There was a time when the Internet seemed to promise the world to the world. When it appeared to be opening up a benign, infinite network of possibilities, in which everyone was enfranchised and newly accessible to one another as they were drawn, in one of Jia Tolentino’s many felicitous phrases, to the “puddles and blossoms of other people’s curiosity and expertise.” It would be a world in which hierarchies in whatever guise would be upended, a democratic forum to rival and exceed the philosophical marketplace of ancient Greece (no exclusion of anyone, not women, not slaves). At the very least, it was a place where, because you could be sure that someone out there was listening, you would find yourself able to articulate the thoughts that, for lack of an audience, had previously threatened to remain forever unspoken, stuck to the tip of your tongue.
This was the world that Tolentino, born in Canada to parents from the Philippines, saw burgeoning all around her as she grew up in Texas. In a way, she was primed for the illimitable expanse of the Internet by her Christian upbringing, which teaches its followers that everyone on earth is being watched by God. It gave her a flight of optimism, before this same system slowly but surely “metastasize[d] into a wreck”: “this feverish, electric, unlivable hell.” While the Internet was meant to allow you to reach out to any- and everyone without a hint of the cruel discriminations that blight our world, it turned into the opposite, a forum where individuals are less speaking to other people than preening and listening to themselves—turning themselves into desirable objects to be coveted by all. It became, that is, the perfect embodiment of consumer capitalism, where everything can be touted in the marketplace.
How, Tolentino asks, did the idea take hold that “ordinary personhood would seamlessly adjust itself around whatever within it would sell”? How did our basic humanity come to be “reframed as an exploitable viral asset”? We are in danger, as she quotes Werner Herzog saying of psychoanalysis, of losing “our dark corners and the unexplained,” of making ourselves “uninhabitable.” “It’s as if we’ve been placed on a lookout that oversees the entire world,” Tolentino writes, “and given a pair of binoculars that makes everything look like our own reflection.” Hence the title of this collection, Trick Mirror. The more our image appears to inflate our value, the more our vision shrinks to our own measure—and the more we succumb to the old, imperial delusion that allows us to believe we can command and control the furthest reaches of the universe as well as ourselves, regardless of the consequences (“reflections on self-delusion” is the subtitle to the book).
Tolentino is known to readers of The New Yorker, and before that to readers of the websites The Hairpin and Jezebel. In this collection of always trenchant and at times luminous essays, she establishes herself as the important critical voice she has been on her way to becoming for some time, although comparisons with Susan Sontag and Joan Didion seem to me unhelpful—as if, for a woman writer, theirs are the only hills to climb. For Tolentino, this book is the fulfillment of a long-held dream, to claim her place in a higher culture than the one that threatened to devour her as a young girl. While still in high school, she took part in an MTV reality show called Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico. She had clearly been selected for the “diversity” factor. Years later she discovered that her mother had agreed to indemnify the company against any claim or liability, forever, in the event of her daughter’s injury or death.
Her mother’s decision was in tune with the ruthlessness to come. More than a decade later, when Tolentino gets back in touch with the participants and brings herself to watch the show in full for the first time, she is appalled by the “unspeakable” footage (by the end of filming, they were at one another’s throats). “We all wanted to be famous,” a costar remembers. “Except you…. You were the only one who was really not interested…. You were like, ‘I don’t want to get famous for this bullshit. I want to get famous for writing a book.’”
This too can of course be a trap (or a trick) in itself. Tolentino’s higher ambitions place her one step ahead of a game in which, by her own admission, she had been more than willing to participate. Her refusal to make out with anyone on the show, for example, which was by no means her tendency at home, simply gave her a sense of superiority masquerading as a conservative moral conscience. When some of the participants, in a seemingly noble gesture, voted for themselves to leave the show, it was just in order to make themselves look good. Tolentino wants to have it both ways—to preserve her integrity while going along with the game. But having it both ways simply increases the difficulty of deciding where, in all of this, she belongs, and her awareness of this truth constitutes the unsettling core of her book.
