‘Feminism is suddenly conventional wisdom in many spheres,’ Jia Tolentino writes in ‘The Cult of the Difficult Woman’, an essay in her debut collection, Trick Mirror. Ignoring the inaccurate ‘suddenly’, the sentiment is correct. It suggests, contra hashtag, that not all women, in all scenarios, need to be extra vigilant for misogynist implications, connotations, deception and predation – that sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Some of us have gained sufficient privilege to assess the possibility that, when we are accused of attention-seeking over-reaction, we might actually be over-reacting for attention.
Yet the spotty acceptance of feminism has created a loophole for women in certain spheres, like media and publishing: claiming to have hurdled sexist obstacles where there were only other kinds of obstacle, we are able to take advantage of a feminist overcorrection. This is consistent with the trick-mirror-like quality of mainstream political and cultural discourse more broadly. The important question lying behind many possibly intractable issues is whether people are serious – whether their stated beliefs are authentic, or merely devised to achieve a certain self-presentation or outcome. Campaign polls, social media, ‘progressive’ politicians, ‘populist’ politicians, journalists invoking ‘free speech’ and ‘democracy’, quack doctors invoking science, your Facebook friends invoking quack doctors, skincare, astrology: clearly, not everything is what it seems, but it’s hard to tell what it actually is.
Some modern critics exploit this uncertainty, grounding their analyses in the stability of conventional moral wisdom even as they bemoan its absence. They emphasise the primacy of emotions and the importance of ‘empathy’ in order to avoid the discomfort of thought and the stakes involved in taking a position. The result is the rise of a style that I’ve taken to calling hysterical criticism – both because it represents an evolution of what James Wood termed ‘hysterical realism’ in fiction and because the word connotes anachronistic misogyny. This girl – sorry, woman – is sexist, you may have thought as soon as you saw my usage. Well, I’m not. These critics aren’t hysterical because they have uncontrollable, misunderstood responses to social problems; they perform hysteria because they know their audience respects the existence of those problems, and the chance that they may be sincere makes them difficult to criticise. Besides, what they’re saying is important. If you don’t believe that yourself, don’t worry, they will tell you so, in terms so personal and heartfelt that you might not notice they are doing just fine. If you do notice, the joke’s still on you: no one cares about critics any more, which they’re very sad about too.
The moral obviousness of most contemporary fiction – and of most movies, art, music, television, politics and internet culture – has been a boon for these writers, who tend to find simple things complicated and complicated things simple. Because understanding and explaining a work or event is in most cases very easy, they can extract quick authority from the exercise and use the rest of their word count to reflect on whatever they please, often on life’s truths and mysteries, employing questionably relevant references and personal anecdotes. At the sentence level, it’s not difficult to understand what hysterical critics are saying; rather, it’s so easy that their lack of precision doesn’t matter. It is harder, by design, to pin it down, which is the reason you’ll often find one throwing up his hands and using some hyperbolic descriptor that is demonstrably false: things are unspeakable, impossible and ineffable despite being spoken, possible and effed, often in the same essay.
‘I wrote this book between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018,’ Tolentino explains in the introduction to Trick Mirror,
a period during which American identity, culture, technology, politics and discourse seemed to coalesce into an unbearable supernova of perpetually escalating conflict, a stretch of time when daily experience seemed both like a stopped elevator and an endless state-fair ride, when many of us regularly found ourselves thinking that everything had gotten as bad as we could possibly imagine, after which, of course, things always got worse.
Throughout this period, 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.
Hysterical critics are self-centred – not because they write about themselves, which writers have always done, but because they can make any observation about the world lead back to their own lives and feelings, though it should be the other way round. A bit like the way, in Tolentino’s understanding, one’s themes can ‘coalesce into’ a supernova, though a supernova is an explosion that follows a star’s collapsing in on itself and results in the ejection, not accumulation, of mass.
