The first time I ever heard of Jia Tolentino was when an editor at our college newspaper branded me the Jia Tolentino of my class of columnists. I didn’t know who she was at the time, and I also didn’t know who I was at the time, so I googled her, assuming our similarity lay in a willingness to divulge extremely personal details to the internet. Instead, I found a writer whose content was remarkably outward facing; it appeared Tolentino was tasked with glossing extremely topical cultural phenomena and breaking them down to an audience that had self- consciously aged out of their impact radius. In other words, I found someone who had my dream job, synthesizing seemingly inexplicable cultural phenomena into symptoms of a current delirium that she diagnoses everyone of: one characterized by social media usage, fast casual restaurants, and the election of Donald Trump.
Though my initial interest in Tolentino’s work was motivated by a desire to understand who I was, or at least who I appeared to be through my writing, I struggled to locate an organizing principle or specialty in her work. For the Columbia Spectator, I wrote about whatever was bothering me the most that week. I preferred to divulge strictly issues in my private life rather than partake in the expressly political content my peers were writing. But Tolentino seemed to write about everything: the teenage Juuling epidemic, Melania Trump’s terrifying Christmas decorations, or Harvey Weinstein’s trial. The more I read, however, the more I became aware of a consistent gesture in the background of her pieces. Regardless of the particular instance or phenomenon they feature, by the end Tolentino has managed to render it a symbol of the times, or more specifically, a symbol of the indecipherable nature of the times. Rather than choosing topics that explain or clarify the zeitgeist, Jia identifies things as epicenters of confusion, objects that serve as potential clues about a presupposed general delirium that we all live inside.
One clue she identifies as such is the Juul. In “The Promise of Vaping and the Rise of Juul,” she dilates Juul into a representation of our millennial exceptionalism. The article is an exhaustive explanation of Juul’s meteoric rise and the implications of the new generation of nicotine addiction it spawned. By combining teenage testimonials, public health statements, and interviews with Juul HQ executives, Tolentino explains the phenomenology of Juul to an audience that grew up on cigarettes, thereby functioning as an inter-generational liaison. I can picture myself reading her piece about Juuling in Butler Library, where our nicotine team meets for practice. Though I am nowhere near the demographic that learned about Juul from the New Yorker, Tolentino’s didactic take on millennials (or zoomers, or whatever we are), was not wasted on me. As I scanned the room, catching clandestine puffs of vapor hovering above heads, I felt comforted by the notion that the scene before me demanded some sort of explanation, or perhaps demystification.
Tolentino begins by relating her research on what Juul is, and the astronomical popularity of this product among people my age and younger. She then summarizes her findings by pronouncing that we youths had “invented a new kind of bad habit, molded in [our] image.” This doesn’t necessarily qualify as a demystification, but it does articulate a latent anxiety: that we have a new image or reality to mold our vices to. That in a world where even the time-honored bodily experience of smoking tobacco can be thrust into full digital incomprehensibility, perhaps there is value in having a writer like Tolentino at one’s fingertips. Tolentino validates an intuitive anxiety that making sense of our current moment might be an exceptionally difficult task in a world where carcinogens come in crème brûlée flavor. Though I am aware that there has never existed a generation of people that didn’t feel similarly about the circumstances of their youth, writing my senior thesis during the COVID-19 pandemic has lent Tolentino’s insistence on the particular absurdity of these times some credence. Relying on this backdrop of broader chaos, she writes as a representative of the Millennial Mind, using our shared anxieties to analyze generational behaviors. Somehow, as a “blogger-cum-critic” (Vogue), she meets a version of T.S. Eliot’s gold standard of authorship: her thoughts are taken to represent a reality much broader than her own. People read her writing in order to gain a better understanding of the reality they are living in. However, she completely refuses Eliot’s insistence that the poet “self-sacrifice” in order to “become only a medium, not a personality.”
