JULY 16, 2019
IN 2005, Mark Zuckerberg described Facebook as “a mirror of what existed in real life.” In the aftermath of Pizzagate and Cambridge Analytica, the notion that social media simply reflects reality is laughable. We know that our online experiences, from Google searches to social media timelines, are tailored to our interests, locations, and activity history. Platform personalization keeps us engaged and, more importantly, receptive to advertisements. Many public intellectuals have commented on the danger, even weaponization, of social media personalization, pointing to violations of privacy and intellectual isolation. In an essay on this topic, Emerson T. Brooking and P. W. Singer suggest that if social media is a mirror, then “the mirror is distorted — or rather, that it distorts us.”
Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, Jia Tolentino’s debut collection of essays, also meditates on the role of social media, and the internet more broadly, in shaping identity, public discourse, and political engagement, particularly of millennials like herself. But unlike analyses that regard users as passive playthings in the hands of tech overlords, Tolentino portrays them as eager participants in the funhouse that is social media who use its tools to curate their image to project socioeconomic success — often with the hope of ensuring it. This process, the book asserts, inevitably involves some deception of self and others.
Tolentino’s book is not just about the internet. She also writes about deeply personal experiences, including growing up as a Filipina in Texas, attending and breaking away from an evangelical megachurch, experimenting with drugs, and playing a version of herself on a reality TV show. But Tolentino’s coming of age parallels that of the internet’s, so it makes sense for her to mark her adolescence in terms of platforms — her first Angelfire site, Livejournal account, Myspace profile. In some ways, these experiences prepared her for our Facebook-saturated “attention economy” and for a career in digital journalism. A former writer for The Hairpin and Jezebel, and currently a staff writer for The New Yorker, Tolentino knows firsthand the pressure to maintain an online identity in today’s creative economy, when being a journalist without a Twitter account means risking irrelevance. In fact, one of the defining features of Jezebel was its emphasis on making (digitally) visible the identities of its writers, which included them sharing fashion and beauty tips.
A theme that unites all of the essays is that of “the self as an endlessly monetizable asset” online and off. One of the most interesting essays in the collection is “Always Be Optimizing,” which suggests that, for today’s cis woman, being a “well-performing avatar” is expected but not enough. She must have a face and body that match her idealized self, as strategically filtered for social media. Tolentino jumps between sleek chopped-salad chains and barre studios, analyzing the women who frequent both — athleisure-clad professionals “trapped between the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy.” It’s an essay that veers into satire, such as when the author vividly describes a barre routine as taking the form of “pretend-fucking.” In one of the funniest sentences of the book, she recounts: “[W]e lay on our backs and thrust our hips into the darkness with a sacrificial devotion that I had not applied to actual sex for years.” The eroticization of this form of exercise, on the part of its gurus and marketers, helps sell a grueling process of creating bodies that can not only survive “a hyper-accelerated capitalist life,” but do so while being social-media-ready. “Photogenic personal confidence is key to unlocking the riches of the world,” Tolentino writes, identifying one of the market lessons learned by today’s “ideal woman.”
In that and other essays, Tolentino refers to the phenomenon of “self-surveillance,” or social media users’ willingness to create “a continually updated record for anyone to see.” The hyper-tendency to document and share online countless aspects of existence — from pet photos and meals to geolocations and policy positions — has, for billions of people, become simply part of everyday life. Tolentino reminds us that the opaque and seemingly endless data gathering techniques on the part of tech companies have worn down users’ sense of boundaries surrounding privacy. It seems that while fearing the panopticon we didn’t notice our own enthusiastic submission to a system where self-surveillance and corporate surveillance enjoy a happy synergy. Plus, as Tolentino observes, self-surveillance can be extremely lucrative, as influencers like the Kardashians demonstrate daily.
“The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” is another insightful essay about both the perils of life under late capitalism as well as opportunities for those willing to exploit workers, students, and even patients. Tolentino describes such immediately recognizable fraudulent schemes as the Fyre Festival, the subprime mortgage crisis, and Theranos, the health-care corporation that promised to revolutionize blood-testing. Those who have seen Fyre Fraud, the Hulu documentary that featured Tolentino as a talking head, will be somewhat familiar with her analysis of the music festival as a scam with a particularly millennial flavor. The essay presents a more extensive riff on the theme, showing how a young confidence man, economic precarity, social media marketing, and influencer culture collided to result in the ultimate “there is no there there” event, one that lacked a physical location for almost the entirety of its advertising campaign. Based on news and social media coverage, the fallout of this event clearly struck a nerve. As Tolentino reminds, “it was the most gleefully covered disaster of 2017,” leading to not one but two simultaneously released documentaries and social media pleas for additional films. Unfortunately, the collective schadenfreude of watching the discomfort of mostly wealthy and white millennials hungry for “the ultimate immersive music experience” also deflected public attention from a serious reckoning with Frye Festival’s exploitation of Bahamian workers, which neither documentary centers.
An unexpected but appropriate addition to Tolentino’s list of scams is that of “The Girlbosses,” or public female figures endorsing a brand of feminism that prioritizes individual advancement within neoliberal institutions over structural critique and reform. This pop version of feminism, also known as “lean-in feminism,” is associated with such “She-E-O’s” as Sheryl Sandberg, Gwyneth Paltrow, and Elizabeth Holmes. In Tolentino’s words, this “self-congratulatory empowerment feminism” is highly conducive to corporate-ladder-climbing and self-branding. This is feminism one can package in the form of everything from self-help books to jade vagina eggs and $38 “moon juice.” This is also a binary feminism that says a woman can do no wrong, that powerful women are feminists, and that anything that feels good and right for a woman is inherently feminist. Ideologically simplistic, apolitical, and endlessly adaptable to market values, this form of “feminism” becomes ripe for appropriation, even weaponization, by right-wing pundits against critiques, including ones based on feminist paradigms. Leaning into it, so to speak, means making it difficult to rebuke any woman, including Melania Trump, Ivanka Trump, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, and Kellyanne Conway “without sexism becoming the story,” as Tolentino demonstrates in “The Cult of the Difficult Woman.”
Yet Trick Mirror is also about Tolentino’s own attempt to critically reflect on her complicity in social-media-friendly feminism. As she admits, no doubt referencing her work at Jezebel, “my own career has depended to some significant extent on feminism being monetizable.” Like many other women leading lives that they, at least partially, share on public platforms, Tolentino admits to struggling to live by her feminist commitments in a culture that brands and sells even progressive politics. This is a dilemma that every feminist who writes professionally about feminism must sooner or later face. But it’s not one that can be addressed individually.
An important through-line in the book — one well known to organizers — is that we cannot solve structural problems with individualistic solutions or resources that only affect small groups of socioeconomically privileged women. It’s not surprising then that Tolentino laments that, instead of structural changes, 21st-century women both benefited and suffered from “a bottomless cornucopia of privatized nonsolutions,” be they beauty products, exercise routines, coaching services or “conferences, endless conferences.” Her book ultimately suggests that these are merely “trick mirrors.” To think of them as fixes to sociocultural problems is to succumb to serious self-delusion.