Lindy West has written about feminism and misogyny, online harassment and internet culture, fat shaming, and the destigmatization of body image using approaches both enormously entertaining and sharply rousing. Her essay collection Shrill (adapted into a TV series for which she is an executive producer and writer) was followed by The Witches Are Coming and its indelible, glowering promise against post-#MeToo male fragility: “You think this is a witch hunt? Fine. You've got one.”
Before all this, West began her career writing and editing articles about film for Seattle's alt weekly newspaper The Stranger. She returned to this undertaking in her latest book, Shit, Actually, which parodies Hollywood’s most preposterous conventions—though, by her own admission, the scripted lines often overshadow the digs she concocts. West rates each movie using a metric of “x/10 DVDS of The Fugitive” (her cinematic equivalent of an urtext). She describes the book as “silly, inconsequential, ornery”—and a requisite relief from the anxiety around the pandemic and the despondency of American politics, as much for herself as for readers. The pillars of cinema she examines include, amongst others, Face/Off (“There is no other movie where they do less to explain the science”), Love, Actually (“the apex of cynically vacant cash-grab sentimentality”), Top Gun (“Maverick is a full psycho and would definitely be at the ‘reopen America’ protests”), and American Pie (“Can you put a movie in jail?”).
ELLE.com speaks with West about her idiomatic writing style, the absurdities rendered ‘normal’ within feature films, and the importance of keeping a critical eye on the pop culture you love.
Pragmatically speaking, what was your process for these recaps? Were you taking notes while watching the movie? Or was it an exercise in seeing which of the most ridiculous things stuck with you post-viewing?
My husband watched every single movie with me, which was generous of him because some of them are absolute turkeys, and we riffed as hard as we could while I frantically wrote down everything good we said. Then I took those notes and fleshed them out into prose, adding plot points and analysis and anything else I remembered along the way. It’s actually extremely efficient!
You note you “spruced up and expanded” some pieces—what did this entail?
Oh, that’s the best part of doing a book like this! Most of the reprinted material in this book originally came from Jezebel, where I worked from 2012-2014. That kind of full-time blogging happens at an absolutely blistering speed, where you’re churning out, like, ten posts a day. It’s not all going to be your best material. You just don’t have time—you have to leave some of the mushy apples in there. In this book I got to cut all the rushed, half-assed jokes that had always bothered me—toss out the mushy ones and polish all the rest! I wanted to stay mostly faithful to the original pieces, but I got to make some very satisfying tweaks. Like rewriting the past to make myself seem like a better writer than I am! What a dream!
You already wrote about Adam Sandler movies in The Witches Are Coming… Do you see that as a bridge to Shit, Actually?
I originally conceived of Shit, Actually as almost an appendix to The Witches Are Coming. Witches offers this sort of big-picture pop culture analysis, and then Shit, Actually is just a million examples of how those observations play out in the wild. If I hadn’t already written Witches then there would definitely be some Sandler in this book.
You often use all caps, lots of exclamation points, and text message-y language (“thx” “wow, man, makes u think”). Why this as the favored means of delivery?
I’ve just always written very much in my voice. I write how I talk. I know that it has the potential to make my work feel dated, and some of my older stuff definitely makes me cringe, but I try to use it with a light hand. Well, no, not a light hand, but a careful hand. I feel like you can develop a little bit of a nose for which bits of idiom are going to become unbearable in a year and which ones will still feel like communication.
Has helming a pop cultural work of your own—the TV adaptation of Shrill—changed your thinking about how pop culture is produced?
I feel really, really guilty now for every movie and TV show I lazily trashed when I was a critic! It’s hard to make stuff, man! I think I’ve gotten a lot better at finding the beautiful, inspired details even in movies and shows I don’t care for. I notice their work now in a way I wasn’t capable of before.
In most of these pieces, your own life features only in very small glimpses. I found the piece on Honey, I Shrunk the Kids, in which you talk about your marriage, a nice companion to the movie. Why did you decide to mostly avoid bringing yourself into this book?
My last two books were both so heavy, with a lot of personal stuff in each, a lot of intimate disclosure as well as painful engagement with politics, and honestly, I’m just tired. Making Shrill the TV show is intense in that same way, even though the main character has thankfully drifted away from my real-life story. I wanted to write something that was just fun. I started my writing career as a film critic, and it felt really therapeutic to go back to that for a few months, especially as this place got scarier and scarier.
In the Rush Hour essay, you note: “Whether or not to watch [this] is the kind of sticky post-#MeToo judgement call we now have to make all the time, and there’s no map other than your own personal instincts and comfort zone.” Or, as you put it in the intro, “are we ‘allowed’ to like imperfect things that mean something to us?” Can you elaborate on what ethical compass you yourself use as a viewer?
The compass I use is “does this make me feel gross?” I try not to give my money to people who have done acute harm to others, particularly within a racial or gendered framework. I don’t want to enable people who are exploiting oppressive systems for their own profit and pleasure, because then I’m enabling those systems myself by extension. But that’s honestly a huge tent, when you start to think about things like how corporations perpetuate global poverty, or American normalcy’s absolute reliance on exploitation. Everything is interconnected in deeply sick ways. So I just try my best. I don’t have a lot of power in the world, I don’t have a lot of control, but I can control whether or not I send my money to Louis C.K. or R. Kelly. And if you can’t live without Louis C.K. or R. Kelly, fine! Just keep your critical eye open and do what you can where you can. I honestly think it’s okay to consume imperfect things as long as you’re aware that they’re imperfect. Just don’t shut yourself off from reality.
Cumulatively, the essays seem to demand more from modern media. How hopeful are you about the film landscape becoming more progressive and dimensional?
I think you can demand more from modern media, and it’s to modern media’s benefit! We all benefit from newness and openness and curiosity and care. Shedding old tropes and telling new stories is literally what this industry should be about.
Whose movie reviews or critiques do you read?
I have a lot of nostalgic love for Roger Ebert, of course. One time he tweeted “brava!” about a review I wrote when I was a small baby film critic and that reminds me I should probably print that screengrab and frame it. She doesn’t do movies, obviously, but Emily Nussbaum is always so wonderful to read. Pauline Kael, always! My former colleague at The Stranger, Charles Mudede, is probably my favorite critic. I would read him on anything. Everyone should look him up.
Who are some of your favorite humorists?
Samantha Irby, David Sedaris, David Rakoff, Kate Beaton, Alexandra Petri, oh, Reductress! Clickhole frequently gets me. I read a lot of Kurt Vonnegut as a kid. Does he count? Cruel Shoes by Steve Martin was big for me in high school. Oh, Carrie Fisher! I loved Guy Branum’s memoir, My Life as a Goddess. I’m forgetting everything. This is hard! I like so many things and I have such bad recall!
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