Lindy West Sounds The Alarm: 'The Witches Are Coming'
Author Lindy West is back on the scene with a cultural critique that is au courrant, tapping into the gender politics, regular politics, and social media landscape that dominate conversations today.
December 13, 2019
Leave it to Lindy West to flip a word used as a pejorative description for women and make it the title of her latest collection of essays. With The Witches Are Coming, West fixes her humorous and insightful gaze squarely on some of the biggest issues in our tumultuous world: racism, sexism, climate change, gender equality, abortion rights, and more. Listen in as West talks with editor Rachel Smalter Hall about where she stands now and what has changed about "fighting the good fight" since the days when she wrote Shrill.
Note: Text has been edited and may not match audio exactly.
Rachel Smalter Hall: I'm Audible editor Rachel Smalter Hall, and today I'm in the studio talking to Lindy West. Lindy is a journalist and author of the essay collection Shrill, which is now a Hulu TV series and also happens to be my happy place. Her newest essay collection, The Witches Are Coming, is out now. Lindy, it's a huge honor to be talking to you today. Thanks for joining me.
Lindy West: Oh my gosh, thanks so much for having me. It's an honor to be here.
RSH: One of the reasons your writing resonates with me so much is because I believe everything is better when it's funny, and you are just so damn funny.
LW: That's so nice of you.
RSH: In the past, you've said that comedy broke your heart. Where are you at in your relationship with comedy these days?
LW: That's a great question. I'm kind of only realizing, even now years later, how deeply traumatizing my whole experience with writing about comedy and critiquing comedy, in 2012 and 2013, really was. And it's not necessarily because of comedy, because of the medium I was writing about, so much as that was my first couple years being a public figure and writing on a national scale and being aggressively trolled and harassed, which, of course, would become pretty normal for me over the subsequent years. But it was really hard to sit down and write earnestly about something I really loved and be absolutely tormented by people I idolized sometimes, in return.
I don't go out to a lot of comedy shows. I don't watch a lot of stand-up on TV--I think partially because I do still feel rejected by that community. But at the same, whatever; I'm an adult. Also, the comedy landscape has changed so much in the intervening years since I was writing about it, and I hope that maybe I had a little bit to do with that opening up. The best comedians working today are not straight, cisgender white guys, and it's really been absolutely breathtaking to watch. We have so many brilliant comedians working on Shrill, the TV show. I'm really happy with the developments that I've seen in that medium.
I guess the answer is that it's complicated.
RSH: I just thinking about the Facebook's "it's complicated." But that sounds so promising.
LW: I mean, I get to make a TV show. I get to write comedy now for my job, which was always what I wanted to do, so I can't complain too much. Like yeah, a bunch of stand-up fanboys were mean to me in 2013, and it sucked. But... I guess I won.
RSH: You did.
LW: At least in terms of my life, I'm fine. And I'm really proud of all the comics who are coming up now and who have really been killing it and taking over that space that should've been everyone's to begin with.
RSH: Yeah. Since you first wrote Shrill, you've gone on to adapt it for TV; I believe two seasons are now written, even though the second season hasn't aired. What was it like to go back to writing essays after having so much success with the show?
LW: Actually, we finished shooting Season Two as well, and it comes out January 24. I'm really excited about Season Two. I can't wait for people to see it.
It was strange and wonderful to go from such a collaborative experience, making Season One of Shrill, where you're working really closely with hundreds of people. There's the writers' room, which is a deep, true collaboration, where you're pulling perspectives and stories from the lives of a room full of totally different people and building one story together. Then, you take it and you hand it off to a director and an art department and a locations department and a crew of hundreds of people, and then you all make something together. I just absolutely adore that process.
Writing a book is, in many ways, the complete opposite. It's just you. Very solitary. You have all the responsibility to get it done, and you have all the accountability if you mess it up. And you have all the freedom to do literally whatever you want--whereas, obviously, in a collaboration, there's a lot of compromise.
