Trick Mirror

Book Cover of Trick Mirror by Jia TolentinoThere’s something oddly satisfying reading an essay without a clear and conclusive ending – it’s as though we’re able to watch as the writer makes their way through the question, wading in and trying to figure it out, only to end up mired in all the muck but at least better able to see the muck in which they are stuck. It’s not necessarily a feeling of despair that this inconclusiveness dregs up, so much as the feeling that the journey itself is well worth the effort, that knowing what mess you’re in is half the battle. Part of me is so used to having essays and articles wrap up neatly, tell me how to fix the issue, what I can do to become part of the solution, that it’s almost refreshing to see that sometimes we don’t have all the answers yet, and there’s maybe no “right” way the author can provide me. And that’s how I feel about Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, which is an absolute delight to read, though frustrating at times precisely because while Tolentino picks apart social issues, she doesn’t necessarily give it back to us in one piece, or put back together in any way. Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying this detracts from the delight I get from the essays, at all: it makes them shine even brighter.

Shortly after reading Trick Mirror, a Buzzfeed article published earlier this year ended up in my feeds: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation by Anne Helen Peterson, on the relationship between millennials and burnout. As I was reading, I couldn’t help but notice how well it complemented one of the essays in Trick Mirror: Always Be Optimizing. Whereas Always Be Optimizing discusses the ways in which women, buying into a commodified feminism*, end up swallowed by the “ideal woman” they strive to become and entering into a cycle of trying to win the game that is the systemic oppression of women, The Burnout Generation talks about a similar phenomenon where constant self-optimization in every area of their lives, including – or perhaps especially in the realm of – self-care, has given millennials burnout**.

What I find particularly interesting is that in both of these pieces, as I mention above, a clear-cut solution is not available for our neat consumption at their conclusions: both Tolentino and Peterson recognize the system and the ways in which it is unhealthy and exploitative, and yet… both of them remain fairly stuck in the roles they explore in their writing. Which I think is actually fairly representative of the way in which many of us who consider ourselves to be well informed or critical of the society in which we live, continue to live within the framework. For Tolentino, the solution would be “to follow the cyborg… to be willing to be disloyal, to undermine. The cyborg is powerful because she grasps the potential in her own artificiality, because she accepts without question how deeply it is embedded in her”, but all the iterations Tolentino cites of this cyborg (e.g. Her, Morgan, Ex Machina, etc.) end when the female cyborgs kill their (male) creators, which isn’t toooo helpful as far as giving us a framework of what life could look like after upending the current system***. And Tolentino recognizes this, too:

It’s 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?

It’s hard to even know what exactly it is that you want if you try to remove what society pushes your way and tells you you’re supposed to enjoy (and what if a woman actually enjoys doing the housework, cleaning, looking “pretty” according to the standards society has set forth in spectacularly narrow terms? How would you even know?).**** This nebulous and inchoate future remains beyond our grasp, and it’s actually somewhat comforting after Tolentino criticizes the systematic branding and commodification of women’s self-care (by which I’m referring not to the bougie Self-Care but actual caring of one’s self in the form of minding one’s health & general well-being), because it’d be almost a bit suspect if she had neatly packaged a cure to sell to women (in another meta participation in the endless cycle she is at the same time critical of and cognizant of being a part of).

On the other hand (or perhaps on the same hand), Peterson concludes: “I don’t have a plan of action, other than to be more honest with myself about what I am and am not doing and why, and to try to disentangle myself from the idea that everything good is bad and everything bad is good”, which, sure, but isn’t really much of a solution to the reader who already knows this. It’s frustrating, but I feel like the acknowledgement of these questions is already an improvement: if we can name it, we can address it and see how to move forward by becoming able to refer to it in a consistent manner.*~ And so with many of the essays in Trick Mirror, where solutions are vague if at all outlined, and the journey of exploring a question is the main purpose of the essay. It’s an essay in the style of Montaigne, in a way – un essai, a try, a probing of a subject.

