Sara Fredman | Longreads | November 2019 | 17 minutes (4,696 words)
The title of Lindy West’s new book, The Witches Are Coming, derives from a New York Times column West wrote in October 2017 about the then-unfolding of the allegations against Harvey Weinstein. Woody Allen had warned against creating “a witch hunt atmosphere,” where men have to worry about their every move, and West was not having it. Or, more precisely, she was all too ready to have it. “The witches are coming,” she wrote, “but not for your life. We’re coming for your legacy … we have our stories, and we’re going to keep telling them.” For West, there is witchcraft to be found in truth-telling, a power that she says “by definition cannot be likable.”
Likability is in the news again, with the New York Times reporting this week that 41% of voters surveyed who support Joe Biden but not Elizabeth Warren say they agree with the statement that most of the women who run for president “just aren’t that likable.” But, as West and I discussed when we spoke over the phone last month, likability is hardly an objective category. It depends as much on who is doing the liking as it does on who is being liked. In other words, audience — or in the case of politics, the makeup of the electorate — matters. The Witches Are Coming knows its audience. It isn’t aimed at the Woody Allens or the Donald Trumps of the world; its title functions as more of a mantra for would-be practitioners of its witchcraft than a warning to potential victims. And the truths West tells in The Witches Are Coming will likely find a cadre of would-be witches eager to like them. Over the last decade, West has gone from a local Seattle favorite to a writer with a national profile, a best-selling memoir, Shrill, and a well-received TV show of the same name. In one of her essays, West cheekily addresses racists but she acknowledges that her writing isn’t for everyone, least of all Trump supporters. Instead, she talks about the value of preaching to the choir — in her words, the ones “who show up every week.”
Still, it’s possible that even West’s devoted audience isn’t entirely ready to hear all of the truths she’s here to tell. The essays in The Witches Are Coming cover a wide range of seemingly disparate topics, from the #metoo movement to climate change; Ted Bundy, Adam Sandler, and Joan Rivers all get chapters, as does a ’90s culture that West believes taught her that activism was lame. They share an emphasis on the power of voice: Who gets to speak and share their stories? How do we react when those stories are shared? And they often dwell on the ways in which we try to avoid having hard conversations about our culture. What the essays don’t do is provide any easy solutions. When I spoke to her, West was comfortable saying she doesn’t have all the answers and the book functions as a series of questions that attempt, at various points, to challenge, inspire, and reassure an audience she assumes is ready to take on the cultural challenges we face as we head into the third decade of the millennium.
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Sara Fredman: Shrill told a specifically feminist story: what it’s like to walk around the world in a woman’s body, and in your particular body; what it means to try and fit yourself into like cultural and physical spaces that aren’t built for you. The Witches Are Coming pans out quite a bit and engages more broadly with politics and systemic inequities and what it means to live in our culture right now, particularly for marginalized groups. What compelled you to use this wider lens? How was the writing process different for this book as opposed to Shrill?
Lindy West: Well, part of it is that there’s something vulnerable and very raw and sort of overexposed about writing memoir and I needed a break from writing memoir. So that was part of it but I think that a hallmark of the Trump era is this feeling of being overwhelmed. I’m not one of those people who thinks that this is a good thing because it’s forcing people to wake up. But I do think that it has forced a lot of people to confront how many different things are broken in our country and the ways that he’s been able to exploit those broken systems and the ways that his fans absolutely relish that brokenness. It’s really been a dark and scary time. And I just felt like that feeling of being overwhelmed is such a part of this time, so I wanted to address it in some way. I’m not an expert in anything, I don’t have a degree in policy. I’m just a person who I think is a relatively good communicator and I have this platform and this book is my attempt at gathering in all of the different parts of this great, big, overwhelming mess as best I can, trying to hold them all together and look at them at the same time and be honest and accountable about reality. That’s what this writing process felt like to me. I don’t know anything special but the point of the book is hopefully to make people feel less alone and hopefully to galvanize people a little bit. It’s the same as writing a list. If you can put something down on paper in a way where you can look at it all at once, it becomes less daunting. And you can’t cover everything but this was my attempt at trying to consolidate it so you can start cutting it up into bite-sized pieces.
