Lindy West: the Zeitgeist personified

Lindy West

It’s a mark of how far the New York Times has fallen that one of its “contributing opinion writers” – since July of last year – is a silly gal named Lindy West. She’s the author of a 2016 essay collection entitled Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman. The title, of course, places the book in a genre, or subgenre, that one might call “proudly obnoxious feminist” books, such as Elizabeth Wurtzel’s Bitch: In Praise of Difficult Women (1998) and Laurie Penny’s Bitch Doctrine: Essays for Dissenting Adults (2017). For many third-wave feminists, being proud of being obnoxious is, shall we say, a thing.

For a proudly obnoxious feminist, West’s career path has been pretty standard: a stint at Seattle’s alternative weekly The Stranger, a staff job at the feminist site Jezebel. And so on. Her Wikipedia page claims that she “has changed more minds…than you could count” using her humor, and lists several pieces of hers that have supposedly “helped shift mainstream attitudes about body image, comedy and online harassment over the past several years.” Not to question the veracity of Wikipedia, but we don’t know anyone whose opinions have been changed by her, and after reading her purported “greatest” works we not only can’t imagine any intelligent person being persuaded by them – we also can’t see why they’re considered humorous. West is not remotely funny, unless you think it’s funny to be, as she puts it, shrill. (And to use the F word in nearly every sentence.) 

Dave Attell, one of the comedians who would doubtless disappear in Lindy West’s perfect world

One of her supposed classics is a 2013 piece for Jezebel entitled “An Open Letter to White Male Comedians.” Her argument is that “comedy has a serious gender problem, and I really can’t stop complaining about it until it’s f***ing fixed. Comedy clubs are an overtly hostile space for women. Even just presuming we can talk about comedy gets women ripped to shreds by territorial dudes desperate to defend their authority over what’s funny.” Note how she uses the word “authority.” The fact here, as West goes on to make clear, is that she doesn’t like certain jokes about women, and she thinks women should have the right to tell men which jokes are out of bounds and to be listened to. In other words, she thinks female comics should be granted the authority to censor male comics.

Male comics, quite reasonably, reject this audacious proposal. And by doing so, in her cockeyed view, they’re the ones exercising authority. No, they’re exercising freedom. But in this “Open Letter,” as elsewhere, West makes it clear that she doesn’t have much respect for the concept of freedom – in particular, for freedom of speech.

Mel Brooks

Because speech, she claims, hurts.

In her “Open Letter,” she claims that “being a woman is a bitch,” that it “can be scary,” that “there’s always a small awareness that we are vulnerable simply because we are women,” that jokes “about domestic violence and rape…feed that aura of feeling unsafe and unwelcome.”

West doesn’t seem to realize that not just being a woman, but being human, can be scary, that we’re all vulnerable in certain ways, that life is tough for virtually all of us for a wide range of reasons, and is ultimately tragic for every last one of us, and that the whole point of truly great humor is to try to grapple with that. So it is that some of the very greatest humor goes into the very darkest of places. Just ask Mel Brooks.

But no, scratch that. West doesn’t want to hear from people like Mel Brooks – because he’s a straight white male, and is thus incapable of understanding any of this unless, perhaps, he reads West’s “Open Letter.” As she explains: “If you’re an able-bodied straight white male, you are by definition a member of the least number of systemically oppressed groups. It takes an entire blog post for me to make you feel diminished and misunderstood (my bad)—but you could do that to me or a gay person or a trans person or a person of color or a disabled person with just a word.”

This is what it comes down to with West – the claim that, because she is a member of an allegedly oppressed group, a single word can make her “feel diminished,” and that it’s therefore a noble act for her to hector and harass – at 3000 words’ length! – members of what she sees as non-oppressed groups about their use of words. Simply put, she’s the Zeitgeist personified. 

More on Thursday.

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