Books

How To Be A Girl

In an extract from her latest book, The Witches Are Coming, Lindy West explores what culture taught her about womanhood and how we can change ourselves by changing what we make.

By Lindy West

Books

In an extract from her latest book, The Witches Are Coming, Lindy West explores what culture taught her about womanhood and how we can change ourselves by changing what we make.

By Lindy West

It’s become a national sport to stereotype millennials— we’re lazy, we’re entitled, instead of saving for retirement we’re forever getting trampled by bison while trying to take selfies—because, sure, when you’ve set the world on complete fucking fire, why not spend your twilight years roasting your own grandchildren over the smoldering debris of their dreams?

But people always miss the number one most typical classic one weird trick about millennials, which is that older millennials like me, people who were born during Ronald Reagan’s first term, have a singular great, passionate love above all else. Greater than avocado toast, greater than the DuckTales theme, greater than gender-swapped Game of Thrones characters reimagined as Disney princesses, greater than never owning property, greater than selling our plasma so we can make our student loan payments, greater even than being called a special snowflake for asking not to be raped by future Supreme Court justices.

Millennials. LOVE. Board game–based Cold War murder mystery sex farces chockablock with J. Edgar Hoover references. Bing bang bong! If you don’t know that, then you don’t know millennials, sweetie!

My best friend and I watched the movie Clue on VHS probably twice a week, every week, between 1987 and 1990, when I moved from Thousand Oaks to Seattle to teach a new city’s children to accuse their grandmothers of being in flagrante delicto. Even then I knew that my love was weird. Clue did not feel like a kids’ movie, and I did not even really like the board game Clue that much! It’s so boring!

Professor Plum was disgusting and Mr. Boddy was so creepy, and it always bugged me that the actor who played Mr. Boddy picked “Lee Ving” to be his stage name. Lee Ving? Leaving? How is that a cool name? If you’re going to change your name to be a word, you should go all the way with it, like “Bea Nanners” for a girl or “Harry Bunz-muncher” for a boy. Right? Also, what’s a red herring?

Nevertheless, I was HORNY FOR CLUE from a young age until an old age. And when I grew up and started working for the internet—which is nothing if not a bunch of early-eighties millennials making lists of stuff they liked when they were eight, declaring they “feel old,” and then turning to Nazism—I discovered something incredible: I wasn’t alone, not remotely. Clue was HOT. Among people who turned twenty-nine in 2011, Martin Mull was more popular than Jesus.

I do get it. Clue is titillating, both sexwise and scary-wise; the physical comedy is better than the jokes, and the jokes are good! It is really, really funny when the candlestick falls on Wadsworth’s head. Tim Curry!!! And the gimmicky triple ending was like Choose Your Own Adventure except with just sitting there instead of choosing! Millennial-nip for the listless!

All of which is to say, I gave Clue a lot. My time, my love, my brain space, my video store rental fees. Clue, in turn, gave me something back: my first inkling of myself as a woman situated somewhere on a scary, hierarchical, baffling, shifting matrix of women.

There are four main women in Clue (I am excluding the cook, who immediately gets stabbed, and the singing telegram girl, who immediately gets shot). There are Yvette, the maid, who is a French sex goof; Mrs. White, who is a small and beautiful female separatist ice queen; Miss Scarlet, who is fricking glamorous as hell and a sexy madam in emerald satin who always has a horny innuendo in the chamber. And then there’s Mrs. Peacock, who is wearing an entire natural history museum and constantly screaming.

I remember, as a child, looking from each of these women to the next, and trying to figure out which kind of woman I might grow up to be. I was NOT an Yvette, no offense. Mrs. White, no, very assertive. Miss Scarlet, I wished.

Hmm.

Hrm.

I was Mrs. Peacock. Okay? At age eight, the closest analogue I could find for myself in my favorite movie—a movie with more female characters than most—was a corrupt senator’s wife who was older than my father and dressed like a Rainforest Cafe. An extremely hot and successful vibe to take into sixth grade!