This is the Tolentino I first encountered: a reverse archaeologist working to demystify the present by identifying potential information within contemporary artifacts. This is the closest approximation of a job title I could come up for her—in “The World of Jia Tolentino” The New Yorker’s editor David Remnick describes her purview at the publication as “intricate portraits of fluctuating cultural norms and individual roles,” whatever that means. In practice, it means that she writes anything from book reviews to vaping investigations, miscellaneous topical aggregates that combine to “make her work uncommonly rewarding.” Remnick also writes that “at their core, her pieces speak to us because they raise profound questions about the assumptions we often make about one another.” As I felt rewarded by the comparison to Tolentino, as well as by reading her work, I wanted to investigate her privileged position as cultural critic. I wanted to track the changes that allowed Tolentino to aggregate enough authority to convincingly “speak to us” as an us from a remarkably personal subjectivity. In this spirit of semi-envious inquiry, I turn to her 2019 collection of essays, Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion.
The opening line of the introduction– “I wrote this book between the spring of 2017 and the fall of 2018”– immediately establishes the scope of the delusions she will be reflecting on. Her Eliot-esque authority to speak on the times is invoked immediately. The title “Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion” speaks to us from outside our delusions about our delusions while also plausibly referring to Tolentino’s own delusions. But can she still have delusions? The economy of delusion does not permit one to know about their delusion and be actively deluded at the same time. Writing a book about one’s own delusions necessarily implies a distance from them, or a return to truth. This confusing snafu is captured in an anxiety Tolentino shares early on, in the introduction of the book:
Throughout this period, I found 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, my environment are just as likely to be diametrically wrong as they are to be right. This suspicion is hard for me to articulate closely, in part because I usually extinguish it by writing (i).
Tolentino’s struggle to place herself inside her matrix of delusion begins as early as the first page of the introduction. Her anxiety about being right (and its drastic alternative: being wrong) demonstrates the trickiness of talking about cultural phenomena in terms of delusion, because that type of language definitionally adheres to a logic of right and wrong. She explains that writing helps her “extinguish” this anxiety of being wrong or deluded, taking pains to introduce the Jia Tolentino who appears in Trick Mirror as a “person who shows up on paper: a person who is plausibly intuitive, trustworthy, and clear” (i).
This introduction functions as a disclaimer of sorts; it reveals the Jia Tolentino “who shows up on paper” as a contrived figure whose clarity and trustworthiness are strategically composed by a much less confident author. Early on, she takes pains to disclaim the authenticity in her own self-construction—one might say she kills the author—and explains doing so as a method of mitigating anxiety about being wrong. This gesture is reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s fracturing herself into the Marys at the beginning of A Room of One’s Own, but it is executed for the exact opposite function. Woolf seeks to present her thoughts on “Woman and Fiction” in a manner that is purposely extricated from the prestige and trustworthiness attached to her name, or her role as lecturer. This allows her to disregard the possibility that she may be wrong. She never claims to be right in the first place. The entire logic of truth that she discards is later exposed as a relic of patriarchal tyranny anyway. She wants so little to do with their traditional notion of truth that she prefaces her lecture with “lies will flow from my lips…” (Woolf 4). Both Tolentino and Woolf modulate in the wake of traditional expectations that they be truthful. But while Woolf identifies the prejudice implicit in this expectation, Tolentino creates a self who is confident that her thoughts pass its criteria, that in expressing them, she moves closer to the transcendent consciousness that it creates.
The title and opening paragraph of Trick Mirror’s introduction establish the complex relationship she has with the subjectivity that the essays produce. She is not the only one who has a conflicted relationship with that textual subjectivity. In a shockingly vehement review of Trick Mirror in the London Review of Books called “Ha ha! Ha ha!”, Lauren Oyler accuses Tolentino of constructing a gratuitously personal subjectivity in order to “avoid the stakes of taking a position.” She accuses Tolentino of “hysterical criticism,” which is conducted by “writers who are self-centred—not because they write about themselves… 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.” Oyler claims the “anachronistic sexism” of the word “hysteria” renders it hyper-applicable in this case, as well as not sexist. “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,” she writes. She purposely uses a sexist buzzword to root her critiques in a social zeitgeist that has apparently advanced past its “misunderstanding” of a woman’s suffering, it now “respects the existence of those problems”. Under this new framework, a woman writer can find it not only permissible but expedient to expand the realm of the personal in her writing, to inflate the “I”. This is at least what Oyler contends by calling Tolentino “attention seeking with a desire for control.” The context which occasions this accusation seems diametrically opposed to a theoretical framework that places woman as objectified Other, and man as authorial Subject.
