Talk about the fates of young professional women today and you will often alight on two themes: the anxieties that come with living in the ‘digital age’, or the inescapability of ‘late capitalism’ and all its surreal portents. It is not incidental that these women are largely estranged from the seats of power behind these worlds, as formative as these industries may be to their psychologies. Silicon Valley and Wall Street and their international counterparts are both distinct but not dissimilar wellsprings of the worst forms of male delirium, and only appear to make room for women if they are preternaturally beautiful arm candy (Margot Robbie, imperious and magnificent, stamping a stiletto onto Leonardo DiCaprio’s forehand in The Wolf of Wall Street), girl-genius rebrands of iconic men (Elizabeth Holmes, forever in that Steve Jobs-inspired black turtleneck) or savvy can-do businesswomen who can play with the most vicious of them (Sheryl Sandberg, leaning into a void).
Market-friendly femininity is created in boardrooms filled by people who do not care for its subjects at all. To live so far from the seat of power but feel it so intimately gives rise to a fragmented, ever-refracting selfhood that hates her particular slice of the world yet cannot help but feast on its scraps. I spend too much money on Glossier products, despite knowing that the cool-girl beauty brand is snake oil for wannabe socialites. I can’t stop following the Riverdale actresses on Instagram. I do not know how to manage a savings account, and continually fail to girlboss my way to financial freedom despite Sheryl Sandberg’s best efforts. I am impotent, trivial, shallow, and stupid – and at the same time entirely convinced of my own importance.
You may call this self-delusion, or in the words of New Yorker staff writer Jia Tolentino, the inevitable result of growing up in a time when femininity operates as a ‘trick mirror that carries the illusion of flawlessness as well as the self-flagellating option of constantly finding fault’. Tolentino had written those words in 2015 as deputy editor at self-proclaimed ‘supposedly feminist website’ Jezebel while reflecting on what people seemed to want from women’s media. In Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, she explores this topsy-turvy double-punch of beatification and punishment in essays on contemporary internet culture, the wedding industry, MDMA and megachurches, and the short life of the literary heroine, among others. Delusion undergirds all. The internet invites us to be self-empowered authors of our own public lives; by doing so, we vastly enrich a select few multinationals with questionable business models. Weddings offer women the chance to be unconditionally celebrated, even sanctified, on their own terms; this one-day-only taste of glory comes at the expense of their later diminishment in matrimony (Tolentino notes that this is not the case for every woman, but also points to studies that show that after marriage, happiness levels tend to increase for men and decrease for women). Class A drugs and mass religion share the belief that a flight from the world can help us discover our most untrammeled selves: ‘Your world realigns in a juddering shimmer. You feel that your soul is dazzling, delicate, unlimited; you understand that you can give the best of yourself away to everyone you love without being depleted.’
The nine essays in Trick Mirror capture the slow-burning, quiet dread that comes with living in a world where information is so plentiful – and the need to persistently better yourself has never been stronger – that it induces a paralysing helplessness in the emotionally exhausted subject. But some subjects have been more primed to negotiate this hellscape of willful self-delusion and self-abasement than others. ‘My only experience of the world has been one in which personal appeal is paramount and self-exposure is encouraged’, Tolentino writes in ‘The I in Internet’, her essay on online culture. She is a woman, a writer, and a famous one, after all. ‘This legitimately unfortunate paradigm,’ she follows, was ‘inhabited first by women and [is] now generalised to the entire internet.’ Tantalise the public with flashes of your quirky abject relatability; encase any corny, strongly-felt beliefs in the language of disarming irony, and only let your ego be seen if it is wrapped in layers of jokey self-hatred to ensure maximum likeability – is there any wonder that girls are so good at the internet?
You can see why Tolentino is so drawn to deconstructing digitally-mediated femininity; it’s ingrained in the trajectory of her career. She began writing at The Hairpin, a ‘general-interest site aimed at women’ and quickly ascended to become contributing editor, writing on pop music, social justice, and various pop culture miscellany. Then, as features editor at Jezebel, she wrote bracing essays on Carly Rae Jepsen and all-women weed conferences while covering social justice issues concerning racial discrimination and abortion rights. At the New Yorker, she has covered everything from internet in-jokes – ‘Jia Tolentino writes about punch-me-in-the-face discourse on Twitter’ – to Kanye West’s spiritual awakening; from the rhetoric of #metoo to millennial financial resentment, all with an unflagging commitment to teasing apart how culture intermingles with power, and how power is inextricable from contemporary capitalism.
