Lindy West talks abortion, the power of anger, and Shrill Season 2
When I have a hard time making sense of and finding the words to describe the complexities of women’s issues, I turn to Lindy West. There’s something about her sharp, steady, and ferociously funny writing that re-centers and refocuses my mind on what’s in front of me and why it matters. West has a gift for packaging the truth into easily digestible sentences. And her latest collection of essays, The Witches Are Coming—on sale today, November 5th—is no different.
Some essays get right to the point. West writes about the serious consequences of ignoring Twitter trolls, how Christine Blasey Ford deserved better after her brave and composed testimony against Brett Kavanaugh, and how every woman knows a man like Donald Trump. Others make points in quiet, unexpected ways. An essay that starts as an ode to internet cats of the early 2010s ends as a manifesto about the importance of acknowledging and embracing discomfort so we can change and grow. Another that begins as an exploration of her husband’s obsession with microphones becomes a call to arms about why we don’t necessarily need to hear out both sides of the political spectrum ad nauseam.
I spoke with West about the misguided ways we talk about abortion, the importance of staying awake in the face of injustice, and the power of anger. She also spilled some secrets about Shrill Season 2, which lands on Hulu in January. The next time you’re feeling lost or can’t find the words to describe why you’re angry about a particular topic, pick up The Witches Are Coming. Lindy will lead the way.
HelloGiggles: I have to start with the title: The Witches Are Coming. You break down the historical usage of the term “witch hunt” and how people have twisted it to mean something it doesn’t.
Lindy West: You guys insisted. [Laughs.] Yeah. If they’re going to call us witches for telling the truth—for being loud and mouthy and saying stuff that they don’t like—and they’re going to claim that they’re victims of a witch hunt, they’re really the ones framing it like that. I’m just restating it and reclaiming both of those arguments at once. It’s like, “Okay, fine. It’s a witch hunt. We’re witches, like you said. And we’re hunting you, like you said. Here we come. Get ready!”
I think there’s something really powerful about when you’ve been traditionally subordinated to put yourself in an aggressor’s role for once. There’s something that feels really healing about that. So much of power—maybe not political power, but certainly social and personal power—is about posturing and confidence. There’s something really valuable in saying, “Yeah, alright. Let’s do it. I’m coming after you. I’m going to use whatever power I have. I’m not going to hide; I’m not going to shrink. Maybe I won’t win, but maybe I will.” We have seen a lot of changes in the last couple of years—changes that used to feel impossible. Who knows what else is possible?
HG: You say it in the book: If we’re going to lose, we might as well get angry.
LW: Despair is really unproductive. If you’re choosing between hope and despair, despair just guarantees that you lose. You might as well choose to go out fighting. Or maybe not go out! I guess that’s what hope is. I also think that anger is a more productive emotion than sadness or…
LW: Yeah! If I can galvanize people to stay angry and stay engaged and stay out of the swamp for as long as possible, then that’s great.
HG: It’s getting harder to explain #MeToo as it gets more layered, but you give an excellent overview of it. This stuck out to me in particular: “The reason #MeToo has been so terrifying to so many people is that we got a quick glimpse of what history is going to say about us.”
LW: I think that’s true. A lot of people, and in certain ways society as a whole, was in a kind of denial for a long time. The idea that you can’t do anything to stop or to punish sexual predation—that’s just not true. That’s a cop-out, to say there’s nothing we can do about it. We don’t have a perfect system yet, but you certainly can choose to take action on horrible things, against horrible people, engaging in violent and predatory behavior. As soon as that veil was lifted and it became clear that we can make the choice to take care of people and protect people, all of a sudden, it’s like, “Oh. We could’ve been doing this the whole time, and this is going to look really bad in the history books.”
HG: There’s a moment in the chapter “Ted Bundy Was Not Charming—Are You High?” where you realize cis white men don’t live in constant fear of being murdered. I recently had that same realization, and I’m still processing it.
