To Thine Own Self Be True

Digital Navel-Gazing in Jia Tolentino’s ‘Trick Mirror’

Perhaps the most striking passage from Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion is from the essay “Reality TV Me,” where essayist Jia Tolentino recounts the time she was on a reality TV show when she was 16. In her essay reflecting on her experience, Tolentino writes:

“Reality TV simultaneously freed me from and tethered me to self-consciousness by making self-consciousness inextricable from everything else. This was useful, if dubious, preparation for a life wrapped up with the internet. I felt the same thing watching the show that I do when I’m on the train in New York, scrolling through Twitter, thinking on the one hand: Where are we underneath all of this arbitrary self-importance? And on the other: Aren’t we all exactly as we seem?

Your reflection is not you, but it’s the only version of yourself you’ll ever see. So what do you put out into the world: you, or your reflection? In Trick Mirror, New Yorker staff writer Tolentino’s first book of essays out now, it’s both, whether you filter that “reflection” through your social media profiles, your religion, your media consumption, or your brand-consumption habits.

Tolentino herself is a conglomeration of ideas that some would think are diametrically opposed. The daughter of Filipino immigrants, she grew up partly in Canada before settling into a comfortable childhood in Houston in the shadow of a Baptist megachurch—a faith she left once she began to see its hypocrisies. She was a deputy editor at Jezebel, yet began to get the feeling that that site’s feminist tone itself became a sort of agitprop. Her fondness for delving into contradictions and confusion, especially in her own life, is part of what makes this essay collection so endearing.

The best essays here all deal with how we’re always performing for other people, specifically online. The first essay, “The ‘I’ in Internet,” starts at the early days of “surfing the net,” where organic communities popped up that were mostly harmless fun. It ends with an explanation of how those communities of the early internet gave way to social media, and all of its toxicity and artificiality. In between, Tolentino takes detours to discuss personhood, the concept of the self, #MeToo and #GamerGate, all while acknowledging her role online and the fact that the internet has provided her with a living.

Jia Tolentino author photo by Elena Mudd.

“The call of self-expression turned the village of the internet into a city, which expanded at time-lapse speed, social connections bristling like neurons in every direction. At ten, I was clicking around a web ring to check out other Angelfire sites full of animal GIFs and Smash Mouth trivia. At twelve, I was writing five hundred words a day on a public LiveJournal. At fifteen, I was uploading photos of myself in a miniskirt to MySpace. By twenty-five, my job was to write things that would attract, ideally, a hundred thousand strangers per post. Now I’m thirty, and most of my life is inextricable from the internet, and its mazes of incessant forced connection—this feverish, electric, unlivable hell.”

That examining tone permeates the rest of the essays in Trick Mirror. In “Always Be Optimizing,” Tolentino shows how the modern athleisure movement is a capitalistic upholding of the beauty myth that says women’s bodies should only get better as time goes on, while recognizing her continued participation in barre classes. “Ecstasy” combines of Houston chopped and screwed hip-hop, MDA, and megachurch hypocrisy into a euphoric, stained-glass examination of the addicted American soul. Yet she writes that she’s thankful she grew up religious: “It gave me a need to continually investigate my own ideas about what it means to be good.”

In “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams,” she argues that while Fyre Fest was dubbed the “first millennial scam,” millennials have been scammed since their coming of age, first with the 2008 crash, all the way through the rise of social media and the outcome of the 2016 election, which was “an incontrovertible, humiliating vindication of of scamming as the quintessential American ethos.”

The masterful, lyrical Tolentino guides the reader through these arguments and observations with a sure hand, always tying all the pieces together in unexpected ways. At the heart of all of this is her insightful prose and unwillingness to accept anything anyone says, including herself, as the truth. If her observations come off as cynical, it’s because they come from a perspective that values cutting through the bullshit above everything else. Aren’t we all exactly as we seem?

“Throughout the [period of writing this book], I found that I could hardly trust anything that I was thinking. A doubt that always hovers in the back of my mind intensified: that whatever conclusions I might reach about myself, my life, and my environment are just as likely to be diametrically wrong as they are to be right,” she writes in the introduction to Trick Mirror. “In this book, I tried to undo [these essays’] act of refraction. I wanted to see the way I would see in a mirror.”

Are any of us truly knowable, even to ourselves? That’s a timeless question, but in 2019, when we’re all Extremely Online, it feels urgent. But thankfully we have Tolentino to write about it.

 (Random House, Aug. 6, 2019)

Jake Harris

Jake Harris is a Texas-based journalist whose writing about pop culture and entertainment has appeared in the Austin American-Statesman, the Chattanooga Times Free Press, the Nashville Scene and more. You can find more of his writings at jakeharrisbog.com or through his pop culture newsletter, Jacob's Letter.

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