Lindy West is a comedian and Jezebel columnist who’s notorious for writing about thorny cultural topics in a brazen style. She recently found herself at the epicenter of a media brouhaha after a televised debate about rape jokes. Amy O’Neal is a dancer and choreographer whose most recent full-length work synthesized a lifetime of pop influences with confrontational ideas about power, gender and race. This spring she was featured in Vox Mod’s “Iridescent Asteroid Mists” video and this summer she’s choreographing Intiman’s Lysistrata and finishing a video with comedian Reggie Watts, amid a packed schedule of classes and residencies. O’Neal and West got together to talk at West’s house in Mount Baker.
LINDY I’m so word-focused that I have a hard time understanding visual things. Do you have any tips to help me figure it out? Are there rules?
AMY Well, if you’re going to the ballet, there’s a code of language that’s designed to tell a story. If it’s a classic ballet based on an old story, a lot of the choreography is based around telling that story. If you go to see contemporary dance—which is a really wide container and everyone is making up their own language based on all of their movement experience and history, which is really vast and varied—then you really have nothing but your own experience and feelings to begin with. So it’s really being okay with the fact that your interpretation is totally fine. The more things you go see, the more language you’ll be able to develop.
LINDY That makes sense. In college they were like, analyze this poem, and I was good at that, but so much of it felt like bullshit.
AMY Contemporary dance is like dreamscapes in a way. It’s about getting in touch with your subconscious and trying to communicate that as clearly as you can. Come to it with openness, like, this doesn’t have to make any fucking sense at all, but I’m going to bring myself fully to it… People don’t want to bring themselves fully or make the effort to come in and ask questions or even have an opinion. They feel stupid if they don’t get it. So they feel intimidated and don’t want to be engaged.
LINDY That’s what I do. Even though I have fancy art friends, I’m like, I can’t come to your play, I don’t understand. They’ll be like, no, you do understand, shut up. But I have this really deep insecurity about it. Because I just write what I feel in my voice—the same voice that I talk in.
AMY My whole performance last fall was an essay in itself. Part of me making that piece was out of these kinds of conversations. I wanted to make a piece where I’m telling you exactly what I’m thinking and why I’m doing what I’m doing and how this all connects for me. I revealed the creative process to the audience to show an artist is made of an amalgam of their experiences, and that’s what makes their voice unique—within the cultural dissection of sampling, imitation, booty dance, ideas of mash-up and ideas of women…
LINDY It’s such a weird parallel to what I do. I smuggle important, complicated topics to people via super colloquial language. I trick people into reading stuff that means something because they think they’re just reading some goofy shit. But secretly, I have a point. The idea that there’s like a high culture and a low culture is so boring. Or that pop culture isn’t important and it doesn’t matter. It’s so stupid.
AMY I hate it!
LINDY Because of course the things people are actually engaging with every single day are hugely important.
AMY That’s the place where I don’t feel that I fit all the way into the contemporary dance scene. I love that container because I feel completely free to do whatever I want. But I’ve gotten criticism over my whole career, like, you’re doing this pop culture thing to be popular or to get people to your shows or to make money. And I’m like, what? I’m a dancer.
LINDY What’s the point of putting this box around contemporary dance and not allowing it to be permeable? So many people are inherently conservative and they don’t want to admit it. They don’t want things to move forward because it’s scary, because it’s hard and it takes work. And it’s like, fine, stay where you are then and don’t make anything meaningful and be boring and dead.
Now that I’ve started bothering people and saying things people don’t like, taking the bullets and weathering it—especially when it’s things that I think other women want to say, but don’t they want to bother with the backlash—I cannot stop doing it. I want to do it all the time. I always know the response is going to be bad, but I do it anyway. I’ve developed some coping mechanisms and these things are important to me. I have the emotional capacity to deal with it and I have the support system. It’s easy to feel unassailable when you feel like your ideas are unassailable.
AMY That’s so interesting because my work has taken a turn around my most recent piece. Before that I was starting to go into this “feminist” territory. I was in a collaboration with my ex-partner for a really long time and he’d always be like, why are you doing that? And I’d be like, I don’t know. You just have to trust me. In the show Mockumentary, I did this movement in a bikini and pointe shoes. It was me in a tiara and a projection of me crying into this magazine with Baryshnikov on the cover, with pointe shoes around my neck. We never talked about it, but I had to do it.
LINDY Why wouldn’t you talk about it?
AMY I felt compelled to do it and I didn’t know why. Now I do, but I didn’t then.
LINDY Is feminism as off-putting and reviled in dance as it is everywhere else—you know, how it’s just so unfashionable to talk about?
AMY Well, modern dance was born from the heels of feminism. It began with these women saying, “We’re not going to wear these shoes, we’re not going to bind ourselves. We’re going to dance naturally and with free flowing clothes and our hair down and we’re going to dance about being a woman.” That’s how it began, so that spirit is always underneath it. Of course it’s taken many twists and turns, and men are still the ones who have the most fame and the most money and the most companies and blah blah blah. But I’ve definitely come into contact with some dancers who were like, I’d be so afraid to do that. I can’t believe you’re doing that.