Her essay “The I in the Internet” begins with a bucolic description of the internet past, where people connected to find community and build relationships based on common interests. This premodern internet died in 2012 and has been replaced by an internet that molds, rather than reflects, our desires. “We had once been free to be ourselves online, we were now chained to ourselves online, and this made us self-conscious” (11), Tolentino writes. The internet exacerbates especially harmful self-delusions because of the evolution of capitalism that it has catalyzed: a cannibalistic version which has devoured “everything…not just goods and labor, but relationships and attention” (32). Its final “natural resource” is the Self, which it colonizes and drains by incentivizing its millions of users to create a consumable product out of themselves. Most of my friends and I created Instagram accounts by the time we were fourteen years old, so this digital marketplace of selves has been a primary means of social interaction for almost a decade. I am afraid that what Tolentino foresees as the next step has already happened: “total identification with the online marketplace, physical and spiritual inseparability from the internet” (33). Indeed, the internet, specifically its glitching of the private versus public spheres, creates an entirely new arena of problems and opportunities for women writers.
Tolentino freely acknowledges that her career developed inside the same internet attention economy that she dreads so much. In “Bye, I Hate It,” Tolentino’s final Jezebel piece before leaving for the New Yorker, she writes that “the problems people identify in any successful online media outlet (cheapness, vapidity, prurience, etc) are hot potatoes tossed between writer and audience, and the distance between writer and audience has shrunk.” Indeed, Tolentino’s style has shifted to reflect the different publications. Precisely because Jezebel was expected to be distasteful and outrageous, Tolentino was able to make editorial decisions that circumvented approval in its entirety. Hence, her work for Jezebel constituted 300 word gag takes with headlines like “The Shocking Photos of Orlando Bloom’s Tamagotchi Taking a Shit on the Red Carpet” or “Someone Found a Way To Make Ted Cruz Look Less Appealing,” which features a GIF of Ted Cruz’s nose extending past his face and wrapping around his own neck. Tolentino introduces this viscerally disturbing content with: “Hey, here is the worst thing I’ve ever seen!” At Jezebel, Tolentino addressed her audience as fellow denizens of the internet who did not need their memes explained to them. The New Yorker promoted her from a mere citizen to an official spokesperson, and this required something more– that she produce rigorous analyses of the current moment for a readership that fancies itself quite fancy. Her new job description threw her critical authority into harsh question. “This is my last post. I’m lucky, as an open idiot, to be going to the New Yorker’s website as a writer,” writes Tolentino. “But I am so sad.”
If the author died, as reported by Barthes, in 1967, the era of internet writing has resurrected his zombie. Instead of expressing an authentic self, the internet author’s presence is shaped by the whims and attitudes of its audience—Tolentino calls the resultant Self (or selves) “a compromise”. Her calling her subjectivity a compromise acknowledges the impossibility of embodying an authentic subjectivity on the internet. This impossibility is thrown into desperate relief against the internet’s insistence upon subject-production, which is Tolentino’s main gripe with the web: that the “internet brings “I” into everything” (26). In effect, Tolentino displaces Oyler’s accusation of inauthenticity from herself to the internet, and she tosses back the hot potato Oyler threw (overhand). Oyler’s review, where she calls Tolentino a clout-chasing hypocrite for talking about herself so much, does not reflect on the simple consideration that the success Tolentino has found through her “personality as medium” style implies that it worked—that people like knowing the person they are reading for cultural commentary loves smoking weed, has a large dog named Luna, and was an evangelical Christian for her entire childhood. Much of Trick Mirror features Tolentino grappling with the success of her own hysterical criticism:
“As the value of speech inflates even further in the online attention economy, this problem only gets worse. I don’t know what to do with the fact that I myself continue to benefit from this: that my career is possible in large part because of the way the internet collapses identity, opinion and action—and that I, as a writer whose work is mostly critical and often written in first person, have some inherent stake in justifying the dubious practice of spending all day trying to figure out what you think” (Tolentino 20).