LW: I know, right? Of course, plenty of them have been murdered before. But it’s interesting to discover something like that—that something that’s so normal in your everyday existence, that it’s like furniture, is totally NOT a part of other people’s lives. It’s just weird. Of course, there are straight cis white men who have been murdered by serial killers. I’m sure there are. But it’s not a practical concern. It’s part of social conditioning and a general feeling of…a lack of safety. What’s the word I’m looking for? Not being safe—is there a word for that?
LW: Yeah! Danger! [Laughs.] Did you know that men just go jogging at night? It’s so weird! They just survive jogging all the time! [Laughs.] The way that we’ve historically responded to women’s stories of being menaced and preyed upon—it’s been disbelief and skepticism and blame. That contributes to feeling obsessed with this. People are just always murdering women. And then people put it on TV as entertainment. Of course we feel unsafe. And then I watch it! What am I complaining about?
HG: A question that’s been on a lot of people’s minds in the last few years is: I want to make a change, but how do I do it? In “How to Be a Girl” you write: “And here’s how you do it: you do it.” Why do you think it’s hard for people who are in a position of power to just do it?
LW: I don’t know. I think people really want to hang onto whatever power they have, and relinquishing any part of it is scary. But I don’t know. Also, everyone’s life is hard and busy and stressful, and it’s really easy for people to abdicate responsibility for really, really hard complicated social issues that one person can’t solve on their own. It’s easy for people to let themselves be carried away with their own lives, especially if you’re a super privileged person who’s not impacted daily by racism or poverty. You just have to force yourself to stay awake. I’m not an incredible, perfect specimen of this; I’m barely keeping up with my own shit. But there are ways, especially if you’re a person in a position of power, to build your values into your life.
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HG: Was it a big part of making Shrill the TV series?
LW: I was certainly a broken record when making Shrill the TV show about diversity and representation and making sure we were constantly thinking about how we were telling these stories, who’s telling them, and who we’re hiring for every single position. People just have to stay awake and stay curious and compassionate. And remember that you are a member of a society and we’re not, as much as republicans would like to trick us into thinking, just individuals trying to grab as much as we can before we die. That’s not true.
We are social and we live together for a reason. We live in cities and we live in close proximity to each other because it’s beneficial to us all to take care of each other. That’s a collective action, and I’m sorry, but if you’re opposed to social programs and taking care of people in need, congratulations on your extremely privileged, perfect life. Well, except for all the people who vote against having healthcare, which is just bizarre. There is a certain amount of absolute disconnect happening with certain groups of people. But for the most part, if your life isn’t forcing you to confront the reality of inequality in America every single day, then congratulations. It is your duty, if you want to be a good person, to constantly remind yourself of that reality—that that is the case for a lot of people. Millions and millions and millions of people.
HG: There’s so much emphasis on the two sides coming together and uniting. I get that, but I often wonder: Do I really need to have a conversation with somebody who is just plain wrong?
LW: Yeah, no! How do you unite? There’s no middle ground between “gay people should have rights” and “gay people shouldn’t have rights.” There’s no middle ground between “black lives matter” and “black lives don’t matter.” It’s like, no! Sorry! Sorry, but this actually is an ultimatum. We’re not doing that. If you’re fighting against violence and inequality, there’s no room for that compromising. “Well, some violence and inequality are okay.” No! They’re not! If it’s someone that you love, obviously you can try and try and try to have conversations with them and connect with them and figure out why they feel this way and where it’s coming from. So much of it is coming from propaganda from the government. But I don’t think that compromise or finding a middle ground is productive.
HG: You write about Annie’s abortion in Shrill the TV show—a scene and an episode that was groundbreaking to watch. Why was it important to you to show not only an abortion from start to finish, but a non-dramatic one that Aidy Bryant’s character saw as just part of life?