LINDY Are there people who are think dance should be pretty? And nothing beyond that? AMY Totally. I don’t really associate with those people. [laughs] There’s a place for it, but that’s not what I’m interested in.
LINDY Do you ever use that as a jumping off point to say something else? Like it seems you could sort of parody that in an interesting way.
AMY Beauty? [laughs] Yeah, I do that.
LINDY When I was a film critic, I always wanted to write a review where every single sentence was a film review cliché.
AMY When I was writing my last solo work, I was applying for the Artist Trust Innovator Award where they make you write an essay about what makes you innovative. I found that everything I was saying was super generic. Everything is “the best thing ever,” and the language means nothing. So I titled my piece The Most Innovative Daring Original Piece of Dance Performance You’ll See This Decade. That’s where it was coming from. In the work-in-progress showings, I didn’t explain any of that. Some people were like, oh my God, I can’t believe she’s calling it that. Who does she think she is?
LINDY You’re so conceited! I recently had a situation… For about a year, I’ve been writing about comedy and about how a lot of comedians think edginess means removing all social responsibility from your words. That’s a problem when it’s in the hands of people who are not particularly mature or worldly or empathetic or vulnerable. People who don’t get other people’s trauma and don’t have any healthy respect for it. It can have genuinely negative effects on the world, in my opinion.
So I started to be like, hey, if you’re going to make jokes about rape, a) don’t make the victim the butt of the joke and b) if you choose to do that, don’t start crying when people tell you you’re a shitty person. Which seems pretty basic. It’s basic human compassion and accountability. If you say that, they go crazy and they’re like, no! Freedom of speech! My point is, no, I’m not the government and can’t do anything to you. I have zero institutional power, and you know that.
So it’s this huge, boring, disingenuous argument that goes round and round. I went on TV, which I don’t recommend. [laughs] I debated a comedian named Jim Norton who is…he’s a dude. He says dude-y stuff and his schtick is kind of, you know, he doesn’t care about feelings! He tells it like it is! Nothing is off limits. He’s a really nice guy, though—we actually had a good rapport. But his stance in the debate was basically, “It’s a joke! If you’re trying to be funny, you can say whatever! Language doesn’t affect the world! Language doesn’t affect culture! Also, how dare you try to suppress my language? Language is all we have.” Well, it’s like, pick one. Is language nothing or is language everything?
Comedy is powerful. You could use it to dismantle these shitty ideas about women’s bodies and about rape, or you could use it to traumatize—you pick. Guess which side your comedy heroes are on? Guess which side Richard Pryor and George Carlin were on? They weren’t on the side of the status quo of oppressing people and keeping things awesome for the shitty dudes in charge.
Anyway, I started getting these horrible rape threats online after that. So Aham [Oluo, West’s boyfriend] and I made a video where I just read the comments out loud for like five minutes. Attention world: This is how the comedy community demonstrates that it doesn’t have a misogyny problem…with thousands of rape threats. It’s so blatant, the connection between these dudes steeping themselves in “edgy,” no-holds-barred comedy and then having zero boundaries when it comes to addressing actual human women. After Jezebel readers started attacking my trolls on Twitter, one of them sent me a message that said, “Could you tell your followers to stop being so mean to me? I was just trying to make Jim Norton laugh!” And it’s like, wow. Fucking bullshit comedy doesn’t affect people’s behavior. Sorry, I’ll stop swearing.
AMY I watched the show and I watched the video you posted. I was getting rage-y. I really wanted to give you a huge hug and then kick someone’s ass.
LINDY People said it was a scheme I concocted. I didn’t, but it did work out for me in the end. It was kind of a deathblow to that stupid conversation.
Four or five years ago I decided I can just be happy in my body and not hate myself. I can go out and be happy and wear whatever I want and have a fulfilling relationship and not talk about how I’m gross, which is what women are supposed to do. Fat people are supposed to apologize all the time. Everywhere you go you’re supposed to be like, sorry! I forgot, I’m wearing a bathing suit! No—I just want to go swimming. I’m just going to wear my goddamn bathing suit, leave me alone. That didn’t sound very happy, but I meant it in a happy way. I find just existing unapologetically and happily is super transgressive.
AMY Totally. You can’t get more insecure than a bunch of dancers who are having their bodies scrutinized from the beginning of their careers. When I was at Cornish, I had a ballet teacher who I adored. I wasn’t trying to be a ballerina; I’ve never tried to be a ballerina. But I was prepping for a pirouette and she slapped my ass and said, “Amy, you must be more narrow.” And I said, “My mom gave me these hips. They’re not going anywhere.” We had a laugh and it was fine. But I made the decision that whatever any teacher says about my body, I’m going to tell them they’re wrong and that I’m going to dance regardless of what you say. For me, it’s always been, you’re too curvy, your boobs are too big. Your thighs are too big—make sure you’re not riding your bike because you don’t want your thighs to get too big.
