Lindy West Gets Real About Trump, Twitter & Shrill Season 2

Photo: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images.
Over the past few years, various powerful men have used the term “witch hunt” again and again. In October 2017, Woody Allen, himself accused of child sexual abuse by his daughter Dylan Farrow, called the #MeToo movement a “witch-hunt atmosphere.” In January 2018, Liam Neeson called the movement “a bit of a witch-hunt.” And since 2016, President Donald Trump has used the term frequently — most recently at 8:17 AM this morning, to describe U.S. Envoy to Ukraine Kurt Volker’s Congressional testimony. 
In her new book, The Witches Are Coming, an essay collection, Lindy West embraces the term “witch hunt” — and flips it on its head. “So fine, if you insist. This is a witch hunt,” she writes. “We’re witches, and we’re hunting you.” 
The way West sees it, witches are marginalized people, and they're very often women — marginalized women. But their magic is telling their truths, and their prey are now those in power who seek to oppress them. I spoke to West over the phone during an unseasonal thunderstorm in her home in Seattle, a few weeks before the book came out, where she got real on everything from Trump's impeachment to why the body-positivity movement still has so far to go.
Where did you get the idea for the title, the Witches Are Coming? I know you wrote a New York Times column with a similar title.
Having been a writer in feminist spaces for some time, it’s something you get used to hearing when marginalized people start to tell the truth about their experiences. The idea that somehow the world has descended into an unjust witch hunt, when we haven’t even begun to remedy the problems of the past, is a very bad faith way of framing this moment.
We know that this is real. We know that Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby and Louis C.K. really did these things. We know that exploitation and sexual predation are an endemic, gendered problem. They cry “witch hunt” and pretend the real victims of #MeToo are men who are afraid some old girlfriend is going to ruin their reputation — when by the way, Louis C.K. is already back in clubs doing comedy. What is the big, scary outcome of callout culture that they’re so worried about? 
For the purposes of the book, I framed telling the truth and believing each other’s truths as a kind of magic. If you’re going to spend generations using the word “witch” to mock and discredit women, you don't get to frame yourself as a witch being hunted when that’s convenient for you. I’m re-framing the idea of a witch hunt as a hunt where witches hunt you
You’re writing about the #MeToo movement, politics, climate change — topics where change happens very quickly. How did you go through the writing process while making sure the book would be relevant when it came out?
It’s always a gamble, especially now when it’s like, “Is Donald Trump going to make it to my book launch?” Obviously, I’ll take one for the team and have my book be a little less relevant if he gets impeached, or resigns, or dies of stress by then. But it is a gamble.
I also think that Trump-ism has relevance beyond the guy himself. Even if the man stops being president, his presidency and the culture that made him president are still here. We’re going to feel the effects of his judicial appointments for, potentially, generations. This is a pivotal moment in the history and future of earth, and there’s something valuable in a document that captures the visceral feeling of being alive right now.
At several points, you return to the body-positive movement, which you previously covered in Shrill. You write, “Body positivity sells best when it’s skinny white models selling it.” How has the body positivity movement changed since you first started writing about it?
Everything becomes commodified as it becomes popular. “Body positivity” is no different. The way that body positivity has taken root in the cultural consciousness has just turned into a new set of beauty standards. It’s like, “Okay, now you can have huge thighs as long as your waist is tiny.”
Do the popular thighs on Instagram look 10% more like my thighs? Yeah. Do I look like those models in a high-cut bikini? No. Do those thighs on Instagram help me, or help a person who weighs 200 pounds more than me, when we try to go to the doctor and hope to be treated like human beings and have our medical needs met? Do they help fat people who are trying to get a job, or fat people who need to buy clothes that fit them for a job interview? 
What’s getting lost is that this is a movement for justice and equality, not an aesthetic. Fashion and aesthetics are fun and important, and they matter to me, too. But at its roots, fat positivity is a political movement, and when you lose that, you lose the whole thing. Visibility is important. But representation is not the finish line.

It was in large part in response to the way that abortion has been presented in media, and also just treated in general in our society — as a secret, as something that is shameful in some way, as a desperate last resort that good people do not choose.