LW: Not only is it just part of life, it’s also a positive thing in Annie’s life. It’s the galvanizing moment for her when she realizes she wants to be the author of her own future instead of being this passive passenger like she has been. She realizes that she wants more and that she deserves more, and I think that’s really important to frame abortion not just as neutral, but empowering. This was an empowering moment for this person. The way we talk about abortion in this country—or, more often, don’t, because the main issue with abortion is that even pro-choice people don’t talk about it and have no idea how to talk about it when they do—it’s such an opportunity that’s so exploited by anti-choice terrorists. It’s so bizarre that we just let our opponents define all the terms. And really, that we entertain abortion as a debate question when it’s a constitutional right that was settled 50 years ago.
I think it’s really, really important, as much as possible—if you’re in a safe situation, a lot of people can’t talk about their abortions—to talk candidly about your abortion. I certainly can, and so I do as much as possible. The more you can offer up alternative narratives to the anti-choice narrative of what an abortion is, the more other people feel comfortable telling their stories, and the truth about abortion—what it is and how it functions in people’s lives—can take root in the public consciousness.
Trump is absolutely stacking the courts with wild monsters, and what we have at our disposal is culture change. We might not be able to fix that for a long time, and who knows what’s going to happen, especially in red states. But what we can do is at least try to correct the record in the public consciousness. I really believe in that. I have this platform, these couple of platforms, and I try to use them as best I can to let people know that every abortion isn’t painful and traumatic and regretted. I’m really grateful that I had access to my abortion. I wasn’t conflicted about it; it wasn’t a huge melodrama in my life. It was…
HG: I think you use the word “freeing.”
LW: It’s absolutely about freedom! It’s about who is free and who is not to control their body. It’s indescribably significant. It’s monumental. It is freedom itself. Freedom cannot be conditional. We can’t have just some people free. Then you’re not a free nation. The reality is that there are so many people having abortions all the time. There are so many anti-choice people having abortions. The idea that this is a partisan issue is a fiction. I wanted to put the truth on screen in a bold way and say, “There is no reason to be afraid to talk about this, because it’s reality. It’s part of our lives.”
It’s part of every single person’s life. Even if you haven’t had an abortion, or if your partner hasn’t had an abortion, your life is impacted in an infinite number of invisible ways, because anything that has ever affected your life—for example, any policy that was ever put in place by a female politician who was able to pursue that career because she had an abortion. It impacts who gets to live a full life and who doesn’t. It’s a life-defining right. It’s everywhere. The ripples of abortion are everywhere, and they affect everyone. And it would be great if men started to acknowledge and respect that.
HG: I’m curious if you write with an audience in mind. Do you write to people who agree with you, or do you try to reach people whose minds you can change?
LW: Mostly people who agree with me, honestly. And I don’t feel any shame about that. A lot of times, people use that against me—that I’m preaching to the choir. But what I want is for people to feel less alone, less despairing, and more energized and galvanized. I just don’t think that rabid Trump supporters are going to read this book and have their minds change. And if I knew how to do that—if anyone knew how to do that—we would solve all of the world’s problems. But what I can do, and what I’m good at, I think, is connect with people. Make people feel less alone. Hopefully write something that’s funny and cuts through some of that despair and reminds people that we’re still here and we’re alive and this world is worth fighting for.
I’m thrilled to preach to the choir. Thank you so much to the choir for showing up every week. I don’t know why there’s such a weird stigma against that. Of course we should be talking with the choir, or whatever you want to call it, about what we’re doing here. We should have to keep talking about it. There is a margin of pro-choice people who find it really threatening to say the word “abortion” as many times as I do. I’ve definitely gotten emails throughout my career from people who say, “Your work changed my mind in these ways.” That does happen, too. But I would rather do that not by pandering to people I disagree with, but by really boldly saying exactly what I think. That does get through to some people. I’ve gotten through to people about how we treat fat people. I’ve gotten a lot of feedback about how we talk about abortion. I guess I’m writing for me. [Laughs.] And I think that’s fine.
HG: Can you tell me anything about Shrill Season 2?
LW: Oh my god, it’s so funny. It’s so good. We spend a lot more time with Fran [Lolly Adefope] and with the secondary characters. We had a lot more room to play around. I’m really, really proud of it, and it’s coming out pretty soon. So, get ready!
The Witches Are Coming is available wherever books are sold.