Tolentino’s writing is not only satisfying to read unto itself, but also wields a two-pronged symbolic importance: it shows heritage publications that they can be both ‘unserious’ and immensely insightful; it tells glossy women’s magazines that behind the neutered Pinterest-friendly ‘You Will Love This $39 Artisanal Mug that Says “Mommy’s Special Wine Cup”’ personalities of their target demographic lies an insatiable appetite for monstrous bloodlust. To read her is to want to protect her. The world of elite journalism so often seems like a high society in-group, where careers are often not so much a sterling testament to the virtues of meritocracy than they are the result of backroom deals brokered between industry insiders and well-connected parents nervous about what else their Large Adult Son with a literature degree could possibly do with his life . But in this gated, insular world, it was Jia Tolentino who rose to become a definitive literary and journalistic voice of today. For those on the sidelines, her rise feels like a long-awaited democratic justice finally hit a historically undemocratic world. She worked her way up the media publicly and laboriously, and eschewed ruling-class snobbery to roundly embrace that which was easily dismissed as trash. She gave underdog writers hope and brought in new readers with her indomitable belief that no part of culture was too crass, too bizarre – and notably, too feminine – to subject to serious, expansive critique.
She does not stand alone. The rise of digital media has built many careers for writers who would have otherwise been quietly rejected by industry gatekeepers, or more likely, would not have even been considered. And thus, the disrupters are at the gate, slowly taking it apart. It is just a shame that the idyll inside is dying. The decline of journalism is well-documented, coarsened into common wisdom: the rise of the Internet saw advertisers move their business away from newspapers to websites; the final blow was dealt by Google and Facebook, who now command 80 per cent of the digital advertising market. Then, a brief flash of hope. In the early 2010s, BuzzFeed was embraced as a model of a media company that could make money, where viral digital content could find an easy partner in venture capitalists (in 2014, it secured $50 million in funding from major Silicon Valley firm Andreessen Horowitz).
Today, Buzzfeed serves as a cautionary tale about doing business with people who don’t really care about your product beyond whether or not it is sufficiently meeting growth targets. At the start of this year, the media company, which had wanted to be seen as a legitimate news publication, laid off 15 per cent of its workforce, including its entire national news team. Layoffs followed at Vice, The Huffington Post, Yahoo; online women’s magazine The Pool folded. Meanwhile, humanistically-minded young people, feeling short-changed by a world that raised them on liberal values of self-flourishing without compromise only to be told later that the noble thing to do was to subsume your life to nine-to-six wage labour in the service of capital, are still unfailingly drawn to the profession, flogging their personalities online in hope of a miracle. (This is also how Tolentino describes her own ascent as a writer; ‘It only took about seven years of flogging my own selfhood on the internet to get to a place where I could comfortably afford to stop using Amazon to save fifteen minutes and five dollars at a time.’) Precarious and thankless as it might be, a life spent reading, writing and grappling with ideas that go beyond the all-consuming commercial imperative could offer a greater deal of existential freedom than even the most prestigious graduate job at Goldman Sachs ever might.
And thus, Trick Mirror is delivered to the public on a narrowing horizon of its own possibility, where the idea that someone could and should have the time to sit with ideas, and be paid money for doing so, is persistently under threat. We live, Tolentino observes, in ‘an unbearable supernova or perpetually escalating conflict, a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride’. We hear too much about devastating events we cannot control. There are too many opinions and not enough action. There is so much writing out there, and so little time to read it. The digital-age-cum-late-capitalism, whatever you want to call it, locks us into a repetitive and inescapable circuit of our collective neuroses, and has us endlessly reach for absolution in a world that does not offer it. Given this state of affairs, what can writing do?
