Lindy West reclaims the "witch hunt": On comedy, feminism and why terrible men think they're victims

In her new book "The Witches Are Coming," Lindy West turns her gimlet eye on the ruin of America in the Trump era

By Amanda Marcotte

Senior Writer

Published November 9, 2019 1:00PM (EST)

Lindy West (Jenny Jimenez)
Lindy West (Jenny Jimenez)

According to author Lindy West, this present moment is America's witching. Angry about Donald Trump and other terrible men claiming to be victims of "witch hunts," West wrote the immediately iconic New York Times op-ed claiming, "Sure, if you insist, it’s a witch hunt. I’m a witch, and I’m hunting you."

She has now turned that piece into a full-length book titled "The Witches Are Coming." It's a genuinely uproarious collection of essays about feminism, politics, climate change and whether or not Adam Sandler is actually funny. I plowed through the book in the span of a day and then had a chance to interview West in person at Salon's studio, where we talked about feminist comedy, women's likeability, and how "Trading Places" holds up really well except for that one time it doesn't.

You can watch our full interview here, or read on for the transcript, which has been lightly edited for clarity and length.

The title of your book, "The Witches Are Coming," is based on an essay you wrote in the New York Times where you said, "Yes, I'm a witch, and I'm hunting you." And it's about how all these crappy white guys, and especially Donald Trump, keep claiming that they're being targeted by witch hunts, which were actually a thing that targeted women, who were killed by it. Why do you think that metaphor has so much power in the minds of white men who feel persecuted?

That's such a great question. It seems like the favorite rhetorical flourish of this current administration to be relentlessly aggressive, and oppressive, and just horrendous in a million newly creative ways, and then at the same time just extravagantly play the victim.

We've seen this on the internet for years and years and years. This is what men's rights activists do, and it's a really effective rhetorical tactic when the person in charge says, "I'm actually being victimized. I'm not victimizing other people. I'm actually the victim." That's a really comfortable place for a lot of people to live. You know what I mean? Because the alternative is that we're all complicit in a really, really toxic, dangerous, deadly system.

It's much more compelling to not be on the defensive and not be like, "No, no, no, I didn't do that," but to be actually the aggrieved party, and then demand relief and apology from the world.

And part of this bigger trend, I think, of the right wing co-opting social justice language to justify a lot of their behaviors. That's really, really toxic, and I think needs to be called out and not just taken at face value, which people tend to do. I think people tend to be trusting, and so accept the rhetoric that's fed to them, and even if it smells a little off.

And I think that it's just part of our jobs as writers and journalists and people who are engaged in this discourse or whatever you want to call it to not entertain that kind of propaganda as reality. You know what I mean? Don't give it that oxygen. You have to be chopping off the heads metaphorically, every day, constantly, because it's relentless.

It's interesting to me because, like you said, the Donald Trump victim trip is something that we've seen on the internet for more than a decade now. And all these angry men that feel like they're being persecuted, that they're the victims of sexism, that they're the victims of racism. Do you think that that sense of persecution is sincere, or do you think they're just making it up?

That's a good question. I think some of them are making it up very cynically and deliberately, and then there are a lot of people who genuine . . .

Life is hard. There are a lot of young, white men who feel aggrieved, and who feel like their lives are difficult and unfair, and that's probably true that their lives are difficult and unfair in a million ways. They're just not difficult and unfair because they're white or because they're men.

And I think when you feed this propaganda to those people who maybe don't have the background in thinking about systemic inequality in the systems in which we live, it's so appealing. It must feel like such a relief to find a tangible reason that explains why your life sucks and takes away the responsibility of this feeling of being blamed for other people's persecution.

Men hate to hear that they're being bad, and I get it. I think that it's not necessarily an evil impulse to react with horror and defensiveness to being told that you're a beneficiary of racism or sexism. You know what I mean?

