Culture

“I’m Tired Of Thinkpiece-ing”: Lindy West Talks Trump, Trolls And The Joy Of Not Reacting

Lindy West’s career has come to represent the best and worst things that can happen to women who speak up.

In some ways Lindy West’s career has come to represent the best and worst things that can happen to women who speak up.

On one hand, she’s spent enormous wedges of her life advocating for her humanity against internet trolls who decided that a fat, feminist woman sharing her opinions with confidence should be destroyed at all costs; and on the other she has become a beacon for other fat, feminist woman around the world who saw her success as implicit permission and encouragement to share their own opinions with confidence. I fall into the latter category and, considering one dedication at the back of her memoir, Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman, is to “every fat person who’s ever sent me an email”, I’m not alone.

When The Personal Is Political

When we meet in Melbourne, a day after a packed on-stage Q&A at the Athenaeum Theatre, I instantly see myself in Lindy. Not just because I’ve recently dyed my hair blonde like hers, not just because we’ve both swiped bright red lipstick over our mouths, not just because I’m days away from submitting the final edits on my own memoir that deals with (among other things) the urgent need to be seen in a world that ranks women according to their bodies using a scale that places bodies like mine/hers last. But because she, too is wearing a simple black jersey dress from ASOS Curve.

I didn’t need to mention it or ask about it: fat girls have so few cute clothing options at our disposal that I recognise the style as one that has sat in my own digital shopping cart. It’s rare to have this moment of fashion familiarity when nothing is designed for you. We follow a tangent, during our conversation, to celebrate the private Facebook groups filled with fat people where we turn to find out the best place to buy tights or which plus-size store is having a sale.

Those communities have replaced, for Lindy, the outfit blogs on Tumblr that first showed her an image of smiling fat people wearing clothes — a discovery she details in Shrill that was so loaded with hope and potential for what would become her own happiness in and acceptance of her body.

As well as fatness, Shrill focuses its crosshairs on comedy, reproductive rights (Lindy originated the hashtag campaign #ShoutYourAbortion in 2015 to help de-stigmatise the decision she made herself five years earlier) and internet trolls — a topic Lindy never wanted to make “her beat” as a writer, but one she took on when they began monopolising such massive amounts of her time and disk space (she has literal hard drives full of screengrabs of hateful and threatening comments).

You might have heard her on the widely shared This American Life segment in 2015, in which she speaks to her “worst troll” — the one who abused her from an account mimicking her late father, and the only one who’s ever apologised to her.

In the first week of this year, Lindy deleted her Twitter account, something that I found out when I went to thank her for the chapter in her book about what it feels like to be a fat woman on an aeroplane; a chapter that made me feel so seen and understood that I cried on the toilet. (I happened to be reading the book there, I don’t go there to cry.) (Not all the time, anyway.)

“Twitter, for the past five years, has been a machine where I put in unpaid work and tension headaches come out,” she wrote in her weekly column on The Guardian. “I write jokes there for free. I post political commentary for free. I answer questions for free. I teach feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are all things by which I make my living — in fact, they comprise the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I do them pro bono and, in return, I am micromanaged in real time by strangers; neo-Nazis mine my personal life for vulnerabilities to exploit; and men enjoy unfettered, direct access to my brain so they can inform me, for the thousandth time, that they would gladly rape me if I weren’t so fat.”

Lindy never wanted to write about the abuse she received online; no writer wants their own degradation to be the content of their work. But she nonetheless pulled out her invisible sword to fight the trolls through her writing for years. Now that she’s no longer on Twitter, I want to know what’s changed in her life.

“I get trolls on Facebook once in a while,” she says, “But it’s a different kind of troll because it’s so much more difficult to be anonymous on Facebook. My trolls were always very specifically Twitter trolls — and they’d email me — and comments section trolls. On Facebook it’s religious right, anti-abortion people; on Instagram I sometimes get the anti-abortion trolls, but it’s also thin women who hate fat women. But none of that was ever a constant in my life the way that misogynist Twitter trolls were. So not being on Twitter is a total game-changer.”

“Also, they might still be saying horrible stuff about me, but there’s no way for me to know. Which is great!”

After that significant episode of This American Life aired, then-Twitter CEO Dick Costolo sent an internal memo to the company declaratively announcing that this was a problem they needed to fix. I ask Lindy if they’ve fixed the problem, which is, of course, a rhetorical question. Of course they haven’t.

“I still feel confident in that victory though; I made an important point about this system and how broken it is. And that point still stands, but I don’t have to be there making it over and over again,” she says.