In middle school I got a new favorite movie, Real-ity Bites, and with it a new taxonomy. There are actually just two types of women, I decided: Winona Ryders and Janeane Garofalos. I would never, ever be a Winona, so I supposed I must be a Janeane. (Other things discovered around the same time that I would never be: a Shalom Harlow, a Brad from Hey Dude, a Delia’s model, or a Penny from Dirty Dancing. Or a Baby from Dirty Dancing. Prob-ably not even a Lisa. Maybe a watermelon.)

That’s untrue, of course, and I know it now. Humanity is a great, messy striation with infinite metrics for beauty and value; we do not actually come in “kinds.” But what I took from Reality Bites at the time—a lesson that would be reinforced by my subsequent decade of tubby loneliness in our waif-worshipping monoculture—was that some women are flawless and tiny-boned like porcelain nightingales, and the rest of us are lonely, caustic basket cases in vintage dresses who make jokes to cover up our anxiety about having to go to the AIDS clinic. The nightingales get picked; we get settled for, if that.

 

“From makeover shows I learned that I was ugly. From romantic comedies I learned that stalking means he loves you and persistence means he earned you, and also that I was ugly.”

 

Maybe that makes me sound stupid, but media is so strong. Media overpowers our conscious minds, no matter how hard we try to hang on—our knowledge of what is right, who has an agenda, what we are really worth. Marketing is powerful and beauty culture is powerful and men’s control of the narrative is powerful and a lot of people are making a lot of money teaching us that we live in an unshakable natural hierarchy that bestows peace only upon those who achieve a narrow, subjective (and heavily monetized) version of perfection that just happens to look like white Barbie except less career oriented. I was on board. I was ready. Take my body, America.

Growing up, I didn’t chafe at the shallow, exploitative representations of my gender I saw on-screen; I took notes. I added page after page to my mental list of how to be a woman and what I should yearn for (any attention, good or bad) and tolerate (anything short of violence, though it seemed a bracing slap was normal now and then) from men.

From makeover shows I learned that I was ugly. From romantic comedies I learned that stalking means he loves you and persistence means he earned you, and also that I was ugly. From Disney movies I learned that if I made my waist small enough, a man or large hog-bear might marry me and let me sit quietly in his castle until death. From sitcoms I learned that it’s a wife’s job to be hot and a husband’s job to be funny. From The Smurfs I learned that boys can have seventy-eight possible personalities and girls can have one, which is “high heels.” From The Breakfast Club I learned that rage and degradation are the selling points of an alluring bad boy, not the red flags of an abuser (and the thing is I STILL WANT HIM). From pretty much all film and TV I learned that complicated women are “crazy” and complicated men are geniuses.

In Revenge of the Nerds, the heroes break into a sorority house and install a hidden camera in the bathroom, then sell naked photos of the women they victimized. Later, the head nerd tricks one of the same women into having sex with him (which we have a word for, I think?) by disguising himself as her boyfriend. It’s funny! Any-thing is okay as long as it’s a joke!

Remember on Dawson’s Creek when everyone alternately slut-shamed Jen and bugged her to fuck them for six seasons and then she died?

Remember in Weird Science when some virgins were horny, so they just made a woman?

Remember Fat Monica? I need a separate therapist just to deal with Fat Monica.

Even my precious Bill and Ted made Joan of Arc do aerobics at the mall.

From a very young age I learned that women are vain, hollow, pretty things—a lark for men to chase in between doing the real work of the world, a prize that makes them whole again, that missing rib. Boys, I can only assume by their behavior, absorbed some version of the opposite, a call to boldness, a certain intoxicating entitlement to every good thing. And why not? We should all be so lucky.

 

“Figuring out who you are is always a triangulation of what you know and what you see. I knew that I was not inferior, but I could also see how the world treated girls like me.”

 

Everything is a product of its time, and the whole point of progress is to make the future better than the present. People make mistakes, and people grow, and culture grows along with them. I’m not so naive or narcissistic as to think that the media of my youth was deliberately trying to poison me or that there’s nothing of value in things that hurt me. This is an imperfect history, anyhow, because there were strong women all around me, too, on screen and off, but figuring out who you are is always a triangulation of what you know and what you see. I knew that I was not inferior, but I could also see how the world treated girls like me.

