Using her brilliant wit as a tool for political activism, writer Lindy West has fought for social justice issues such as fat liberation and abortion rights. The author of Shrill – now an acclaimed TV series – and The Witches Are Coming speaks about her work. “There’s something intoxicating about being defiant, especially when you start to articulate all the ways in which your life has been made smaller and more difficult by systems of power.” By Sam van Zweden.
Writer Lindy West
Lindy West is a loud woman. She’s unafraid to voice her opinion; she recognises the power in poking fun at bad people in positions of power; she’s unafraid to use the word “fat”, and to fight for fat representation in media. She hasn’t always been this way – when she was very young, West tended towards shyness. However, she feels now that her loudness has been somewhat inevitable. “When you’re forging a non-traditional path you have to advocate for yourself,” she says. “You have to be loud and be annoying, and you have to be a squeaky wheel, and just make space for yourself if the world doesn’t make space for you.”
West is doing just that, along with so many fat women who feel unseen or dismissed, and so many engaged citizens who are frustrated by the unending white male privilege and abuses of power that have been epitomised in Donald Trump’s leadership of the United States.
West started out as a film critic for Seattle’s alternative weekly newspaper, The Stranger. She later moved into women’s media, writing about feminism, body acceptance and the intersections of pop culture and politics for the website Jezebel (which describes itself as “supposedly feminist”), where she gained popularity for her outspoken tone and ability to make heavy content accessible, and even funny. She describes her use of comedy in activist writing as a bit of a bait-and-switch – “like when you have to give your dog a pill, and so you hide it in a ball of liver” – attracting those who are already onside, as well as audiences who come for the lols but stay for the truth bombs.
Most Lindy West fans can pinpoint one article or essay that attracted them to her work. It might have been her piece “Hello, I Am Fat”, which directly addressed fatphobic comments from her boss at The Stranger, Dan Savage, the otherwise progressive cult figure best known for his “Savage Love” column and its podcast spinoff. In that piece, she called out Savage’s comments for contributing to “the fucking Alp of shame that crushes every fat person every day of their lives”. West was also one of the fierce women behind the viral hashtag #ShoutYourAbortion, which encouraged women to tell their abortion stories without shame. Then there was the episode of the radio show This American Life where West confronted one of her many online trolls, gaining insight into his motivations and even an apology.
These topics and more are the subject of West’s best-selling personal essay collection Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, which was published in 2016. This year, Shrill was made into a TV series for US streaming service Hulu, and is available in Australia through SBS On Demand. A second season has already been announced and will air in early 2020. It stars Aidy Bryant, of Saturday Night Live fame, as West’s proxy, Annie Easton. The show’s broad appeal follows a similar formula to that of West’s written work, in that it attracts audiences from all over: some come for Lindy, some come for Aidy, some come for Hulu, and some follow the pull of a millennial dramedy.
West had clear goals going into Shrill’s production: to normalise and make visible both abortions and fatness – not as tragedies to be overcome, or as the climax of a character’s story, but as a part of everyday life. Particularly in the US, where abortion is still a taboo topic for many, Shrill is rare for presenting a character who makes a matter-of-fact decision to have one, with no regret. “It’s the first moment when she realises that she wants a certain kind of life and that she has the power to control her life,” West says of Annie. “She’s in charge, she’s the author of her life. And she felt empowered after her abortion – we really wanted to present it in that way, which I think is not an uncommon experience.” Similarly, in regard to fatness, she says, “I also insisted that we’re making a show about a fat woman and her life, and it’s not a weight-loss show. I said in every meeting, ‘At no point in this series will the main character step on a scale and look down and sigh.’”
The TV show is taking “fat liberation” – which West says “actually means something”, after the more commonly used term “body positivity” erased larger bodies – to a wider audience. But representation is not all-or-nothing, she says, and the fight is not yet won: there still needs to be better representation for all bodies in media, and Shrill shouldn’t be remarkable for showing a fat woman having a “fun, healthy” sex life, or for its celebrated pool party, which features not one but many, many happy plus-sized bodies in bathing suits. “Mostly,” West says, “we wanted to make a funny show that happened to be about a fat woman and her life, I think, rather than ‘a fat show’.”
West is keen to stress that the show is fiction, suffering something of a vulnerability hangover from the book and wanting to recognise the series as a collaborative effort that encompasses experiences from the whole cast and crew. She’s thankful that it’s fiction, too, because “that’s a lot of pressure to put your actual life” under.
Parts of West are in the show’s script, though, and the vulnerability of the book remains, particularly in scenes when Annie visits her father, Bill, a jazz pianist dying from cancer – which reflects the vocation and cause of death of West’s own father. “I don’t know how to not write about myself and my life, obviously,” she says with a laugh. She adds that some of Bill’s lines are real things her father said to her, while a record that Annie and Bill listen to is a recording of her father playing piano. West says she remembers thinking while watching these scenes being shot: “Why did I do this to myself?! This is torture, oh my god!” She pauses, then says, “I’m joking, because obviously it was beautiful, it was amazing, but there were moments like that that were really intense.”
