Books

Jia Tolentino’s Debut Is a Hall of Mirrors You’ll Never Want to Leave

The New Yorker writer’s collection of essays offers penetrating insights on feminism, identity, and the internet.

Jia Tolentino, mirrored, and surrounded by two mirrored woven threads, with a star at the center.
Photo illustration by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photo by Elena Mudd.

“I am always confused,” Tolentino confesses in the introduction to her first book, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, “because I can never be sure of anything, and because I am drawn to any mechanism that directs me away from that truth. Writing is either a way to shed my self-delusions or a way to develop them.” Trick Mirror is a collection of essays, pieces that consider such subjects as drugs, religion, celebrity culture, and the wedding industry, but all of them wrangle with the challenge of arriving at an organic self in an age of pervasive, technology-facilitated phoniness.

A staff writer for the New Yorker since 2016, Tolentino previously worked as a deputy editor for Jezebel. Once, that site had been a freewheeling intellectual clearinghouse for young feminists, but under the influence of the online culture she expertly dissects in Trick Mirror, Jezebel felt like it was stiffening into something a lot like agitprop. While Tolentino wrote a lot of short, goofy, amusing posts there, when she really dug in, her ambivalence and her affinity for complexity and contradiction were at odds with Jezebel’s drift toward the predictable and reductive.

In other words, Tolentino is a classical essayist along the lines of Montaigne, threading her way on the page toward an understanding of what she thinks and feels about life, the world, and herself. Some of the pieces in Trick Mirror feature more autobiographical material than others, and Tolentino’s life itself is a nest of pleasingly tangled influences: The child of Filipino immigrants, she had a largely happy childhood in the embrace of an evangelical megachurch in Houston, until she became disillusioned with the institution’s many moral failings. A prodigious reader—Trick Mirror references thinkers ranging from Erving Goffman and Donna Haraway to Anne Carson and Julian of Norwich—she was also a cheerleader in high school and a sorority sister at the University of Virginia, college years she enjoyed “easily and automatically,” only to learn later of the university’s long history of tolerating sexual violence.

Even that awakening had its Tolentino-esque switchback. It was triggered by the infamous 2014 Rolling Stone feature based on an account of a fraternity gang rape at UVA that was later discredited. “There’s a part of me,” she writes of the accuser and the writer of that piece, “that feels as if Jackie and Erdely inadvertently sentenced me to a life of writing about sexual violence—as if I learned to report on a subject so personal that it imprinted on me, as if I will always feel some irrational compulsion to try to undo or redeem two strangers’ mistakes.” Although in 2017 Tolentino herself declared “the personal-essay boom is over,” in truth, she only meant the once-commonplace exploitative confessions cranked out by what Slate’s Laura Bennett dubbed “the first-person industrial complex.” For her part, Tolentino doesn’t have much in the way of private trauma to process. The pleasure in reading her work comes in following her mind as she figures things out—or, as often as not, admits that she hasn’t quite figured it out yet. “The last few years have taught me to suspend my desire for a conclusion,” she writes, “to hope primarily that little truths will keep emerging in time.”

The strongest pieces in Trick Mirror have to do with the commodification of the self. Tolentino recalls appearing in a short-lived reality TV show when she was 16. (She really is a case study in mediated identity, a fact she concedes—sometimes cheerily, sometimes not so much.) The cameras satiated her ravenous teenage desire “to be seen” and at the same time capsized her into a boundless ocean of self-consciousness that ceased to bother her simply because it had swallowed the whole world. Rewatching some of the episodes, in which she was cast as the priggish smart girl who refused to make out with anyone, Tolentino “can’t tell if, on the show, I was more concerned with looking virtuous or actually being virtuous—or if, having gone from a religious panopticon to a literal one, I was even capable of distinguishing between the two ideas.” It was, in short, “useful, if dubious, preparation for a life wrapped up with the internet.”

In her big opening essay on that inexhaustible subject, “The I in the Internet,” Tolentino’s insights are sterling. Dissecting the profile as the basic building block of social media, she writes, “The everyday madness perpetuated by the internet is the madness of this architecture, which positions personal identity as the center of the universe.” The ubiquity and fury of trolls, she believes, is in response to the internet’s exultation of the ever-appealing, overexposed self, the creation of which is a skill central to traditional femininity—in other words, an ability women have been trained in from an early age. “This legitimately unfortunate paradigm, inhabited first by women and now generalized to the entire internet, is what trolls loathe and actively repudiate.” While Tolentino’s depiction of the earliest days of the internet as a wholesome band of helpful Usenet newsgroups is overly rosy (trolls have always been with us), she pinpoints why the transition from the internet as a kind of communal tool to Web 2.0’s marketplace of personality has been plagued by such a torrent of online misogyny.

