In 2012, Jezebel blogger Lindy West wrote a viral take-down of comedian Daniel Tosh’s incendiary, now-infamous rape joke, and later went on TV to debate the issue with Jim Norton, one of the veteran stand-up comics who vigorously defended Tosh (Amy Schumer was another).
Keyboard warriors aimed a deluge of vitriol at West, the nastiest of which she read aloud—rapid-fire and emotionless—in a video on Jezebel: four minutes of comments like, “That big bitch is bitter that no one wants to rape her do some laps lardy holly [sic] shit her stomachs were touching the floor.”
West was already known for defending victims of sexual violence, bullying, and bigotry, but the rape joke kerfuffle cemented her reputation as one of the loudest feminist proponents of identity politics on the internet. But it came with sacrifice.
“I can’t watch stand-up now—the thought of it floods me with a heavy, panicked dread,” West writes in her new memoir, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman. “My point about rape jokes may have gotten through, but my identity as a funny person—the most important thing in my life—didn’t survive.”
West’s memoir is built on a collection of essays—many of them pieced together from previously published columns in Jezebel and The Guardian—detailing her transition from shy, self-hating chubby girl to loud-and-proud, self-described “fat” feminist. (“I dislike ‘big’ as a euphemism,” she writes. “Every cell in my body would rather be ‘fat’ than ‘big.’”)
The message West hammers home, one deeply felt by most fourth-wave feminists, is that because society’s vision of gender is forced upon us, identity politics is the appropriate prism through which we should view the world.
Sure, women shouldn’t be defined by their bodies, but the patriarchy prevents us from escaping that prison. We internalize the images society bombards us with, and women will suffer so long as those images exist.
Indeed, West can’t recall a time when she wasn’t aware of them.
“That period—when I was still wholly myself, effortlessly certain, my identity still undistorted by the magnetic fields of culture—was so long ago that it’s beyond readily accessible memory,” she writes in the opening essay of Shrill about how heavier women are portrayed in media and pop culture.
West may have sacrificed her “identity as a funny person” for a Certified Activist badge, but her descriptions of role models available to her as a young girl are highly amusing: the fact that Miss Piggy is “a literal pig affords fat fans the opportunity to reclaim that barb with defiant irony—she invented glorifying obesity.”
But West doesn’t mask her suffering with humor or attempt to laugh off years of fat-shaming and online harassment. The more she endured, the more intolerant she became of comedy making light of marginalized identities.
She listened to the Howard Stern Show every day in college, but part of Stern’s shtick was scrutinizing women’s bodies—a constant reminder that hers would never measure up to cultural standards. The show became less funny to West, and she couldn’t pretend to laugh along with the rest of the world.
“I sometimes envy (and, on my bad days, resent) the funny female writers of my generation who never get explicitly political in their work,” she writes in Shrill. “They’re allowed to keep their funny cards; by engaging with comedy, by trying to make it better, I lost mine.”
To say that the personal is political for progressive feminists like West doesn’t begin to reflect how much they feel defined and oppressed because of their identity. Those with multiple marginalized identities are even more oppressed (a white, cisgender woman is higher up on the food chain than a Hispanic trans woman).
“As a woman, my body is scrutinized, policed, and treated as a public commodity,” West writes. “As a fat woman, my body is also lampooned, openly reviled, and associated with moral and intellectual failure. My body limits my job prospects, access to medical care and fair trials, and—the one thing Hollywood movies and Internet trolls most agree on—my ability to be loved.”
West doesn’t cite these studies in Shrill, perhaps because personal experiences are more compelling for readers and fans.
But not all women in America believe that they are in thrall to men, and the ideology that West subscribes to isn’t particularly tolerant of their opinion. Certainly, Shrill is not written for these women.
That said, you don’t have to agree with West’s ideology and views about rape jokes to be moved by her personal heartbreaks and triumphs.
West argues that she’s affected change as a culture warrior—that her public debates and writing about body image, rape jokes, and online misogyny have tipped the scales slightly in women’s favor.
On a personal level, she isn’t simply accepting her body; she’s reveling in it in a truly radical way, unlike the kind of superficial body positivity we associate with Lane Bryant ads. Her weight buoys her, and that newfound strength manifests gracefully on the page.
“The breadth of my shoulders makes me feel safe…I can open your jar, I can absorb blows—literal and metaphorical—meant for other women, smaller women, breakable women, women who need me,” West writes.
She recalls how the images of fat women that used to make her recoil were one day “beautiful.”
“I wanted to look and be like them—I wanted to spill out of a crop top; plant a flag in a mountain of lingerie; alienate small, bitter men who dared to presume that women exist for their consumption,” she enthuses. “I wasn’t unnatural after all; the cultural attitude that taught me so was the real abomination. My body, I realized, was an opportunity. It was political. It moved the world just by existing. What a gift.”