LINDY It’s just aesthetics?
AMY It’s all aesthetics. It has nothing to do with function.
LINDY If you’re capable of doing it, you should be able to do whatever. So there are people who just want dance to be decorative.
AMY Exactly. It has to look a certain way. It blows my mind there are still dance critics that are going to talk about the dancers’ bodies and not the work.
LINDY If you have something to say and you say it in a meaningful way, that should be what’s important to the audience.
AMY That shit makes me insane. I’ve recently seen things on Facebook about the ideal body in the ’50s and ’60s. The super voluptuous person was the ideal.
LINDY Not that we should have an ideal.
AMY Exactly! That’s the point right there.
LINDY The whole ‘real women have curves’ thing is so offensive. So thin women don’t get to be real? Can we just stop telling certain women that you’re not real? I don’t know what you are…an ironing board or something? I don’t subscribe to that school of body positivity because it’s not very body positive. It’s kind of shitty, actually.
AMY Speaking of difficulties, the biggest artistic difficulty I’ve been dealing with is being a white woman in Seattle who is really inspired by hip-hop. I just got invited to do this TEDx Talk with this person I’ve just met, who’s an expert blues dancer. He’s a 59-year-old black man, grew up in Detroit and he’s super well respected in his community. He’s putting on this presentation about the influence of African-American movement in the U.S. and the trajectory of that through blues dancing, modern dance and hip-hop. I’m not going to be able to do the event, but it got me thinking.
He wants me to be the hip-hop component of it, which is interesting, because I’m not known as solely a hip-hop dancer. I’m known as this person who does a lot of different things. I’ve been like, are you sure you want me? Shouldn’t we get the Massive Monkees or someone who solely identifies as a hip-hop artist? Then I realize that’s just my own insecurity. I’m like, Amy, you’ve been teaching hip-hop for 12 years. You need to own that. You are part of America and this is part of your history as well. Because when you assume you’re not qualified because of your color, you’re just a part of the racial problem and complexity of the whole thing.
The female stuff is old—like, are we still fucking talking about this? But the racial conversations…I grew up in the South and we never really talked about it because we were surrounded by so many different types of people and it was just life.
In the Seattle contemporary dance scene there’s only a handful of non-white artists. As part of my show last year at Velocity, we had a really difficult discussion around ideas of performing race. It was probably one of the scariest things I’ve had to do, but it was really beautiful to see people coming out of the woodwork crying and saying “thank you so much for creating this space for this conversation to happen.” I never, ever thought that would come out of that work. So that’s been really intense as far as finding my own confidence in that conversation. And owning my body in that conversation, too.
LINDY Yeah, I get tons of pushback for my work, but the thing that I actually care about the most—because, honestly, I think they’re right—is pushback from women of color who are like: oh, another white feminist, taking up all the space and all the credit. I’m always searching for the right way to navigate that-—to be proactive instead of just neutral. Because, like, neutrality isn’t really enough at this point. Personally I know I’m trying to do a good thing, I’m coming at this conversation from a place of good faith, and I just want to, like, say stuff that’s important and use my platform and make things better. But that’s not enough when you’re working in this context where white voices are so disproportionately loud. I should be doing more than that.
Even just writing good stuff in good faith can be harmful because it’s me. Like, why is a white woman writing this thing about race when we could’ve gotten a way more nuanced perspective from a black woman, and elevated her voice on this big, powerful blog? That’s such an important point, but I do have this job and I feel a social responsibility to call out racism too. That’s important to me as a human being. So I struggle all the time trying to not fuck that up. And I don’t mean, “Oh poor me,” because that’s just white women making it about ourselves again. Basically, all I want to do is use my platform to make the world better. But sometimes even within the context of doing that, you can make things worse.
AMY That’s the risk that you take. Not everyone is going to see it the same way.
LINDY This is not a new thing, and feminism has had serious race problems since forever. If I can, I just want to help fix those problems—not make them worse by just blah-blah-blah-ing all day with my entitled white-lady blinders on. I didn’t set out to be a feminist writer, I just fell into this job, and it’s really important to me to wield it in the most responsible way possible. I’m working on it.
AMY I feel like my responsibility is just to be true to myself—as cliché as that sounds. I feel like I have a responsibility to keep doing whatever I possibly can to raise the bar, and it’s really exciting to me when a young artist starts to come up and I feel like I better work harder because they’re good. I feel like that’s starting to happen more and more, which is exciting. But that’s been my motivation for a while. I learned that you don’t have to go to New York—there are these artists out here doing really cool shit, and I like Seattle.
LINDY I know! I don’t want to move to New York!
AMY It’s beautiful here. I was drawn to this place when I first moved here. So I’m going to keep moving forward and making things happen.
Photo by Jenny Jimenez