I liked Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman by Lindy West so much I told a co-worker about it today. She said she has had a couple people mention to her she would like it and when I added my recommendation she went and bought the audiobook so she could start listening to it at lunch when she likes to walk. It’s a little nervewracking to have someone immediately buy a book like that. I mean, what if she doesn’t like it? At least I am not the only one who told her about it so she can’t blame me entirely if it all goes wrong.
Lindy West is a writer who has written for Gawker, Jezebel, The Guardian and other places. And she is funny. Make you snort funny. But her book is far from frivolous. She takes on fat-phobia, misogyny, rape culture, internet trolls and more. Her humor, “punches up,” meaning, she never makes jokes at the expense of the opressed or victims of violence. Instead her barbs are directed at the perpetrators and clearly those barbs have gotten under the skin of a good many people (mostly men).
At first I thought the book was all essays and it is, kind of. They are connected essays, for lack of something better to call them. Each one is complete in itself but they also rub against each other and sometimes the essay that follows continues the previous one but takes a different tack.
I knew I was going to like West right from the first paragraph, but a few pages later she clenched it when she wrote:
In a certain light, feminism is just the long, slow realization that the stuff you love hates you.
Oh Lindy, have you been reading my thoughts?
West dared to poke the bear when she published a piece called “How to Make a Rape Joke” that called out male comedians for making rape jokes. Then she appeared on a weekly cable show called Totally Biased to face off against a male comedian who thought rape jokes were legit and harmless fun. She was told it was an issue of free speech, that she was too thin-skinned, that she was a downer — I bet most women know this sort of thing by heart. But West writes,
There is nothing novel or comic or righteous about men using the threat of sexual violence to control noncompliant women. This is how society has always functioned. Stay indoor, women. Stay safe. Stay quiet. Stay in the kitchen. Stay pregnant. Stay out of the world. If you want to talk about silencing, censorship, placing limits and consequences on speech, this is what it looks like.
West received death threats, rape threats, and other threats of violence. She also got messages from men telling her she was too fat to be raped and no man would want to rape her as though being raped were a compliment. She, under the assault that came mostly on the internet, collected the tweets and emails and comments and wrote a piece that featured them because she realized here was the very proof she needed to drive home her point. And it worked. She says she has seen a distinct shift in stand-up comedy and while there are still rape jokes, they are not the easy go-to that they used to be.
Throughout the book West stresses over and over again that words matter. Words matter whether they are on the internet or in real life. They matter if you are joking or not. They matter to the one who uses them to silence others and the ones who have been silenced:
what we say affects the world we live in, … words are both a reflection of and a catalyst for the way our society operates.
I love how West concludes the book:
My little victories — trolls, rape jokes, fat people’s humanity — are world-building. Fighting for diverse voices is world-building. Proclaiming the inherent value of fat people is world-building. Believing rape victims is world-building. Refusing to cave to abortion stigma is world-building. Voting is world-building. So is kindness, compassion, listening, making space, saying yes, saying no.
We’re all building our world, right now, in real time. Let’s build it better.
Read Shrill. Tell your co-workers to read it too. And your friends. It’s a fast read. It’s funny and sad and all kinds of awesome. It’s empowering. It encourages loudness. It makes you want to be a better person.