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Grab Your Brooms: Lindy West Repurposes the 'Witch Hunt'

by Greg Mania

Lindy West's books aren't books. They are opuses. Her critically lauded debut memoir, Shrill, has been turned into the eponymous Hulu TV series starring SNL royalty, Aidy Bryant. Her ability to amalgamate her beloved brand of laugh-out-loud humor with the capacity to examine our culture through a critical lens has positioned her at the forefront of cultural change, from her dauntless and thought-provoking columns in The New York Times to her essays on feminism, body image, and social issues in The Guardian, Cosmopolitan, and GQ.

Now, as we navigate a daily reality where a nightmare is disguised as a push notification from CNN, West examines the conditions that have facilitated the politically turbulent and uncertain times we find ourselves living in.

The Witches Are Coming, out now from Hachette, is, above all, an embrace of the phrase that's automatically deployed every time a man is forced to contend with any shred of accountability. West finds the power in reclaiming a term that's been traditionally used to deflect and diminish any credible accusation into a smear campaign. Women's anger has been weaponized for so long (especially against Black women, who, among many other things, are forced to contend with the Angry Black Woman stereotype).

But, as West posits, when has good behavior ever earned women their equality and freedom? Why not be angry, be loud, and galvanize those around us to pry the narrative from the death-grip of mediocre white men? If a witch hunt will allow us to share of truths, control our stories (and bodies), and dictate our future, then grab a broom.

PAPER got a chance to catch up with West in the middle of her whirlwind book tour to talk about accountability, reexamining the pop culture of yonder, visibility and where we go from here, below.

Let's talk about the power that is the title of your new book, which obviously comes from the ubiquity of the phrase "witch hunt." How did you find just that — power — in a beloved buzz phrase the Right likes to deploy every time we have the nerve to hold a man accountable for his actions?

[Laughs] Right. God forbid! I think there's always something very powerful in reclaiming terms that are meant to hurt you. It's absurd that men call us witches to discredit and undermine us when it's convenient, and as soon as they're faced with even a scrap of accountability, then they're the witches being hunted. I just wanted to defiantly reclaim both sides of that situation at once.

When I was at Jezebel, I pitched a headline that read: "Yeah, This Is a Witch Hunt, We're Witches, And We're Hunting You," and my editor was like, "Nope." She thought we would get absolutely shredded for posting that. Then, six years later, I was writing for the New York Times and I pitched the same headline, and my editor accepted it because we were in a time where that was a reasonable thing to say. I've just always loved [witch hunt] as a phrase, and now I'm really excited that I got to turn it into a book.

I can't help but roll my eyes when someone calls our generation "sensitive," yet the same people who say that have a meltdown just because they can't say the R-word anymore. What's your response to the "sensitive" remark?

I know, I hate it when people say that. It's just so disingenuous. It's like when people make fun of people "being offended." No, you're offended! Look at you! You're being offended by someone else being offended. At least the offended person is offended by an actual thing that happened.

It's a cop out!

Exactly. It's a dodge so that someone doesn't have to take responsibility for hurting someone or being a part of an oppressive system. If you want to talk about who's sensitive, the current generation has to actually deal with the effects of climate change, whereas the previous generation just went ahead and insisted it wasn't real for 30 years. Those who claim we're sensitive are the ones who are sensitive — they don't want to deal with reality. Also, the people who have been weathering oppression and injustice for generations are the most enduring people on earth.

You note that the essay "Is Adam Sandler Funny?" sparked the idea for the book. How did that piece snowball to become the entirety of The Witches Are Coming?

You know, I just love writing stuff like that. I like reexamining pop culture that we sort of unquestioningly consumed.

Yes! The other day I was watching an old episode of Law & Order: SVU with a trans-centered storyline and it... did not age well. Also, in an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch (the one that starred Melissa Joan Hart), her aunt Zelda and Hilda, after being assumed they were a married couple, corrected the assumption by saying that they were Sabrina's aunts, not an "alternative couple." Both of these shows are pop culture staples, yet many of us revisit them because we used to love them (and still do), even if there are elements that may be deemed problematic today. Are you able to reconcile yourself with shows, movies, and music you loved growing up with the propensity to look at things through a critical lens as a result of being media and sociopolitically literate?

We, as a society, are just so allergic to accountability. A huge part of the backlash of the #MeToo movement is really just people not wanting to let go of the stuff that they like. But there's no perfect answer here, you know? You just have to do you. I'm not out here trying to make a law that says no one is allowed to listen to Michael Jackson anymore. But if you put on Michael Jackson and you feel kind of gross about it, that's not the PC police taking that away from you. That's your brain and understanding of the world changing based on new information. I think all you can do is give people information and offer a new perspective, and go ahead and do what you want. I don't have any interest in policing what people consume and what makes people happy in this really fucked up world. But I do think it is our collective responsibility to think critically regarding the world around us and who we're giving our money to.

I mean, I used to love South Park and Family Guy, but those are two shows I can't even stomach watching anymore because they're just punching down under the guise of "making fun of both sides." No, thank you!

A lot of times things age way worse than you think. And that doesn't mean that the people who created it at that time were bad. That's just the time that it was. Shit changes so fast all the time, but if things change, and suddenly a little bit of language punches you in the face, it's okay to feel that and push through it if that particular thing makes you happy.

