“Did you see Gigi Hadid hosting the American Music Awards?” he asked.
I reply that I did, although I only watched for a few minutes.
I caught the clip of her Melania Trump impression. Her co-host Jay Pharoah, formerly of SNL and a spot-on Barack Obama impersonation, laughed as though it was the funniest joke he’d ever heard. It wasn’t a particularly great impression, but it was mildly amusing.
“God, that was painful, so awkward. Women can be hot or funny, not both,” he continues.
The statement is so regressive, so unapologetic that I can’t quite believe it’s spoken to me. It’s not just about Gigi anymore, whose physical beauty is clearly no armor against male criticism. It’s about all women.
He goes on to correct himself and to insinuate women can’t really be funny in general – regardless of their appearance.
I can only muster a sarcastic “Yes, it’s difficult for us women to be multiple things.”
As if women haven’t been forced to be virgins and whores, sexy wives and innocent mothers, a career woman who also remembers to put family before self.
I’m not a sarcastic person by nature and my attempts at sarcasm usually never land. This moment is no exception. I wasn’t trying to be funny, but if I was, it’s clear no one would laugh.
He is one of two men in my apartment, here to fix a leaky toilet, who were earlier bemoaning the fact that women were allowed to join their social club.
“It just changed everything. I mean, we’d all get together and talk about grabbing pussy, then more women joined and a lot of guys stopped going. Less fun, you know? What are we supposed to talk about now?”
I look up the organization after they leave. It is dedicated to volunteering.
Earlier that day, I had finished Lindy West’s new book Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman. It’s a book of essays by a woman who is often described, succinctly, as a “fat feminist”. While such a description is – on the surface – reductive at best, it does capture two of West’s most-written about topics: body-positive fat acceptance and equality for women.
West describes her love for comedy and the ways it can be transformative. It affects culture and shapes discourse. Ultimately she finds that there are almost too many man-made barriers for her to fully embrace comedy in the way she would love to.
Misogyny is so deeply ingrained in comedy that “women aren’t funny” becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. Women, why can’t you laugh at these jokes about yourselves? Hey ladies, lighten up a bit, huh? What are you on the rag or something? PMSing again? [Cue canned laughter that is one-third careless, one-third enthusiastic, one-third uncomfortable. ]
In a chapter entitled, “It’s About Free Speech, It’s Not About Hating Women”, West addresses the push-back from male comedians on rape jokes. West argues against “punching down” against an oft-marginalized community and using jokes about sexual assault to solidify rape culture. Seems cut and dry – after all, who is outwardly pro-rape? Well, you’d be surprised.
West argues that rape jokes can be effective when “comics use their art to call bullshit on those terrible parts of life and make them better, not worse”. There’s a difference between Daniel Tosh musing at a stand up show about a female heckler being raped “right now by 5 guys” and using comedy to point a finger at the underhanded culture we live in.
She realizes that speaking out face-to-face with male comedians has forced her into a role she never wanted. West writes, “I sometimes envy (and on my bad days, resent) the funny female writers of my generation who never get explicitly political in their work. They’re allowed to keep their funny cards; by engaging with comedy, by trying to make it better, I lost mine.” Her portrayal as “humorless and uptight” is framed against that of male comedians as “edgy and laid back”. The debate between “political correctness” – or as it’s known in this case, basic human decency – and “free speech” rages on. “Men, you will never understand. Women, I hope I helped. Comedy, you broke my heart,” she concludes.
West’s essays on feminist issues - such as abortion, rape culture, everyday sexism dressed in plainclothes so insidious it isn’t detected until too late – are well-written, provocative, humorous, heartbreaking, and thoughtful. But there is one experience that is purely and uniquely hers, which she addresses towards the conclusion in the book’s most powerful essay.
West’s experience is well known across the Internet and to devotees of “This American Life”. She addresses it here, yet holds back a bit, distancing herself from the reader in a way she doesn’t in her earlier essays. Some things are just too painful to delve deep into, I know, and I applaud the parts that she does share. After the death of her father, a musician named Paul West, an anonymous Internet troll creates a Twitter to impersonate her Dad as she is mourning. The Twitter bio refers to Lindy as such, “Embarrassed father of an idiot.” As an afterthought, the troll adds: “other two kids are fine though.” The location of Paul West is given as “Dirt hole in Seattle”.
This cruelty is unprecedented, shocking, unfathomable. Who has the time to do this? How could someone be so evil? And yet in the same breath, we dismiss the pain of women who are harassed on the Internet every day. Well, just log off if it hurts your feelings. Don’t be so sensitive. You don’t have to read it. It’s a new-millennium version of “ignore the bullies and they’ll go away”.
West does not ignore her bully. She faces him head on in a piece for Jezebel. After reading her article, West’s troll reaches out to her to apologize. “This email still unhinges my jaw every time I read it,” she writes. “A troll apologizing – this had never happened to me before, it has never happened to me since.”
The reason for the apology is revealed and it’s nowhere near as subversive as the existence of the apology itself. Apologizing is a thing women do – we are jostled by someone on the street and we reply “sorry” as if the roles were reversed. We start sentences with “sorry” before asking a question, preemptively framing our question as unnecessary, silly, irritating.
In her book, West is not apologizing. West writes in the space we’ve come to call “dramedy” on network TV, a place where you laugh until you cry, or cry until you laugh. She can be contradictory. She is a body-positive activist who celebrates plus-size women, but she also feels shame at her own size. She is serious and sometimes irreverent. That is to say, she is a human being.
Shrill: Notes From A Loud Woman is now available from Hachette Books on Amazon and where all books are sold.