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Lindy West Is Not Afraid to Be Shrill

"[Being funny] is something that's gendered. People don’t think women are funny, so it’s always satisfying to upend people’s expectations."

By Matthew Halverson April 22, 2016 Published in the May 2016 issue of Seattle Met

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Lindy West photographed in Belltown on March 15, 2016. (Watch behind the scenes.)

Image: Brandon Hill

A coworker from The Stranger calls it the Lindy West origin story: In early February 2011, exasperated with her editor Dan Savage’s routine mocking of the obese, West fired back in print, penning a 1,078-word confessional titled “Hello, I Am Fat,” with a simple but pointed premise—fat people are people too. Having found her voice, she’s spent the last five years fighting for marginalized groups (sometimes humorously, sometimes emotionally, always sharply) and enraging legions of Internet trolls along the way. West’s first book, Shrill, out this May, charts her revolutionary evolution and the beginning of the end for the culture of hate. —Matthew Halverson

The more vulnerable you make yourself,
the more unassailable you are. When I wrote that post for The Stranger, it was like, “What are you going to say? I put it all out there. You can’t hurt me by calling me fat when I just wrote a thousand-word essay about it. Go for it.”

My dad never burned a bridge, ever. He was just really good to everyone he ever worked with. So I try to conduct myself with generosity and integrity. But that’s also dangerous ground as a woman, because I want to teach women that you don’t need to be quite so accommodating and compliant.

Anytime someone would be mean to me at school and I complained to my mom, she would say, “Well, they probably have a hard life.” She always insisted that I take the time to at least have empathy for people who are being cruel. “Happy people don’t do things like that.” Which is exactly what I say all the time now. 

I haven’t been at the center of a really aggressive barrage of hate on Twitter lately. But it doesn’t alarm me the same way that it used to. It’s the most overwhelming, disorienting, scary feeling when you’re getting inundated with violent hate for the first time. But now I’m just like, “Eh.” There’s only so many variations of “Fuck you, fat whore.”

I want to keep fighting for women’s online safety, but I’m definitely a little weary. If the end goal is for women to be able to exist safely online and do their work, I should take advantage of that. I should go do my work. If we just spend the rest of our careers treading water, playing whack-a-troll, it’s kind of like they won. They still took our career away.

It’s hard to be funny. A lot of people think that they’re funny, and they’re not. So it’s really satisfying when you can do it effectively—especially in print. It’s also something that’s gendered. People don’t think women are funny, so it’s always satisfying to upend people’s expectations.

I definitely resent funny female writers who don’t get political in their work and who don’t write from a feminist point of view. Every woman gets harassed, but it doesn’t take over their career the way that it does for those of us who address this stuff head on. 

Thin, conventionally attractive celebrities say things like, “All bodies are good bodies, and we should be kind to everyone,” and they get put in list-icles about how supportive and brave they are. But doing it with the body I have accomplishes more. It means more to young fat women to see me thriving and being happy and building a beautiful, happy life.

In an earlier version of this book I went back and found every really fucked-up thing I’d ever written and then apologized. And my editor was like, “Nobody wants to read this. This reads like you trying to absolve yourself, and that’s a self-serving thing to do.” Absolution doesn’t serve the victim.

This isn’t a game of gotcha. If you fuck up and then issue a real apology, that’s all people want. When I have fucked up and then immediately owned up to it and apologized rather than getting defensive, it just goes away.

There are people who are on a certain fame level where it’s just never going to be enough. People are never going to not hate Macklemore, no matter what he does. So at that point, if you’re like Macklemore, you have to just say, “Well, I did my best.” He works really hard to reach out to black people and get their input and make sure that he’s elevating black artists. And he still gets shit for it. 

There’s not a perfect way to navigate the system.

In general we’re getting more empathetic. People are learning how to listen. I remember when I was a kid trans people were only a punch line. And now in mainstream culture we know that it’s unacceptable to speak about trans people that way. Obviously there are still huge issues and there’s still transphobia everywhere. But you can see how progress creeps forward.

I assume that my trolls aren’t going to bother to read my book, although I wouldn’t put it past them. There’s nothing in there that I’m ashamed of. But maybe one of them will read it and actually end up liking it and learning something. That would be cute. Unlikely but cute.

The world just opens up to you when you can come to terms with the fact that you don’t know everything.

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