Book Review: ‘Trick Mirror: Reflections In Self-Delusion’ by Jia Tolentino
Distilling a good book into a single review is an awkward endeavour. You will almost always come up short, and then feel like you’re doing the author a disservice. But the thing is: I really, really want you to read Jia Tolentino’s ‘Trick Mirror: Reflections In Self-Delusion’, so here we are!
Tolentino has been called many things: “Pop culture powerhouse”….“The Joan Didion of our time”…“The best young essayist at work in the United States”. But none of those titles mean anything if you haven’t experienced her work and felt the visceral reaction that comes from reading a perfect articulation of the stuff that keeps you up at night (identity, the pursuit of beauty, capitalism, the Internet, mortality), as well as all the stuff you’ve literally never thought about and now wonder why the hell you haven’t. Yes, Tolentino may just be the best young essayist at work – in any country.
The chapters that made me want to write this review (and essentially coerce you into reading Tolentino’s book) were wide-ranging. There was the chapter on the intersection between identity and the Internet: Tolentino believes that one of the reason’s the Internet has become so addictive is because it creates a mirage of a “better online self”, where even though we are becoming increasingly sad and ugly on the Internet, there are enough reward mechanisms (such as Instagram ‘Likes’) to keep us in a co-dependent relationship with it: “That’s why everyone tries to look so hot and well-travelled on Instagram…” In the same chapter, Tolentino introduced me to a term called “virtue-signalling” which she claims we’re all guilty of to some degree. A good example of virtue-signalling is when a celebrity dies and people post the suicide hotline on their Instagram Story, or someone shares photos from a protest against border family separation – yes they are expressions of genuine sympathy, but they’re also microscopically meaningful actions and, inescapably, an attempt to signal to the rest of the world that you’re a good person: “People write about women “speaking out” with prayerful reverence, as if speech itself can bring women freedom – as if better policies and economic redistribution and true investment from men aren’t necessary too.”
My favourite chapter was on something Tolentino has cleverly labelled “self-optimisation”; the cultural phenomenon that insists that everything, including our appearance, should become more efficient and beautiful until the day we die. As a generation we’ve talked around this idea and the pursuit of perfection a lot but we’ve never really looked at it head-on or taken responsibility for how we’ve contributed to the problem. Tolentino speaks about the usual suspects like Instagram, “Where ordinary faces are routinely photographed for quantifiable approval, hence why beauty is of paramount importance”, but she also cleverly points out that “old requirements of a woman’s appearance, instead of being overthrown, are rebranded. Beauty work is now labelled “self-care” to make it sound progressive.” And because of that sneaky little rebranding, we think of self-care as natural, mandatory and feminist – which ironically only adds more pressure. We’re at this weird moment in history where it’s now politically correct to tell everyone they’re beautiful, and that beauty is something everyone can be and feel. But the issue, as Tolentino points out, is that “We have hardly tried to imagine what it might look like if our culture could do the opposite – deescalate the situation and make beauty matter less.” She’s right: for all the progress we’ve made in the body positivity movement, the move to ban photoshop or the rise of “no-makeup makeup” brands like Glossier, wouldn’t it be a hell of a lot easier if we just didn’t talk or care about beauty at all?
Other chapters covered topics as broad as famous female characters that fuelled the belief that women should be defined by, not expected to reach beyond, their circumstances: “In the best-known romance series, girls are as passive and blank as tofu, waiting to take on the pungency of someone else’s life. Bella Swan, the heroine of Twilight, and Anastasia Steele, the heroine of Fifty Shades of Grey are, in a sense, the same character.” And as nuanced as her upbringing in a church and how being raised as an evangelical Christian felt a lot like her experiences taking ecstasy. Tolentino’s book reminded me of that saying: “A fish in water doesn’t know that it’s wet.” ‘Trick Mirror’ reminds us how difficult it is to stand back and see ourselves as we really are, especially when we live in a culture so obsessed with the always-glorified, capital S, Self.
And – for what it’s worth – it was Zadie Smith who called Tolentino “The Joan Didion of our time”. So there’s that.