Trick Mirror contains nine essays that fluidly combine and recombine discussions of ‘the spheres of public imagination that have shaped my understanding of myself, of this country, and of this era’: ‘the internet’ (by which Tolentino almost always means social media), pop feminist issues, the self, and capitalism, all of them shadowed by the threat of delusions and scams. It isn’t intended to be read as memoir. In 2017, Tolentino wrote a widely shared article for the New Yorker in which she somewhat mournfully observed that, following the election of Donald Trump, ‘the personal-essay boom is over’: ‘Individual perspectives do not, at the moment, seem like a trustworthy way to get to the bottom of a subject.’ She sticks her Facebook profile into the book anyway, though regular readers of her work will already know much of the autobiography she presents here. She grew up attending an evangelical megachurch and attached private school in Houston, did a year-long stint with the Peace Corps in Kyrgyzstan, got an MFA in fiction, and worked at the feminist blogs the Hairpin and Jezebel; she finds two occasions to explain why she attended the University of Virginia. (Don’t worry: she also got into Yale.) She was a cheerleader in high school, joined a sorority in college, enjoys recreational drugs and straightforward books, and has so many friends that she is simply drowning in wedding invitations. If, as she writes of the effects of social media, ‘Capitalism has no land left to cultivate but the self. Everything is being cannibalised – not just goods and labour, but personality and relationships and attention’ – then ‘resistance’ would involve keeping some self to yourself. Tolentino attempts to split the difference by following the example she set as a precocious ten-year-old with an Angelfire website, from which she quotes: ‘I am going to be completely honest about my life, although I won’t go too deeply into personal thoughts, though.’
She primarily uses personal experience to substantiate – rather than ‘get to the bottom of’ – her ideas, though her tendency towards hyperbole has the effect of making them seem entirely subjective. Living in a Kyrgyz village, where society was ‘unjust, brutal, punitive’ and ‘run on what seemed like astonishingly constrictive male terms’, is presumably the most interesting thing she has ever done, but it’s only granted a few pages here and there, mostly to provide imbalanced support for a takeaway at the end of an essay about sexual assault on Western college campuses. (In Kyrgyzstan, she was subject to street harassment, taxi drivers who possibly wanted to kidnap her, and a forcible kiss from her host father. While a student at Virginia, she had her drink spiked with the date-rape drug Rohypnol, and although this would shed more light on the issue at hand, she only offers one sentence about it: ‘Blaming myself for accepting drinks from strangers, and thanking my luck that I’d gotten violently sick shortly after he started touching me, I’d barely talked about the incident, dismissed it as no big deal.’) Twice she mentions having contracted tuberculosis without elaborating. On the other hand, she’s happy to write about her experiences of taking ecstasy:
it can feel like divinity. It can make you feel healed and religious; it can make you feel dangerously wild. What’s the difference? Your world realigns in a juddering oceanic shimmer. You feel that your soul is dazzling, delicate, unlimited; you understand that you can give the best of yourself away to everyone you love without ever feeling depleted. This is what it feels like to be a child of Jesus, in a dark chapel, with stained-glass diamonds floating on the skin of all the people kneeling around you. This is what it feels like to be 22, nearly naked, your hair blowing in the wind as the pink twilight expands into permanence, your body still holding the warmth of the day. You were made to be here. You are depraved, insignificant; you are measureless; you are gorgeous, and you will never not be redeemed.
It’s a pity she distrusts narratives and conclusions; her best material – ‘Reality TV Me’, about appearing on an obscure show; the lively historical research she includes in several essays; the section of ‘Ecstasy’ that deals with her church – consists of traditional narratives that have deception and delusion built in. Similarly, she knows her thirty-year-old self is ‘not a fixed, organic thing, but a dramatic effect that emerges from a performance’, but doesn’t seem to realise that that self will inevitably be expressed no matter how much back-and-forth she submits it to. The other purpose of personal experience in these essays is to act as a kind of disclosure or waiver. It may be risky for a millennial author to declare herself delusional and claim that scamming is ‘the definitive millennial ethos’; it may also keep her from looking like a delusional scammer. For Tolentino, writing is a way to figure out what she thinks and to become a better person. ‘When I feel confused about something, I write about it until I turn into the person who shows up on paper: a person who is plausibly trustworthy, intuitive and clear,’ she says, finally deciding that ‘writing is either a way to shed my self-delusions or a way to develop them.’ If the reader clings to any expectations, Tolentino can’t be blamed: ‘I’m not sure that this inquiry is even productive,’ she notes on page 11.