Jack Dorsey, who took over from Costolo in late 2015, said the same thing after Lindy’s Guardian column about quitting Twitter went viral. “He didn’t contact me — neither of them contacted me — but people were sending me screengrabs of him responding to people. I tend to believe both of those men were sincere, but it’s a tough problem. There are some simple things they can do to make it safer, but that’s not my job to do.”

Journalists, she says, often ask her to do that, but it’s insulting to expect someone to personally solve a problem that has facilitated their abuse for so long –– especially when that problem has been apparent since Twitter’s inception and, as yet, the work required to solve it has very blatantly been low on the company’s list of priorities.

Can’t You Take A Joke?

Despite all of this, Shrill is also incredibly funny — something the internet decided was impossible for Lindy to be after she tried to encourage comedians to maybe think about possibly trying not to make jokes at the expense of rape victims.

In that battle — waged in her writing but also in an episode of Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell — “feminism” and “comedy” were set up as diametrically opposed teams, and considering she was asking comedy to be smarter/kinder/better, she was framed as anti-comedy, anti-jokes, anti-everything she had loved her entire life.

Her Twitter mentions turned into a cesspool of comedy fans proving just how large comedy’s misogyny problem was. It was only when she read a portion of those comments on camera and posted the video to Jezebel under the headline “If Comedy Has No Lady Problem, Why Am I Getting So Many Rape Threats?” that some of the pro-free speech comedians who had dismissed her pleas for empathy decided that siding with their fans who felt so comfortable threatening to rape a comedy writer wasn’t a good look, and the tides began to shift.

These stories — about her own abortion, her relationships with her body and with other people, being pitted against a pro-rape-joke comedian on her friend’s TV show, and tackling her trolls — are ones you might already know if you’ve followed Lindy’s work. I had watched that episode of Totally Biased and read the thinkpieces and listened to the podcast, and what Shrill offered was a behind the scenes look at what it took to make them.

“In a lot of ways, writing Shrill felt like closing a chapter of my life. It was like, Can I set down on paper my definitive opinion on rape jokes and internet trolls and my body?” she says.“It was very satisfying in that way.”

“I’m Tired of Thinkpiece-ing.”

Towards the end of Shrill, Lindy lays out the victories she’s logged over the course of her career so far, and counts one significant one: ‘We talk about fatness differently now than we did five years ago — fat people are no longer safe targets.’ That line is comforting to read considering the past few months (but also the past literally forever) of broadcast hate speech and the amplification of alt-right-fuelled rejection of “PC language” (a.k.a just being not horrible). I ask her if we, as a society, can still claim that we’re better and kinder than we were before.

“I think some people are better: some people have genuinely learned and internalised new ideas. The rest is a gamble,” she says. “I would like to believe that the Trump administration — and all of its various iterations around the world — might actually push people in the right direction, because being ‘anti-Political Correctness’ is so irrevocably tied to Donald Trump.”

“Right after the election, there was this brief flurry of articles saying that political correctness was why Trump won, because people were so tired of listening to feminists and Black Lives Matter and trans people asking to use the bathroom that they went ahead and voted for Trump. Those were supposedly lefty white guys who seemed, to me, like they were waiting for an opportunity to throw the rest of us under the bus. But that feels like it got pretty quickly squashed, and that was encouraging to me.”

During a conversation about her book at The Strand in June 2016, Lindy says of the election that she’s “so preemptively exhausted by all the thinkpieces I have to write in the next four to eight years”. She was referring to the possibility of Hillary winning but the alternative, she says, is something she “can’t even thinkpiece about” because the tone is effectively did you hear it’s still bad?

“I’m tired of thinkpiece-ing,” she says, and while it’s difficult for her to feel safe and secure in America right now, Lindy’s new Twitter-free life, has left the airspace around her free of the a large swathe of the hate and fury that informed her life before, allowing her to turn her attention to the things she cares about, new projects that excite her. “Not having to spend a bunch of time thinking about what people are saying about me online frees up brain space to be creative and work on my own projects,” she says.

“I’ve started to write things that are just funny again, which I had stopped doing for a while. (Even though it’s weird to be funny now, post-election, but it’s also necessary.) And what I’m really focussing on is pitching a TV show — I really want to make a really good TV show that makes people feel something and makes them care about other people. I think that kind of communication is going to be really important; it’s almost propaganda.”

“I’m going to keep writing about politics because that’s still really important to me, but a big reason why I quit Twitter was so I could start making things and stop just reacting to them.”

Lindy West will appear at All About Women at the Sydney Opera House on March 5. Her book Shrill is out now. 

Brodie Lancaster is a writer and editor from Melbourne. She edits Filmme Fatales, a zine about women and cinema, and has contributed to Rookie, Rolling Stone, Vulture and Pitchfork. She is a senior editor at The Good Copy and a mediocre DJ.