It was a really nice contrast to move from one to the next. I was excited to get to sit down by myself with my laptop after finishing Season One [of Shrill] and write whatever I wanted. Unfortunately for me, writing the book overlapped with the beginning of the writers' room for Season Two, so I was briefly doing both at the same time and switching hats every day. I would work all day in the writers' room and then go home and start my other full-time job, which was finishing the book. That was very challenging, but also a really good workout for my brain. I don't know. There's something really interesting about making that switch, really energizing and cool. It feels like it keeps me on my toes, to get to exercise both parts of my brain.
RSH: Did you find yourself thinking, "I have to save this for the show," or, "I have to save this for the book"?
LW: Totally. That definitely happened. It's not a real problem, but there were definitely things that we put... I can't say any specifics about what's in Season Two, but there were things where I was like, "Oh, this issue that we're tackling in the show is something that would be great in this book," and I had to constantly stop myself from stealing from the show. It's fine to take from the book and put it in the show... You know what I mean? I can steal from myself. Because the show is about all the same stuff that I'm interested in and go on and on about. There were a couple times where one of the writers in the writers' room said something really insightful about something I was, at the same time, writing about in the book, and I had to be like, "Nope, not yours. That's not yours. Can't take it." Also, the brain is really tricky. I had to be really careful to stop myself from even subconsciously transferring some things from one to the other. But I didn't.
RSH: It sounds like a mental workout.
LW: Yeah, totally. But at the same time, being in the writers' room and having these really active, in-depth, nuanced conversations every day certainly helped my thinking in the book and helped me clarify a lot of ideas, which was really helpful.
RSH: Nice. You've been writing about women's safety, women's bodies, and rape culture for almost a decade. What it was like writing about these in The Witches Are Coming, which is, obviously, post-#MeToo?
LW: I don't know. I feel definitely kind of tired, you know what I mean? There's something so exhausting about this moment in history. In a lot of ways, I feel more jaded, but I also feel more urgent. There's just a slightly different tone, where when I was writing at [the website] Jezebel, we were angry and we were exhausted and we were fed up, but there wasn't this sense of extreme despair. I felt this ability to be a bit irreverent in a way that I don't necessarily any more. I think there's a lot of humor in the book, but it's not quite the same.
There's definitely something in The Witches Are Coming where I'm writing from a place of not trying to even teach people anything. It's more like I'm just trying to keep people afloat: to help people hopefully stay out of despair a bit and feel galvanized. I remember at Jezebel feeling not institutionally powerful, but personally powerful. There was a lot of potential to change the world and we had some energy and some momentum and I think that [the current political climate] has sucked that feeling out of a lot of us.
And "Trumpism" is not even a new ideology. It's a very old one, and all of these problems were already there. But there's something so demoralizing... Like, the enormity of the problem.
I would say that I used to write like, "Look, we're pissed off and let's go and let's be sassy and angry," and now I'm like, "Okay, come on. We've got to do this. I know you're tired. I know you're scared."
There's a desperation in it now.
RSH: When I think of Shrill, it had this irreverent joy. That's also in The Witches Are Coming, but it has a different flavor: maybe more of a sense of urgency in it.
LW: Yeah. There's a bit more darkness in it, I think. Just a little. Just a hair.
RSH: Yeah. One of my favorite essays in the collection is about your decision to quit Twitter, and here's a quick passage: "Being on Twitter felt like being a non-consensual BDSM relationship with the apocalypse, so I left. I wrote jokes there for free. I posted political commentary for free. I answered questions for free. I taught feminism 101 for free. Off Twitter, these are things by which I make my living. In fact, they make up the totality of my income. But on Twitter, I did them pro bono and in return, I was micromanaged in real time by strangers."
The question I have for you about that is: Do you think there's still a place for social media in our culture?
LW: Yeah, definitely. I kind of think it's irrelevant what I think about that, because social media is totally enmeshed with our lives at this point. It's not a matter of choosing social media or no social media. We have to figure out ways to create platforms that are healthy. I don't know how to do that, either.