The people who are pushing the narrative and really shaping and driving it, they know what they're doing. They know. I think that Donald Trump is not a smart person, but he knows that this is not a witch hunt. He knows that he's bad, you know what I mean? He knows what he did. He knows. He knows.

But angry 19-year-old boys who loved Donald Trump because "he tells it like it is'' or whatever, I don't know that everyone knows. I don't know. What do you think? That's a question I would ask you. Do they know? Some do. Some don't. Don't you think?

Yeah, I think so. I'm just always kind of curious. And I wanted to ask you about trolls without asking you about trolls.

Yeah, totally.

Let's talk about women and likability, because you write in this book a lot about the question of women's likability, which is an issue that has been haunting us, I think, since Hillary Clinton lost because she wasn't "likable" enough. And you write in the book that when it comes to women anyway, "likability is a con and we're all falling for it." Why do you say that?

It's really complicated, right? Because obviously I want people to like me just as a person. It's easy to be like, "reject likability," but what does that mean?

I don't know, because I clearly try to make things that people like and want to give me money for.

But I do think that there's this directive for women especially to chase this idea of likability, which is socially constructed to include being nice and being helpful and being a caregiver and all of these things that don't necessarily benefit us.

It's respectability politics really. It's the same construction where it's like, "Well, if you were just like this, if you're just more like this, if you were nicer, if you were more helpful, if you phrased it differently, if you weren't so aggressive, if you weren't so angry, then you would have everything that you want. And then we would all be on your side, and everyone would want to help you, and X, Y, Z."

That's not real. There isn't an actual finish line where you can get there, and that's why it's a con. Again, it's the same also as conventional beauty. You're never going to get to perfection. That's not real. And what you're supposed to do is spend your whole life wasting money trying to buy this idea of perfection that doesn't exist.

So I don't know what the answer is, and it's interesting with beauty too. You can't say that beauty is not real because a tree is beautiful, a sunset is beautiful. You know what I mean? There's something there, and once you start to go down that road then your brain flips out, because then it's like, well, what are clothes? Do I like anything? Is anything real?

Someone fully called me out and was like, "You said that we shouldn't chase likability, but in this other interview, you said that your goal with the TV show was to make a really likable fat character because people don't like fat people." And I was like, I don't know. I don't know. I don't know the answer.

You contain multitudes.

Well, the answer is that we have to live in the system that we live in, so you can live in it and try to change it at the same time. And I think resetting and restructuring what the conditions of likability are is at least something we can do. You know what I mean? Because right now, the parameters of likability that I'm talking about in this book are parameters that are the traditional, old fashioned way to be likable, which is again to be a nice, pretty, little quiet caregiver. And I don't think that serves us particularly well.

It's interesting to me because Elizabeth Warren will have lines hours long of people wanting to take pictures with her, and yet we hear that she's not "likable" enough. I think, yeah, it feels like it's a trap.

Yeah, totally.

And yet somehow people keep falling for it. AI know there's not a solution to it. But I guess the question I would ask you then is is there ever going to be a point where women can just get past it?

I don't know. I hope so. I don't know. I don't know what's going to happen. I think just in the last 10 years since I've been writing about feminism, and thinking about feminism all the time, and having this weird job that I have, it feels like the world around me has loosened in so many ways already, which is really encouraging.

And I think my kids, who are 16 and 18, have grown up with this innate understanding of gender, and beauty, and the politics of of being a woman in the world that I didn't grow up with, where those ideas didn't exist yet. Those are radical ideas that have since been mainstreamed through the long, hard work of a lot of people.

And that's really encouraging to me. My kids are not scared to call themselves feminists, and when I was their age, you were not supposed to, and you would get made fun of, and be ostracized. Or I don't think it occurred to me as a 16-year-old to be like, "I'm a feminist," and my daughters are like ...

They steal all my tote bags. You know what I mean? Any kind of feminist propaganda that I'm given, they steal.

