Energizing the Choir: A Conversation with Lindy West

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Lindy West is not here to fuck around. In her second book, The Witches Are Coming, an insightful collection of essays out tomorrow from Hachette, West deftly covers a smorgasbord of American culture’s pressure points, from the hellish Trump election and #MeToo, to the white feminism of Goop and variations on toxic masculinity. The title is a tongue-in-cheek play on the right-wing cries of “witch hunt!” but also a real promise to the mediocre white men with power, the problematic men who want their misconduct and abuse swept back under the rug. “We are witches,” West writes, “and we are hunting you.”

The essays in The Witches Are Coming don’t pull any punches when addressing our dire climate issues or problematic power dynamics across both politics and the entertainment industry. West calls out white male apathy with a sharp-tongued yet goofy humor that clearly posits just how selfish and absurd entitlement is. Still, she doesn’t pretend to have all the answers. The Witches Are Coming also has a poignant conversation with its audience; when discussing how everyone should question their preconceived notions and be willing to confront hard truths, West calls herself out. She admits her own human follies, whether it’s her love of escapist TV shows or distaste for the Instagram vegan who regularly calls her a murderer for consuming dairy. But West holds fast to the idea that, even in the midst of so much overwhelming hopelessness, we can still pull ourselves into a collective and do something about all this mess. We can be better together.

A native of Seattle, Lindy West is an author, comedian, and activist who has written for the New York Times, Jezebel, and the Guardian, among many others. Her first book Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman was adapted into a successful Hulu series, for which she serves as an executive producer and writer.

Lindy was kind enough to chat with me recently over the phone about writing her new book, audience empowerment, and the evolving landscape of American comedy.

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The Rumpus: Your first book was very funny, but I think The Witches is even funnier—it seemed like you let your legs stretch a bit more with regard to humor and letting yourself be funny.

West: Thank you! Yeah, I wanted to, y’know. It just gets exhausting. Shrill is not a serious book all the way through, but kind of everything has some weight to it. And it was nice to just be completely goofy for parts of this book.

Rumpus: You still deal with a lot of heavy topics here though, so I’m wondering what were the hardest sections to write?

West: It’s hard to force your brain to think about climate change. At least for me, I really want to not think about it, and I had to push through and hold that reality inside of me. The fact that we are in such a dire situation in terms of the changing climate is scary. And the impact it’s going to have on the minutiae of our lives and the way that we live, and thinking about everything that you love and what’s at stake. That was hard, that stuff I’m generally in denial about and don’t want to think about.

Rumpus: One of the major themes across these essays is the necessity of confronting hard truths; your writing reinforces this by keeping a frankness with your audience about your own journey to truth. The rhetoric conveys urgency but also manages just enough empathy. Why was the message “we can be better together” important?

West: I mean, I think hyper partisanship is one of the biggest problems facing this country, and people don’t really believe in their own power. It’s hard to conceptualize collective action as one person because it’s collective and such a sort of abstract thing until everyone does it. I wanted to remind people they have power in their own lives, they have power to change their immediate spheres and make choices and be cognizant and be careful and be aware and be honest. And if you can replicate that power over a huge number of people, it grows exponentially. It’s like, I can’t fix Greenland, or whatever; I can’t stop Arctic ice melts. But all of us together could. It’s actually the only important thing, it’s The Thing: we need to be thinking about ourselves as a global community and as a species with a will to live. Thinking of ourselves as a collective, that’s what gets bad politicians out of office, that’s what gets corporations to make big changes, that’s what voting is.

Americans suffer from the idea that individual human beings are great and are the most powerful force on this earth, and we are a constellation of great men—great individual men who do great things and make great moves and have been doing that throughout history. And that’s toxic. We have to advocate for ourselves as a society and not wait for some hero to come along and fix it, ‘cause that’s not going to happen. In fact, all that’s happening is that power is being consolidated in a small number of individuals who are exploiting it for their own profit. And [they] are gonna kill us. We have to remember how strong we are as a group. And fight.

Rumpus: Jumping off from that, I have a question about ideal audience. At a few different points in the book, you make a point to acknowledge your audience in various ways, usually with camaraderie—were there specific audience(s) you kept in mind while writing these essays?

West: You know, a criticism I’ve always gotten as a writer is that I “preach to the choir” or whatever, that I’m not changing anyone’s mind, I’m just validating people who already agree with me. I think earlier in my career I felt sort of sensitive about that, like, Oh, I should take this criticism to heart, but at this point, I don’t care. [Laughs] Why would I not want to preach to the choir? The choir is who’s gonna do this work! I want to talk to people who care about this stuff and are already engaged, or who maybe care but are discouraged or overwhelmed. I want to rally those people and validate them and energize them, give them scripts for talking to other people in their lives. I don’t have any problem with preaching to the choir. The choir is who shows up.