You write about how Shrill was the first TV show to have an abortion in the pilot. Why was that choice was so important for the series?
It worked for the story. Bottom line, you’re making a piece of entertainment that tells a story, and that is always the top priority, regardless of how many big political opinions I have. We could have chosen any number of things to galvanize Annie and kick off her story, and we chose abortion for a reason. It was in large part in response to the way that abortion has been presented in media, and also just treated in general in our society — as a secret, as something that is shameful in some way, as a desperate last resort that good people do not choose. We rarely talk about how access to abortion affects people in positive ways. To put an abortion right up front, in the first 20 minutes of the entire series, is to say, “There is nothing here to shy away from. This is the kind of show this is. Get ready.”
Shrill is about a woman learning to take control of her own life, to get in the driver’s seat and think about what she wants and what she needs. I think abortion works beautifully both from a story perspective, and from the perspective of the kind of artist I want to be, the kind of person I want to be, the kind of impact I want to have on the world.
You also write about how the pro-choice movement needs to get its message together on abortion, which is something that I’ve definitely noticed. When the topic of abortion comes up, it’s not just anti-choicers objecting, some pro-choicers will also be like, “I think abortion should be legal, but I don’t think you talk about it this way.”
The only way to get people to stop thinking like that is to talk about it more. People have huge, poisoned perspectives on the way abortion functions in real people’s lives. It’s frankly bizarre that more people are not fluent in talking about abortion, because it’s all around you. It dictates who is free and who gets to have full autonomy in society, and that’s massive. It’s racialized. It’s obviously gendered. And the remedy is to have more conversations about abortion, not hide it away to be “polite.”
Is there anything you can tell us about Shrill season 2?
In season 1, you have to introduce all the characters, you have to build the world, you have to set up your whole story, and that takes up a tremendous amount of real estate. In season 2, we really get to stretch and spend more time with the supporting cast, who are the most incredible comedic actors working today. We get to delve into their lives, relax a little bit, and be purely funny, without worrying about moving the plot forward every single second. During the first season of anything, you’re still figuring out what it is. To come back in season 2 and already know the crew and characters and actors felt magical. I’m so excited for people to see it, but I can’t say any specifics.

The idea that the internet and real life are separate, and that online hate doesn’t bleed into real life, is an absolute falsehood.

You write really movingly about how toxic social media can be for people who are writing or speaking publicly about feminism and social justice. How can writers approach social media, when it’s so hard, but there’s also an expectation — sometimes even written into a contract — that they be active on social media? 
I’m kind of a dinosaur, because I was fortunate enough to establish myself, and then leave, before that was a requirement. I think it’s really abusive to require marginalized people to be engaged on social media without having taken steps to make it a safe environment. It’s not just a psychologically toxic environment, but it’s physically dangerous. People get SWAT teams sent to their house. The idea that the internet and real life are separate, and that online hate doesn’t bleed into real life, is an absolute falsehood.
I don’t know how to fix Twitter, and I don’t have an answer for young writers and marginalized writers who need social media as a platform to build their brand, make professional contacts, and promote their work. Unfortunately, I think we have to wait until the next generation of social media comes along that is engineered with an understanding of how these platforms are weaponized. Personally, Twitter was very bad for my brain. And it’s very bad for America — I 1,000% percent think Twitter played a role in Donald Trump getting elected. I miss Twitter, it was really fun, but the bad parts were very, very bad.
In the Witches Are Coming, you share that you wrote Shrill because you wanted to write the book that you needed to read as a 14-year-old, 28-year-old, 37-year-old. Who did you write the Witches Are Coming for?
It’s for anyone who feels despair right now, who feels powerless, who feels like they don’t know how to move forward, or that it’s not worth trying to move forward because we’re fucked. It’s so important to remind people that they are not alone, and not only that, but we have a tremendous amount of power. This despair we feel is a tactic that’s being deployed against us to keep us from harnessing our power and acting collectively to dismantle some of these systems that exploit us and are destroying the planet. 
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. The Witches Are Coming (November, Hachette Books) is available now.
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