Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman by Lindy West (2016)
How to Make a Rape Joke" went viral back in 2012 apparently, but I missed the whole thing. (It's worth reading too, so go ahead and click through.) So thank goodness a book of her essays was published or else I might have just gone on not ever reading her brilliant work.
Feminist and body-positive, she takes on such varied topics as abortion, misogyny in comedy, online trolling, and the size of airplane seats. Throughout, she remains wickedly funny. In the first essay, in which she points out how ridiculous it is to ask kids what they want to be when they grow up, she remembers struggling to answer the question and groping for ideas. "Is sour cream a job?" (Ask a stupid question, right?)
In another essay she discusses our standards of attractiveness and how meaningless they are. If an alien came to earth it would likely find no difference in attractiveness between herself and someone like Angelina Jolie. From the imagined alien: "Uh, yeah, so those ones have the under-the-face fat sacks, and the other kind has that dangly pants nose. Fuck, these things are gross."
West also makes fun of diet advice and how seemingly accepting some people are of the prescriptive healthy snacks. For instance, oft-cited advice in staving off hunger between meals is to have six almonds (no more, no less, I guess) or to have an apple. "So fresh! So crisp!" She renames the diet group the Apple Appreciation Circle-Jerk Jamboree.
But it's not all humor, of course; that's just the window dressing. Her essays are powerful and insightful. She excels at making an argument and putting her finger on exactly what makes certain arguments flawed. For instance, in response to conservatives claiming oppression by having to see ads featuring same-sex couples: "Gay people wearing shawl-collar half-zip ecru sweaters does not oppress Christians. Christians turning their gay children out on to the streets, keeping gay spouses from sitting at each other's deathbeds, and casting gay people as diseased predators so that it's easier to justify beating and murdering them does oppress gay people."
Ultimately, West's most powerful tool might be compassion. As an outspoken feminist with an internet presence, it's no surprise that she was trolled, awfully and often. She ignored it best she could until a guy pretended to be her dead father, which kind of crossed the line. At this point she wrote about him in Jezebel, acknowledging all her feelings about how the trolling hurt her, but also acknowledging that trolls aren't monsters, but people who have lost their way and want others to also suffer. To her surprise, the guy emailed her and apologized, starting a dialogue between the two that led to an interview on This American Life. More importantly, it lead to greater understanding. It reminded me a lot of this article about a white supremacist who turned a corner after he was invited to a classmate's Shabbat dinner. Taking the risk to extend compassion towards someone hateful seems to pay off, at least sometimes. You really do catch more flies with honey than with vinegar, it would seem.
There's a lot here to discuss and I will surely keep an eye out for Lindy West's writing now that I know about her. If you are interested in smart, witty discussion of issues like feminism, body image, and rape, this is a must-read.