In order to solve the problem of her possible wrongness, she adopts an elevated version of Roxane Gay’s Bad Feminist programme, constantly contradicting herself and referring to her shortcomings, among which are attention seeking, a desire for control, and equivocation. But where Gay’s ‘flaws’ were supposed to serve as proof of her humanity and therefore provide support for the feminist project of recognising women as humans, Tolentino’s are calibrated for success in a media culture in which acknowledgment equals absolution and absolution is seen as crucial to success. Because no negative realisation about herself seems to keep her from committing the same crime in the next essay, the effect is akin to getting in ahead of criticism, PR-style, in the hope of lessening its impact on the brand. The failings she neglects to mention in the actual book – a bestseller – she managed to cover during the media attention she received around its publication in August, when she wondered ‘if the work that brings me the most meaning in life (writing) will always necessarily bring me deeper into the clutches of the things that I hate (capitalism, and a way of being in which external incentives seem more important than internal ones)’. To quote the actually peerless Helen DeWitt, who, when she couldn’t find a publisher for her difficult novel Your Name Here, sold PDFs of it through her website: ‘Ha ha! Ha ha!’
That you can, as we say on the internet, just not occurs to Tolentino as a theoretical option but not an actual one. In ‘Always Be Optimising’, Tolentino uses the fad for expensive custom salad chains and boutique Pure Barre exercise classes to show how women are ‘genuinely trapped at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy – two systems that, at their extremes, ensure that individual success comes at the expense of collective morality.’ ‘I think the full essay, which is twice as long and probably twice as nuanced, gets more clearly at the fact that of course this is all optional, of course, of course,’ she tweeted in reply to criticism of an abridged version. ‘That’s part of the reason it’s so confounding as it takes hold.’ The excerpt had been published because of what Tolentino elsewhere called ‘the soul-crushing (if also very fortunate) machine of book promotion’, and the ‘full essay’ exhibits a similar dismissal of the likelihood of individual agency when the individual is tempted with social and financial capital, which she correctly identifies as the same thing. I agree up to a point, but that point is far away from the examples she chooses. Concerning ‘the endlessly proliferating applications of the idea that women’s bodies should increase their market performance over time’, the essay describes ‘the psychological parasite of the ideal woman’, who can be ‘whatever she wants to be as long as she manages to act upon the belief that perfecting herself and streamlining her relationship to the world can be a matter of both work and pleasure – of “lifestyle”.’ ‘I like trying to look good,’ Tolentino writes, ‘but it’s hard to say how much you can genuinely, independently like what amounts to a mandate.’ (I get the sense that she must feel overwhelming pity for ugly women, if she has ever met one.)
She concludes ‘Always Be Optimising’ with what she implies is the precious fantasy of Donna Haraway’s ‘tricky’ ‘A Cyborg Manifesto’. According to Tolentino, Haraway ‘imagined that women, formed in a way that makes us inextricable from social and technological machinery, could become fluid and radical and resistant. We could be like cyborgs – shaped in an image we didn’t choose for ourselves, and disloyal and disobedient as a result.’ Tolentino quickly dismisses this as ‘an incredible possibility!’ ‘In real life,’ she says, invoking the false distinction between real life and technology that Haraway explicitly rejects in her essay, ‘women are so much more obedient. Our rebellions are so trivial and small.’ Haraway is a woman who abandoned her study of biology because she realised she did not believe in the concept of cells, so this is probably not the best example to use, but whatever: introducing conflict ‘from within’, Tolentino says, is ‘possible if we want it. But what do we want? What would you want – what desires, what forms of insubordination, would you be able to access – if you had succeeded in becoming an ideal woman, gratified and beloved, proof of the efficiency of a system that magnifies and diminishes you every day?’
