It was a pure pleasure to read Lindy West’s latest book, The Witches Are Coming. Part of what is so satisfying to me personally is that West’s interests overlap with many of my own. In fact, I cover a little bit of the same territory in my academic book Home is Where the Hurt Is: Media Depictions of Wives and Mothers, but I have to say that West’s analyses are so incisive, I wasn’t even envious; I was invigorated by her ideas, her ability to pinpoint, articulate and dissect various problems and hypocrisies, and excited that someone else (and someone I so admire) was noticing some of the same things I’ve been ruminating about.
One of my primary contentions in Home is Where the Hurt Is is that feminist thinking has infiltrated popular culture and that mass media representations have changed as a result. For example, in the early 20th century, a man’s violence against a woman, if presented at all, was often shown to be natural, normal, or funny. See the opening of the 1940 film, The Philadelphia Story, for example. It’s thanks to second-wave feminists that we came to understand “domestic violence” not as a shameful private problem but an epidemic that needed to be addressed both at home and in the culture more generally.
What I’m saying is that, after decades of propaganda telling women that home was a safe and happy place for them, media finally caught onto the idea that the domestic could be quite perilous for women. While many representations of domestic violence in the 1980s and even 90s leave a lot to be desired, the fact that an issue that disproportionately affected women was being depicted at all was a victory.
Third-wave feminists continued the critique of popular culture and, these days, I argue, we have more and more shows, movies, and books that not only center women’s lives and experiences, but which are the work of feminist writers, producers, and directors. Showrunner Jill Soloway, for example, in discussing their work, explicitly states that they have a feminist agenda: “I’m like, cis-hetero patriarchy has been making propaganda forever…I had to grow up watching fucking white dudes act like women should be competing for them on the basis of their financial success — that’s propaganda. So I’m gonna make my propaganda until it’s all equal.”
Soloway is a hero; they are also, of course, in the minority. In her book, West discusses the continued lack of diversity behind the camera and calls for significant shifts in who is telling the story. And, as she often does, West tells her reader not to despair, but to step up, to participate, to get out there and fight and create. In the chapter “How to be a Girl,” West writes, “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?”
Yes, yes it does follow! And what West has done, not only in creating her show Shrill but in the essays collected in The Witches Are Coming, is to enact exactly what she’s calling for: calling for systemic analysis and change, critiquing cruelty and laziness, and creating writing and art that amplifies women’s concerns and voices. More of this, please.