Jia Tolentino's 'Trick Mirror' Is a Studied Index of Contemporary Ills
Jia Tolentino's first collection of essays, Trick Mirror, expertly navigates how the byproducts of capitalism and the Internet permeate culture, values, politics, and the daily lives of people worldwide.
Trick Mirror: Reflection on Self-Delusion
Although Trick Mirror, a collection of nine new essays from The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino, isn't strictly about the end of the world, its arguments certainly adopt a pessimistic tone about the state of the planet. Like climate scientists who determine whether it's too late to save a dying planet, her book takes a look at how other ills that affect our society — the Internet, social media, capitalism, sexism — contribute to the decline of civilization in their own ways. Though the book is studious and astute, it's not by any means an academic text bound by inflexible jargon or stuffy prose. It's also a breeze to read, and Tolentino's luminous and slyly funny personal voice makes arguments that are based just as much in morality and decency as they are in facts and logic.
That voice, and the topics she covers, will be familiar to fans of her magazine work. After getting her start by writing for The Hairpin and Jezebel, she moved on to the The New Yorker as a sort of roving millennial correspondent — one whose deeply reported essays were able to be both petty and consequential, purposefully silly and occasionally deeply profound. Her writing charted the development of memes like the "Large Adult Son", uncovered the strange totalitarian interpretations of Thomas the Tank Engine, and gave an anguished look at the Brett Kavanaugh hearings and the lengths men will go to for other men. Regardless of topic, Tolentino has been bringing a sharp critical eye to many corners of contemporary life. She's a historian of very recent history.
Trick Mirror's nine essays are very much continuations on these themes, but the essays themselves are longer and more deeply researched. In fact the book, which could easily have been a collection of previously published works or a natural career move for the promising young writer, turns out to be the ideal extension of Tolentino's talents and resources. The works are palatable but demanding in scope; always self-aware and never pretentious.
"In the beginning the Internet seemed good," Tolentino writes in "The I in Internet", the first story in the collection. She writes about her childhood experiences with Angelfire, AOL, and LiveJournal, expressing her younger self's naïve joy and wonder at the discovery of new virtual worlds. Then, at the turn of the millennium, comes Web 2.0, which ensures that "The Web will be understood not as screenfuls of text and graphics but as a transport mechanism, the ether through which interactivity happens." (Here she quotes a 1999 article by user-experience designer Darcy DiNucci.) On comes Blogger and MySpace, and before long the Internet has become not just a means of escape, but also of constant communication and surveillance.
Facebook comes along in 2004, Twitter in 2006, and Instagram in 2010. Tolentino guesses that the tipping point happens around 2012, when the promise of online life turns into a tool of jealousy and mass alienation. As for what the Internet is like now, in 2019, she doesn't hold back:
"Online reward mechanisms beg to substitute for offline ones, and then overtake them. This is why everyone tries to look so hot and well-traveled on Instagram; this is why everyone seems so smug and triumphant on Facebook; this is why, on Twitter, making a righteous political statement has come to seem, for many people, like a political good in itself."
The artifice of the Web — the silly, spontaneous and inspiring platform that so enthralled she and others her age as youngsters — is now, in many ways, interchangeable from actual reality. Not only that, but reality increasingly resembles the manipulative workings of social media and online communication, with tech entrepreneurs, marketers, and advertisers working to blur the lines between the two in order to control consumers and render their products ubiquitous. The next essay, "Reality TV Me", approaches this idea from a different perspective.
When she was 16, Tolentino was a cast member on a reality TV show called Girls vs. Boys: Puerto Rico. She recalls the memory with good-natured self-effacement and thinks fondly of the experience. She recalls how she, three other girls and four boys competed on a small island called Viesques for a jackpot of $50k, creating drama out of thin air and abiding by preordained stereotypes. Tolentino was labeled "the smart girl", and because she refused to make out on camera with a boy contestant, "the prude".