It reminds me of when my daughter was dealing with anxiety as a really little person and I spoke to a child psychologist who said you have to name it before you can deal with it. And I feel like that’s so much of what you’re doing, naming it for us. Not that we don’t know, obviously, what we’re dealing with, but getting it down on paper is the first step because it’s so overwhelming.
Yeah, and it’s also scary to look at because it’s so much more comfortable to be in denial.
Once you start looking at like — “oh my God, what do we do?” — it’s really scary. And I think a lot of people — particularly privileged people and especially white people — who have the luxury of living in denial to a great extent, that’s really seductive. And I think that the first step absolutely is just naming what’s happening around us and what’s happened before us. That’s just the first step to repairing some of these really deep illnesses in our society.
But I’m interested in how you conceive of your audience. Is there an element in this book, do you think, of preaching to the choir or do you see it as galvanizing those who would already tend to agree with you but just might be complacent or think that there’s not much they can do? Do you think you might change anyone’s mind?
I know that I have changed people’s minds with my writing before because I hear from them. I clearly did not write this book for Trump supporters to read and be like, “Huh, I never thought about that.” Obviously that’s not going to happen. I don’t feel any kind of qualms about preaching to the choir. I get accused of that a lot and I’m like, great, the choir is who shows up every week. And we have a lot of shit to do and if the choir is feeling despair and doesn’t know what to do with themselves, I have some ideas for them and I would like them to feel energized and galvanized and I would like them to not feel hopeless. The choir is who’s showing up because they want to be preached to so I don’t really mind when people say that about my work. I don’t think everything has to be changing people’s minds. And I don’t know that there are many books that are going to reach across that partisan divide. I think that’s the work of very, very long, slow culture change or one ultra-charismatic politician TBD who maybe hasn’t been born yet.
When I teach argumentative writing, I usually start our discussion by asking if the students can give an example of a piece of writing that changed their minds because I think it’s extraordinarily difficult to change someone’s mind. And it’s always a very interesting discussion but this semester, one of my students said that he used to be anti-abortion and then started seeing all these Twitter threads of women talking about their abortions and they changed his mind. And I was flabbergasted because when does this ever happen? But then it was like, “Oh my gosh, that was on Twitter.” And I bring this up because you started the Shout Your Abortion movement on Twitter and, in this book, you write that “personal story telling is an engine of humanization, which is in turn an engine of empathy.” So here I have this kid who’s telling me he changed his opinion on abortion because of Twitter threads but Twitter can often be this toxic wasteland for women. What do we do about the fact that this is a major platform for changing minds but it’s also the main arena for policing and punishing women’s voices? What would be your advice for women who want to try to change the world by sharing their stories but don’t want to participate in an abusive garbage platform?
I don’t know. I’m certainly not telling people that they need to get off Twitter. I love Twitter. I think Twitter is incredible in a lot of ways and I had a lot of fun on Twitter and I learned a lot on Twitter. All of that is real and if people can find a place, a way to navigate Twitter that feels safe and productive to them, that’s great, you know, go ahead and stay. I left Twitter because of the president. It wasn’t so much the getting trolled all the time. I just felt ethically disgusting validating that platform or embracing the platform with my presence. So while I do think it might be a net gain for the world if we all left Twitter and let it die and move to a different platform, I don’t know what that platform is. That’s all well and good to suggest but in practical terms, it doesn’t really do much for us. We don’t have it yet. Shout Your Abortion happened on Twitter 100% and I know firsthand that that movement has changed a lot of people’s lives. And it’s just one of many absolutely incredible spontaneous outpourings of truths that have happened on Twitter that have changed a lot about the landscape that we live in. So I don’t have anything wise to say beyond that it sucks. Some people get to use this platform and have fun and feel safe and laugh and goof off with their friends and some people, in order to do any of that, have to figure out how to armor themselves against really, really violent, horrific abuse. And the fact that it’s racialized and it’s gendered, it’s just a really apt and a really disgusting reflection of our society at large. If I had a solution for our society at large, I promise I’d tell everyone. It’s real tricky because people absolutely need that platform and there’s a lot of good stuff happening there. I choose to not be there, but I don’t begrudge people who do. And even though I don’t have a lot of faith in them, I hope that Twitter continues to try to make that space safe for everyone. And maybe they’ll figure it out.