In my opinion, the reason that Trump happened is because you could feel some progress having real momentum over the last five, 10 years, and that was terrifying to a lot of people. And so, yeah, I guess I do have hope that if we can't completely extricate ourselves from this idea of likability, this one particular model of likability, we can at least grab it and change it and remake it in a way that is healthier.

And that brings me to another huge theme in your book, which is pop culture and making it better. And you have this TV show based on your first book "Shrill," and it's a fairly explicit goal of that show to model more diversity, different ideas of what womanhood can be, different ways of telling women's stories. It's also a comedy, so I think you hear a lot of people say that that kind of feminism is incompatible with comedy. What was your experience of that in actually trying to create something that's funny and feminist at the same time?

It's just such an erroneous, meaningless thing to say that comedy and feminism are incompatible. It just doesn't make any sense. To the point where I don't even know how to answer that question. This was a room full of really funny, smart people building a story together about things that matter to us, and things that happened in our lives. Obviously there's an inherent political through line in this show, but our first goal was to make a piece of entertainment, to make a funny television show that tells a story.

People who say that that feminism and comedy are mutually exclusive don't understand anything about feminism or comedy, I would say. Anyone can write a funny joke about their life. The idea that to be funny, a joke has to have rape in it or something, it's a very bizarre way to understand a joke, and means that you haven't been paying attention to a huge, vast swath of the comedy that's been being made for generations. What are you talking about?

Well, it's interesting because a lot of this book — and I was a little surprised by it, but it was cool because you're a big comedy fan — you're re-examining some of the comedy of the '90s that we grew up on, like Adam Sandler movies and "South Park," and asking the very blunt question, are they funny? So you go back and and look at this stuff, and I guess I want to ask, are they funny?

Well, I'm of course slightly trolling, but you know what? Yeah, they are. Sometimes. Parts of them are funny, and that's always been the point. It's like, OK, me as a feminist comedy fan, I don't want to destroy comedy.

I want to be able to have the comedy without the comedy destroying me. You know what I mean?

You're undermining your own work by filling it with really damaging stereotypes. You're excluding huge, huge parts of your audience, and that used to work because we had this paradigm in place that you weren't allowed to critique comedy because then you were just a moral scold who didn't get jokes.

And so I spent decades laughing at jokes about how horrible men's wives are, which was such a classic staple. I remember as being a kid and being like, "Why are they all married?" I just remember being like, "Man, men hate wives so much. They hate them. They hate them. Why don't they get divorced? You don't have to have a wife." Whatever. I just remember being baffled by how universally every comedian wanted to kill their wife.

The point is that like there is stuff to love in those pieces of art, and then there's this insistence on just poisoning all of it. You know what I mean? And it's really complicated because of course a lot of stuff used to be normal, and used to be fine, and it's not really fair or productive to be like "Adam Sandler is an evil, bad man because the gender roles are a little regressive in 'Little Nicky'" or whatever. That would be me being a caricature of myself, and I'm not a caricature of myself. I am my regular self.

We decided to re-watch "Trading Places" at my house a couple of weeks ago, and that movie holds up super well.

Holds up!

Right up until Dan Aykroyd puts on black face.

Sure. I know. And I don't want to touch this. I don't want to touch that one. That's a tricky one. I don't know. I don't know. It's not my business. Eddie Murphy said it was OK. I don't know. It's not good. It's not good. It's bad. Nope. That's not someone else's essay to write. I'm not think-piecing on that one at all.

The book is very full of very understandable anger over Trump, and all the crappy men, and the internet trolls, and the Hollywood directors that have turned this country into a toilet. And hopefully he'll be gone sometime next year.

I'd like to thank him for hanging in there through the pub date of this book because it would've been ... I'm just kidding. I would have been fine if he was gone already.

But I want to ask, what do we do with all these people once he's gone?

Yeah, they're all still there, and they're still very bad. And I wrote about that in the book. When we thought that Hillary was going to win, I had an op-ed in the tank being like, "Hey, Republicans don't get to pivot off of Trump and be like, 'We never liked him. We're the good Republicans.' They were always bad. Remember how much we hated them five minutes ago before this demon came on the scene? He's the same as them."