Tolentino also laments how the internet encourages its users to conflate the expression of an opinion with meaningful action in the world. “It’s so easy to stop trying to be decent, or reasonable, or politically engaged—and start trying merely to seem so,” a condition that dovetails unsettlingly with Tolentino’s experience of early adolescence, when she obsessed about the idea of “Jia” as a character she had created and needed to plausibly maintain, instead of a self she effortlessly embodied. This disturbs her, particularly because her own career consists of expressing her opinion on the internet, and she has benefited from the way it “collapses identity, opinion, and action.”

She’s particularly fun to read when she’s bemused by the absurdity of all these performances, stopping just short of outright cynicism. She contemplates a scenario in which a bunch of trolls target her with threatening emails. “The economy of online attention would suggest that I write a column about those trolls, quote their emails, talk about how the experience of being threatened constitutes a definitive situation of being a woman in the world.” If trolls exaggerate the power of women in the world, sometimes women, she gently suggests, find it useful to exaggerate the power of trolls. “I could go on defining myself in reference to trolls forever, positioning them as inexorable and monstrous, and they would return the favor in the interest of their own ideological advancement, and this whole situation could continue until we all died,” having squandered their lives in a vaporous battle.

The less penetrating essays in Trick Mirror—a consideration of literary heroines and a critique of the wedding industry—are solid enough but cover well-trodden ground. The former reminded me of the essays of the great second-wave feminist memoirist-critic Vivian Gornick. Gornick and Tolentino share a restlessness, both of them forever in search of a clear vantage point from which to see their own lives. Both writers tend to view the female characters in books as demonstrating possible ways to be in the world, models to be taken up and then (usually) discarded as inadequate. For Tolentino, this assortment of potential avatars includes celebrity personas, that bizarre semi-communal popular art form that has reached its full potency in the 21st century. “Celebrities have been the primary teaching tools through which online feminism has identified and resisted the warping force of patriarchal judgement,” she writes, and this, as she sees it, has been a mistake.

The essay in which Tolentino considers how popular feminism has used celebrity and vice versa, “The Cult of the Difficult Woman,” is magnificently sharp as it points out the dangers of “adjudicating inequality through cultural criticism.” The practice is tempting because talking about celebrities and how feminist (or sexist) they are is much more fun than discussing the erosion of reproductive rights or the uphill fight for state-subsidized child care. And sometimes celebrity provides just the wedge that’s needed, as when the allegations of famous actresses about Harvey Weinstein ignited the #MeToo movement. Women who generate controversy and upset existing power structures “can almost always,” Tolentino writes, “be reinterpreted as good. Women claiming the power and agency that historically belonged to men is both the story of female evil and the story of female liberation.” The reactionary attacks leveled against such women typically resort to insults about how they fail to live up to conventional feminine ideals by not being attractive or demure enough. As a result, “female celebrities are now venerated for their difficulty—their flaws, their complications, their humanity,” which, in addition to proving what badass feminists they are, is perceived as giving ordinary women permission to possess the same. Any criticism based on those nettlesome traits can then be branded as sexist.

However, the opponents of equality soon figured out how to deploy this tactic to their own ends. The defenders of the Trump administration have used accusations of sexism to deflect condemnations of women like Kellyanne Conway, Hope Hicks, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Melania and Ivanka Trump. (Although Tolentino doesn’t mention it, this move also allows conservatives to claim that liberals and progressives are so hypocritically selective, targeting only their political enemies, that their charges of sexism deserve to be automatically discounted as mere partisan mudslinging.) At the same time, women who seek fame without making a display of “difficulty”—lifestyle bloggers, wellness mavens, and “generic influencers with long Instagram captions and predictable tastes”—attract devout online anti-followings, the weird intensity of the hatred directed at them hinting at their abiding power.

“The freedom I want,” Tolentino writes, ever so sensibly, “is located in a world where we wouldn’t need to love women, or even monitor our feelings about women as meaningful—in which we wouldn’t need to parse the contours of female worth and liberation by paying meticulous personal attention to any of this at all.” That freedom—the freedom not to regard the doings and statements of famous women as sanctioning the parameters of your own behavior—is one of the few freedoms available to any woman who wants to take it. No one must read lifestyle bloggers, or keep up with the Kardashians. Contemporary celebrity is the apotheosis of all the maddening social changes that Tolentino surveys in Trick Mirror, the logical extension of the belief that simply to appear in an especially marketable fashion is not only worthwhile, but the very best of goals. We are the market that makes such a choice viable, and we keep buying. I’m pretty sure this is the sort of thing Tolentino means when she writes about being “drawn to any mechanism that directs me away from that truth.” If she can find a way to escape it, I’ll follow her wherever she leads.

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino
Random House