West’s writing here is as strong and substantive as she feels, knowing that her body is not just an object to be consumed and exploited but a manifestation of her feminist ambitions.
That women’s bodies are consumable objects is the takeaway from a forthcoming memoir by one of West’s feminist peers, Jessica Valenti, an early feminist blogger (she founded Feministing.com in 2004).
Valenti’s memoir-in-essays, Sex Object, traffics in many of the same first-person experiences as Shrill: both authors write candidly and confessionally about issues like abortion, online harassment, and sex.
Valenti, 37, narrates her life as a sex object—she vividly describes being sexualized and sexually exploited during every phase of her life, from childhood to being pregnant with her own child—and suggests that all women are sex objects, whether they feel that way or not. Her use of the term is “more resignation than reclamation,” she admits.
Valenti recalls watching a boy in her junior high school class toy with a lollipop in her friend’s mouth, then clenching her jaw when he tried the same move on her (“This is how I learned what blow jobs are”).
Boys used to tease her about having a big nose, but when she developed breasts at eleven she “focused on the things my body could do and inspire.”
Whenever she was alone in a subway car as a teenager, she’d move to avoid some man exposing himself to her. On crowded train cars men rubbed up against her and, in one case, ejaculated on the back of her jeans.
These experiences will resonate with many women, but for Valenti they shape and define her. When a married friend aggressively hits on her, she reflexively flirts back and hates herself for it.
“I’m crying because I am thirty-three years old and I can’t escape the feeling that men see that I am the kind of person for whom doing the right thing does not come easily,” she writes. “After decades of life and feminism, I still somehow believe that my job is to protect men at all costs—and that not doing so is a crime greater than keeping secrets from my family.”
Valenti’s identity as a “sex object” isn’t entirely passive. She feels compelled to play that role as a child, and is later complicit in being an object of desire despite her feminism. But there’s a sense that she has very little personal agency. How could she in our patriarchal culture?
“Given all that women are expected to live with—the leers that start when we’ve barely begun puberty, the harassment, the violence we survive or are constantly on guard for—I can’t help but wonder what it all has done to us,” she muses. “I started to ask myself: Who would I be if I didn’t live in a world that hated women?”
Valenti’s feminist fans likely recognize this world and ask themselves the same question. Indeed, her memoir suggests that that all women are intimately familiar with this world, or they will be when they finish it.
If you marinate in the misogynistic world Valenti describes, isolated in an echo chamber of confirmation bias, ideology doesn’t just inform your personal experiences, it dictates them.
One of the many sexual experiences Valenti writes about happened when she was too drunk to remember much of it. She recalls the guy she was dating at the time taking her clothes off; asking him “what he was doing when I realized he was on top of me”; then darkness until she woke up the next day, upset and still drunk. She remembers making a joke about date rape, at which point he smiled and told her he went down on her first.
She never referred to what happened as rape or assault, despite knowing that penetrating an unconscious person constitutes rape.
“The truth is that this thing that happened to me, no matter what you want to call it, did not have a lasting impact on me,” she writes. “It did not destroy me or change who I am in the way I thought something like that is supposed to do.”
Only in retrospect does she argue that her “shameful uncertainty” about the experience is likely linked to the fact that she “did not feel like a person who was capable of being violated because at the time I barely considered myself a person.”
Her uncertainty is shameful because “my politics call for it.” Not being certain opens her up to “criticism on all sides,” and if a young woman told her the same story today she’d be certain of what happen.
“I don’t know why I won’t allow myself the same courtesy,” she writes. “Maybe I’m just exhausted of feeling like an arbiter of sexual violence, even for myself.”
At this point, readers may feel exhausted too. Earlier in Sex Object, Valenti refuted the “well-worn myth” that feminists often assume the mantel of victimhood, rejoicing that feminism today “feels like an unstoppable force of female agency and independence.” But the through-line of Valenti’s essays is that women are victims of a culture that objectifies and hates them.
Her “shameful uncertainty” about why she’s never acknowledged that she was technically raped doesn’t make her less of a victim. That she’s only ashamed because it didn’t damage her makes her a victim of her own ideology, too.
Valenti’s dedication to helping other women by writing candidly about her own vulnerability is noble, but Sex Object leaves you wondering whether feminism has infantilized the author more than it has empowered her.
She writes: “I am tired of faking confidence or being told that my lack thereof is a fault when it seems to me the most natural reaction I could possibly have to the lifelong feedback women are given.”
So much for female agency and independence.
There is strength and empowerment in collective experience—a central tenet of feminism. But to Valenti and West, feminism is also a cross to bear and a never-ending battle, because being a woman means being subjected to things that men will never be subjected to.
They firmly believe that if a woman feels the world is on top of her, then it is. Both writers are determined to change the culture—even if that means policing it.
If they are as oppressed as they insist, they are also remarkably adept at building successful careers—and selling books—off the back of that oppression.