Lindy West and quashing sexist slurs
Make way, Boston, because one of contemporary feminism’s most prominent personalities is coming to town.
Lindy West, a Seattle-based writer, performer, and editor whose work focuses on social justice, feminism, and body image with healthy doses of humor, is the founder of the advice blog for teens I Believe You/It’s Not Your Fault. She’ll be reading from Shrill, a series of essays about growing up outside the bounds of mainstream femininity, at Papercuts in Jamaica Plain and at Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge.
Shrill, West’s first book, was published last spring, and her current tour is flanking the release of the paperback version of that New York Times bestseller which shouts loudly that women are, can be, and ought to be allowed to be funny.
It’s hilarious. And it’s also a takedown of the misogyny and sexism that bolster the foundations of so much of our day-to-day lives: public spaces, performance art, classrooms, the internet. None of these things are simple for women who do not fit—either in body or demeanor—the confines of patriarchy’s concept of women.
“This is the book I needed to read when I was younger,” West, a self-identifying fat woman and former comedian, said in a phone interview. “I’ve been writing about certain things—body image, internet trolling, feminism in general, and especially misogyny in comedy—and it was time to make something bigger.”
She continued: “The internet, and even print, are so ephemeral. People read something and throw it in the fire. I felt compelled to make something more permanent that I hope reaches more people on a more personal level.”
Shrill couldn’t be more relevant or important than it is today. Published in hardcover in May of 2016, an election year, the year Hillary Clinton became the first woman to win the presidential nomination from a major party, the project was titled with Clinton’s and feminism’s struggles in mind.
“I was thinking collectively about what it was going to be like,” West said. “I knew it was going to be brutal for Hillary, and for women in general.
“Shrill is a word we only apply to women. It’s gendered and one more way we use aesthetics to demean women’s ideas, that it’s a woman’s place to be small, literally in your physical presence and figuratively in your impact on the world.
“Shrill is something we call ambitious women in order to shut them up.”
These days, only the word “nasty” may resonate with gendered double-standards more clearly than “shrill,” and in the same way that Trump’s labeling Hillary as a “nasty woman” galvanized feminists across the nation, West’s Shrill reclaims a term that has been used to harass and stifle the voices of women.
“I do the same thing with ‘shrill’ that I do with the word ‘fat,’” West said. “It’s the same thing marginalized people have done for a long time. If you can take a word back you can strip it of its power.”
By reclaiming “shrill” and opening the door for frank conversation about the way men have historically shut women down with these types of insults, West hopes more men will take the time to read Shrill.
“I feel like I spent years reading about the minutia of men’s lives presented as literature, and I don’t think men spend that time reading about women’s lives,” she said. I have put in my time reading men’s work, and it’s time I don’t regret, but it’s time to return the favor. That’s how we develop empathy.”
In light of current legislation and the present commander-in-chief’s disdain for anyone who isn’t a white male, our future is in some ways riding on this challenge.
“Men, particularly men in power right now, don’t see women as human beings, and I think personal narrative and the power of a book to bring you inside of someone else’s life has the potential to change people’s minds from the inside out,” she said.
“It makes them like you, and when they like you, you get to say, ‘OK, protect my humanity and my rights.’”
LINDY WEST READS FROM ‘SHRILL.’ SUN 4.9 PAPERCUTS, JAMAICA PLAIN. 7PM/FREE. AND TUES 4.11 AT HARVARD BOOK STORE, CAMBRIDGE.
Haley is an AAN Award-winning columnist for DigBoston and Mel magazine and has contributed to publications including the Boston Globe and helped found Homicide Watch Boston. She has spearheaded and led several Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism investigations including a landmark multipart series about the racialized history of liquor licensing in Massachusetts, and for three years wrote the column Terms of Service about restaurant industry issues from the perspective of workers.