Haraway’s optimism derives less from the possibility of revolution than from the possibility of freedom through recognition of the world for what it is: coded, and therefore capable of being recoded. But the idea in Trick Mirror is that we are poor interpreters of ourselves, and because Tolentino makes everything about her, this means she is pretty bad at interpreting other stuff too. Much of the frenetic confusion she feels is a consequence of her overconfident warping of texts and situations. More than once she characterises rational feelings of conflict about what she knows is an ‘endlessly complicated’ issue – the difficulty of living in Kyrgyzstan for a year, say, or her indecision about whether she wants to get married – as ‘going insane’, revealing not only her inability to assess inputs and apply proportion but also her gross misapprehension of the ‘collective morality’ she claims to subscribe to. She is careful to mention her relative ‘luck’ and privilege before she complains, but usually only so that she can justify aligning herself with the suffering of people with whom she has little in common, making her experience seem worse and theirs not that bad. In addition to using the awkward word ‘affianced’ to mean ‘engaged to be married’ multiple times (in the same essay), she maintains a smugly retrograde understanding of the mind that would be funny if it weren’t so offensive.
In ‘Reality TV Me’, she interviews one of her co-stars, noting that she found the woman on ‘Facebook, where she was documenting, gracefully, a month in outpatient therapy for bipolar II’. When she gets her on the phone, Tolentino remembers why the woman ‘had been reality TV catnip. She was still unabashed, a chatterbox, ready to tell you anything.’ (The woman presents a much clearer and more self-aware version of their shared experience than Tolentino, who feigns uncertainty about how she appeared on the show even as she admits to having tormented the other cast member.) Elsewhere, Tolentino characterises a woman who is manifestly mentally ill as exhibiting ‘casually deranged’ behaviour and then snoops through her dormant online wedding registry, checking off the embarrassingly tacky items she requested. Tolentino admits to having resented both of these women, but they are redeemed in her eyes once she can instrumentalise their disorders in support of her theories about what society does to people. In the end, Tolentino suggests that she suffers the same kind of ‘fevered derangement’ as they do: because they are women.
In ‘Pure Heroines’, her survey of female protagonists in literature, Tolentino laments that ‘literary children are the only characters I’ve ever really identified with’ because ‘those girls are all so brave, where adult heroines are all so bitter,’ and many of them eventually kill themselves. She acknowledges that literature is not real life, but also notes that ‘the stories we live and the stories we read are to some degree inseparable.’ ‘Of course, most protagonists are unhappy,’ she writes. ‘But heroes are mostly unhappy for existential reasons; heroines suffer for social reasons, because of male power, because of men.’ Men have always died by suicide in significantly greater numbers than women, a discrepancy that can only be attributed to ‘social reasons’. A mechanism does exist that would alleviate some of this desperation – Tolentino just doesn’t say much about it. In September, she told AnOther Magazine: ‘One common question that people have asked is why are there no solutions in the book … For me, it was this self-evident reason that I had never even articulated to myself, which is that … if there is a solution to the system itself, it’s at … the level of policy and politics, it’s not at the level of individual choice.’ This must be why her analyses of policy and politics consist mainly of summaries of the news, the extensive quotation of other writers’ work, the melodrama of what amounts to consumer choice (capitalism having cannibalised everything), and the elegant avoidance of stating her conservative opinions directly.
In her essay on weddings and marriage, ‘I Thee Dread’, she laments how difficult it is ‘to get straight women to accept the reality of marriage’. Like her earlier suggestion that she was too cool to get an eating disorder at high school, when all her peers were ‘transmit[ting] anorexia and bulimia to one another like a virus’, this comment is designed to set her apart from the women she is happy to refer to as ‘we’ when it’s time to claim the perk of powerlessness in the face of Pure Barre. But the problem with marriage is not that the institution is unavoidably sexist; it’s that it makes life unavoidably disadvantageous for unmarried people. By twisting marriage’s sexist origins so that they bolster her self-conception as someone trapped and under threat, Tolentino fails to see the reason that American culture is ‘organised through marriage and weddings’ – not because all her friends and acquaintances organise elaborate nuptials, but because marriage confers rights, among them securities like the kind of health insurance she cites as a ‘luxury’ in another essay. The things she fears about straight marriage – ‘the wife’s diminishment’, men’s careers taking precedence, the fact that ‘when a man and a woman combine their unpaid domestic obligations under the aegis of tradition, the woman usually ends up doing most of the work’ – are no different from the hypothetical drawbacks of relationships like her own: she is one half of a long-term, cohabiting, monogamous, heterosexual couple who share a credit card and a dog, and, according to an interview, recently bought a house together.
