A promising athlete. A woman incapacitated by alcohol. A lenient sentence, and a cacophony of outrage and counter-outrage.
To feminist writer and professional funny person Lindy West, the Stanford rape case has played out a bit like Groundhog Day—we've seen all of it many times before, but almost nobody seems to remember.
"This has happened so many times," she told VICE. "My overwhelming feeling is déjà vu." Before Brock Turner, there were Steubenville football players—not to mention thousands more cases hidden from public view. "We're all enraged for a few weeks, and then we forget and move on."
Now touring her debut book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, West has spent years writing about how our culture cuts down women, while too often excusing the men who violate them. She does this with a signature mix of humanity and all-caps that somehow makes people laugh and want to gently confront the men in their lives at the same time.
For women who have been following West's career arc, from snarky arts reviewer at Seattle's alt-weekly The Stranger to fat acceptance advocate and "human vuvuzela" of international acclaim, it's refreshing to hear her say what so many are thinking. On the Stanford rapist's father in particular, who asked a California judge to not send the 20-year-old to prison for "20 minutes of action," West does not hold back:
"Fuck that guy's dad," she told VICE. "That guy's dad sucks, and that's why that guy sucks." On his plea for leniency, which also lamented the swimmer's forever-changed steak eating habits, she adds: "It really exemplifies the way we just bend over backward to excuse perpetrators, especially when they're white and male and rich and quote-unquote promising."
There's plenty more to be outraged about, from the gross "action" euphemism (dude, it's called rape) to citing alcohol as a scapegoat. But thanks in part to the incremental work of writers and advocates like West—and especially due to the bravery of the 23-year-old who was raped—there are some notable narrative differences this time around. For one, the unnamed victim has reclaimed the story of her assault with her own letter now read by millions. This time, it seems, her story is the one everyone remembers.
"The letter is amazing. I'm thrilled it's getting so much press," West said of the woman's "coming out" as victim. "I talk about this in my book, that personal narrative is a really powerful tool in terms of generating empathy and changing people's minds and helping people understand why they need to care about things that may or may not directly affect them."
In Shrill, West recounts two "coming out" stories of her own. In response to her boss Dan Savage's near-constant insulting swipes at fat peoples' supposed moral failings, she responded with her own fat girl manifesto. She also spoke out about her own abortion, a boring medical procedure she compares to wisdom tooth surgery.
"Both of those things were issues that I felt kind of muzzled on; I wasn't naturally open about them," West said. "But through time and picking apart some of the assumptions I'd been taught about myself, I got over that barrier."
By rejecting the stigma that keeps others silent, West says she's able to more effectively advocate for herself and the women she cares about. It gives her the freedom to advise thin people: "Please do not go around asking fat people where they got their confidence in the same tone you'd ask a shark how it learned to breathe air and manage an Orange Julius."
At her tour stop at Vancouver, Canada's Fox Cabaret, West is in her element warming up the crowd with PSAs like these. She riffs on a short list of fat women role models from the pop culture of her youth (spoiler: none are empowering), but is quickly called to sit and weigh in on more serious stuff. Rarely is she adequately credited for her contributions to stand-up.
For now, West is happy to keep her comedic life on hiatus. In Shrill, West recalls how a subset of the male-dominated industry aggressively dismissed her views on how to tell a rape joke without being a dick. She writes the resulting tsunami of rape and death threats irreversibly changed her perspective—the thought of watching stand-up now tinged with panic and dread.
It might take another "coming out" to get her back on the mic, but on that point, West can't be sure. "I certainly don't feel like I have many secrets left," she told VICE. "I guess I'm proud of how far I've come in that regard. I'm pretty much solidly myself all the time."
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