That idea of how some people get to exist very benignly, safely and other people have a totally different experience of the world, you touch on that in your chapter on Ted Bundy and likability, which kind of fed my soul because I write a series for Longreads on TV antiheroes and gender, trying to figure out why we find it so easy to like men who do bad things and so hard to like women who do anything at all. Your argument is that likability is a con and that it can’t possibly be an objective criterion in our sexist, racist culture, which I found very compelling. But you also have a TV show and, I think, in the opinion of most critics, you created a likable character in Annie Easton.
Although there was some criticism that I remember seeing when season one came out that she wasn’t shrill enough, which I guess meant that she was so likable that she was unlikable, which hilariously and sadly proves your point. Can you talk a little bit about the process of creating that character? Did you fall into the likability trap at all? Were there discussions of “we want audiences to like this character” or “I’m crafting the character in such a way” in order to get audiences to like or relate to her?
Yeah. I’m sure I’ve absolutely contradicted myself in print because I definitely have said that part of my purpose in the show, part of my goal, was to create a fat person that you like because I just think that that’s such an excellent way to change people’s minds — if you can fall in love with this character that you’re used to seeing as a kind of negative archetype, a stock character, a sidekick, a sort of broken person, a work in progress. If you can make a fully realized human being that people care about in a genuine way, then that might affect the way that they think about the fat people around them in their lives. So I’ve certainly said that in interviews and then I condemned myself in my book, which I hadn’t realized, so thank you for pointing that out. You’re always working within the confines of the culture that you’re working in. I guess maybe you can exploit that system to a degree.
I think that the way it’s been set up like likability is a con. My argument in the series has basically been that these stories of antiheroes have been told in such a way that it stacks the deck for liking a certain character. We wouldn’t ordinarily like a mob boss or a meth kingpin, but because we get these backstories, because we see that they’re just trying to provide for their families and they’re thoughtful, they get interiority, all that stuff, and we find ourselves rooting for them in spite of ourselves because it’s been stacked. It’s all about how you construct a narrative. And so I think it’s so cool and fascinating to be thoughtful about that, but for the kind of character who doesn’t usually get that kind of narrative structure.
Yeah and also, you know, Annie is not likable universally. I am, in the chapter, talking more about the idea of this sort of blanket, nice, universal likability that actually isn’t what we’re going for in the show. There’s plenty of people who are mad about her abortion, who hate her for being fat even though she’s nice. But I think you’re right. I think if you are a flattened person, then your likability can only be hollow. And all it can do is pander to stereotypes and traditional gender roles. But if you can make a character that is alive, it’s likable in a much more nutritious way. And you’re still within the confines of a fucked-up culture and there’s stuff about Annie that I’m sure is problematic in some way. But everything is just this kind of weird dance. You’re trying to position yourself in this matrix of fucked-up forces.
I think it’s a complex thing but I think it’s telling that you were able to create this character who you want to root for despite the fact that she was doing all of these things that have not traditionally been likable characteristics. So that’s moving the needle but also probably reflective of the fact that so many women saw themselves for the first time in this character and that we have more women’s voices in pop culture criticism and all that stuff to say “this is a great portrayal.” So I guess it’s all about representation. Which is another topic that you talk about a lot. You’ve spoken about it in Shrill and in this book as well. And the chapter on likability comes right after the chapter on Adam Sandler, which argues that all Adam Sandler movies share a number of major unnerving qualities. I’m the same age as you and I’ve always seen myself in your arguments that so much of pop culture when we were growing up just wasn’t for us. I’m finding that part of adulthood for me is figuring out what I actually like because so much of my youth was spent subconsciously shaping myself to fit a pop culture that wasn’t created by people like me.
