Joy is a luxury these days. Even if we’re fortunate enough to find a morsel of it, we hesitate. We may feel like it’s inappropriate or we just don’t have the energy amidst a year of shameless egregiousness. But despite our understandable trepidation, there’s always a light.
Enter Lindy West, human sunshine and conjurer of endless LOLs.
Over the years, fans and critics alike have praised the writer, comedian, and activist for her probing meditations on feminism, body positivity, abortion, and other cornerstones of our culture. From her opinion pieces in the New York Times to her smashing debut memoir, Shrill (now an eponymous show on Hulu starring Aidy Bryant) and last year’s The Witches Are Coming, West has provided a masterclass on straddling the line between celebration and critique, making us laugh all the way.
Shit, Actually: The Definitive, 100% Object Guide to Modern Cinema (Hachette Books) revisits the beloved rom-coms and cult classics from the past forty years, including The Notebook, Titanic, The Fugitive (“Objectively, there’s only one good movie, and it’s The Fugitive.), Twilight, and Love, Actually (including the notorious review of it that previously appeared on Jezebel and went viral in 2013). As West writes in the introduction, “this book is about laughing at the things we love while not letting them off the hook.”
I don’t think you should fuck with perfection, but in this case, I hope there’s a sequel.
Greg Mania In this book, you return to your film critic roots. What a gift for OG Lindy West fans! What was it like rekindling that flame?
Lindy West It was so fun! It was kind of like going back in time, a return to an earlier version of myself, but equipped with everything I’ve learned since. Isn’t that the dream? To be young with an old brain? Actually, maybe that’s not the dream. I guess being young with a young brain is the dream. But I do often wish I could do college over again with my thirty eight-year-old personality, because I am so much hungrier to learn things now. I guess I technically could, but I don’t have an extra 400 million dollars. Anyway, it felt really nice, like a vacation to a really beloved place I haven’t been to in a long time. And it was kind of indulgent, especially right now, to detach from writing really wrenching memoir and depressing political analysis and just watch movies and write jokes—which is all I ever really wanted to do.
GM Writing any book is grueling. Even though you were back in your element, were there any challenges?
LW Oh yeah, writing a book is impossible! Do you know how many words there are in a book?! And finishing up a project this frivolous during a pandemic was rough at first. I was like, is this book the least necessary thing anyone has ever written? Why am I doing this? But I had a deadline, and as I kept going I started to realize that it was actually really therapeutic for me to sit in that purely silly space every day. And if that escape felt that good to me, it might do the same thing for people reading it. We’ve had a lot of heavy the past few years, and especially in 2020. It was nice to provide something light.
GM I’m so happy you found joy in an especially difficult year. I know a lot of people feel odd celebrating something or feeling a crumb of happiness right now. What is some advice you would give on finding respite when you’re just surrounded by bad, 24/7?
LW I want to be cautious because I don’t want to tell people, “Oh, just find the joy!” It’s just not realistic. A lot of people are in much more complicated and difficult situations than I am. What I would say, though, is don’t let people shame you out of the small pleasures in your life. I would abandon the idea of guilty pleasures altogether. If buying a sheet cake from Costco and eating the whole thing would make you happy for one minute in this hellish existence, just fucking do it. Also, I can’t recommend therapy enough. If there’s a sliding scale therapist that you can find or some app to use, something that can help you feel tethered, I encourage it. I mean, even having the time to figure out how to get therapy you can afford is a luxury. If you can’t do that, find something that makes you happy for one moment, seize it, and try to expand it.
GM What were some movies that didn’t make the cut?
LW Oh, so many. Pretty Woman, The Breakfast Club, The Matrix, Dirty Dancing, maybe the Star Wars prequels. I was going to do Shallow Hal, but I’m just not ready to roast my precious Jack Black. But I’m hoping to just spend the rest of my life writing sequels to this book, so it’ll all make it in there.
GM In the sequel, which movies would automatically make it in the book and why? Also, would you call it Shit, Actually 2? (I am so clever!)
LW [laughter] I think I would have to, right? I’m dying to do, like, a James Bond movie. I’m fascinated by wildly popular things that I just do not get at all. I wanted to do Avatar for this book, but I felt like I was dunking on James Cameron enough already.
