Lindy West is used to people making assumptions about her work, her body, her health, her life. That’s the price of being a woman online, especially one who started writing during the confessional, early years of blogging, when West forged her reputation for brazen, funny, and sometimes deeply personal posts. But there is one assumption she would like to head off now, ahead of her new television show.
See, there’s this guy. The two of them only went on, “like, three dates, 15 years ago,” but one day over lunch in the writers room for Shrill, the Hulu show based on her 2016 memoir of the same name, West happened to mention that he and his friends used to stage “pencil-fighting tournaments” where they would dress up like pro-wrestlers and have a commentator. The other writers decided this had to be in the show, and now, West is worried that this guy is going to see it and think, Is that supposed to be me?
“And — No!” she shouts, as we sit in her living room on a drizzly Seattle afternoon in February. The 37-year-old’s platinum-blonde hair is still damp from the shower, her blue eyes exasperated behind red-framed glasses. “He’s not based on any of you!” she clarifies to an invisible, amorphous blob of exes. “He’s an amalgam of every dude every woman on staff has ever dated.”
Shrill, she reminds me repeatedly and firmly, is fiction. For example, in real life, West started her career at The Stranger, an alt-weekly newspaper in Seattle, whereas in Shrill, Annie Easton — played by Saturday Night Live’s Aidy Bryant — works at an alt-weekly in Portland. See? Fiction.
Navigating this narrow strait between reality and imagination is new for West. After college, and a few years working for one of those paid-content magazines you get for free when you stay at a hotel (“a horrible job”), West was hired by The Stranger in 2009. As a film editor, her posts — a mix of movie reviews and short, personal blogs — were brash, witheringly sarcastic, full of ALL CAPS. They gained a devoted following, one that came with her, and grew, as she went on to write for Jezebel, GQ, as she wrote her memoir, and as she started writing columns for the Guardian, and then the New York Times.
But West says she has no interest in doing the kind of writing she did back then, writing that made “snickering assholes laugh for one second” and burned bridges “with really good, caring, struggling people.” She says her work, and her thinking, have gotten more sophisticated over the years. That same barbed sense of humor that got her so much attention hasn’t gone anywhere, but she is more cautious with it now.
“Teenagers are in a different universe. They don’t know what a magazine is, they just like memes,” she jokes at one point, before correcting herself: “But, no that’s not fair. That’s really underestimating teenagers, who I actually think are amazing.” She calls a situation “crazy” and then, under her breath, reminds herself not to use that word. She tells me, laughing, about the fans who, to this day, wait outside the bench outside of Kurt Cobain’s former house, which now belongs to “some rich family” and then shakes her head, sighing, “I shouldn’t make fun of people who are sad.”
West and her husband, writer and musician Ahamefule J. Oluo, live near Lake Washington, with 17-year-old Penelope, one of Oluo’s two daughters from a previous marriage (Charley, 15, lives with her mom nearby — she didn’t want to change schools). When it’s time for lunch, West, Oluo, and I, pile into her slightly beat-up SUV, with West behind the wheel, and Oluo offering to sit in the back so my recorder and I can be up front. West takes the scenic route, looping through various rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, everything around us wet and green and gray.
We park outside Café Selam, a small, squat green building with bars over the windows and door, and a jaunty white picket fence wrapped around the front porch that separates it from the auto shop next door. Inside, West recommends we order foul, her favorite — a sautéed bean dish that you sop up with warm, crusty bits of baguette.
As we wait for our food, I ask if there was a single piece that suddenly propelled her career forward. I have a few ideas in mind, none of which is what Oluo says, after a slight pause: “Sex and the City was huge.”
Titled “Burkas and Birkins,” West’s May 2010 review of Sex and the City 2 opens with a a series of questions, including: “What is the lubrication level of Samantha Jones’s 52-year-old vagina? Has the change of life dulled its sparkle?” When she went to sleep after it went online, West says she had about 300 Twitter followers. When she woke up, she had tens of thousands.
The review changed things for West. It was the first piece of hers that went viral, really viral, all over the world. In a tweet, Roger Ebert said it “may be my favorite review of SATC2.” It was the piece that inspired her literary agent, Gary Morris of the David Black agency, to reach out to her. “She sort of peeled the shellac off of this putative tale of female self-empowerment,” Morris told me over the phone. “And it was the ferocity and the hilarity of the way she was able to do that that was unique.”
Oluo says he remembers there being a point in time where everyone he knew was talking about that article. “It was such a big thing, and such a clear indication that this person is doing something.”
As he talks, I feel West shift uncomfortably in her seat next to me. She’s wary of unearthing this review again, she says. Looking back, she finds it deeply problematic in so many ways, mean, and misogynist. There’s a rape joke in it that she regrets (and one that she later apologized for). There is a lot she’s written that she’s not proud of, she says, though she won’t tell me what, exactly, because she doesn’t want to draw any more attention to comments that might cause someone pain. “A lot of stuff I wrote when I was 28, and it’s really hard to conceptualize the future like, maybe eventually I don’t want this on the internet forever.”
“It was that time where everyone wanted to be edgy,” she says of her early writing days. When West started working full-time at The Stranger, blogging was still the wild west. It was an untamed, constantly evolving landscape, populated largely with 20-somethings both willing to pick fights, and to share intensely personal details about themselves. This daring — and/or dumb, depending on whom you ask — combination that vaulted many, like West, to a niche sort of fame, but also made them both popular and vulnerable targets for critics. (Take, for instance, the rise and fall and rise of former Gawker editor Emily Gould.)