But even as she discusses the impossibility of portraying a Self on the internet without lapsing into the “dubious practice” of inauthentic self-expression, she maintains her use of the first-person by communicating her struggle in strictly subjective terms. Her confession that she does not know what to do about her eminently modern predicament is relatable, but this relatable inaction is part of the dubious practice that Tolentino knows she benefits from. It is typical of her to end her essays with non-conclusions like “I don’t know what to do,” and while Oyler considers this rhetorical move pure intellectual laziness, there is a further dimension of analysis to be gleaned from it. I agree with Tolentino’s assertion that not reaching conclusions might be a good thing, especially in our post 2016 reality. But there is another implication of Tolentino’s consistently inscribing all her thoughts inside her own emotions and experiences while lamenting the magnification of the self as an integral component of the internet’s delusion-production.
It is clear that when Barthes declared the author dead, he never considered the fact that the author was only ever fully alive as a man. He thus could not have ever envisioned the compromised, zombie version of authorhood that would define the advent of online professional opinion-havers. Tolentino wrote about this phenomenon, and its particular implications for woman writers, in a May 2017 New Yorker essay called “The Personal-Essay Boom is Over.” Her essay chronicles the phases of first-person internet writing to its eventual downfall, using its woman-dominated beginning in 2008, when women wrote personal essays that were purposely gratuitous in order to preempt the sexist backlash the genre anticipated. But that very backlash is the currency of attention that the internet runs on. As the internet writing became a bona fide genre, adopting a first-person critical subjectivity became an easy bid for attention currency. Tolentino recalls slogging through hundreds of personal narrative submissions while she was an editor at The Hairpin and Jezebel, two media outlets that featured the rise of the blogger-cum-critic style. The commodification of the personal is “women’s territory,” Tolentino writes, “and so many women wrote about the most difficult things that had ever happened to them and received not much in return. Most sites paid a few hundred dollars for such pieces at most; xoJane paid fifty dollars. When I began writing on the Internet, I wrote personal essays for free.”
The “boom” in “personal essay boom” refers to the dramatic uptick in women who took to the internet to write about themselves. For the first time ever, the internet allowed for anyone to reach an audience with the covetable “I” of authorhood, a literary institution that women were traditionally excluded from. The personal essays that attracted the most attention tended to strike a perfect balance of revealing a novel subjectivity whose criticism is confined to her own self. Tolentino claims that the essays that most readily achieve this were “body-horror pieces”, or “essays that incited outrage for the lifestyle they described.” These types of essays were successful because they struck the perfect balance of introducing a novel subjectivity (a woman discussing her suffering to an audience) whose thoughts had no stakes outside her own life. In other words, these women struck as successful a compromise as the conditions allowed—though they made no money selling their horrific memories to the internet, at least an ostensibly interested audience was there, at least for a moment. This may indicate progress from the conditions Woolf wrote in, when there were no ways a woman who had not been personally baptized by T.S. Eliot could gain such an audience, but only if we conform to the internet’s logic of attention as currency. Is its attention more akin to a fetishization than a genuine critical interest in what women think? Perhaps. Tolentino, in her usual manner, informs us of the end of the personal essay boom by invoking her subjective authority and experience on the topic. It is from this particular perch that she tells us: “Put simply, the personal is no longer political in quite the same way that it was.” Tolentino overtly references 1970s feminist thought, which rallied behind the mantra that the personal IS political, in order to signal a new landscape of feminism where that was no longer really the case. This is reminiscent of Oyler insisting on “hysteria” no longer retaining its old meaning in this ambiguous new frontier.