GM I think now that we’re demanding accountability more and more, watching things we used to—and still!—love is different. Like, the trans storylines on old episodes of Law & Order: SVU did not… age well. But SVU is a staple across generations, and it’s still on the air! Dawson’s Creek and The O.C.? Not particularly queer-friendly, yet so many of my queer friends (and myself) constantly rewatch these beacons of pop culture. Sometimes I feel gross watching them? But sometimes I don’t want to look at things through a critical lens because I do it all day long and I’m tired. I just want to sink into something familiar; it’s less about the show and more about wanting to indulge in some nostalgia. Are you able to turn off your critical eye and enjoy something, even though elements of it may be deemed problematic today?
LW Of course this is a big question that a lot of people are struggling with right now, myself included. I think the answer is pretty subjective for each person. Follow your gut. It’s not realistic, or particularly kind, to demand that everyone (even marginalized and traumatized people!) renounce things that bring them comfort and relief. Even if those things don’t pass a modern-day purity test.
I think the priority is to live politically aware, responsible, accountable, teachable lives, and to approach media consumption in general with a critical eye, particularly the things we make and the projects we support. Also, when I say “follow your gut,” I mean that if you’re watching something or listening to something and it’s making you feel sick to your stomach, let it go! This is a personal line that we each have to set for ourselves, balancing our own comfort zones with the collective prerogative to make the future better and more equitable than the past. Just do your best! Also, as I think this book proves, sometimes there’s nothing better than making fun of the fuck-ups of old media. That’s a great way to enjoy flawed things without feeling like shit. Make it a roast!
GM Make it a roast! Engrave that on my tombstone. You know, now that I think about it, my partner and I go back to watch old, terrible movies just for lively commentary. And sometimes not even old, but like those thrillers that are sitting in the bowels of Netflix that are definitely misplaced from the comedy category. I think it makes movie nights more fun.
LW I’m not trying to be quirky because this is what my friend group—that I’ve had since elementary school—and I do: when we get together we don’t watch a cool or popular movie. We exclusively watch Lifetime movies. Without irony. They are so entertaining. There is nothing we like more when there’s a Lifetime movie about a powerful female lawyer who is violently punished for caring too much about her career. There’s something satisfying about seeing this evidence of what you suspect society feels about women. Like, every movie is: the mom is too busy, so the dad had to fuck the nanny—on the nanny cam—and it turns out the nanny is the mom’s abandoned baby when she was a teen mom. It’s objectively entertaining; if someone says they don’t love something that’s lurid and salacious—
GM They’re lying.
LW Right. But then it’s also, like, the most basic depiction of American misogyny. I find it fascinating and also perversely hilarious.
GM Shrill is approaching its third season. Has working in TV made you want to revisit the shows of yonder? Would there be a Shit, Actually but for TV shows? Also, what shows?
LW I’m certainly not opposed! I’ve always loved TV more than movies, to be honest. Each TV show would have to be its own book, though, since the way I like to write these things is to recap and make fun of every single pointless detail. Meaningful meta-analysis is too much work! But would I do an entire book where each chapter was one episode of Degrassi: The Next Generation? Yes!!! Would anyone read it? I would! All 17,000 pages.
GM Wait. Can you please provide a tidbit about Degrassi.
LW The thing about Degrassi is that my love for it is not ironic at all. It’s genuinely so good. I feel like, as the tagline says, it goes there in a way that American media when I was a kid did not.
GM There’s also twelve, maybe forty-four seasons of that show.
LW [laughter] I guess I should pick a storyline, right? I mean, Terry, the fat girl being physically abused by Rick, the aspiring school shooter?
GM Wait, the actress who played Terry was gorgeous. Where did she go?
LW I don’t know! Somewhere in Canada? I actually don’t want to give away too much because I’m clearly writing this book.
GM In Shit, Actually you write, “We’re living in a time when it feels impossible to not be political, but it also feels really heavy all the time.” A lot of people would call us “sensitive,” the canned response deployed by those allergic to accountability. Why is it important for us to be sociopolitically literate when consuming yesterday’s (and today’s) content?
LW I just don’t know why you’d want to live any other way? I mean, I guess I know why. Conceptually, denial is cozy, but that’s not a full life. Don’t you want to be a living, breathing, sensitive, caring person who’s an active part of your world instead of just a passenger? Maybe it’s just me, but I don’t want to alienate and harm large swaths of the population out of laziness or convenience. I want to be a person who makes other people feel safe and seen. I know that sounds corny, but I think almost everyone can relate to that feeling on a micro level. For example, in your own family: do you want your kids to be scared shitless of you? Or to hate your guts? No. Then why would you want groups of people to feel that way about you on a societal scale? It feels better to be a good person than to be a person in denial.
Just try a little, come on. That’s the best any of us can do.