This kind of personal toll is something West feels able to reflect on only now, some years into her career. There’s little distance between West the “feminist firebrand”, as some call her, and West at home on a Tuesday night. She believes that this might be the appeal of her work, that “I just write how I talk. It’s very, very direct brain-to-page. I’m certainly more boring at home, there’s a lot more just lying down watching TV, not always having a pithy opinion. But no, that’s me. It’s all just me, that’s the real me.”
Despite her generosity and humility, West has been the object of “waves of massive online hate and harassment”. She left Twitter in 2017, calling it “unusable for anyone but trolls, robots and dictators” in a Guardian column. She observes that things have now become more manageable without that pathway between herself and trolls, but with some distance from the experience she can also see the long-term effects of online harassment.
“I’m much less open to new people,” she says. “I can’t remember the last time I made a friend. I feel kind of agoraphobic in this way that I never was before, and I think I’m starting to realise that part of that comes from being really violently trolled and harassed for a sustained period of time for doing something very sincere and very vulnerable.”
It’s somewhat surprising, then, that she perseveres. Her latest book, The Witches Are Coming, was released worldwide last month.
This new essay collection takes as its premise the frequency with which feminists are accused of leading witch-hunts, while the real witchcraft lies in making people believe things aren’t what they seem to be – that Nazis aren’t Nazis; that abuse isn’t abuse; that human rights aren’t a reasonable request. “Sidestepping reality,” West writes, “is choosing the lie.” The collection accessibly enumerates and dismantles the lies we’re told and that many people choose to believe. “So fine, if you insist,” West writes in the introduction. “This is a witch-hunt. We’re witches, and we’re hunting you.”
The collection is as funny as we’ve come to expect from West, with opportunities for witch-like cackling throughout. She is incredibly good at being funny, and in particular at being mean about bad people – for example, at one point she refers to Donald Trump as “a racist shart in an eight-foot tie who is unqualified for literally every job except ‘lie down’ ”. This isn’t just a series of essays feeding pills to dogs – this is beyond the bait-and-switch. Rather, it’s deeply political: as she reflects on writing the book, West says that “to ridicule someone is to take so much power from them, you know. It’s so powerful to ridicule bad people.”
This work is as brutal and wicked as it is a gentle and generous invitation to do better. The door is open: these essays provide both macro- and micro-inspections of culture. West wonders, “Am I telling the truth to myself about myself?” but also encourages us “to start calling things by their real names”. She herself is not immune to the problematic fave, and the essays tackle pop culture icons with a transparent consideration of complicity that invites the reader to do the same.
The objects of West’s attention in these essays include Donald Trump, the making of the Shrill series, fat liberation and other social justice issues. However, it’s accessible, too, using recognisable figures as entry points to difficult ideas. Adam Sandler, Joan Rivers, South Park, Chip and Joanna Gaines from American reality show Fixer Upper, and Facebook buy/swap/sell groups are all windows into brutally honest and hilarious considerations of what’s broken and how we can work together to create a more just world.
This book, West clarifies, is for the already converted, and she doesn’t see this as a problem: “People say that I’m preaching to the choir in this book and it’s like, yeah. I need the choir to keep showin’ up!” She understands that “the people that I can talk to are the people that are interested and open to listening, and I hope that I can galvanise those people and make them feel less alone and less despair”.
While the subject matter is necessarily US-centric, it’s also relevant in Australia. Abortion has only just been legalised in New South Wales. We too are part of the global lean to the right that has created leaders such as Trump. We too are fighting for body autonomy. Our faves are also problematic.
The arcs of the essays take a common path: they’re funny, they’re angry, they’re unflinchingly truthful and insightful and – somehow, against the unlikeliest of odds – they arrive at hope.
This hope, which seems to exist in all of West’s work, isn’t contrived. It speaks of a future that she believes can and will get better. She says with absolute certainty that “collective action works if we harness it”. Witches is a call-to-arms for our times, and West is a charmingly self-aware and inspiring leader into battle. The way she writes and speaks about taking back power is infectious.
“There’s something intoxicating about being defiant,” she says, “especially when you start to articulate all the ways in which your life has been made smaller and more difficult by systems of power. Then it’s just been a process of learning about the world ever since, and trying to read a lot, and listen a lot, and absorb as much as I can, while also being self-critical and trying to hold myself accountable.”
So what’s next for the unstoppable Lindy West? Although she claims she’s “never been very driven”, she continues to take every opportunity that shows up. She’s got another book due next year, and feels hopeful that Shrill will be renewed for a third season. She plans to continue the column she’s been writing for The New York Times. She’s even been thinking of doing a live one-woman show. Her defiance and rage continue to power her, and the reclamation of space is a project her fans gladly join her in. She’s not showing any signs of putting down the bullhorn just yet.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Dec 14, 2019 as "West assured".
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