You write that "[we] just might have to tiptoe around the mindfield for a while. We're tearing down old systems, but we haven't built new systems yet." I feel assuaged by this sentence because sometimes I get overwhelmed in thinking, "What's our destination?" Will I arrive there in this lifetime? I am cognizant of the fact that our system is broken, that it fails those who live on the fringes of society. But there's so much work to do and some days I don't know where to start. How do you find solace when you feel overwhelmed?

It's hard not to feel like that all the time, but I do feel galvanized by remembering that hopelessness is counterproductive. Even if you're faking it until you're making it, it's just so much better to believe that things can get better than just to decide that they can't and stew in despair. You might as well try. Also, it's okay to not fight all the time. Go have fun and hang out with your friends!

Anger is something that women have been conditioned to suppress because, if acted upon, it could be used against them, especially Black women, who live with the stigma of the Angry Black Woman stereotype. What are some ways anger can be weaponized?

It's tricky. The whole problem is that our anger has been traditionally used against us to discredit us. Of course, that disproportionately impacts other populations of women, especially black women. I mean, is it responsible for me, a white woman, to be like, "Yeah, raise your anger!" Not really. But I do think that for those of us who feel like we can, with some degree of safety, be vocal and open about our anger, it is a responsibility to make that heard, particularly about social issues that don't affect us directly. It would be great to hear more anger from white people about racism. I don't know what the right balance is. It's sort of trial and error, but I do think this is what respectability politics is all about. They don't like us when we're behaving either; our good behavior hasn't earned us our freedom or equality. As long as you feel comfortable and feel like you're not putting yourself in harm's way, you might as well be vocally angry and let people know how you feel, and maybe that will inspire other people to express their anger. And the hope is that maybe that will motivate other people who previously couldn't express their anger. None of this is compulsory, though. It's the same with #ShoutYourAbortion. I'm not saying that everyone needs to speak openly about their abortion, but if you feel like you can, it has a big impact.

#ShoutYourAbortionhas, since its inception, become a phenomenon. How do you want to see it grow, especially during a time when reproductive healthcare is in jeopardy?

It occupies a really specific niche, which is that it's not a care provider nor a policy-based organization. It's specifically about culture change and communicating with people and helping people tell their stories and giving them a space and platform to share their experiences. Some people look at it as frivolous or "not real activism," and it literally is a hashtag, so maybe that's why it falls under those categories, but now it's an organization that does a ton of work hosting events. We just published a book. I think that in this scary time, when we've absolutely lost control of our government, at least the executive and judicial branches, culture change is something we have direct control over. To me, it is absolutely valuable to spend time and energy talking and telling stories and, above all, telling the truth. It's about not letting the far Right control the narrative anymore. You can go on and on about how hashtags and focusing on culture change and having conversations isn't real activism, but messaging sure got the Right Wing a long way. It's about time we do the same on our end. Letting [the far Right] control the narrative about what abortion is and how it functions in people's lives has been catastrophic. We're just going to keep doing what we're doing.

With your show, Shrill, came visibility. You have a fat character viewers can identify with outside of her size, who is dynamic, has casual sex, bones the type of dude you want to shake her for still talking to — all while the impetus of the plot has nothing to do with self-esteem or a lack thereof, nor anything to do with "transformation." She just moves through the world as she is, and contends with conflict as she is. But, like you say, visibility isn't enough. You still experience people in your life who are scared to use the F-word around you. Professionals, like doctors, tell you to "stretch" to alleviate an ankle injury. How can art take the next step after visibility? Is there a next step?

For sure. I think it's endlessly reminding people that you have to keep your eye on the ball. Visibility is not the end. Representation is not the end goal.

And it's behind the scenes, too: hiring diverse writers, producers, showrunners.

Totally. And I think something that's happening with the body positivity movement right now is that people shifted from fat positivity to body positivity and then declared victory. It's like, great, but, again, I can't go to the doctor and get my ankle fixed without the doctor bringing my body into the equation, and I'm an incredibly privileged, not-that-fat fat person. I just think we can't ever shut up about our real-life experiences. And I deeply and massively support visibility, but it's not the end game.

Agreed. I guess I'm just wondering what the link is between representation and real-life instances like being believed and receiving proper healthcare and having opportunity to heal without defaulting on a diagnosis that automatically factors in weight. Like, I know plenty of fat people who don't have issues with blood pressure, who are perfectly healthy, yet a majority of healthcare professionals still tend to disproportionately factor weight into a diagnosis.

Sure! I think it's certainly abstract, right? Like, sure, hopefully healthcare providers are watching this show and are getting to know a fat character and the realities of her life. Then the next time a fat person comes into their office, they, on some level, can relate to them a little bit more. It's as simple as when a person comes in, they see a person instead of a stereotype or whatever my assumptions are.

Your first book, Shrill, was turned into the eponymous show on Hulu. What do you want to see The Witches Are Coming turned into?

I would, of course, love to continue making TV. It's really fun. But [The Witches Are Coming] is not exactly that kind of book. I really believe in small shifts in people's thinking creating big ripples, and if I can drag 10 people out of despair and get them active in their communities, that's enough for me. I just want to remind people that we have so much more power than we think we do.

The Witches Are Coming is available for purchase here.

Photography: Jenny Jimenez

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