In ‘Pure Heroines’, a luminous essay on how young female protagonists in literature are born to a world of endless possibilities that is then problematised in adolescence (the angst-ridden hopelessness of Katniss Everdeen of Hunger Games or wide-eyed passivity of Bella Swan of Twilight) and foreclosed in adulthood (Emma Bovary and Anna Karenina, their impossible appetites for life leading them to their deaths), Tolentino uses Simone de Beauvoir’s distinction of ‘transcendence versus immanence’ to illuminate the sexism that underpins approaches to male and female literary narratives. In their respective stories, ‘men were expected to reach beyond their circumstances, while women were expected to be defined and bounded by theirs’.
If, as Tolentino contends, the Internet has universalised the so-called ‘femininised’ subject, it has also reified immanent text as the text par excellence of our culture. Despite its merits, the Internet also rewards quickly churned-out content under the mandate of ‘timeliness’; makes a cynical self-promotional marketplace out of meaningful dissent (if ‘cancel culture’ were real, every contrarian-for-hire opinion columnist would be getting fired, not book deals), and popularises the ‘It Happened To Me’-type essay that asks writers – often young women – to plumb their personal traumas in the service of higher engagement statistics. Heartstrings are pulled; political allegiances re-entrenched; laughs and/or outrage mined from events as widely discussed as they will be quickly forgotten.
Trick Mirror could similarly be read as an essay collection du jour, in which buzzworthy topics –the internet; the unlikeable woman; that horrible exercise known as barre – are dissected with an eye as skillful as it is encased in a particular moment in time. Yet the underlying concern threading the collection seems to me an anxiety about what it means to live in an incoherent self at a time when we demand our selfhoods to be entirely coherent. It is an anxiety, you could say, that is both painfully specific and universally transcendent.
To be a successful writer today – especially one of Tolentino’s stature – involves being a public figure, which necessitates branding yourself in some fashion. Here there is no room for indeterminacy. All public utterances are traced back to a terrifyingly public self which, in the ecology of the Internet, is then rewarded for being ethically good, funny and perennially correct. If you are a cultural critic, you may write about late capitalism’s inexorable drive to render everything sacred a commodity, while wrestling with the fact that your ability to do so means becoming a heightened one yourself. It’s the sort of blazing contradiction that might prompt someone to, say, make reflections on self-delusion.
The pitfalls of the overdetermined public self are explored in ‘The Cult of the Difficult Women’, Tolentino’s invective against the common practice of using celebrity women as sites of broader feminist contestation (‘It takes a beloved cultural pastime [calculating the exact worth of a woman] and lends it a progressive political impact.’) Yes, one can proselytise about the ‘unruliness’ of Kim Kardashian; argue that Winona Ryder presents a more radical vision of womanhood than Gwyneth Paltrow; desperately look for signs that Melania Trump – and in this country’s case, the Queen – are in fact planning the impending demise of our buffoonish male leaders. But does it in fact help us get a clearer sense of power, or rather re-entrench its mystique?
Celebrity culture, she writes, promotes ‘an approach to womanhood that relies on individual exceptionalism in an inherently conservative way’; ‘every inch’ of womanhood, in effect, ‘is now almost impossibly freighted’. It is a doomed exercise. Mining the self for signs of virtue or complicity only takes you so far; let it breathe. Perhaps the more interesting story lies elsewhere.
Trick Mirror puts the reader through a wringer of the multiple contradictions, self-deceptions, and collective delusions that mark our current moment. In dissecting the doomed impotence our individual selves, it also quietly breaks open a new line of inquiry. What new forms of social understanding and care can open up when we approach the self not as a terrifyingly overdetermined site stuck in a never-ending loop of self-glorification and self-abnegation, but rather a matter-of-fact, uninteresting and endlessly malleable tool – one that exists so that you can learn from the world, and perhaps make it better? Where the story begins, but not where it ends. There might be an irony in taking this lesson from a book whose high-octane release has amplified its already prolific author to magnificent heights – Tolentino herself observes the curious case of writers whose ‘fantasy of disappearance’ nevertheless ‘reinscribes the dazzling force and vision of their intellectual presence’. But then again, contradictions do not always have to undermine our social projects. As Trick Mirror shows, they can in fact enrich them – or at the very least, make them more urgent.