The Witches Are Coming By Lindy West
Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy and the Fear of Female Power By Sady Doyle
Reviewed by Jessica Baumgardner
In my college days in the nineties, I dabbled in the dark arts. I was leaning into feminism, living in an activist collective called the Lilith House, and writing angry term papers, about apocrypha wherein women weren't the scapegoats of humanity (I’m looking at you, Eve), or goddess relitions featuring too many references to the word “chalice.” I had a friend who was a practicing Wiccan from Alaska who would lead our little baby coven through rituals in a sad room in the library that was sorely lacking in broody pagan atmosphere. At the same time across the country, in New York, my older sister was forming a coven with her colleagues at Ms. magazine, where they would do things like banish the patriarchy, ritualistically. In a comedic twist, my sister ended up with an embodiment of the patriarchy—a disfigured blob of a melted beeswax fertility goddess candle (natch)— in her purse, which she toted around with mounting anxiety for about a week. She was supposed to dispose of it in a body of water, but she could never get herself to the East River. Eventually, she flushed it down the toilet. AND THAT’S HOW DONALD TRUMP WAS BORN.
No, not really. But all this witch work does have something to do with the Dark Lord himself—or at least that bubbling toxic cauldron of goo he represents. After all, my sister and I were young and pissed off, emerging from our childhood chrysalis to realize that everything was pretty much patriarchy out here. In the face of frat boy rape culture and “flirty” bosses, performing spells and smudging the air with sage “felt” like taking our power back. It made us feel energized and radical and freaky.
Lindy West’s punchy new book of cultural essays, The Witches Are Coming, asserts that we need to tap into our inner witch to face this overwhelming Trumpian era of oppression. The New York Times columnist and author of a memoir, Shrill, sounds off on everything that is getting under her skin these days—and hold my chalice, because the list is long and granular. For instance, Grumpy Cat’s owners originally named him “Tard” but when the feline became famous, wouldn’t admit that they were making a disability joke, insisting that it stood for “tardar sauce.” (Wait, what?) Chip and Joanna Gaines from the reality show Fixer Upper refused to disavow their pastor who performs gay conversion therapy. West transforms these slights against accountability into a discussion of our culture’s love affair with lies, and by extension, the malignant effects of the right wing and the Liar-in-Chief. She offers an exegesis on Adam Sandler’s film oeuvre (Adam Sandler as an angry man-baby with a speech impediment who urinates in public yet is the best at [insert skill] and attractive to hot ladies) as an example of how white men are allowed to “fail upward.”
“I don’t begrudge the straight white boys their abundance,” West sighs, “I just wish the rest of us had had the same.” Similarly, she discusses Netflix documentaries valorizing “charming” Ted Bundy and the “mastermind” Fyre Festival thief, Billy McFarland. (Side note: West has a real gift for smack talk that will make readers laugh out loud, or at least I did. McFarland “looks like the producers spread peanut butter on his tongue and then had his audio dubbed by a frat guy halfway through dying of alcohol poisoning . . . He seems to be, to put it charitably, barely alive.”) Of course, this brings us to the biggest white man to trip to the top, Donald Trump—“a racist shart in an eight-foot tie.” (I’m putting that on a T-shirt.) Are women allowed such spectacular cheats, cons, and stumbles?
West writes, “Watching otherwise rational human beings rhapsodize about Bundy’s ‘charm’ and ‘brilliance’ while furrowing their brows over Elizabeth Warren’s ‘likability’ creates a particularly American kind of whiplash.” The quest for likability, West states, is a trap keeping women from accruing real power, and, furthermore, why would anyone want to be likable in a racist, sexist world? Let us all embrace unlikability instead—our witch self “who speaks the truth, who punctures the con, who kills your joy if your joy is killing.” You might be wondering, as I was, why is she harping about Adam Sandler in a collection of feminist essays? Fun as it is, do we really need to go deep on Goop, South Park bros, and an online bulletin board for buying music gear? Don’t we have bigger fools to fry? West’s strategy is to train her eye on a cultural microcosm and show how it fits into the larger universe of justice and representation, tackling ideas like white supremacy, fat phobia, the environment, and political correctness along the way. As she says, “Hollywood is both a perfect and bizarre vanguard in the war for culture change. Perfect because its reach is so vast, its influences so potent; bizarre because television and movies are how a great many toxic ideas embed themselves inside us in the first place.”
