Eleven months ago, Hillary Clinton was poised to wrap up the Democratic presidential nomination, and feminist writer Lindy West came out with a perfectly timed book.
Both memoir and activist in nature, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman tackled our societal discomfort with women who speak up, take up space, and fight for their own humanity. West wrote extensively, and hilariously, about her journey to fat acceptance; a comedy writer and long-time fixture in the Seattle comedy scene, she also revisited a very public, painful rupture with much of the stand-up community due to her stance on rape jokes and her ensuing harassment on YouTube, Twitter, and elsewhere. In both cases, she visibly shifted the public conversation in the direction she hoped. Progress was on the move.
Then, Donald Trump won the 2016 presidential election. Shrill, which came out in paperback this February, lives on in a very different political moment than the one in which she wrote it. A sober introduction added to the paperback edition captures the newly jaundiced lens her likely feminist, liberal readers might have on the world. “We don’t know if November 8, 2016 was the republic’s last fair election,” she wrote. “We don’t know whether Trump is simply robbing us, or robbing us and seeding a holocaust.”
West wrote the introduction shortly after the election. In January, she wrote a column for the Guardian announcing that she was leaving Twitter; she’s convinced that the abuse she and many others endured on the platform was “a grand-scale normalization project, disseminating libel and disinformation [...] and ultimately greasing the wheels for Donald Trump’s ascendance to the US presidency.” It was a much darker vision of social media than her ultimately hopeful take on Twitter trolling in Shrill ― in one story, also featured on “This American Life,” she has a long conversation with a troll who felt remorse after impersonating her dead father.
“The book is still true, and I still believe in it,” West told The Huffington Post in a recent phone conversation. She felt the book needed to be reframed for 2017, however. “If you write a book about progress, you have to acknowledge when, suddenly, history grabs you and drags you backwards.”
We chatted with West about how her book would have been different in the Trump era, the power of empathy ― and comedy ― and the value of diverse representation. Check out our interview below:
I’ve always wondered what it’s like to go on tour for a book that was wrapped up and finished a while ago ― and now you’re another year out, for the paperback ― what is it like to keep talking about a book that you finished so long ago, at this point?
I mean, it’s incredible, honestly. It’s really hard to be away from home for so long, it’s grueling, just because travel is grueling, and it’s exhausting and all my clothes are dirty. But it’s also ― what an honor. What a rare honor to get to travel around and meet people and connect with people and hear people’s stories. I think my book is particularly well-suited to touring because it’s so personal and it makes people feel safe and emboldened to tell their own stories.
It’s weird because I wrote it in 2015, and the world is very different now than it was then. It’s an optimistic book ... it’s a happy, positive book, basically. There are sad parts, but the overall message is that kindness pays off and that progress is winning and that you do occasionally achieve tangible victories if you just keep fighting. And then, after the election it was just like, oh man. I have to go out again on tour with this book? So I wrote a new introduction for the paperback that’s like, “Sorry ... let’s talk about the incident ... ”
Did it change how you felt about the book in retrospect?
No, no, not really. All of those things are still true. It’s not like people stopped caring about progress, or kind people stopped caring about other people, or feminists lost. Of course, the establishment ... of course they cheat, and lie, and steal, to maintain control. Because that’s essentially what happened. I don’t really honestly understand how an election can be considered legitimate if there’s documented voter suppression, not to mention gerrymandering and who knows what else. Other people cheating to destroy you doesn’t mean that you were wrong, or that you did a bad job even. Not that the left doesn’t ... have in-group conversations that need to happen and internal critiques that need to happen.
But no, I don’t think, for example, that Trump’s win was because feminists pushed too hard and were off-putting. Or Black Lives Matter was too divisive. Or all these narratives that were immediately pushed right after the election, that what the Democratic Party needs to do is move to the center and not further left.
Do you think you would have written a different book if you wrote it during a Trump presidency?