Tolentino knows she is implicated in the world she lays out here with such merciless precision. In the end, she is the last person she wants to let off the hook. “I have felt so many times,” she writes in an essay on scamming as the new American deal, which takes in everything from bailing out the bankers after the crash of 2008 to the student debt disaster, Facebook, and the campaign lies of Donald Trump, “that the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional—to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck.” Pointing the finger at herself is something of a refrain: “I live very close to this scam category, perhaps even inside it…. I am part of that world…even if I criticize its emptiness”; “Lately I’ve been wondering how everything got so intimately terrible, and why, exactly, we keep playing along.” With this hum of disapproval, Tolentino is describing not just the “ethical brokenness” that she believes is the quandary of critical thought in our time—her deepest implication as a citizen in the unjust structures she laments. She is also issuing a warning. She is instructing her readers, first and foremost herself, not to get too comfortable, or to enjoy her writing too much.
Tolentino is a woman of color in her early thirties, from a relatively privileged family that moved up and down in the middle class. Having been able to pay for their daughter’s private education in grade school, her parents hit serious financial trouble (their house was repossessed) about the time she joined the reality show on MTV. From a relatively young age, she therefore learned that she would have to earn for herself the privilege and stability to which she had almost become accustomed (she chose the University of Virginia over Yale, because Virginia awarded her a scholarship). Before being hired by The New Yorker, she was barely earning $35,000 a year, almost the exact sum she has devoted over the past decade to friends’ weddings (a rite that she clearly sees as another scam, although it is by no means clear who—those getting married or those like herself who have so far refused to do so—she disapproves of most).
She could hardly, then, be expected to be immune to the lure of capital. Nor to the ideal of perfection that, especially for women, is its increasingly coercive accompaniment. Hence, again, “mirror,” the surface in which women never stop searching for unattainable beauty because somewhere deep down they have been conned into thinking that, merely by dint of being women and despite whatever efforts they make, they are flawed beyond repair. “You make appointments with mirrors,” a friend once said to me. The last thing a woman expects or remotely wishes to see in the mirror is herself. “Optimization”—Tolentino’s term for this insane hunt that turns women into their own quarry—is a counsel of despair. “I like trying to look good,” she writes, “but it’s hard to say how much you can genuinely, independently like what amounts to a mandate.”
We might then reinterpret the ever-expanding spread of the Internet as something close to an antifeminist plot, which takes back with one hand what it gives with the other. It allows women to reach out to other women and to worlds they previously could only have dreamed of. But on one condition—that they craft, polish, and manipulate to “perfection” a marketable image of themselves. Tolentino would be the first to admit that she has not been able to resist the lure of optimization (her presence on social media, the selfies, the widely circulated décolleté photos with her dog). Today more and more women are being frog-marched into spending inordinate amounts of money taking “care” of themselves—Tolentino is graphic on the subject of the compression leggings made by exorbitant “athleisure” brands and barre dance classes.
Barre dance studios, she writes, are a “nationwide fixture” that offer a cross between ballet and gymnastics, a series of positions that resemble “what a ballerina might do if you concussed her and then made her snort caffeine pills.” Barre was conceived and developed in the 1960s by Lotte Berk, a Jewish dancer who fled Germany for England before World War II and then passed the business on to her daughter, Esther. Today the largest barre franchise has more than five hundred outlets across the United States. Esther describes her mother as abusive. She dismissed the sexual proposition Esther’s father made to their daughter and said she’d pay Esther to give a blow job to one of her colleagues. Nonetheless, Esther chose to run a studio in Berkshire, England, and continues her mother’s tradition to this day.
