As a girl, Lindy West obsessed about pop culture. As a critic and columnist, she analyzed it. Now she’s creating it.
Which isn’t to say that West has stopped obsessing or analyzing. In her wise, witty new collection of essays, “The Witches Are Coming,” which brings her to St. Paul on Nov. 14 for Talking Volumes, West blasts the misogyny lurking in the media we love, from “Reality Bites” to “Billy Madison,” stories that revere waifish women and angry man-boys. She argues that bad stories birth bad politics. That Twitter trolls led to President Donald Trump. (She goes further than that, actually, labeling the president himself a Twitter troll.)
But West’s smart takes have deepened since she created “Shrill,” a body-positive Hulu show based on her 2016 memoir of the same name. Her peeks into that process — from pitching producers to shaping plots — make personal her argument that “we have a lot of power to change the world around us by changing the stories that we tell,” as she said by phone recently.
So when West got to tell the story, she told a radical one with a fat, feminist woman — usually relegated to role of sassy sidekick — at its center. In her new book, she asks: Why is it radical to show a fat woman having fun, having sex, having a life?
“I said in every meeting: This isn’t a show about a fat woman trying to lose weight,” West said. “This isn’t a show about a woman who’s fat who’s miserable and lonely. ... This is not a show where at any point the main character will step on a scale and look down and sigh.”
Instead, that character, Annie, a fledgling alt-weekly writer played by “SNL” comedian Aidy Bryant, stops apologizing. She confronts a troll harassing her online. She dives into the water at a fat-acceptance pool party, a luminous scene revelatory in its joy and beauty.
She also has an abortion — not in some Very Special Episode. But right away. In the pilot.
“It’s sort of the catalyst for Annie’s whole story,” West said.
It was a catalyst for West, too. She covered that ground in “Shrill: Notes From a Loud Woman,” the bestselling collection of essays that codified the fame she’d earned online with her funny, feminist takes during the reign of the first-person essay. But her new book features fewer personal stories and more of West’s eye for connecting pop culture to the political, as she has writing columns for the Guardian and the New York Times.
“The Witches Are Coming” draws its title from an essay in which she eviscerates Trump’s constant use of the term “witch hunt,” pointing out its origins in the witch trials of early modern Europe and colonial America, when women were hanged, beheaded or burned at the stake. (“Very, very similar to the modern-day witch hunts against men!”) She then flips the term, embracing its power in this #MeToo moment.
“So fine, if you insist,” she writes. “This is a witch hunt. We’re witches, and we’re hunting you.”
Shouting her abortion
We caught up with West at home in Seattle the day after she spoke at an event in Memphis for a reproductive health center. She’s been doing more of those gigs lately, especially in states facing restrictions on abortion rights.
“I’m really lucky to have a family and a community where abortion isn’t stigmatized,” she said. “It feels like the least I can do. ... I’m not any kind of expert. I’m just a lady who had an abortion and won’t shut up about it.”
As she points out in “The Witches,” West never planned to write about her abortion. That chapter was a last-minute, past-deadline addition to “Shrill,” said her friend Amelia Bonow, founder of Shout Your Abortion, a viral-post-turned-nonprofit dedicated to telling women’s abortion stories.
In 2015, Bonow shared the story of her abortion online, catalyzed by conversations with friends, including West. “Even though we are really progressive and some would say radical, we just weren’t talking about our abortions,” Bonow said by phone. That silence “was greatly diminishing our political power.”
West shared a screenshot of her friend’s post on Twitter, adding a #ShoutYourAbortion hashtag. “From there, the floodgates opened,” Bonow said.
In the midst of this movement, West wrote about her own abortion. Doing press for her book, she talked about that abortion. Then, pitching the TV show, she insisted on including an abortion.
“I brought it up in every single meeting,” she writes, “with stranger after stranger, in the earliest meet-and-greets with production companies that weren’t even sure they wanted to option yet — the seduction-stage meetings, when a master tactician might suggest that one not say the word ‘abortion’ 47 times over calamari at Soho House West Hollywood.”