“You know those things where it’s mean, but so mean that it’s hilarious? I was really good at that,” West says, shrugging. She was good at it, and she was willing to take on anyone. Which brings us to the other guy West is a little worried about seeing the show.
In Shrill, Annie clashes publicly with her boss, a self-obsessed, aging punk named Gabe. This clash is reminiscent of the very real, very public exchange West had eight years ago with Dan Savage, the editorial director of The Stranger.
What happened: one February afternoon in 2011, West published a post on The Stranger’s blog titled, “Hello, I Am Fat,” which featured a picture of herself with the caption, “28 years old, female, 5’9”, 263 lbs.” In it, West “comes out” as fat, and addresses Savage directly, criticizing him for the ways he’d written about fat people. Three days later, Savage responded with his own blog, “Hello, I’m Not the Enemy,” in which he wrote that West was “externalizing an internal conflict about being fat.”
So is Gabe … Dan?
“No!” West shouts, again into my recorder. Gabe is a music writer, first of all, whereas Savage is a sex columnist, and the situation Annie finds herself in isn’t quite the same as the one West found herself in, anyway, she says.
She and Savage haven’t spoken since her book came out. But they’re on good terms, she thinks.
Over two years ago, in January of 2017, West left Twitter. At the time, she had already been the target of countless trolling and harassment campaigns on the platform, some following her writing on abortion, some following her writing on body acceptance, some following her writing about rape jokes, some that occurred simply because that’s what happens to women online. But the trolls are not why West left, she told me earlier, in her living room. She loved Twitter.
She liked making jokes on it, and interacting with funny, smart people on it. At a certain point, though, the cost-benefit of being a part of a website that provides Donald Trump a stage on which to threaten nuclear war with North Korea just didn’t add up for her anymore. Still, she was a little taken aback by what happened after she left: “I knew that it would cut down on abuse, but I didn’t know it would be a 100 percent decrease.”
If anything, trolls are a sign that West is doing her job. Yes, West wants to be funny, likable, and charming. That way, she believes she can smuggle ideas like fat acceptance into the brains of people who might not otherwise be open to it. But she is also keenly aware of just how to provoke the people who don’t agree with her. In the past, she has at times delighted in gutting them. As she said in an interview in 2016, if they gave her a good opening, engaging with trolls was “cathartic and fun because I know I can win. Because I’m a professional writer and they’re just some dildo.”
There is one troll West engaged with more fully, speaking to him for a 2015 episode of This American Life. In 2013, this particular troll, who has remained publicly anonymous, made a parody Twitter account of West’s deceased father. She mentioned the incident in an essay on Jezebel, and to her shock, the morning after, she got an email from him, apologizing. Eighteen months later, he agreed to speak with her on the phone for NPR. He told her that it was how assertively she wrote about being who she was that made him so angry.
“You almost have no fear when you write. You know? It’s like you stand on the desk and you say, this is — I’m Lindy West and this is what I believe. And you know, fuck you if you don’t agree with me,” he said. He went on to note that “for me, as well — it’s threatening at first.”
“Right. You must know that I — that’s why I do that,” West responded. “Because people don’t expect to hear from women like that. And I want other women to see me do that and I want women’s voices to get louder.”
After lunch, we drop off Oluo at their neighborhood bar, and West takes me on a driving tour of some of her favorite spots around Seattle — she points out the cute diner she and her family go to, their favorite bakery, the office where she works, the coffee shop where she actually works.
Save for a couple of short stints in Los Angeles, once for college, and years later for a job, West has lived and worked in Seattle her whole life — “a real average, white, middle-class life.” Even as her career picked up, and national outlets like GQ started asking her to write for them, she was never really tempted to leave Seattle. While she was working for Jezebel, she would occasionally go to New York for work. She loved her co-workers, she says, but admits she was always happy to leave. The New York media posturing looked too stressful: “It seemed like there were Cool Kids, and a whole ecosystem that I was happy to not be a part of. I got to just sit here in my own little rain town.”
West is a famous writer, which is different than being a famous actor, or a famous musician, or a famous politician. Famous writers don’t often have their faces plastered on the covers of magazines, and can still lead relatively normal lives without being mobbed by fans or paparazzi. Still, West gets recognized everywhere. This is partially due to her success, and partially due to the fact that she has lived here her whole life, and Seattle, as she tells me repeatedly, is very small. Indeed, when we stop to get a coffee, and later to get a drink, she’s approached by several friends and acquaintances, who ask her about the show, and the weather, and whether Penelope is free to babysit. The recognition is at a level she can handle now, though she suspects, with Shrill, and the new book, that might change. The show is a new kind of vulnerability, one that will likely bring with it a new level of exposure. And she suspects, with her increased visibility, that the trolls may return, too. I wonder why West, who describes herself to me as shy, continues to throw herself out into the public eye, to open herself up to the world.
“Once I got past the scariness of it, it was helping me, it was helping other people, it was helping my career … It all worked out,” she tells me as we continue our loop around the city. “So why did I keep doing it?” She shrugs. “What’s the point of writing something that doesn’t move anything?”
This post has been updated to reflect that the title of West’s review was “Burkas and Birkins”.