Rumpus: The essay “Joan” dissects Joan Rivers as both complicit in oppressive structures but also a victim herself. What prompted you to write this essay about Rivers specifically over other comparably problematic women in the entertainment industry?

West: I don’t know what inspired it, but I just remember having this realization that… [pauses] I have a lot of baggage surrounding Joan Rivers and she really hurt my feelings? [Laughs] But I felt torn because obviously she’s a pioneer and inspiring in so many ways, and I was like, how do I balance these things? I didn’t really get into this in the chapter, but it’s an interesting classic tension where there are women who are ambitious and competent and sell other women out for power hard. And it sucks. Like when Kellyanne Conway was all over the place; I remember there would be pushback from people on the right saying things like, “Why are feminists criticizing Kellyanne Conway? Shouldn’t they be celebrating her success as a powerful woman?” Or Ivanka Trump. “Why are we being so mean to Ivanka? Look, she’s a businesswoman! Isn’t that what feminists want?”

I think it’s an interesting conversation, or at least instructive, to point out that’s not how it works—every person is complex and every situation is complicated; you don’t get a pass for saying and doing horrible things just because you also have achieved success in certain ways that might be breaking gender stereotypes. It’s the kind of stuff that’s always nagging at me, like… [pauses] I wish I could be proud of you. [Laughs] Like, Kellyanne Conway is good at that job but she is bad. You know what I mean? When you see her defending crazy shit on the news, and she’s so poised, so quick. It’s like man, you are killing this. For the evil team. I just find it so interesting, that feeling of I wish I could be proud of you.

And also with Joan, you can see how living and growing in a patriarchal society fucks you up. And I understand why some women chase validation in toxic ways or feel trapped, like they don’t have any other path to success and fulfillment. Because it’s hard, especially when you’re Joan Rivers and you’re coming up through your career decades ago—it’s hard to think about fixing the system now, to live on your own terms in a way that makes you happy and doesn’t dehumanize you. It’s all this tension of: I have full empathy for you; I’m mad at you; I’m disappointed in you. How do we think about other women, women who live imperfectly? How much do we cheerlead? How much do we criticize? And how much do we forgive? I just think that’s interesting to navigate as a feminist.

Rumpus: You discuss working in the writer’s room for Shrill a bit. From a craft perspective, did you have a goal (or collective goal with the writing team) for striking a balance between adapting the source material and building upon it with fiction in order to convey the desired messages?

West: I would say there was never any desire to make sure the show stays true to the book plot-wise. I don’t want this character to be me, just by the nature of the business and how this whole thing works; this character has to be a composite we created together and that Aidy puts enough of herself into that she feels natural and comfortable performing that character. But I do think we were really conscientious about staying true to the spirit and the message of the book. Obviously, some plot stuff came from my life, but the goal was to make something that accomplishes in some way what the book accomplishes, which is to humanize a fat woman, to give her a life that’s bigger than weight loss and misery and loneliness and to just portray a more grounded version of a fat woman’s life, like the lives we actually live.

But it was also sending a message to all women—that they’re not broken, they don’t have to chase perfection, and that it’s a con; there’s so much more to you than what you look like. And all those things that are in the book, like doing the same thing with an abortion: putting an abortion on screen that’s not the way we’ve seen abortion on screen before. There are all these sort of ideological things we took from the book that I think are at the core of the show. And that gives us a lot of freedom to go different directions with character and plot and not feel like we have to stick so closely with the book and with my life, thank god. Especially after the first season, once the characters are established and the universe is built, it’s been fun to let those characters take us places themselves.

Rumpus: Your essays start as deceptively personal and/or entertaining before easing into big-picture connections; in one essay you brilliantly connect the circumstances of Lil Bub’s and Grumpy Cat’s rise to fame to Milo Yiannopoulos and the alt-right’s lack of concrete accountability. What was the idea generation process for this essay like?

West: I think I just was mad for a long time about that Grumpy Cat origin story, which… I understand I don’t know any facts about this; I am merely speculating, I am not accusing anyone of anything. But it seems to me like Grumpy Cat has been part of a cover up, which you can read about in the book. It just struck me as this thing like, okay, so say I’m right and Grumpy Cat’s owners lied about the origin of Grumpy Cat’s name… [Sighs] Is this libel?

Rumpus: It’s a hypothetical; I’m not gonna count it.

West: It’s a hypothetical! So, I was sort of like tongue-in-cheek mad about that, the kind of thing you rant about at the bar to be funny, and then I started thinking about it in a real way. Because I hate it; I have a complex when people treat me like I’m stupid—it’s like when you call Marty McFly a chicken. I just really don’t like it when I feel like someone’s got one over on me. It makes me fucking crazy. And so I was always mad about that because I was like, “You can’t trick me! Come on!” [Laughs] I would always rant about it to make my friends laugh and also because I was genuinely mad.