And that's actually, I think, what the "South Park" chapter ended up being about.

There is no ethical version of conservatism. There isn't. Sorry. There's no ethical version of we should hoard wealth, and let people die on the street, and slash social programs because it's not fair when the government takes 10% of your Halloween candy away or whatever. Whatever metaphor they use to indoctrinate the children.

But I think maybe fortunately/unfortunately, the Republican party has fully gone in, obviously. They went all in on Trump. They decided this was their guy, and they were going to just gamble on it, and make it happen. And hopefully that will taint them forever, and they will crumble and die.

I'm not some genius. I'm just a lady with opinions. I don't know how to sort of prognosticate what comes next, or what replaces them if they do fall, or what we do.

But I hope that Trump is a taint that follows every single one of these pieces of trash till their deaths, because it is inexcusable by any metric. It is unconscionable in every way.

I don't know. Whatever you think of Hillary or whatever, we were already ... Day before finals, second semester, senior year, we did not have time to waste. We needed to get down to business, and then now we have wasted four years not just wasting time but moving backwards in time, letting the planet boil, letting brown people around the world bear the brunt of climate disaster. It's inexcusable. And if we manage to pull ourselves back from the brink of apocalypse, and history continues to be written, I hope that they are remembered as the trash demons that they are.

You write in this book about your high school age daughter's activism, and it reminded me so much of the climate strikes, and Greta Thunberg, and all these kids just coming out. And I just want to ask, why are kids so great?

I don't know. I'm so proud of them. It's not fair to ask them to be great. It's so unfair. I got to just be a dumb kid. You know what I mean? We would drive around and eat sandwiches. I don't know. It's not fair.

My older daughter learned about hostile architecture, like benches with spikes on them so that homeless people can't sleep, and so she has made a thousand vinyl stickers that are like, "Seattle doesn't care about homeless people. This bench was designed to deny homeless people a place to rest. If you support this bench, you're a monster." Whatever. It's more eloquent than that, but she's just on a rampage, vandalizing the city for justice.

She shouldn't have to spend her time doing that, you know what I mean? Hey, what if, oh, I don't know, the two richest people in the world live in Seattle. What if we didn't have 4,000 people sleeping on the street so that my daughter didn't have to run around putting stickers on everything, yelling at Amazon employees?

How do you feel about the word "feminism?"

It's interesting because I feel like, for a while, it was so empowering to say it as much as possible. And then of course things shift and move, and our conversations about gender have shifted and moved, and being female doesn't occupy the same role that it used to.

And I literally hadn't thought about this, but I do find myself like using the word "feminist" less, because I think also it feels narrow in this way. It just feels like I want a bigger tent to describe myself and what I actually care about. You know what I mean?

Obviously, I still want to be a fat activist, or of course I'm still a feminist, but it's so easy to just narrow your focus to things that impact you directly, and I think a thing that absolutely needs to happen is everyone opening outward and thinking about race, and justice, and poverty, and of course gender, and of course accessibility, and body size, and all of these things.

Yeah, this is all on the fly because I hadn't really thought about this, that "feminist" as a term has felt lately less radical to me than it used to. Do you know what I mean?

 Maybe that's partially because it's become mainstream.

Yeah. Which is good. Which is good. But it's like, okay, so we got there. There's so much more to do. Maybe that's what I'm feeling. You know what I mean? Like it's very white feminist to be like, "Yeah, I got a tote bag that says 'feminist' on it." It's like, OK, well, we got to keep going.

By Amanda Marcotte

Amanda Marcotte is a senior politics writer at Salon and the author of "Troll Nation: How The Right Became Trump-Worshipping Monsters Set On Rat-F*cking Liberals, America, and Truth Itself." Follow her on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte and sign up for her biweekly politics newsletter, Standing Room Only.

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