That hard line came as no surprise to Bonow. “She’s super-principled,” Bonow said. “She’s going to take other people with her and take a sense of justice with her. ...
“When the world is not set up for you to exist openly and truthfully, and you choose to do that anyway — whether it’s ‘Hi, I’m fat and I love myself,’ or ‘Hi, I’ve had an abortion and it’s fine’ — you give other people the permission to exist as their whole selves.”
In the Hulu series, which has a second season coming in 2020, Annie takes a pregnancy test and discovers that the Plan B pill she took after sleeping with her bearded sort-of boyfriend didn’t work. We watch her face, in close-up, during the procedure. A friend rubs her shoulder. Afterward, cuddling with that friend at home, Annie smiles.
“At the close of my career, whenever that comes,” West writes, “Annie’s abortion just may be the thing I’m most proud of.”
Her goal: better pop culture
Trolls have harassed West for her weight, her feminism and her confidence in speaking about both.
Famously, she had a conversation with the worst of them: a man who sent her terrible tweets from an account purporting to be her father, who had recently died. She called the troll up for an episode of “This American Life,” asked him tough questions, accepted his apology. “It felt really easy, comfortable even, to talk to my troll,” she admits. “I liked him, and I didn’t know what to do with that.”
Her writing, too, is richer because of these unexpected turns.
In one essay, about Adam Sandler, she declines to take “the big fat feminist dunk” about how Sandler’s movies “indoctrinated a generation of boys into the notion that the world was theirs for the taking whether they bothered to grow up or try hard or do a good job or not.” Instead, she admits that while watching a taping of an “SNL” episode in which Sandler hosts, she cried.
“I cried my ass off.” She was nostalgic, she writes, for “the years when you can love things so purely without complication.”
Doesn’t that go against her mantra to take a hard look at why we love the things we love?
“Everyone wants to be a perfect, political being who lives their values all the time,” West said. “But that’s just not a realistic way to live. Sometimes my writing veers in that direction and it’s important to me to always soften it a little bit. ... The other path is self-righteousness.”
West knowingly refers to herself as “a committed feminist killjoy,” a joke that works because her writing is filled with joy. Even while interrogating TV shows and film, West remains a fan, refusing to abandon her younger, TV-obsessed self. She’s a sarcasm master. But when she speaks about the power of pop culture, her voice softens. She gets sincere.
“I really believe in this stuff,” she said. “I could write stuff that gets me less abuse and makes me a lot more money, but I choose to write about this stuff because it’s important to me.”
Still, she points out the limits of creating new, better pop culture.
While promoting her TV series, she participated in a panel with Bryant and actor/director Elizabeth Banks, the show’s executive producer. A Frenchman in the back asked why Banks, a beautiful woman, would be drawn to this story. The “Hunger Games” star answered “with poise and patience,” West writes in “The Witches,” but then an older woman asked essentially the same question: “But Elizabeth! You’re gorgeous! You’ve always been gorgeous! What could possibly interest you in a story like this?”
Forget the show’s takes on work, family and friendship. What followed were “several more decades of variations on the question of Elizabeth’s hot body,” she writes.
“We’d actually succeeded in making a relatively radical piece of feminist art and bringing it in the mainstream, and here was a room full of people who had watched the show, and all they could think about was how much bigger and less desirable my body and Aidy’s body were than Liz’s.”
It was a reality check, West said by phone.
“When I’m out here saying things like, ‘We can change the world if we change the stories we tell,’ that makes it sound so easy,” she said. “It’s not that easy. These ideas are really entrenched. ... There’s a kind of magic in this storytelling, but also, like, there’s no such thing as magic.”
Media are different today, too. Not every kid is watching “Duck Tales.” Not every teen is memorizing “Clueless.”
“Most people are watching ‘The Masked Singer’ ... some big giant network reality show and not my little, edgy streaming show about abortion,” she said. “But I still think those ripples are out there.
“If ‘Shrill’ emboldened 50 people to tell someone about their abortion, or 100 people to push back against diet culture ... that’s all you can hope for as one person.”