*See also this article from Lithub: The Creepy Dissonance of Reading Trick Mirror in a ‘Self-Care’ Book Club by Ruth Madievsky. The – I think? – unironic choice of reading Trick Mirror in a self-care book club taking place in a natural cosmetics store, a book club that is the result of a self-care brand whose target audience is millennial women that, wait for it, partners with Sweetgreen. (If you have yet to read Always Be Optimizing, Tolentino specifically targets Sweetgreen as one of the salad-bar chains that functions as a cog in the cycle where you are scarfing down pre-chopped salad so you can optimize your time and be more efficient in everything for the sake of being able to (do your job and) afford to eat at a place like Sweetgreen: the dream. I’m sure everyone can think of at least one overworked coworker who eats at their desk in order to become more efficient and optimize their time.)

Also, one of the last lines of this article, “We need reckoning” reminded me to link you to The Reckonings by Lacy M. Johnson as well. It’s an exploration of what justice might look like.

**This has been followed up with another article illustrating how burnout looks for 16 different people; she also discusses the ways in which this is different still for women specifically with their “second shift”; another follow-up article by a different author noted that black women also experience burnout differently. Which kind of leads into another discussion on the commodification of self-care, which is sometimes touted as a radical act, and in certain respects can be (especially when thinking about, for example, the original population described by the coining of this phrase by Audre Lorde in Burst of Light: “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare”.) but not necessarily in terms of the ever-bougier market of creams, lotions, and masques that can be purchased to make you a better version of yourself, without thinking about how self-care might actually function as political warfare, or the historical context out of which that sentiment arose. I feel like this is a slightly larger topic than I’d like to tackle in a footnote, but here’s some recommended reads to contemplate the commodification of the political act of self-care: The Politics of Self-Care (The New Yorker); Soak, Steam, Spritz: It’s All Self-Care (The New York Times); and The Body is Not an Apology by Sonya Renee Taylor (which I actually wrote about here).

***… unless that’s what she meant. I don’t think that’s what she meant. It could be. Read The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls by Mona Eltahawy.

****While I’m on the topic, I should also note that a rejection of everything that is advertised to you is also not necessarily a viable or healthy way of living and can demonstrate just as much as following along mindlessly the strength of socially transmitted expectations or performances of femininity. Tolentino also notes this in retelling some of her experiences of this in her youth: “I had avoided the hang-ups that seemed to be endemic, but anytime my friends talked about diets or exercise, I could still feel a compulsive strain prickling to life within me, a sudden desire to skip a meal and do sit-ups. To avoid it, I avoided the gym, and kept eating like a stoner” (Always Be Optimizing), because what she had come to understand of health could basically be reduced to: health = discipline (diets, strict exercise regimes) = punishment. Not quite a cyborg-like rejection of societal norms, because I suppose the cyborg would accept that she has absorbed a number of lessons about femininity and what is required of it, and be able to move forward knowing that influence is there but also not rejecting everything to do with it as a matter of course (e.g. healthy eating habits, exercise).

*~And of course I can’t possibly write this without referring you to Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique (e-audiobook only, though we have Stephanie Coontz’s A Strange Stirring).

I’m sure you’ll be mighty disappointed that there aren’t another 1500+ words following the above to supplement the review, but I feel like my footnotes this time around have grown more than I realized they would (i.e. more than usual, even, given my love of them), so I’ll just leave you with a couple of recommended reads instead:

  • All of the ones I list in my notes ^^
  • Kids These Days: Human Capital and the Making of Millennials by Malcolm Harris, which is referenced in The Burnout Generation
  • The Towers of Babylon by Michelle Kaeser sounds like a fun read, is written by a Canadian author, and takes place in Toronto! Focusing on Gen Y individuals who are trying to live the lives they’ve been promised after having put in the work they’ve been told would take them there, The Towers of Babylon explores, as another title declares, “The Theft of a Decade” (by Joseph C. Sternberg).

There’s more, for sure, but I think I’ll stop here this time