Although episodes of the show are hard to come by, she watches the show years later with friends and calls up some of her former contestants. Most, like her, look back on the experience with a chuckle but find the act of watching versions of themselves on screen to be minimizing and eerie. It's true that the characteristics they exhibited on the show are at least partially true to reality, her co-stars say, but nearly all of them have other sides that, in retrospect, tarnish the show's meticulously constructed image.
In the third essay, "Always Be Optimizing", Tolentino uses the advent of athleisure fashion, barre workouts, and Sweetgreen foods, to illustrate this predicament — the need to project an idealized version of oneself in modern life. The throughline, as she walks us through her past experiences with yoga, barre, and the always-on attitude of the workforce, is that the (unachievable) pursuit of perfection is interwoven in the fabric of society.
Lululemon's yoga pants are meant to show that one is either about to exercise or just got done exercising. Sweetgreen's assembly line salads minimize the time spent out of the office on lunch break while their cultish farm-to-table branding projects an air of health and morality. Just as Tolentino and her co-stars did on reality TV, we are all, in subtle ways, participating in a larger culture of performance. And the shows we're putting on are bleak. The point isn't entertainment, it's control.
The first three essays in Trick Mirror, and a later essay called "The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams", all detail how the Internet and mass media have influenced the way we communicate. "Seven Scams" focuses on how, in an unjust world of corporate control and wealth inequality, scamming has become one of the easiest ways to make money. Each of the other essays do similar work.
"Ecstasy", the most personal essay in the collection, recalls Tolentino's childhood spent in a giant Baptist church she calls the Repentagon. Growing up in Texas, she was surrounded by religious propaganda and attended enormous masses hosted by Joel Osteen-like preachers. But in her teenage years and beyond, Tolentino turns to rap music, specifically that of the famous Houston emcee DJ Screw, and drugs like ecstasy to achieve a similar sense of escape and spirituality.
The essays "Pure Heroines", "The Cult of the Difficult Woman", and "I Thee Dread", like the first three essays, coalesce around a unifying theme — in this case of femininity, tradition and misogyny. "Pure Heroines" charts the history of female protagonists in literature, noting that their stories were often (and still are, to an extent) bound by the specter of marriage and a life of quiet housekeeping. "I Thee Dread" takes this point further, as Tolentino explains why she never plans on getting married to her long-time boyfriend and skewers the so-called "traditions" that pressure women to shell out thousands of dollars and innumerable hours of time on lavish wedding ceremonies.
"The Cult of the Difficult Woman", then, investigates how society labels the women who refuse to adhere to these traditions. "Analyzing sexism through female celebrities is a catnip pedagogical method," Tolentino writes — referring to Lindsay Lohan, Whitney Houston and Monica Lewinsky, among others. "It takes a beloved cultural pastime (calculating the exact worth of a woman) and lends it progressive political import."
Not all essays in Trick Mirror are equally sharp. Some of them feel slightly out of place in the larger work. "We Came From Old Virginia", for example, uses Tolentino's history at the University of Virginia to dive deep into the infamous 2014 Rolling Stone article "A Rape on Campus", which was later retracted as significant factual discrepancies were found. The essay is a studied look at rape culture and the power of our institutions to propagate that culture, but it relies on a narrative that has already been played out by media journalists and communications professors nationwide. It's a good piece, but it doesn't have the same pull of original insight that the rest of the book has — and the same can be said, to an extent, about "The Cult of the Difficult Woman".
Tolentino's voice is best when she hones in on Internet culture, and the strongest work in Trick Mirror already has the sheen of classic nonfiction. She is a millennial through and through — part of a special generation that grew up synonymously with the explosion of the Internet and the invention of social media and reality TV. Trick Mirror isn't the first book -- and won't be the last -- about this generational shift, but its scope, intelligence, and infectious personal voice ensures that it ought to be seen as one of the best. In generations to come, readers will wonder why we didn't heed Tolentino's sage advice (and that of the many theorists she cites), thank the heavens for the changes we did make, and above all, consider the power great writing has to put a name to the ills affecting each of us. If we can name it, we can cure it.