Mhm, I think so, probably. It would have been less idealistic or something. But I don’t feel like I was really idealistic. It’s just funny because I feel like I’ve been writing about men being horrible and Republicans being oppressive nightmare people for my whole career, so 12 years. And every day under the Trump administration I understand it afresh. Like, oh, I didn’t realize it could actually be this bad.
So I don’t know what I would have written. I think a lot of it would have felt insignificant. It’s really hard for me to think of anything but politics and the government and the people whose lives are in immediate danger. So I probably wouldn’t have written a book about my butt size. Not that the struggles of fat people aren’t important, or the struggles of feminist bloggers getting threatened on Twitter. Those are still important, and the latter, I think, is deeply entwined with the election.
I think if I were to write a book this year ― and I might, actually, I’m working on a proposal ― it just would have been about Trump. I mean, how can you write about anything else? Not him specifically, but the climate and culture that did this to us.
Is that what your proposal is about?
Yeah, indirectly, yeah. I’m not really talking about it publicly yet. But yeah, basically.
You write a lot about comedy in the book, and right now, a lot of comics seem to be struggling with how to be comics in the Trump era. Does that conversation, and comedy in general, feel at all frivolous to you now, or do you think it’s part of the whole resistance?
It doesn’t feel frivolous. I think it’s really important. I didn’t understand it at the time, but in retrospect those conversations that we were having about comedy and about rape jokes are incredibly relevant to Trump’s election. Not that conversation specifically, but the rhetoric that was used and even maybe developed in that conversation, where any time you critiqued anything a white man did, you were called a censor, and you were told you’re violating the First Amendment, and that criticism is infringing on someone’s right to free speech.
I think that had a lot to do with the disintegration of shared cultural values and standards that social justice movements had fought really hard to put in place. Like, “rape is bad.” Just a couple years ago, it was pretty standard knowledge that Nazis are bad! I think the conversation about comedy was totally relevant to that and was a part of that. I see some of the same people who were harassing me over rape jokes five years ago leading groups of alt-right trolls now. It’s not a coincidence.
On the positive side, comedy has always been really valuable as a tool for social change. You can see it happening in real time, in front of your eyeballs. Trump watches “SNL” every week and then ― you know, he kicked Bannon off the Security Council supposedly because he was embarrassed by the way that “SNL” portrayed their relationship.You could see it as encouraging, or you could also be terrified. Or both. It’s terrifying that he’s so easily manipulated, but great that at least we know how to manipulate him, and we hold the tools to do that.
And beyond that, comedy is a coping mechanism, comedy makes people feel less alone. Just for everyone trying to survive and not explode at this bizarre time in history, it’s important to have funny people recontextualizing our lives for us in a way that makes sense and makes us feel like we’re part of a community. And it’s so satisfying when someone points out an absurdity that you hadn’t quite put together, put your finger on before. When someone points out something that you missed, or makes a connection you hadn’t seen, and makes you laugh and makes bad people look ridiculous. It’s really powerful. I don’t think it’s frivolous at all.
There were so many points in your book that are really emotional, but maybe the most surprising for me was “It’s About Free Speech, It’s Not About Hating Women,” when you realize that comedy has been so unwelcoming to you as a woman that you can’t enjoy it anymore. What effect does it have on people to have to accept a certain measure of pain in order to, in theory, relax and escape themselves?
It’s very alienating, and it’s very unfair, because it’s only certain people that have to do that. To tell people that they have to sacrifice some of their humanity and their self-respect to be part of the club, that excludes people from all the things I listed earlier, from being able to feel like you’re part of a community and like you’re not alone and like you’re not imagining these bizarre experiences that we’re all going through right now.
And then it also has economic implications. It affects who makes money, who gets booked for gigs, who quits because it’s an unpleasant environment. And that goes not just for comedy but any field, basically. That’s why I still don’t go to [stand-up] comedy shows really, unless it’s a friend of mine.
