Christian megachurches. Scammers. Barre classes. Hashtag activism. Difficult women. Literary heroines. Frats. Weddings. A 2004 reality show that dropped eight teenagers in Puerto Rico and filmed what happened.
Jia Tolentino describes the essays in Trick Mirror as “nine terrible children.” It’s the first book for this Extremely Online (that is, extremely plugged into the internet) writer, who cut her teeth at women’s website The Hairpin before heading to Jezebel and finally The New Yorker.
Trick Mirror coalesced in the winter of 2017. Tolentino sought subjects that were “not simplistic . . . not easy . . . sufficiently complicated and multidimensional in terms of possible research that it would be fun to work on for this long.” And each essay is long—longer than the meatiest New Yorker profile, even—weighing in at 30 to 40 pages. “I want to say they’re all a little too long,” Tolentino laughs. She says she wanted to “just see where it ended.”
This allowed her to follow her own “meandering” thoughts. “Some of the essays, I think, are very meandering,” she confesses. (That’s true—“Always Be Optimizing,” about the popularity of barre fitness classes, contains digressions on the salad chain Sweetgreen and on Donna Haraway’s essay “A Cyborg Manifesto.”) In that way, Tolentino wrote her book with the freedom of an online essay, where word counts are less constrained and form is less structured—which is the opposite of how many writers approach the print/digital divide.
“One of the most fun things about writing is [that] you get to go down all of these various miscellaneous rabbit holes,” Tolentino explains. Driven by her own emotional and intellectual fascinations, she chose topics “where I could draw widely from other people’s expertise, kind of voraciously and promiscuously from other people.” (These deep dives were powered, she says, by being “a lifetime insomniac.”)
“One of the most fun things about writing is [that] you get to go down all of these various miscellaneous rabbit holes.”
A standout is “We Come from Old Virginia,” her essay about a 2014 article in Rolling Stone. The article told the story of a young woman named Jackie, who alleged she had been gang-raped by members of the University of Virginia’s Phi Kappa Psi frat. The journalist who wrote the piece and her editor later confirmed that they had not spoken with any of the alleged attackers; one character in the story may not have existed.
At the time of this exposé-that-wasn’t, Tolentino had graduated from UVA only a few years earlier and had just started at Jezebel. It would have been easy to write an essay that took a hard line, defending or bashing either Rolling Stone or the college. The emotional nuance she brings instead is, in a word, breathtaking. “I hate the dirty river I’m standing in, not the journalist and the college student who capsized in it,” Tolentino writes in the piece. The essay is not a treatise on journalistic ethics but a thoughtful analysis of the boozy pleasures of the school’s Greek culture, the entrapment of being female in a sexually violent world and the potential malfunctions where activism and journalism intersect.
Tolentino is “always afraid of being unfair or ungenerous” in her writing, she says, and is intentional about “not getting too heavy about things where heaviness is only part of it.” A lot of writing by progressives can border on scolding, but not hers. “You have to understand what the pleasure is in those systems in order to understand why they persist,” she says. “You have to understand why frats feel so good.”
Tolentino’s background as a middle-class young woman of color who had a religious upbringing in the South informs her relationship to feminism, and to all of her writing in this book. A piece about scams, for instance, challenges the “feminist scammer,” which allows Tolentino to unpack her reluctant relationship to the “commercial viability of feminism.”
As a writer who got her start in feminist blogs, she’s baldly honest that “market-friendly feminism,” as she calls it in the essay, is something “I’ve benefited from immensely and wouldn’t have a career if not for.” The struggle in a #GIRLBOSS world, she says, is that “I’m wary about anything that becomes about the performance of ideals. . . . I’m afraid of all of the incentives to [become] more of, like, a ‘personality.’ ”
Conscious of her place in the digital media ecosystem and of her large platform, Tolentino chooses not to perform the role of prominent Twitter feminist, as some of her peers have. “I think there’s just so many systems, particularly for young women, for your persona or your ‘self’ to feel more important than the literal words that you’re writing,” she says. “We love to turn a young woman writer into just, like, a panel figurehead.” She’s uncomfortable with “the feeling of ‘come speak on an event sponsored by this skincare company,’ and all this cross-branding about feminism.”
Instead, she wants to focus on the writing. “If it’s in the realm of work, the work has to be the most important thing,” she says. “Trying to avoid persona-first spaces is how I do that.”
As for future books, Tolentino would love to put her MFA in fiction from the University of Michigan to work. “My secret dream is to write a really weird novel next,” she says.
No matter what happens, she says, “I find writing itself really pleasurable and really amazing and kind of a miracle that I can do it for a living.”
Author photo by © Elena Mudd