Tolentino dismisses Fifty Shades of Grey – in which a woman is ‘absolved, by romance, from having to forge a path into the future’ – but seductive ideas about dominance and submission appear throughout Trick Mirror. Her boyfriend loads the dishwasher ‘with a fervour that borders on organisational BDSM’. Her retelling of the Samson and Delilah story quotes Milton’s Samson critically – ‘Foul effeminacy held me yoked/Her bond-slave’ – but she also suggests that Delilah was in that position, but in a kind of good way: as ‘the power she seized was inextricable from the expectation that she would be powerless.’ She uses the word ‘flog’ in the colloquial British sense, meaning ‘sell’, multiple times, which is unusual, as she is American and I read the American edition of her book. ‘After all’, she writes of her ‘dead-end sense of my own ethical brokenness’, ‘it only took about seven years of flogging my own selfhood on the internet to get to a place where I could comfortably afford to stop using Amazon to save fifteen minutes and five dollars at a time.’
The double meaning is surely intentional, designed to suggest that anyone trying to sell you something is also trying to dominate you. But the way Tolentino positions herself in this relation – the dominant flogger – would seem at odds with the content of the statement, which is that because of forces beyond her control, the hard-pressed young writer more or less had to use Amazon, and the only way she could manage to earn enough money to stop was by selling herself online. Setting aside the idea that she was so hard-up she couldn’t ‘afford’ to stop using Amazon until very recently, the sentiment is a model of the power relations that operate in the ‘spheres of public imagination’ that concern Tolentino, and it illuminates the widespread oversimplification of them that leads to much of the confusion she says she feels. (Several authors, including Sally Rooney, Garth Greenwell and Kristen Roupenian, have used BDSM to dramatise such shifting power relations in recent fiction.) In many understandings of BDSM, if all goes well, the sub has some power. After dictating their safe words and limits, they just have to do what they’re told, or else sit/lie/hang there. (A friend of mine jokes that her sexuality is ‘lazy’.) Meanwhile, the dom is responsible for coming up with sexy, scary things to do and precisely calibrating the experience so that it does not cross the line into actual harm. The explicit dom/sub power relation can be a fantasy of mindless obligation for an adult possessing wide-ranging freedom, who perceives everything she does to have, as Tolentino writes, ‘stakes’. ‘Helplessness was often a way of exercising power,’ a character in one of Rooney’s novels says.
Of course, it also hurts. Tolentino’s comparisons of barre classes to BDSM fall flat because she describes the exercise as a utilitarian pursuit; and yet, unless you’re getting paid for it, being whipped during sex does not seem to serve a material end. For the analogy to work, engaging in BDSM cannot be a purely personal experience: it has to, for example, make you seem cool, which is the reason it has lately become a meme on social media as well as providing outfit inspiration for doltish celebrities, finance guys and Silicon Valley types. Masochism is commonly explained as a desire for an intensity of experience, wanting to ‘feel something’, or a guilty desire for punishment. Tolentino posits both in a New Yorker piece from 2019 called ‘Love, Death, and Begging for Celebrities to Kill You’. The piece examines the fashion for teenagers and young millennials to post on social media that they want celebrities to kill or maim them in unlikely ways, e.g., ‘harry styles run me over with a truck.’ (This is very common.) ‘Devotion,’ Tolentino writes, ‘tends to invite agony.’ The conclusion of the piece has her walking on a beach after attending a ‘rowdy’ music festival with nine people (good for you), idly wishing she could die. ‘For me, the capacity to experience such unfettered pleasure – the fact of having the time and capital and freedom required for it, at a time when we know that so many people’s lives are worsening – is often what instigates the murmur of guilt,’ she writes. The ending of the piece turns to impending climate doom, subtly reframing her good fortune as something virtuous: Tolentino is so devoted to the world that she feels pain at its suffering, especially because it is in some way caused by ‘my delivery packages’. She thinks ‘about how much plastic I have put on this planet, how much labour I have exploited for the sake of my own convenience’. Her desire to die, she writes, is a desire for ‘a sensation strong enough to silence itself’, which, she notes, is kind of like love. ‘When you love something so much that you dream of emptying yourself out for it,’ she writes in Trick Mirror, using Simone Weil to suggest that a DJ’s drug overdose was in some way sublime, ‘you’d be forgiven for wanting to let your love finish the job.’