And actually Adam Sandler was a notable exception in one tiny little way. His Hannukah song was like the first time my religion had a major pop culture moment. But that was literally the one thing.
I mean, I almost put it in the book that “O.J. Simpson, not a Jew” is an incredible joke. It’s a very, very good line.
It was so of a moment. You could write a chapter on that.
Yeah, for sure.
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So I guess I’m wondering whether you think things have shifted enough. Is it that pop culture has become a bigger tent such that it speaks to girls and young women in the same way it does to boys and young men? Or has it just become fragmented? You have teenage daughters. Do you feel that it’s different now?
It’s definitely different. I don’t know that it’s like, you know, “Oh, we fixed it.” It’s so much better, there’s so much more diverse representation, different ways to be a girl on TV, than there were when we were growing up. But still 99% of the actresses on TV look exactly alike and lo and behold, that’s what all the teenage girls at my daughters’ schools happen to strive to look like. And that’s just exactly the same as it was when we were teenagers. But at the same time there’s a lot more depth and breadth to the female characters and the different kinds of women’s stories that we see on TV. I mean, when we were kids, you couldn’t have interracial couples. I was at Jezebel already when Cheerios had an ad with an interracial couple and people lost their minds. So that was 2012 at the earliest. So things absolutely are moving and shifting. My daughters are so clued in. They’re so on top of the media that they consume and monitoring it and policing it and thinking critically about it. And that’s another thing that Twitter has, I think, taught a lot of young people. It’s just a constant global conversation churning about every single thing in the world. And so my daughters are hyperaware of racist bullshit and sexist bullshit and homophobic bullshit in the media around them and it’s amazing. In a different interview, someone asked me: How do you equip your kids to navigate the sort of media landscape? And I think I kind of rambled on about, you know, “You gotta be honest with them and always talk to them like they are smart and they can handle it and don’t dumb things down,” blah, blah, blah. But I’m realizing in this moment that my real answer is, don’t worry about it, they got it. My daughters are so much smarter about media literacy.
I feel like I was so dumb. I feel dumb compared to them.
Yeah. And the thing also about them is they’re not embarrassed to be militant.
I really appreciated that activism chapter. It was cheering.
I worry about it being a little bit, um, too sweeping, too broad, because I’m ultimately talking about my own experience in high school, but it’s definitely real.
You talk about how activism was viewed when we were in high school, how save the whales was a punchline, like, “Oh, you care about this? Pretty lame.” And the fact that we grew up in that culture, I mean it’s so sad.
What could we have done if that wasn’t the predominant cultural attitude toward activism?
And it was absolutely by design, you know? People did that to us and that’s so messed up.
Changing topics from the future to the past, your Joan Rivers chapter made me think about The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel because the show is supposed to be loosely based on Joan Rivers and other early female comics. But in your chapter you point out the crucible Joan Rivers operated in. There were such limited choices facing women in comedy and she was shaped by the forces around her. If she wanted to do this thing, she needed to work in a certain way. And the show takes a totally different route. It allows its protagonist to remain likable — there’s that likability again — while killing it as a female comic. She gets to keep her humanity and also do comedy. And she’s pretty and everybody loves her but nobody sexually harasses her. Except for maybe comments, like, [old timey voice] “What’s that broad doing here?” Nobody’s grabbing any locations on her body. Emily Nussbaum, the New Yorker’s TV critic, made a very similar point when she wrote about the show. But I think that your chapter on Joan Rivers offers this kind of sliding doors alternative story that the show could be telling and it would be a heavier show and less triumphalist. And I know you’ve worked in comedy and you’ve written about the role that comedy plays in culture and the responsibilities of its practitioners. It seems to me like an example of what you talk about in “choosing the lie,” right?