Tolentino always has her eye out for the ugly history, the stain on the carpet that so many refuse to see. In this case, it is hard not to believe that the double trauma of the war and sexual abuse is lurking beneath this dazzling, cruel success story, the hidden spur for the “arbitrary prolonged agony” that barre inflicts systematically on its devotees (who over the years have included Ivana Trump, Edna O’Brien, and Mary Tyler Moore). Owners of barre studios have made a fortune in exploiting human masochism at a very high cost. Tolentino admits to finding it uplifting. Spandex, the luxury textile of choice for the new athletic class, was created by the military, also during World War II, to be “uniquely flexible, resilient, and strong.” Tolentino imagines herself wrapped in the material, chanting its mantra of potency on behalf of women, as blood streams from her eyes.
It is easy to be lured by the exhilaration—the fun, even—of these essays, and to miss the depression, not to say nihilism—a word Tolentino uses—that runs beneath the stream. Nihilism has almost become the common philosophical currency of the age, a way of describing the bleakness of a political system that seems always ahead, or on top, of the resistance that its glaring injustices provoke. “The half-ironic millennial death wish,” she wrote in a New Yorker essay in June, “has become an underground river rushing swiftly under the surface of the age.”
Tracking down her MTV comrades, Tolentino decides not to get in touch with Paris—the participant they had all ganged up against—when she finds her on Facebook “gracefully” documenting a month in outpatient therapy for bipolar II. An essay on ecstasy—both the psychic condition and drug of choice for today’s disillusioned youth—mentions the philosopher Simone Weil, who starved herself to death in solidarity with the massacred Jews of Europe, and the mystic Julian of Norwich, who wrote, “I was…so disgusted with my life that I could hardly bear to live.” The drug ecstasy offers a similar experience of “devoted self-destruction.” When Tolentino takes it, she feels as if God were replacing the breath in her lungs. This all strangely resonates with her account of the Internet, whose secular omniscience colonizes every pore of your being. As Karl Kraus famously pronounced of psychoanalysis, the remedy or drug might best be understood as the disease it purports to cure.
Today, rates of depression among the young in the Western world are dramatically on the rise (in the UK, depression constitutes the greatest cost to the NHS). Student debt in the US—one of Tolentino’s seven scams—has doubled since 2003, and has now overtaken car debt as the second highest in the country, after homeowner debt. Depression is close to being the new normal for today’s youth, as the frantic accumulation of capital and profit steadily intensifies—what Tolentino calls the “amoral project” of “accelerated capitalism.”
Acceleration is key. Acceleration is to capitalism what escalation is to war, both realities that get off on themselves. Likewise, on the Internet, “a highly functional person is one who can promise everything to an indefinitely increasing audience at all times.” Sometimes the energy and verve of Tolentino’s writing can feel slightly manic, oddly in sync with what it claims most passionately to hate. Just for a second, it can tempt you with the insane idea that you might be able to pole-vault over the horrors and injustices of the day. But only if you are blind and foolish enough, or have beauty and eloquence to spare.
In one of the strongest essays in Trick Mirror, Tolentino tracks the line that runs from the rape culture at the University of Virginia while she pursued her undergraduate studies there to the white supremacist demonstrations in Charlottesville in the summer of 2017, when a white antiracist activist woman was run over and killed, and Trump made his famous statement in response that there had been “very fine people on both sides,” a presage of the presidential racism that was to come. During her first visit to the university, Tolentino had felt comforted by its traditionalism, its seemingly mild manners, its “moderate”—meaning not too liberal—atmosphere. As a student, she went on to enjoy the “sweet generic quality of mid-Atlantic preppy life,” which included churning out the expected papers, waiting on tables, joining a sorority, and having a boyfriend (almost bucolic, it is one of the most well-behaved accounts of university life that I think I have ever read).
