this book? In what ways, if any, did you structure the book for a male audience?
West: I tried really hard to make sure that it comes off as a book first, and a woman’s book second. Not because there’s anything wrong with a woman’s book, but I don’t know that we should be segregating women’s writing and marketing it only to women. I think that’s destructive in a way.
Obviously, I’m writing to women in a pretty direct way. I want to help women. I want to be a voice that speaks to women and hopefully helps women feel a little bit less alone, or whatever you want to take from it.
I also think that it would be great if men read this book. Making something funny, as we already talked about, is a very powerful way to draw people in. I tried to just make it a really funny book on top of being political and personal in the ways that it is. I just wanted it to be a deeply enjoyable thing to read.
I also had some demands about the design. I didn’t want it to be pink. I didn’t want it to have a shoe on the cover. Not that there’s anything wrong with people who have pink books with shoes on the cover. I really wanted it to feel literary and not super-gendered.
I don’t think that the way we consume gender politics should be so gendered, because a lot of these issues that we’re talking about are men’s issues to fix. Leaving the responsibility solely on the shoulders of women is insulting and it’s very debilitating for us. It’s exhausting. It’s a drain on our time and energy, and it’s also impossible. If there are things that men are doing, behavior patterns that men are exhibiting, men need to be on the front lines of fixing that.
Rhianna: You write really powerfully about the paradoxical way in which women are cut off from our bodies — because we’re taught that our body functions are gross, or that exercising autonomy over our reproductive organs is prudery at best and murder at worst — and yet at the same time, we’re taught that our worth resides mostly in physical beauty. What roles do body positivity and fat acceptance activism play in changing women’s relationships to their bodies, and how might these changes lead to a more equal society? I know that’s a huge question. [Laughter]
West: Yeah. I think they give women permission to exist, even in just a state of rest, where you’re not spending every second thinking about what you’re eating, or what you’re going to eat, or what you did eat and feeling guilty, and worrying about when you’re going to exercise, and mentally running your hands over your body and cataloging the problems. That frees up so much mental energy and so much time.
If you can just give women permission to exist without criticism. We know that this is deliberate. People make women feel insecure to take our money. Money is powerful. When women have less money, we have less power. We have less autonomy. It just ripples in so many directions.
I definitely think that body positivity and bodily autonomy are central to feminism.
Rhianna: Shrill contains footnotes, which provide additional anecdotes and funny asides. It reminded me of the way you engage with your readers online and on Twitter. The conversation never really stops, which is awesome because it’s really entertaining and enlightening, but it’s a little sad, too, because it implies that your fundamental argument — that women matter — requires constant defense. Can you talk a little bit about both including footnotes and why you engage with reader comments?
West: The footnotes are just a manifestation of my writing process and thought process. There’s a lot of free association when I’m writing. I like to explore these weird little avenues that my brain goes down. I just feel like it’s another way of getting to know me, if that makes sense. Most of the footnotes are just jokes. They’re jokes that didn’t work in line in the text. I was like, I don’t want to waste this joke, so I just threw it down there. I wish there was a more elegant and meaningful reason. [Laughter] It really was just an extra joke repository.
I engage with comments for several reasons. It’s not like you win an argument with an Internet troll. It’s just there are people working all the time to discredit women and silence women’s voices, and so you do have to be hypervigilant and stay on it all the time. Although you could argue that it doesn’t really accomplish anything to argue with one random dude on Twitter, I think what it does accomplish is it gives other women a script for people like that in their lives, maybe in their real lives, not their online lives. If I can shut down some shady trolls, that’s providing a model for how to do it. Maybe emboldening people, emboldening women to really believe that it’s possible, like it’s possible to speak up for yourself and it’s powerful to do that. So that’s one reason.
I’m not sold on the idea that that kind of performative arguing doesn’t have an effect. I’m obsessed with the notion of creating and enforcing consequences for messaging online. If you want to reach out to me and say something shitty, I will bite you. This is not a consequence-free hobby for you.
There are a lot of consequences for women to exist online and very few for the men who want to harass us. I don’t know. People want to say that it doesn’t accomplish anything and it’s a waste of my time and energy. I’m just not feeling that yet. It still feels important to me.
Getting a reputation for not being a safe person to troll is incrementally helpful. It changes the way that people interact with me and hopefully, by extension, with women online in general. That’s another reason.
Also, sometimes it’s just fun. It’s just satisfying. I get so many shitheads dropping into my feed to be horrible. Most of the time, I’m a better writer than those people. I’m cleverer than those people because that’s my job. It’s just satisfying to crush them once in a while. It’s cathartic, because we don’t have a lot of recourse and we don’t get a lot of satisfaction in this battle. Sometimes I honestly just do it for fun.
Wait, I have one more reason. The other reason is that it draws attention to the problem. I have a lot of male followers who see me engage with the hundredth troll that week or whatever and say, “Oh my God. I had no idea the scale of what you’re dealing with.” That I also think is valuable.
Rhianna: In a 2015 Guardian piece on Julian Assange, you wrote that, “2015 might turn out to be the year of sticking up for the goddamn ladies.” Are you pleased with where our society is headed in terms of gender and body equality?
West: I think so. It’s always hard to see it in the moment, because change is so slow. We didn’t listen to Cosby’s accusers for 40 years, and now that’s sort of become a given in the mainstream. Like, Okay, we believe these people.
That doesn’t mean… There are so many rape victims who are called liars and ignored and whose rapists are not convicted. That’s still a huge problem. But at least the idea that sometimes women aren’t lying is starting to take root, which is the least satisfying, most horrifying level of minuscule change to be excited about. I can’t really be excited about it. But you have to at least recognize that something’s a little bit different. This is maybe the pace that we have to count on, I don’t know.
But at the same time, reproductive rights are as bad as they’ve ever been, are just still constantly being rolled back. We still have massive problems with rape and abuse and harassment, all these issues. I don’t need to list them. Everything’s still pretty bad. But I do feel like… I just had this experience the other day where I was reading through old emails. Some female comedian had sent me an email five years ago that was like, “Thank you so much for writing this thing about comedy. I can’t say anything in my community because I’ll be blacklisted from all the clubs.” Now it’s not like that. We’ve been bold enough and public enough with some of these conversations, and weathered enough backlash, that now conversations about social justice and sexism and racism are normal, even if they’re not received with a lot of affection.
There are enough voices now that you don’t just get laughed off. I don’t want to make proclamations about this, because it’s different, I’m sure, in every community and for every person. But I definitely have felt a couple of small shifts just within the span of my relatively short career. At least, it used to be really, really unfashionable to ever bring up feminism, to ever say, “I didn’t like this joke.” You would just get ripped to shreds immediately. We’ve carved out enough space that you can at least have a conversation about, what’s wrong with this joke? Is this worth making? Does it hurt people? Do we want to hurt people? There’s at least enough space to have the conversation, even if the conversations themselves haven’t become particularly productive yet.