Book review: Shrill, by Lindy West
That period—when I was wholly myself, effortlessly certain, my identity still undistorted by the magnetic fields of culture—was so long ago that it’s beyond readily accessible memory. I do not recall being that person.
Lindy West has written boldly and bluntly – but not actually shrilly – on all manner of cultural, artistic, and feminist topics for newspapers like Seattle’s The Stranger and blogs like Jezebel. Along the way she’s managed to draw the ire of a number of internet trolls pissed off at both her content and the fact that she dares write about women’s issues, including rape, while committing the egregious offense of being fat.
I say “managed” even though it’s not much of a feat, these kinds get their panties in twists over much less. Throw in her warranted criticism of the prevalence of rape jokes in mainstream comedy, some public spars with male comedians over it, and a public back-and-forth with her former Stranger editor Dan Savage and it’s no surprise they’ve dedicated their abundance of free time to tormenting her.
So West has plenty of interesting stories to tell about her life, relationships and experiences as a public voice for feminism while just trying to do her job. In this essay collection, she recounts significant moments as she comes to terms with being female, “fat”, and humorously but sensibly outspoken about casual misogyny and injustices. And many important ones from her writing career, including those that brought the wrath of mens’ rights-type trolls upon her.
That’s putting it mildly – just for writing what she has, West has garnered much more than ire – she’s been the target of rape and violence threats and vicious ridicule over her body, and because of this and her refusal to pipe down, she’s uniquely positioned to examine what this threatening pushback against women’s rights and body confidence means in the current culture. And she does this with admirable sensitivity, considering what she was subjected to. Examining the issue of trolls, including her cruelest who impersonated her dead father online to harass her, she writes: “It’s hard to be cold or cruel when you remember it’s hard to be a person.” That’s simple and true, but after reading what she’s been through, I’m so impressed with her cool-headedness.
I didn’t particularly like that several essays were structured around addressing past internet kerfuffles, how they began and blew up, and how she was forced to deal with catastrophes she’d never anticipated just for speaking her mind on what should be common-sense topics. I’d rather read the commentary itself on the topics, rather than how it felt managing the fallout.
It has some very funny moments, some very meaningful ones, and some that felt like filler. Overall the tone reads as very “bloggy” – that kind of winking, of-the-moment, all caps shorthand often found in Jezebel articles, and although I sometimes like reading blogs in this easy jokey style, I hoped for something more literary in a published essay collection. West is a polished enough writer that I think she could deliver that instead of falling back on the light, chatty or monologuey Jezebel style.
But when the jokes land, they’re fabulous. Often this has to do with whether your cultural touchpoints align with hers, and as a millennial, mine do. I especially loved the essay “Lady Kluck” where she compiles a list of the “fat female role models” available to her as a child. They include “Baloo dressed as a sexy fortune-teller” from Robin Hood, and “that sexual tree from The Last Unicorn.” My favorite was Auntie Shrew, and here’s her passage in its entirety:
I guess it’s forgivable that one of the secondary antagonists of The Secret of NIMH is a shrieking shrew of a woman who is also a literal shrew named Auntie Shrew, because the hero of the movie is also a lady and she is strong and brave. But, like, seriously? Auntie Shrew? Thanks for giving her a pinwheel of snaggle-fangs to go with the cornucopia of misogynist stereotypes she calls a personality.
And she writes brilliantly about feminism in pop culture, like reconciling enjoying listening to Howard Stern with his misogyny: “In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you.”
She’s a strong writer with an ability to tap deeply into her emotions and an admirable fearlessness. I’m looking forward to her next project, a “cultural critique that examines how we arrived at this moment in history … laying out Lindy’s grand theory of America: seemingly disparate or even insignificant threads from throughout the past few hundred years gathered into one sprawling, funny, illuminating tapestry.” Reading West’s deft analysis and clear, honest take on what she’s experienced and what meaning that has for our culture at large is enlightening and often emotional. Although not every piece here felt as powerful as she’s capable of, there’s a lot of strong material and a consistent, affecting message. 3.5/5
Decisive victories are rare in the culture wars, and the fact that I can count three in my relatively short career—three tangible cultural shifts to which I was lucky enough to contribute—is what keeps me in this job… Comedians are more cautious now, whether they like it or not, while only the most credulous fool or contrarian liar would argue that comedy has no misogyny problem. “Hello, I Am Fat” chipped away at the notion that you can “help” fat people by mocking and shaming us. We talk about fatness differently now than we did five years ago—fat people are no longer safe targets—and I hope I did my part.