It was only five years after she graduated, when Rolling Stone published its account of a gang rape at the university that would later turn out to be fake, that the scales fell from her eyes. The story has become legendary, its collapse seen as fatally damaging the campaign against sexual violence, and as something to be gleefully seized upon, post Me Too, in support of America’s beleaguered and wrongly accused men. Most people, Tolentino writes, “still find false accusation more abhorrent than rape.” She then summons the University of Virginia’s buried history of racial and sexual violence as the only way to make any kind of sense of the case. When Thomas Jefferson founded the university in Charlottesville in 1819, he intended it to be accessible for all white men. As is now common knowledge, although until recently it was still mostly denied, Jefferson fathered at least six children with his slave Sally Hemings. Before he died, he freed her children as he had promised to, but not Hemings herself (she was eventually freed by his daughter).
Drawn from the southern slave-owning class, UVA’s first students were drunk and disorderly. Jefferson had believed that “pride, ambition, and morality” would make strict rules unnecessary, and placed his trust in the students’ sense of honor. But honor, as Tolentino reminds us, especially among southern white men, was inseparable from violence: “UVA’s greatest self-designated virtue served, from the beginning, as cover and fuel for its greatest sins.” The first recorded sexual assault on campus, only months after the school opened, involved two students entering a professor’s house and stripping a slave woman of her clothes.
Like the prehistory of barre in Tolentino’s essay on optimization, this would seem to be another piece of the past that is still shadowing the present, darkening the hour. Rape entered the culture of the University of Virginia, but that does not mean that it has even to this day been fully recognized. For decades, the university expelled students for plagiarism but refused to treat rape as a serious offense. (Spousal rape became illegal in Virginia only in 2002. Richard Black, a Republican member of the Virginia State Senate at the time, objected that it would be impossible to prosecute a case of spousal rape, because a husband and wife would be “sleeping in the same bed; she’s in a nightie and so forth.”)
Perhaps, Tolentino suggests, the lie told in the Rolling Stone article by the student who reported being raped was “a false way of making a real problem visible.” In this reading, far from being dismissible, the story is a cautionary tale that requires us to excavate. It leads us back to slavery and straight to the heady mix of misogyny and racism that violently erupted in Charlottesville in 2017 and that has become one of the nation’s favorite concoctions under Trump. It is “no coincidence,” Tolentino writes, that a resurgent white nationalism has picked up “online misogynists, who lent the retrograde, violent, supremacist ideology an equally retrograde, violent, sexual edge.”
Tolentino is especially cogent on how sex muddies the waters of reason and seems to have the power to turn the faintest hint of progress on its head. “There is,” she writes, “no glorified interpersonal behavior that can be used to explain robbery or murder the way that sex can be used to explain rape.” Whenever a victim of sexual assault speaks, if she chooses to do so, she is immediately sexualized. No other crime has such a built-in alibi on the ready to make the victim culpable and let the perpetrator off the hook. We need to face the fact, Tolentino argues in another New Yorker essay published after Trick Mirror had gone to press, that some people “may grow to like a man better after he is accused of sexual assault.” She is referring to the case of the journalist E. Jean Carroll, whose recent accusation against Trump of raping her in the mid-1990s has been more or less disregarded, and to Brett Kavanaugh, confirmed to the Supreme Court last year after he had been credibly accused of sexual assault as a young man. She also worries that her own heart is hardening—that in addition to the “surfeit of bad news” she did imagine would be reported after Trump’s election, there have been too many such accounts (she herself refused to read Carroll’s story for weeks after it broke).
This is what it means to talk of Trump playing to his base. In her essay on scamming, which takes Trump as its final, conclusive, example, Tolentino lets rip on his “demented, maniacal salesman’s instinct, grabbing rough handfuls of all the things that half-secretly thrilled his base most—violence, dominance, the disowning of the social contract—and tossing them at crowds that roared and roared.” Decades ago, the political philosopher Judith Shklar argued in her widely acclaimed book The Faces of Injustice that justice never rouses the same passion as injustice because it does not contain an equal quotient of pleasurable rage. In today’s profit-driven world, the political implications are deadly. Tolentino asks why a “politics built around getting and spending money is sexier than a politics built around politics.” It is the brazenness of Trump, and in the UK of Boris Johnson, to parade a virulent masculinity at the same time as they gleefully boast of living in a “post-political” age that they are doing everything they can to create. It is why—for now—they like each other so much.
