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Gazing Into the ‘Trick Mirror’ With Jia Tolentino

Isobel Van Hagen Sep 7

Issue 250

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion is a collection of essays that are all about — in some way or another — trying to exist in the 21st century. Jia Tolentino writes nine pieces addressing drugs, religion, celebrity culture, modern-day feminism, and the wedding industry. The incisiveness of the disparate, yet intertwined essays comes not necessarily from the nuanced and precise writing style, nor the unique content that seems so frighteningly relevant you wonder why you hadn’t thought of it yourself.

Rather, the importance of this book comes from Tolentino’s shrewd portrayal of the problems in our internet-ridden world, our simultaneously self-obsessed and self-hating minds, and then her eventual and cruel reveal that there are no solutions after all. She reveals the trick. Even if we are aware of our self-delusion — our love-hate relationship with capitalism, our fears that caring about looking beautiful interferes with our feminism, our knowledge of how bad Instagram is and how badly we need it — perhaps it makes no difference.

She starts off where every thinker who ponders modern self-delusion assumes is probably the right place to begin: the worldwide web. In her first essay, “The I In The Internet,” Tolentino examines how the internet has affected her personally, and notes that she has benefited from the opinion-based economy that the internet created. She describes being formed online, as an editor and writer for the Hairpin and Jezebel, before becoming a writer for the New Yorker. She doesn’t even bother to try and fully reconcile this: “You will never catch me arguing that professional opinion-havers in the age of the internet, are, on the whole, a force for good.”

She explores how the once innocent internet became corrupted, the endless possibilities of the web growing harsher, until suddenly we were all at the mercy of an online-self that had shaped our real-world personalities. “Where we had once been free to be ourselves online,” she writes, “we were now chained to ourselves online.”

“Reality TV Me” begins as a nostalgic road trip into Tolentino’s appearance on a forgotten reality series in her teens — a look at self-commodification. The essay is fascinating because while very few of us have ever been on a reality TV show, the way Tolentino describes feeling on the show, namely being performative and observed, is unpleasantly familiar.

While rewatching some of the episodes in which she was cast as the “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 […] I was even capable of distinguishing between the two ideas.”

This dual nature of the self is a problem particularly relating to womanhood. In “Always Be Optimizing,” Tolentino tackles the aesthetics of the modern woman’s “ideal life” — things that are workaday, suddenly seem like a creepy sci-fi movie through Tolentino’s perceptive lens. Sweating it out at Pure Barre on your lunch break, then “refueling” at Sweetgreen with a salad designed to be eaten in 10 minutes, wearing athleisure the whole time (“a sort of late-capitalist fetishwear,” she writes) is a perfectly accurate picture of modern life. Once examined a bit closer something seems alarmingly off.

“Pure Heroines” examines the various stages of life people — and characters — work through: childhood, adolescence and adulthood. The beauty in this essay derives from how Tolentino is able to pull something so clever from something regular and familiar: she starts with children’s literature.

Referencing The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler — perhaps my favorite book as a kid—she notes the best thing about the story is that the protagonists aren’t afraid to run away and live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Childhood heroines aren’t always fearless, but they are intrinsically resilient […] sadness and fear are rooms to be passed through.”

Tolentino quickly cuts to our core: the loveliness of reading about child heroines is their inherent toughness derived from a general obliviousness to fear. As we, and characters, get older, that same fear and existential dread seems to linger for most, if not all of the time.

In another gesture to her dichotomy theme—perhaps my favorite essay — “I Thee Dread,” about the wedding industry, Tolentino, now 30 remembers leaving her Peace Corps assignment in Kyrgyzstan exhausted by “the awful juxtaposition between my obscene power as an American and my obscene powerlessness as a woman.” This is the final chapter and she unwaveringly lays out the delusionary aspects of becoming a bride, starting by showing the process of how much weddings cost — typically around $30,000, spent in “the spirit of fun but the name of tradition.”

As you near the end of the book, with many phrases underlined in ink that are both so obvious and so illuminating, it will occur to you how kind Tolentino has been. Not only has she neatly laid out all the paradoxes you’re concerned about, but she relieves you by saying your cognitive dissonance is understandable. She goes further to say that even she, who has thought so deeply about all this —written the book on delusion, as it were — still feels pulled toward modern-day mania and looking pretty and barre classes.

“I don’t want to be diminished, and I do want to be glorified — not in one shining moment, but whenever I want,” she says, speaking frankly in reference to her aversion to marriage.

And what’s wrong with that?

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
By Jia Tolentino
Penguin Random House, 2019

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