When I find Lindy West at a table at the Port Gamble General Store, she is deep into her smartphone, in the midst of a Twitter debate — this one started by New York Times media writer David Carr.
The subject: Those who support freshly canned Food Network star Paula Deen, despite recent revelations about her use of the N-word. And not because they don’t mind what she said. It’s that they’re fat.
“(Carr) said it looks like Paula Deen’s supporters are also ‘widely supportive’ of her style of eating,” West deadpans.
Yeah, I saw it. The accompanying photo was of a group of overweight people standing outside of Deen’s restaurant. The photo was taken from behind. Of course.
“I guess you can’t critique bigotry without your own dogwhistle classism,” West said. “That’s what’s implied: ‘Oh, stupid fat people.’
“I get that (Deen) is a racist, but that kind of comment directly affects me, Lindy West in Seattle. Be mad at Paula Deen for being a racist, but please leave the shape of my body out of it.”
Even in this quiet little outpost on the Kitsap Peninsula, West, 31, can’t help but get pulled into the national conversation, about not just for what is being said, but also for how it’s said, and to whom — and the collateral damage caused by our tweets, posts and comments.
West is known in the Seattle area, thanks to her theater and film criticism for The Stranger, where she started as an intern in 2005 and moved up through the arts ranks, eventually becoming film editor and making her mark with a sidesplitting review of “Sex and the City 2.” (Very much worth looking up.)
For the past 18 months, West has been a staff writer at the website Jezebel, which takes a feminist view of pop-culture, fashion and politics — and where she tries to point out “invisible hypocrisies.”
“Somebody has to do it,” she said. “It’s important to me because it’s hard to understand, to comprehend other people’s experiences.”
Take, for example, fat people.
“For the longest time, it’s been fine to abuse fat people for sport,” she said, “as if I didn’t grow up on a diet every day of my life.
“This paradigm of me being broken, me not doing womanhood correctly because I don’t look like a girl in a catalog has defined my whole life and not in a good way,” she said. “And I’m not doing it anymore.”
(In a 2011 Stranger piece, entitled “Hello, I’m fat,” she publicly dressed down no less than her star colleague Dan Savage for his own statements on overweight people. The post garnered more than 1,400 comments.)
It was also at Jezebel where she first urged comedians to think twice before telling rape jokes.
It started last year, when she called out comedian Daniel Tosh for suggesting that a woman in his audience be gang-raped for telling him that “rape jokes are never funny.”
Comedians defended Tosh, saying that they need to make fun of the awful things in the world, like rape. That’s their job as comedians.
West agreed, said they should joke away. But let’s be clear:
“Ninety percent of your rape material is not working, and you can tell it’s not working because your audience is telling you that they hate those jokes,” she said. “This is the feedback you asked for.”
The issue came up again last month with comedian Jim Norton, who argued that comedians need absolute freedom in order to function. West disagreed, saying that comedy’s permissiveness about rape jokes contributes to a culture of young men not understanding the seriousness of the issue.
West appeared on FX’s “Totally Biased with W. Kamau Bell” to debate Norton on the issue.
“I’m trying to be a gracious winner, but I totally won,” she declared. “The conversation was reframed as rape jokes, but it’s about misogyny in general, which is a cornerstone of comedy.” (Take my wife, please.)
“It’s starting to register for people that this isn’t about being offended,” West said. “It’s about tangible harm.”
Unfortunately, that goodwill was short-lived. Immediately after the show aired, West received an avalanche of awful emails, threatening — surprise! — rape.
“A suffocating deluge of violent misogyny is how American comedy fans react to a woman suggesting that comedy might have a misogyny problem,” West wrote — and then posted a video of herself, reading some of the reams of email.
“No reason for you to worry about rape, Uggo,” read one.
“Fat bitch is mad no one wants to rape her,” read another.
And of course, the Internet commenter standby “Kill yourself.”
West explained to me, “When people say there is no correlation between the way comedians speak about women and how comedy fans talk to women in the real world ... I can’t think of a better way to dismantle that argument.
“It was great, and it was horrible,” she said of the experience. “But it was worth it.”
West has been spending the last few weeks decompressing at her mother’s cabin on the Hood Canal with her boyfriend, Ahamefule Oluo, a jazz musician and artist, and his two children.
And she’s working on a book proposal that her agent has been bugging her to finish, “a humorous collection of personal essays posing as a memoir.”
“People who are 31 shouldn’t write memoirs,” she said. “So it’s about Internet trolls and bodies and all the things I never shut up about.”
A graduate of Garfield High School and Occidental College in Los Angeles, she has also written and performed comedy, and hosted the local version of “The Moth,” a storytelling radio show.
In October of 2011, West quit The Stranger and moved to Los Angeles.
“I wanted to try TV, or get a change of scenery and see if L.A. had anything for me,” West said. “Seattle can get a little small.”
But she came back in December of that year, when her father, the musician Paul West, succumbed to pancreatic cancer.
“He was really great,” she said, quietly. “A cool dude.”
When she isn’t writing, she loves to read “super-corny fantasy stuff like dragons” (“I can’t help it; it makes me feel better”) and watch entire seasons of TV in one long session. (“I saved up ‘Parks & Rec’ and watched all of it in three days.”)
West’s phone buzzes. She looks down. The Carr/Deen/fat people debate is still on.
“Oh, I don’t want to be in this conversation anymore,” she whined. “It’s just never going to end.”
So why do it?
“It’s not a game,” she said, serious and clear. “I am speaking out about things that I care about. Full stop.”
Nicole Brodeur: firstname.lastname@example.org.
About Nicole & Co.
Every Sunday, I bring you a conversation with a local who is doing something great, or a great who is doing something local: media personalities, big thinkers, visiting artists, colorful characters and doers of all kinds.
email@example.com | 206-464-2334