This week we're taking a closer look at Powell's Pick of the Month Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino.
Jia Tolentino’s dazzling debut is one of the most fluid, insightful, and exciting essay collections that I’ve ever read. Comparisons to Joan Didion are both inevitable and totally deserved. — Keith M.
It’s not a spoiler to share that Tolentino ends her thoughtful, fraught collection with the admission, “I have always accommodated everything I wish I were opposed to.” This conflict between striving for a more just life for herself as a woman — in which beauty, consumerism, and submission are not the keys to social value — and half-knowingly giving in to those ideals in order to be happy forms the core of Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion
. As Tolentino takes the reader through a rigorous exploration of Internet culture, reality TV, literary heroines, wedding culture, and more, she, and swiftly the reader too, are confronted with a difficult existential question: What are the traps that patriarchy and 21st-century feminism have created for women, and do women want to escape them?
To be clear, Tolentino doesn’t assert Trick Mirror
as a feminist text. It is, instead, a very personal book that uses literary criticism, pop culture analysis, and feminist cultural theory as a way to write into the self. As the title suggests, Tolentino finds herself wondering if her predilections, prejudices, behaviors, and even reasoned arguments are natural reflections of who she is, or justifications for how she chooses to negotiate a society in which privileged, high-achieving women are expected to do and think certain things to maintain that status. As her New Yorker
pieces have established, Tolentino is a brilliant pop culture critic, and Trick Mirror
is a trenchant analysis of feminism at its most mainstream; in different ways, the essays here explore and often undermine the dominant narratives we’re told about women, with neither patriarchal tradition nor the widely accepted form of feminism that sees Kim Kardashian valorized for wearing sexy maternity clothes coming out unscathed. As Tolentino notes in arguably the collection’s finest chapter, “Always Be Optimizing,” “Figuring out how to ‘get better’ at being a woman is a ridiculous and often amoral project.” It is also often the goal at the heart of traditional and feminist discourses.
Tolentino’s self-awareness means that very few of her arguments are solved at chapter’s end, and this is Trick Mirror
’s central strength; rightly suspicious of people who claim to have the answers to messy social problems like self-interest and inequality, Tolentino asks herself why she feels the way she does, and traces both her autobiography and the historical, intellectual, and popular movements that have led to and provide the context for her opinions. At a time when so many of us are bewildered to find ourselves uncomfortably poised between the superficial aspirationalism of Instagram and the political embodiment of that algorithm made flesh, Tolentino is a wisely unsteady and enlivening guide to the difficult questions it benefits us to ask, even as it hurts us to answer them.
Check out the rest of our Picks of the Month here