Go West, young woman

Brianna Wu

May 16, 2016

Are you interested in Lindy West the person? Or are you interested in the feminist issues Lindy West frequently discusses, such as fat acceptance? That answer will tell you how much you’ll enjoy her new book Shrill.

I went into Shrill expecting a book making the case for feminist causes. As a professional, West is primarily known for that work, such as her wildly viral Jezebel piece, “How to Make a Rape Joke.” Shrill is not that book, never trying persuade the reader on any specific public policy.

Instead, Shrill is about the personal experiences leading to West’s feminist areas of interest, mainly body acceptance and destigmatizing reproductive health. Judged by that criteria, West has succeeded in telling her story in an entertaining way.

You’ll learn exactly how growing up as a self-described “fat” girl felt for her. You’ll learn who her father was and why his death devastated West. You’ll leave this book understanding the psychological climate that created her punchy, irreverent style. I liked West before reading this book, but now I feel like I know her.

The closest analogue that comes to mind in reading Shrill is comedienne Jen Kirkmann’s books, who is also known for writing about feminist themes from a humorous personal perspective. Making the reader laugh is the primary mission objective of Shrill, rather than arguing for any particular political policy.

West hopes to win you over to her viewpoint by making you feel empathy. You’ll know exactly how it feels to be a fat person flying in a plane, what it’s like to get an abortion when your relationship is shaky, and what’s it’s like to be targeted by misogynist Opie and Anthony listeners. In hearing West’s stories, I found myself getting angry at how she was treated, seeing the analogues in my own career.

But, compared to books by other feminist authors, Shrill comes up a bit short on substance. West’s work stands in strong contrast to feminist writer Jessica Valenti, who persuades her audience by brutally breaking down the opposing arguments and presenting her own with an equally relentless wit. Valenti is not shy about citing studies that prove her point, or conducting her own interviews. In contrast, Shrill has just 32 endnotes, none linking to any study, book or article. They’re all just additional punchlines and context for her jokes.

It’s a writing approach that makes a lot of sense for West, who writes about her conflict in “finding her voice” as a writer. For West, it’s clear standing tall and speaking her truth is a victory in itself. She writes about her fear in receiving threats, yet doesn’t back down. West’s self-conception is that her large frame allows her to “take blows for all women.” Shrill is about West reaching inside herself to find the strength to simply exist in society.

The strongest parts of Shrill are when West writes about her professional experiences. The best chapter by far is “Hello, I am Fat,” a relentless chapter about a conflict with Dan Savage, a well-known columnist for gay issues. While editor in chief at The Stranger, Savage made anti-obesity a pet cause, excoriating the issue in print and media appearances. West understandably took his blistering critique personally, and stood up for herself in the workplace and in print. Savage did not respond well. The story is a testament to West’s moxie.

Similarly, West standing up against rape jokes on Jim Norton’s FX show is another very strong chapter. Unlike some of the chapters on fat acceptance, West doesn’t assume the audience agrees with her already. She walks you through her nuanced argument, even citing pieces by her feminist contemporary Sady Doyle. This is where West shines, and her humor and defiance congeal into something mesmerizing.

The weaker parts of Shrill go for gross-out humor and don’t fit into a persuasive narrative. “How to Stop Being Shy in Just 18 Steps,” is a good example of West’s less-polished material. Rather than arguing any kind of policy or perspective, it’s a chapter with 18 stream-of-consciousness jokes about West overcoming her timidity. Unfortunately, West’s weaker work is concentrated in the first 1/3 of the book.

Shrill is the strongest argument I have ever read that the fat acceptance movement is a vital intersectional feminist perspective. If Shrill doesn’t persuade you that our societal scorn for “fat” people has deeply harmful consequences, nothing will.

And yet, in noting the strength of that argument, it’s hard to not notice that Shrill fails any reasonable test of intersectional feminism. The struggles of gay women, poor women, transgender women or women of color get nary a word - the closest West gets is noting that transphobic and racist jokes bother her. As Shrill is more of a personal memoir, I can understand this choice - but it does speak to the narrow range of West’s feminist causes over her career.

If you want to make someone feel like a monster in society, you deny them a reflection. This is why West is an important figure. In reading Shrill, I kept thinking about all the women I’ve met speaking at colleges that would benefit from her message. I meet women engineering students and game designers routinely that have been deeply damaged by a culture that values women primarily for looks.

West is someone who is comfortable with herself, and this book is the story of that journey. My hope is that readers will hear her message and find that truth inside themselves.

All too often, feminism can be dry, academic and assume the public understands our political inside baseball. Figures like West are crucial, because they make the case of the relevance of feminism to a mass audience. Shrill is subtitled, “Notes from a Loud Woman.” It’s my hope that it will inspire more than a few more.

Books in this review:
  • Shrill
    by Lindy West
    Hachette Books
    May 16, 2016
    256 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Brianna Wu is Head of Development at Giant Spacekat, the producers of the videogame "Revolution 60", soon to be released on PC. She is also host of the podcasts Disruption and Rocket on Relay. Brianna, who is a co-author on the book "Women in Tech", has been described as the Godzilla of tech feminists.

Follow Brianna Wu on Twitter: @spacekatgal

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