Tolentino was not always a feminist. As a college student, when confronted with any classmate who prefaced her comments with the words “As a feminist,” Tolentino found herself tempted to respond, “All right, girl, relax” (“girl” being the giveaway). To say she converted or has been making up for lost time would not, however, be quite right. Tolentino’s feminism is as fraught as everything else she does and does not believe in. How could it be otherwise when, by her own account, the forms of agency fostered in the Internet age, especially for women, are so self-aggrandizing and belittling all at once?
At moments in her analysis, feminism seems to be in danger of becoming the eighth scam: wealth acquisition framed by “feminist” entrepreneurs as progressive politics, combined with a gospel of self-empowerment that usurps the basic demands of any viable feminism as a shared, collective, moral goal—expanded reproductive protections, equal pay, federally mandated family leave, subsidized childcare, a higher minimum wage. To present feminism in this way—as only interested in self-advancement—is to subordinate it to the most corrupt version of itself, while ignoring those feminists for whom material disadvantage and racial and economic injustice continue to be at the core of the struggle.
Indeed, many of these feminists speak at the feminist conferences toward which Tolentino appears to have a special aversion (I think she has been going to the wrong conferences). Her unqualified “love”—her word—for Hillary Clinton, whose failure to be elected president in 2016 she will grieve for the rest of her life, also gave me pause. Nor can I agree with her that celebrities like Kim Kardashian, notwithstanding the repulsive sexism she provokes, have earned their place as “difficult women” under siege. They are surely the embodiment of the consumer culture that she so passionately criticizes.
But just when I am starting to wonder—just when Kellyanne Conway and Hope Hicks are walked on as the targets of misogyny that they undoubtably have been, and therefore as objects worthy of our sympathy—the mood starts to turn. In the end, I was relieved to read Tolentino’s conclusion in Trick Mirror that it is impossible to excuse these women. Feminism gains nothing from thinking itself obliged to defend all women at all costs (Margaret Thatcher and Theresa May immediately spring to mind in the UK). In fact, when Hicks resigned, Tolentino tweeted that her career was “an object lesson in the quickest way a woman can advance under misogyny: silence, beauty, and unconditional deference to men” (for which the Times branded her sexist). And Conway, she acknowledges, has hardly been seriously disempowered by sexism, given that she remains an “indestructible mouthpiece for the most transparently destructive president in American history.” Tolentino would not be such a gifted diagnostician if she did not at moments seem to hedge her bets on these matters. Her entire diagnosis of the ills of the world would be invalid if she pretended, like a bad psychoanalyst, to be immune to what she describes. It is because she is a self-confessed unreliable narrator that we trust her.
Finally, I read Tolentino as making an age-old appeal to freedom of thought, or rather to thought as a capacity without which there is not the remotest chance for freedom. She quotes the artist Jenny Odell on the damage of the Internet: “A social body that cannot concentrate or communicate with itself is like a person who can’t think and act.” If her essay on scamming descends the furthest into the mire of what America today has allowed itself to become, it also ends with a vision, in which she ascends to a higher echelon where she won’t have to compromise anymore, “where I can really behave thoughtfully, where some imaginary future actions will cancel out all the self-interested scrabbling that came before.” She knows it is a “fantasy,” but insists it is a useful one. Or even indispensable, at a time when the right to pause for thought, to slow down the speed of everything, is seriously at risk, more so than I can remember at any other point in my lifetime. Meanwhile, as she is aware, Tolentino’s already considerable, and merited, success as a writer comes with a price. She will have to struggle—and I personally like to think she will succeed—not to become her own consumable good.