I think that there's a lot of potential and a lot of good that comes out of even Twitter. There's a lot of organizing that happens on Twitter. Twitter is an incredible tool for staying informed, for getting your news in real time, and not just your news but getting a plurality of perspectives and getting the news contextualized by a diverse range of really smart people that you might not otherwise have access to. I still believe in those aspects of Twitter. Twitter was promoted as this democratizing force where regular people suddenly had a platform and you could Tweet directly at your representatives or you tell your story in this very public way that you might not have had access to before.
That's all still true. I think that there are ways to build something that keeps that positive, constructive aspect to Twitter, but doesn't necessarily encourage and reward organized harassment and Nazism. I'm not a web developer. It's not my job to figure out what that is. But I guess it is my job to complain about the current system as much as I can and as loudly as I can. Then, hopefully, someone will figure it out.
It's just really tough, though, because these platforms have integrated themselves so deeply into our lives. I'm not on Twitter and I'm not on Facebook, and it's detrimental. I definitely do get my news late. I'm not up on every conversation. I don't know what's going on in the discourse, or whatever you want to call it, and it takes a bit of extra work. I don't know if that's a good thing or not. It's good for my mental health, but is it good for my career, and is it good for my standing as a responsible citizen? I'm not sure.
LW: I don't know.
RSH: I think these are questions a lot of us are asking ourselves as we kind of renegotiate our relationship with social media. And I do have to ask you, what did it really feel like when you realized your Twitter account had been permanently deleted?
LW: I was kind of sad. That's not what I wanted. I did want to at least have the option to go back, to preserve some of the conversations that I participated in on Twitter that I think were important. But it was also a relief. I no longer had the choice to decide whether to go back or not. It's like, all right, what? I'm going to start over from zero and try to build my follower count again and get verified again? I don't know. Who cares?
It was definitely a relief, but it was also a very classic me thing to notice that I was completely screwing up this thing, because I'm stupid and irresponsible. No. I just am...
RSH: You're a person.
LW: I'm a procrastinator. I'm a disorganized human procrastinator.
Yeah. It was good and bad. But in the long run, I don't think about it. I don't look at Twitter. I don't search my name on Twitter. Well, I did when Shrill the show came out because I was curious and people were really nice about it--so thanks, everyone. But yeah.
RSH: It sounds like a very healthy place overall.
LW: I hope so. It could just be a place of denial and avoidance. I'm not sure. It's my life.
RSH: It seems like everyone is talking about cancel culture these days. Even President Obama weighed in on it recently. What's your take on cancel culture?
LW: I think it's complicated. I actually was planning to write a chapter about it for this book, and then I was like, "I can't," because people have already been talking about it for a couple of years at least. I think there are certainly ways that it's a system that can be exploited by bad actors, for sure, like any system. I also think that the impulse to extravagantly warn people that cancel culture has gone too far--it's the same impulse that compels Donald Trump to say that impeaching him is a witch hunt. That argument itself can be exploited in a really disingenuous way.
That doesn't mean that it's not a valid thing that we should talk about. We should talk about how we are going to manage this new level of accountability that we've imposed on people who were previously untouchable. We do need to talk about what's the next phase after #MeToo. Where do we go? What do people do who are genuinely remorseful and do want to make amends and atone and come back?
I guess my question is: Why are we so worried about making sure that people who have victimized other people are being treated fairly and get a second chance, when we really haven't figured out how to hold them accountable at all? What's the alternative? We don't call out predatory behavior? We don't enforce consequences on people who break social contracts and who exploit other people and take advantage of less powerful people? We can't go back. The answer is not to say cancel culture is toxic and we need to stop canceling people. The conversation needs to be: How do we build a system that works, a system that doesn't erase accountability?
