Book Review: The Witches Are Coming
by Leanne Phillips
The Witches Are Coming is a collection of essays by Lindy West, some brand new, and some previously published in various online and print magazines and updated for the book. West has been around for a long time. Her work has been featured in publications like The New York Times, The Guardian, and Jezebel. As I read The Witches Are Coming, I recognized a couple of the essays, having read them when they were originally published, but I’ll admit West’s name didn’t become familiar to me until I binge-watched Season One of Shrill, a Hulu original television series starring SNL’s Aidy Bryant. I was impressed and intrigued enough to look up Shrill’s writers, including West, the author of the memoir which inspired the television show. When I read that West had a new collection of essays, The Witches Are Coming, I got my hands on a copy as quickly as I could.
The essays in The Witches Are Coming largely target sexism and misogyny in the wake of the Me Too Movement, a “grassroots awakening . . . started by activist Tarana Burke in 2006.” They do so with intelligence and with humor, and they do so while looking readers straight in the eye. West does not sugarcoat or turn the other cheek, nor does she blink or look the other way. “[T]here is . . . powerful magic,” West writes, “in . . . speaking the truth, unvarnished, about what we see, what we remember, what has been done to us by people who have assumed power and status as a birthright . . . .”
In the book’s introduction, “They Let You Do It,” West sets the scene with the story of Larry Barry, a man in a nightclub who extrapolates that he is not allowed to dance at all, based on the fact that he has been asked not to touch women he doesn’t know while on the dance floor. West’s Larry Barry story is an apt representation of the illogical responses women have seen from men who cannot seem to grasp what #MeToo is asking of them (hint: women aren’t asking men to stop dancing) or from men who respond to the suggestion that they stop their bad behavior with threats of retaliation (hint: the solution isn’t to exclude women from the boardroom, it’s to stop raping and harassing).
In response to the refrains of Donald Trump and other sexual predators that they are the targets of “witch hunts,” West educates readers about the origins of the actual witch hunts and their place in history (hint: the witch hunts were invented by men to kill women). West’s message is clear: Men are trying to make themselves the victims here. According to men, women are the reason men can’t have nice things. Like rape culture and gender discrimination. “#MeToo felt like an appropriately cinematic turn,” West writes. “It’s the third act, and our heroine is angry. She’s finally stepping into her power. The witches are coming.”
West is angry, and her essays skillfully present the background, arguments, and evidence which allow readers to conclude not only that she is rightfully so, but that we should be angry, too. While West’s essays are entertaining, they are also well-researched and solid, covering such moments in time as the court’s kid-glove treatment of serial killer Ted Bundy during sentencing: The male judge delivered a speech which lamented the loss of what Bundy could have been without once mentioning the lost lives and non-existent futures of Bundy’s victims—at least twenty-eight young women.
West even discusses her complicated relationships with comedians like Ricky Gervais, Adam Carolla, Joan Rivers, and SNL alum Adam Sandler. In “Is Adam Sandler Funny?” West examines her love and nostalgia for Sandler while re-examining the sexism and misogyny in his early movies, which, West comes to accept, are not made for women. This essay is grief-driven, a eulogy. It hit home for me as a longtime Sandler fan who thinks his talent has recently been overlooked, but who has had to say goodbye to some of his older movies in light of a growing understanding that they are a part of the problem. As I read this, I felt less alone, and I felt gratitude toward West for saying the difficult things that many of us are afraid to say. Men like Sandler are objects of pop culture worship, and calling him to the carpet for his treatment of women in film doesn’t win any popularity contests.
West doesn’t stop at sexism in pop culture. She offers up gospel on such topics as owning our mistakes (“get comfortable with discomfort”), Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop culture, sexism and misogyny in gaming, immigration, climate disaster, Twitter’s “culture of abuse,” and achieving diversity in all things (“[w]hatever your sphere … become a real demon bitch about diversity and never let anyone sleep”).
In “How to Be a Girl,” West writes about oppressive gender roles and the lack of diversity in the arts. “Think radical thoughts and let yourself imagine they’re true,” West writes. “Then ask yourself why it’s radical to make art that accurately reflects reality, to build a society that takes care of its members, to demand a better world.”
“Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereotyping, or rape culture, but it reflects, polishes, and sells them back to us every moment of our waking lives. We make art and it makes us, simultaneously. Shouldn’t it follow, then, that we can change ourselves by changing what we make?
The movement can’t just disrupt the culture; it has to become the culture.”
West isn’t just preaching to the choir, though. She wants the attention of everyone. She is calling for big, systemic change, and she’s calling on the oppressors to do the heavy lifting. She wants them to take their place at her side, or better, to have her back.
In “Gear Swap,” writing about sexism, but also other forms of oppression, West asks: “How about anyone but the oppressed lifts a finger to change anything at all?” West calls on men to do something about misogyny and sexism: “Hey, you know what you could do to help? Everything. . . . You are the experts.” When male friends ask West “what people like [her] (fat, female, feminist) need from people like them,” West asks, “‘Do you ever stick up for me?’” West acknowledges that speaking up is awkward and uncomfortable. “It isn’t fun to be the one who speaks up,” West writes. But the oppressed “don’t have the luxury of staying quiet.”
“Women, already impeded and imperiled by sexism, also have to carry the social stigma of being feminist buzzkills if they call attention to it. People of color not only have to deal with racism; they also have to deal with white people labeling them ‘angry’ or ‘hostile’ or ‘difficult’ for objecting. What we could really use is some loud,” unequivocal backup.
Some background: The TV show Shrill is based on West’s 2016 memoir Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, described by NPR as “a witty and cathartic take on toxic misogyny and fat shaming.” The word “shrill” when used to describe a voice means “high-pitched and piercing.” It is most often used to negatively describe a woman’s voice as being too high and/or emotional. In a September 2019 essay for The New Yorker, Tina Talon noted that “the word ‘shrill’ is enjoying a resurgence in the national vocabulary, following its previous heyday, as an insult hurled at Hillary Clinton during the 2016 Presidential campaign.” West chose the word as the title for her memoir because she’d been called “shrill” on social media in response to things she’d written—interesting, West noted in a May 2016 interview with Salon, because: “I pretty much exclusively get it in print. So obviously it’s not about sound anyway. It’s about message, but they pretend it’s about sound.” Talon came to the same conclusion. “In the end,” Talon writes, “the word ‘shrill’ is not about the off-putting volume, pitch, or timbre of a woman’s voice—it’s an attempt to silence a voice.”
Shrill was a more personal book about West’s own struggles with sexism, misogyny, body image, and internet trolls. With Shrill, West says she wanted to write “[a] book about a fat character you couldn’t help but fall in love with, who had a complex, dynamic life, who had sex and had fun and got to make mistakes that didn’t involve cake pops.” In a sense, The Witches Are Coming picks up where Shrill left off. Where Shrill was personal, The Witches Are Coming is global—West steps even further outside herself and addresses the issues facing her gender, her community, her country, her world.
The Witches Are Coming is timely and should be required reading for anyone seeking to understand the often-subtle ways in which women’s voices have been silenced over the centuries and the way society reinforces the idea that women are worthless. Throughout the book, West urges us to look beyond the rhetoric, to educate ourselves, to pick a side, and to stand by the courage of our convictions, consistently, every single day.
West takes the gloves off in this book, although she never really put them on, did she? At one point, West footnotes an apology for using the hack, slang phrase “hold my beer,” but the phrase expresses feeling a certain kind of way, and as West notes, there is no good substitute. I picture West as she sat down at her keyboard to write this book, handing her beer off to a friend, cracking her knuckles, and coming out fighting.
The Witches Are Coming is West’s third book. In addition to The Witches Are Coming and Shrill: Notes from a Loud Woman, West co-authored How to Be a Person: The Stranger’s Guide to College, Sex, Intoxicants, Tacos, and Life Itself with Dan Savage and other staff writers for The Stranger, a Seattle-based newspaper. West’s next book, Shit, Actually, a look at “the beloved rom-coms and cult classics we love in order to dissect the culture we’ve created,” is scheduled for release in October 2020.
Leanne Phillips is a writer based on California’s Central Coast. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, The Coachella Review, and elsewhere. You can find her at leannephillips.com.