At one point, I started thinking about how much work it is to not say sorry and live in reality. It’s so much extra work. I guess this was just on my mind when #MeToo happened, and Louis C.K. came back crying about unfair it was that he lost millions of dollars and was just wanting to come back without even trying to figure out what redemption would look like. As soon as Louis C.K. went down, people were like, “Oh, but what about redemption? Is there no path to redemption? What are men supposed to do?” And it’s like, you fucking figure it out. How about trial and error? Throw some shit at the wall and see what sticks. How about you just keep trying stuff until people forgive you? And you don’t get to just tell us it’s fine, that you did your penance and now you’re back. It just feels very of this moment that people want to paper over everything and move on and not be uncomfortable and not actually figure anything out.

So, I don’t remember exactly what the process was. I just wanted to do my joke rant and then I was like wait, actually, this is totally relevant to this moment because I’m also mad about this other thing that’s real. [Laughs]

Rumpus: Another of your essays expertly breaks down the issue with South Park creators Trey Parker’s and Matt Stone’s promotion of political indifference. I’m not sure if you know, but apparently they made an episode that was supposed to be an apology to Al Gore for making fun of his climate change efforts?

West: Huh, I didn’t.

Rumpus: Well, just in general, I’m curious about your opinion on them even trying to apologize within the absurdity of the show—I mean, is there really any kind of meaningful apology you can make after coddling and encouraging white male apathy for twenty-two years? 

West: Eh, I don’t know. Sure? I don’t want that chapter to be a hit piece on South Park; it’s more about confronting this idea that you can be politically conservative and also cool and good and neutral. And no, sorry, it’s just bad. Look, I’m not saying your grandpa is bad and in hell, I’m just saying this ideology harms people and that’s bad. And rebranding it in a cartoon for children is bad. And you did it badly. And I know you thought you were being jokey and irreverent, but some of us have to have reverence for certain things. Because it’s called staying alive. I would love a little more reverence from white men. White male irreverence is fun and edgy? Excuse me, when the fuck have they been reverent? This is the norm! Yeah, we know you’re irreverent. We’re aware. That’s why we’re so fucked. You have no fucking reverence, except for the flag and the founding fathers or whatever. And football, I don’t know. Go fuck yourself. [Laughs]

I’m off on a tangent. I’m not saying they’re evil or that every episode is bad. I love South Park! A lot of it is really fucking funny! But I think it would be great if white men started to think a little bit further than one fucking inch outside their own experiences. Oh, I’m sorry, is activism annoying to you? You know what’s fucking annoying to activists? OPPRESSION. It’s so crazy to be like “I, Matt Stone, or I, Trey Parker, am aggrieved in this society.” Like, tell me your problems. List your problems to me. Oh god, man, I’m sorry, do you not have food? Are you struggling to keep the lights on? There are people with real problems, and you’re like “oh, liberals are whiny”—that’s your problem?

It’s also part of the same thing with all the stuff I write about with comedy, where it’s just like, Hey, can I have the comedy? I love comedy! I want to watch the comedy! Why do you gotta put all this bad shit in it? Because those people are always just like [imitates nasal baby voice] “Ugh whyyy do we have to put political correctness into comedy?” You’re the one who made comedy fucking political. You did it. I would love for the politics to be taken out of your comedy. I would love that.

Rumpus: [Laughs] That actually leads well into my next question. As you have previously written about and just professed, you are a comedy fan. At one point in Shrill, you say comedy broke your heart. A lot of The Witches covers how and why culture needs to change, but I’m wondering if you feel any kind of band-aid over that heartbreak just yet? Has our culture’s comedy landscape substantially improved at all?

West: The comedy landscape is incredible. It’s a dream now. And it’s really incredible because it’s been proving people like me right. The funniest fucking people working right now are women, queer, and trans comics and people making totally “dark and edgy stuff” that doesn’t fucking traumatize and oppress people. People would always tell me you can’t make good comedy without hurting people. And that’s just not true. Even if you look at the cast of Shrill —Patti Harison and Joel Kim Buster and Jo Firestone—we have a cast made up of some of the funniest living performers and they’re not making fucking stupid jokes about date rape or whatever. All this stuff we were told over and over is “sacred” and can never be lost, lest comedy die. It’s just been obliterated, that lie. And people are doing such great work. The field has opened up so much. I’m tremendously proud of what the comedy landscape looks like now.

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Photograph of Lindy West by Jenny Jimenez.


Amanda Malone lives and writes in Georgia. She holds an MFA from Minnesota State University-Mankato and currently serves as an Assistant Interviews Editor for The Rumpus. Her fiction can be found in CHEAP POP, Wyvern Lit, and Stirring Lit, among others. More from this author →