I think that "trust but verify" is a really helpful maxim. I think that there are ways that we can start to organize our thinking about accountability and about victimization that doesn't go back to the old system of silencing and erasing and discrediting victims and letting predatory people do whatever they want. Grassroots global movements made up of individuals can easily be exploited, and people can get over-zealous and people can misdirect their anger and misunderstandings can get blown up into something that they're not. All of that is true, but I always wonder: If you were to somehow collect data on this, how many people have actually been erroneously "canceled"? What did their cancellation actually mean? You know what I mean? How did that actually, tangibly impact their life? And is any of this even true?
I feel like people are just running with this assumption that lives are being ruined right and left, and I don't see it. What I see, often, is that if someone is called out for something, or if you want to call it canceled, whatever, and they genuinely hold themselves accountable and apologize and make amends in a constructive way, people are starving for those apologies. You think people want to lose all their heroes? People just want to let everyone go that they've ever loved whose art has meant something to them? No. People want to forgive you. People want you back. I'm sorry that a moment of discomfort and true accountability, of people asking for more than the bare minimum, is painful, but it's the beginning of a better world.
So yeah, this is a painful growing stage, and I get that. We do need to figure out how we're going to navigate it, but I don't think that going back in time to truly toxic abusive systems is the right direction.
RSH: Yeah, probably not. I have just a couple more questions for you, and the next one is kind of departure. Your title, The Witches Are Coming, is, of course, referring to political rhetorical about witch hunts, but it also taps into the resurgence of mysticism in our culture: talking about witches. What is your take on astrology, crystals, and the new "new age"?
LW: I was going to put a caveat in the book that I don't personally identify as a witch, and I know that some people do and that's totally legit and I don't want to appropriate that. But every time I tried to write it out, it sounded sarcastic, even though I didn't mean it to be. I ended up not putting it in, because I think it's self-evident that that's not what I'm talking about in this book.
I'm not a particularly spiritual person. I'm not a religious person. I don't believe in astrology or crystals or whatever. I think there's certainly wisdom to be found in horoscopes written by smart, insightful people. If a crystal is something that helps you focus your intentions, look, whatever. It's just not mine to police. I don't know what's real and what's not. I'm just saying, personally, this is not a part of my life.
RSH: That's fair.
LW: Yeah. I don't know. I guess I don't know where this is coming from, but I like it. I feel like, first of all, reclaiming a term that's been used to hurt and discredit you, as "witch" has always been used against women, is really powerful. I also think there's something about claiming this overtly feminine power that really means a lot right now. Also, the idea that we have some power that's bigger than ourselves and that we could somehow harness collectively to take a bit of control over our world is really beautiful.
I don't know what's real and what's not, but I know that people staying hopeful and engaged and feeling powerful does have an impact, especially if we're creating communities around these ideas and we're connecting with each other and thinking communally about what kind of a world we want to build. That absolutely does have an impact, whether I literally think that a crystal is magic or not. I don't even mean that flippantly. I don't know. There's something really beautiful about it that I like.
RSH: How do you feel about the future? Are you optimistic?
LW: I think I have to be. I think that despair is really unproductive. Obviously, a lot of us are very afraid right now and the stakes feel really high and time feels really short. There's a lot of work to do, and we don't currently have a lot of political power in the United States, and climate change is really scary, and XYZ. There's a million problems. But I know for sure that we will lose if we all just sit in our houses feeling depressed. That's a sure thing.
I don't want to do that. The only space where there's hope is in hope. I don't see any utility in despair. You've got to believe that we can fix it. And we do have so much power. There's so many of us. There are so many people who do care and who are paying attention. If you can just activate people and really believe in the power of acting collectively, we do have so much power.
I feel hopeful. And I hope that people take some of that from this book and try to stay above water emotionally, because it's a really challenging time.
RSH: I think hope is such a beautiful place to end this. I know there's a lot to take away from The Witches Are Coming, but with it comes some hope. Lindy West, thank you so much for talking to me today. Everyone, go check out The Witches Are Coming, out now.
LW: Thank you so much. And thanks for your thoughtful questions. That was so fun.