And that brings me to a darker (but still pretty funny) version of the same story, Sady Doyle’s Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers: Monstrosity, Patriarchy, and the Fear of Female Power, which takes an unsparing—even Lilith Houseesque— look at representations of women and female power in literature, movies, and myth. Doyle divides her pop culture study into three parts—Daughters, Wives, and Mothers, the only female archetypes under patriarchy—and uncovers “the violence it takes to keep her in that box.” Doyle hammers the messages that the fear of women— their sexual power and life force—is the most important part of misogyny, and cultural stories teach women what will happen if we break out of our cage. Like West, Doyle has a love for media minutia, and she leaves no stone unturned when she is digging into urban legends, horror movies, true crime, Gothic novels, and ghost stories.
First, she focuses on “Daughters,” specifically on the phenomenon that was The Exorcist in 1973, which, she argues, had a huge effect on how pubescent girls were treated around the world. “The Catholic Church experienced an ‘exorcism boom’ . . . transforming a once-obscure medieval ritual into a cornerstone of the faith,” writes Doyle. There have been thousands of exorcisms since, 75 percent of which are performed on women and a majority of those, victims of sexual abuse. Labeling the pimpled, masturbating, bloody, defiant Regan (played by Linda Blair) as possessed, rather than pubescent, tells us that female sexual maturity is not natural—it’s demonic, or it’s a death sentence. In slasher movies, there is a convention Doyle calls the “dead blonde” wherein female experimentation and trust end in massacre. Interestingly, women are a huge audience for slasher flicks and true-crime podcasts, and Doyle thinks women are consuming these stories for ritual catharsis (and perhaps safety instructions for real life):
Slasher movies are a release, in part because they give a name and a face to a problem. They transform our culture’s underlying sexual violence into spectacle and story, giving us monsters to fear and heroines to root for; they cathect all that low-level anxiety into a quick, bright, bloody burst of fear.
Next up is “Wives,” in which Doyle unloads soul-crushing statistics about the unhappiness of women in marriage; a 2017 survey by the National Health Service found that women were unhappier than men throughout their lives, mainly during child-raising years, followed by a steep uptick in happiness in their mid-eighties because their husbands were dead. (I underlined and sent this to my husband, just so he would know.) The mythology around marriage, then, has to underscore that women who yearn for more will also be destroyed, like in Daphne du Maurier ’s novel, Rebecca, “where even the happiest marriage is a nightmare of cruelty and thwarted female needs,” says Doyle.
Speaking of thwarted females, Doyle really hits her stride in the “Mothers” section. Women experiencing the primal power of childbirth are monstrous when they straddle the divide between birth and death, and this image of monstrousness is found everywhere from early creation myths to Alien. She describes the archaic mother seen in Jurassic Park, “a tale of heroic male scientists working to contain carnivorous, reptilian, female dinosaurs,” as a fantasy of women taking back their power.
Sadly, it’s not all Sasha Fierce dinosaurs for us moms, as the patriarchy works very hard to push the Perfect Mother narrative of a woman who is consumed and devoted to her children at the expense of her own needs. Ghost stories, like Henry James’s Turn of the Screw, are good ways to see what happens when women must deny their personhood:
Having kids is a good way to get yourself haunted. Mothers are the people who repress and deny the most psychic energy, who are encouraged to live in a perpetual state of self-abnegation; we create a new ghost every time we breathe, every time we bite back a harsh word or renounce an ambition or cancel a plan for the child’s more pressing needs. When mothers try to live the way our culture encourages us to, as almost literally selfless vehicles for others’ fulfillment, we become something else; something cold and hungry, something you wouldn’t want to see standing over your bed in the dark.
Both of my sons (ages five and ten) claim to have nightmares several times a week. Reading Doyle, this suddenly made sense. “Yes, dear. There is something under the bed—my unfulfilled ambitions!” What’s a woman to do with these crappy choices—evil mothers, massacred blondes, pubescent demons, and carnivorous beasts? Doyle’s answer, like West’s, is to embrace the woman living outside of society, the one outside the bounds of patriarchal rule—the witch. “Witches are women with social and economic clout; women who get what they want, and whom it is unwise to dismiss or demean,” Doyle writes. “They give us a way to imagine female power.” It might be time to break out the goddess candles and flush some patriarchy down the toilet.
Jessica Baumgardner is a former magazine editor currently working on a series of despairing essays about motherhood. She lives in LA.