Every political movement needs a folk hero, a larger-than-life figure who accomplishes amazing deeds and inspires lesser mortals to speak up. Earlier Americans have had Sojourner Truth, Abraham Lincoln, and Thelma and Louise. Modern feminists, particularly millennials who spend most of their lives on the Internet, have Lindy West, who, for the past decade, armed with sharp wit, thick skin, and a penchant for WRITING IN ALL CAPS, has told truths and slain trolls for the Stranger, Jezebel, This American Life, and now the Guardian and GQ. In the process, she’s helped make the online world safer for women, fat people, and survivors of sexual violence.
Now West has produced her first solo book, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman. It follows all the steps of the hero’s journey, starting with her humble origins as a shy, fat child; continuing through her slow path to self-acceptance during her early adulthood; then the recounting of some of her greatest battles, along with a few setbacks; and concluding with a call to action: not everyone can be Lindy West—there is only one Lindy West—but, if we want to help build a better world, we can all absorb a little of her spirit.
If you’ve followed West through the years, from her early blog fight with Dan Savage, then her boss at the Stranger, about his bigotry toward fat people, to her televised argument with comedian Jim Norton over the necessity of the rape joke, to her This American Life interview with her biggest troll, who attacked her on Twitter by pretending to be her beloved late father, much of the material in Shrill will be familiar to you. These blow-by-blow accounts, interwoven with explanations of what West was thinking or what she wished she’d said, are also the least interesting parts of the book.
Far better are the sections where West pauses to reflect on the ways her battles have affected her. Before she began to speak out against rape jokes, she’d been part of the Seattle comedy scene and had a national reputation, largely from her viral review of Sex and the City 2, as a very funny writer. That all changed as she realized that comedy, dominated by white men, might not represent her own best interests. “My point about rape jokes may have gotten through,” she writes, “but my identity as a funny person—the most important thing in my life—didn’t survive. Among a certain subset of comedians and their fans, ‘Lindy West’ is still shorthand for ‘humorless bitch.'”
Someday, I hope there will be a comic book version of Shrill for little girls who worry about taking up too much space or talking too loudly, starring West as a fat, loud, fearless superhero gleefully taking on prejudiced, sexist assholes. It would be instructive for them, a way of learning to be a woman in the world without having to modulate their voices or contort their bodies to please men. For the rest of us, who have worked out our own methods of survival (or made our own compromises), we can continue to read West in her natural habitat, the Internet. v