It seems unlikely that most people who overdose on drugs intend themselves as sacrifices to their beloved substances, but Tolentino dislikes darkness. A compulsion to self-harm also reflects a desire to control, through displaced understanding, a destructive feeling that is otherwise uncontrollable and hard to comprehend. ‘I started wanting things to happen to me, as if to prove to myself that I wasn’t crazy, wasn’t hallucinating,’ Tolentino writes of her last months in Kyrgyzstan, when she says she felt truly powerless for the first time in her life. Like being punched in the face, there is nothing redemptive about powerlessness when it isn’t chosen. Pleading for a celebrity to kill you on social media seems less like displaced guilt or self-obsession and more like a displaced desire for the painfully conditional attention people tend to seek there; as Tolentino writes, attention-seeking is always part of a person’s social media presence.
Social media is most often thought of as self-harm in the context of ‘hate-reading’ or the stalking of exes and enemies: the wilful seeking out of content you know will make you feel bad. But its mechanics are masochistic, too. When I post something on Twitter or Instagram, I offer a small part of myself up for judgment, requesting acknowledgment of my existence even as I seem to empty myself willingly into the crowd, putting myself at its mercy. (Sometimes it’s not a request so much as a demand, as when periodic reminders to ‘follow and retweet more women’ circulate.) A superficial self-effacement – look at how pathetic I am, posting my dumb thoughts on this dumb platform so that people even dumber than I am can use them without crediting me, all for a scrap of attention – camouflages the agency involved in my being there in the first place. ‘For anyone to see you, you have to act,’ Tolentino writes. The hope is never that I will actually disappear into the crowd – it’s that I will rise above it and, through amplification of the dramatic effect, become more myself, rather than less. If Harry Styles ran me over with a truck, that would be extraordinary. Countless articles would be written about it. The way I’m perceived would be out of my hands. Plus, even though I told him to do it, Harry would probably feel extremely guilty. His life might even be changed by my death.
‘How is it possible that so much of contemporary life feels so arbitrary and so inescapable?’ she asks at the end of Trick Mirror. If contemporary life is dictated by the mutually agreed-on ‘systems’ Tolentino invokes repeatedly, it cannot really be ‘arbitrary’, but then the most important word in that question is ‘feels’. That is always the beginning and end of her analysis. There’s nothing wrong with feelings – I have them all the time. But they’ve always been used to trap women because of their essential trickiness: they may lead you to the truth or away from it, or they may send you running round it in a hysterical circle. Tolentino’s elective self-confinement is supposed to make her seem like a martyr, but what she sells is not herself; it’s a shoddy mode of thinking that says everything a person does carries a heavy moral burden but also remains a matter of ‘survival’ rather than a demonstration of priorities and desires. She presents the contemporary as so contemporary that you need an expert to figure it out, and her foregone successes as proof of her suitability for the job.
It’s always been fashionable to announce that what Sontag called ‘serious’ intellectual culture is dead or dying. Now, it’s supposed to be a result of what’s inaccurately referred to as ‘the algorithm’, but as Tolentino acknowledges, before she ploughs on with the analysis regardless, ‘people have been carping in this way for many centuries.’ What’s truly amazing about these times is that we have more access than ever before to material that demonstrates the continuity and repetitiveness of history, including evidence of the insistence by critics of all eras that this time is different, yet so many still buy into the pyramid scheme that we are special. It is both self-aggrandising and self-exonerating; it feels right. What seems self-evident to me is that public writing is always at least a little bit self-interested, demanding, controlling and delusional, and that it’s the writer’s responsibility to add enough of something else to tip the scales away from herself. For readers hoping to optimise the process of understanding their own lives, Tolentino’s book will seem ‘productive’. But those are her terms. No one has to accept them.