Two years after the fall of Harvey Weinstein, TV and film are still in the thick of an unprecedented sociopolitical reckoning, a microcosm of our ongoing and ever-more-literal national culture war. But to make that reckoning stick, we have to look ahead and ask ourselves what we want of this new Hollywood and look back to avoid repeating the past. Show business could very well help get us out of this mess, but not if we fail to examine how it helped get us into it.

Hollywood is both a perfect and a bizarre vanguard in the war for culture change. Perfect because its reach is so vast, its influence so potent; bizarre because television and movies are how a great many toxic ideas embed themselves inside us in the first place. No matter how much lip service we pay to equality and progress, how many mantras about loving ourselves and one another, how many inspirational memes we churn out to counteract the message, the basest culture—the culture that sells, the culture we’re used to—is still there on-screen showing us how people are supposed to look and talk and fuck.

I know what the contestants on The Bachelor look like. The Biggest Loser, which tortures fat people for entertainment, ran for seventeen seasons and is being rebooted in 2020. In 2018, a spokesman for the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show said it doesn’t feature trans or fat models because it’s selling “a fantasy.” I know that thin people, still, now and forever, would do anything not to look like me. Call it dieting or rebrand it “wellness,” Oprah is still selling cauliflower pizza.

 

“Hollywood is both a perfect and a bizarre vanguard in the war for culture change. Perfect because its reach is so vast, its influence so potent; bizarre because television and movies are how a great many toxic ideas embed themselves inside us in the first place.”

 

Do you know how noise-canceling headphones work? They have a built-in microphone that measures the ambient noise around you, then generates an inversion of that sound wave and adds it to the mix in your headphones. When a frequency meets its opposite—when the peaks of one mirror and coincide with the valleys of another—the result is called phase cancellation. The two waves cancel each other out. Silence.

What we really need from Hollywood is about a hundred years of phase cancellation.

We don’t need neutrality; we don’t need “nice.” It’s not enough to just stop being terrible. We need new work that actively challenges old assumptions, that offers radical models for how to conceive of ourselves and how to treat each other. We need artists and studios fighting for diversity because it’s the right thing to do.

In the past few years, for the first time, we started talking in a large-scale, nonacademic way about the reality that sex in America isn’t just an individualized act between two people, falling somewhere on the spectrum of sublime to criminal—it’s the stuff corruption is made of, an atavistic shell game designed to maximize male pleasure and consolidate male power.

Unseating a couple (or a score or even a generation) of powerful abusers is a start, but it’s not an end, unless we also radically change the power structure that selects their replacements and the shared values that remain even when the movement wanes.

Image Credits: Instagram @shrillhulu

And here’s how you do it: you do it.

I have created only one television show, so I know that I am a rookie, but on my show, Shrill, we got to make all kinds of choices. We got to write the stories, we got to choose who the characters were, we got to choose who we cast, we got to hire the writers and the directors and the crew. We had studio and network input on each choice, of course, but we had a tremendous amount of power too. Whatever your sphere is, however big or small, you get to make choices within it, and if you care about healing the wounds of the world I hope you become a real demon bitch about diversity and never let anyone sleep. Think radical thoughts and let yourself imagine they’re true. Then ask yourself why it’s considered radical to make art that accurately reflects reality, to build a society that takes care of its members, to demand a better world.

That said, the kind of deep, revolutionary changes we need won’t come just from individual creators making individual choices on individual projects. Demographics have to change all the way up to the top in order to unseat the past.

According to data compiled by 50/50 by 2020, a coalition of entertainment professionals fighting for inter-sectional equity in Hollywood, a staggering 94 percent of film executives are white, 96 percent of film directors are men, 76 percent of writers across all platforms are men, and 81 percent of board members in Hollywood are men. The 50/50 by 2020 manifesto reads, “Men have used patriarchy and white supremacy to create a reality that centers their own needs, normalizing our oppression. This must end.” We can bring reality back to reality if we change who makes the choices.

Art didn’t invent oppressive gender roles, racial stereo-typing, 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. Anything else is just a red herring.

This is an extract from The Witches Are Coming. Purchase a copy here.