It’s enjoyable entertainment but maybe another example of how we choose to gloss over the things that make us uncomfortable.
Yeah, and that does a great disservice to women who are struggling in that field or in any similar field where, you know, we can just tell a story about a plucky gal who excels in her job and doesn’t face any of those really dark complications, if she’s even able to get there at all. There are so many people who were run out of comedy by sexist creeps. We don’t know who they are, we don’t know how many of them there are, we don’t know their names because they never got to do it. So I think it is easy to be like, [old timey voice] “Well if you just try hard and you got good jokes, anyone can do it!” That’s just bootstraps again. Like, if you failed, you must not have tried hard enough or you must not have been good enough when really there are — not to be a broken record — but there are massive, powerful, entrenched systems in place that move the ride for some people and make it impossible for other people, or at least very, very painful and grueling. And you’re not going to fix that, you’re not going to fix the world, if you don’t look at those honestly.
I thought about the Chip and Joanna Gaines chapter when the whole Ellen and George W. Bush thing happened.
Right, I thought about it too. “Oh, my chapter!”
Ellen commented and said, “Just because I don’t agree with someone on everything doesn’t mean I’m not gonna be friends with them.” But in your chapter on Chip and Joanna, you write: “The partisan divide is not insignificant or cute.” So how did you feel about that whole kerfuffle?
Like everything else, it’s just really complicated. It would have been incredibly powerful if Ellen had made some public statement like, “You know what? He’s my friend and I really love him as a person, but it’s true that he did XYZ horrific things to the LGBTQ community and I feel …” You know what I mean? I think more transparency is always really powerful. But also, she’s walking a tightrope.
Right. So what do we say to people who, like Chip and Joanna, are trying to shelter in this neutrality cocoon and walk that tightrope? What do we, as consumers of pop culture, do about that?
I don’t know, like, constantly bitch about it on Twitter? I don’t know. I think that part of this book, that I try to get into over and over and over again, is that all of this stuff is really messy; there’s not a perfect system. I think that it’s good to always encourage people to be principled and transparent and honest. Ellen or Chip and Joanna could have used those moments as an opportunity to have a complicated, candid conversation and they chose not to. And I understand that there are probably teams of publicists telling them what to do.
Same with the candidates who got that question, you know, about “friends who aren’t like you.”
Yeah, I mean, you know what? I don’t have any friends who are homophobic, right-wing, racist monsters. Monsters is not a productive term. People, real people. I don’t have those people as my friends and I frankly don’t understand how that would work. But I also recognize that I live in Seattle and I live in a bubble and I am not confronted with messy situations. I couldn’t find you a Trump supporter if you were gonna give me $1 million. I don’t even know where to look. And so I recognize that it’s more complicated than that. I think all we can do is continue to have these conversations in public and resist falling into absolutely useless clichés like “I don’t need all my friends to believe the exact same way as me.” Like, yeah, I don’t need all my friends to root for the same sports team as me but I do need all my friends to feel the same way I do about racism and homophobia and transphobia. I do need that and I think that that is a virtue. I think that that is a good thing.
Right, and the stakes of being kind to people who are not being kind on a much grander scale with major systemic consequences.
Yeah, and that doesn’t mean that we have to — I’m not advocating violence. Look, if there are people in your life that believe horrific things and you love those people and you care about them, of course you don’t have to cut those people out of your life. But I do think that a great start would be to at least try to communicate with them in a real way, like not in a contentious way where you’re arguing about politics, but in a human way, like we’re talking about human beings and people’s lives. It’s yet another question to which I don’t have a perfect answer because, you know, I think I said this in the book that we’ve torn down some old systems and we haven’t built new ones yet and we’re still kind of beta testing, we’re troubleshooting. I think that most people are good, or at least mean well and want to be kind. And I think a lot of people are really controlled by fear and resentment and I don’t think that that’s insurmountable. But I also don’t know how to fix it, except for doing what I’m already doing, which is using my platform to say the same eight things over and over and over again until I die.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
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Editor: Cheri Lucas Rowlands