I’m glad that I did that, because I think I contributed in a small way to comedy opening up a little bit. It definitely feels different than it did five years ago. There’s a lot more diversity. It’s not necessarily taboo to be a feminist comedian anymore, and I hope that I helped with that. But I’m not ready to jump back into the comedy club. So in a way, congratulations, you guys won, you chased me away. But I feel like I left at least something as a legacy. I left some small amount of change in my wake, and I’m thrilled about that.
You end up, in the book, circling around this idea of being radically empathetic. Right now, people on the left are asked a lot to empathize with Trump voters, or the white working class. Do you think this kind of empathy can move us forward, or that any kind of empathy can get us out of where we are now?
I think you can have empathy to the extent that people living in poverty need help. People of all races living in poverty need help. I don’t have any interest in developing empathy for people who are racist. The idea that economic hardship made Trump voters racist is ludicrous to me. I’m sorry, black Americans have been experiencing economic hardship for hundreds of years, and they managed to not vote for Trump in massive numbers. It’s just absurd, and to me it feels like an attempt to shift the conversation back to white people and just make everything about fucking white people all the time. Maybe give people some credit for their choices. People chose to vote for Trump. People chose to vote against their own ability to survive. If the Republicans manage to dismantle the health care system, people will die.
You can have empathy for someone without validating every one of their bad decisions. And when we talk about, where was the vacuum here, where was the lack of empathy, it was on the side of people who voted for Trump. People voted for mayhem and death. Those are the people I’m talking to. Maybe think outside of your tiny circle for one second, and outside of your resentment of liberals and outside of your resentment of black people and immigrants for taking part of whatever you think of as your birthright. I think people really do think of this as a white country, for white people. That’s what Make America Great Again means. I’m not even grasping at straws, this is all very surface-level.
I do feel like if we’re going to look ahead to the next elections, the next round of elections, there are people who love Donald Trump and will never change their minds. And that’s fine. But there are a lot of people who just didn’t vote and who think of themselves as apolitical, and those people are reachable. And a way to do that is to find out what’s happening in their communities and what they need and actually speak to those issues. Because the Republicans are not offering anything. All they do is take and steal and destroy, which I understand sounds melodramatic. But I don’t know any other way to put it at this point. It’s like every policy proposal is like, “OK, what if we took everything away from people and gave it to billionaires, and then let everyone die on the streets?” I guess I don’t really feel like being delicate and gentle and euphemistic about that anymore. It’s just a party of chaos and death. Not that the Democrats are perfect, blah blah blah, caveat caveat.
Of course I have empathy for people in rural America who are struggling and barely getting by. Of course I do. But I don’t think that the solution is mindlessly validating those people’s prejudices.
You have this amazing essay in Shrill, “Lady Kluck,” about the fat women role models you had in pop culture growing up. It really made me think about how we act like diversity isn’t important because we should be able to identify with any character. What’s your response to that argument?
That’s easy for people to say who see themselves represented. Oh, just identify with me! I do!
If you can identify with anyone, then why do you care if media is diverse? You always hear video game dudes being like, “Ugh, feminazis want everyone in a video game to be a black lesbian.” Well, if representation doesn’t matter, then why do you care? Somehow they’re making a representation argument that everyone in a video game should be a white man, while also claiming that representation arguments are ludicrous.
Obviously it matters. If it didn’t matter, then straight white people wouldn’t cling so hard to being the only people represented in media. It matters because it makes you feel seen and comfortable and it teaches people how to treat you. It humanizes you. It’s vitally important.
There are just so many ways in which people don’t know how to tell the stories of groups to which they do not belong, so the only logical answer is to hire diverse staff, hire diverse teams, have people telling their own stories or at least consulting and telling you when you do a bad job. It’s not enough to just expect that we can all just relate to any character. Because it’s not like the any character is being written by any person. People are just writing about themselves and then expecting marginalized people to be thrilled to be invisible.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.