But what was the way that the personal was once political? Tolentino doesn’t elaborate on this last part, relegating it to the place of things lost, where the dead author and a pleasant version of the internet reside. In order to gain a clearer picture of the context that demanded the personal be recognized as political, I turned therefore to Adrienne Rich’s iconic essay published in October 1972, “When We Dead Awaken: Writing as Re-Vision”. In the opening paragraph, Rich writes: “It’s exhilarating to be alive in a time of awakening consciousness; it can also be confusing, disorienting, and painful. This awakening of dead or sleeping consciousness has already affected the lives of millions of women, even those who don’t know it yet.” Rich, like Tolentino, prefaces her thought and establishes her perspectival authority by invoking the broader contextual relevance of what she has to say. But it is the “millions of women” whose lives she claims have been affected that lend gravity and credence to her claim. Tolentino, on the other hand, draws deeper into her own perspective by describing the 2017-18 time period as “an unbearable supernova of perpetually escalating conflict.” Rich and Tolentino preface their texts to the same effect: to establish their authorial right to speak on the times. But the dramatic difference in the two is revealed in the profoundly communal element of Rich’s radical criticism, which she calls “feminist in its impulse.” She continuously uses the “we” in her language to emphasize a collective experience of womanhood that is “awakening”, which includes even those who do not have access to the literacy and scholarship that Rich does, those who “do not know it yet.” Because of this crucially social awakening, Rich is happy to announce that “for the first time this awakening has a collective reality; it is no longer such a lonely thing to open one’s eyes” (Rich 18). Alternatively, by operating in terms of delusion, Tolentino renders herself the only one awake.
By claiming lucidity as her distinguishing characteristic, Tolentino privatizes her awareness. Though suspending the impulse to conclude works well in discussing something metaphysical like the internet, it only does so because of the way she has rendered inconclusivity an aspect of her perceptiveness. Unlike Rich, she condemns everyone around her to a state of diminished consciousness. This is made especially clear in “Always Be Optimizing,” which begins with a description of who Tolentino dubs the “Ideal Woman”:
“The ideal woman has always been generic. I bet you can picture the version of her that runs the show today. She’s of indeterminate age but resolutely youthful presentation… She has a personal brand, and probably a boyfriend or husband… Showcasing herself at leisure is either the bulk of her work or an essential part of it; in this, she is not so unusual—for many people today, especially women, packaging and broadcasting your image is a readily monetizable skill” (58).
So far, all the identifying markers of the “Ideal Woman” are easily applicable to Tolentino herself. But as she continues this character sketch, the Ideal Woman begins to differentiate herself from our narrator not by virtue of her actions, but of her thoughts. She is described as “maximally obedient” and “sincerely interested in what the market demands of her,” including in its demand that she be “endlessly presentable” (60). Tolentino goes on to list an endless number of things that the Ideal Woman does out of “maximal obedience”: anything from eating Sweetgreen salads, attending Barre class, or having an expensive skincare routine. In short, “today’s ideal woman is of a type that coexists easily with feminism in its current market-friendly and mainstream form” (60).
In her usual manner, Tolentino attends to her analysis of all of these mainstream feminisms by narrating her own thought process in coexisting with them. At Sweetgreen, she attempts to make eye contact with the employee behind the counter “as if this alleviated anything”(61) of the crushingly anti-social model of capitalism that the fast-salad chain was representative of. At Barre class, where Ideal Women go to discipline their Ideal Corporeal Forms, Tolentino ridicules the awkward, painful movements the instructors subject the women to, almost forgetting that she was doing the exact same thing: “When we were finished, the lights came back on and I realized that the black-clad pelvis I had been staring at in the mirror actually belonged to the woman in front of me. I had the satisfying but gross sense of having successfully conformed to a prototype” (66). In this moment of literal reflection, when Tolentino realizes that she had mistakenly identified with another woman, she feels perverse pleasure in having conformed to “a prototype” that she knew she did not belong to. She knows this because the defining characteristic of that prototype has no issue believing the easy conclusions that Tolentino spends Trick Mirror attempting to deconstruct.
Tolentino “exposes” the ideality of the Ideal Woman by revealing the sexist and capitalist mechanisms that lurk beneath everything she enjoys. Her observation that mainstream feminism and capitalism have become twin evils is a crucial one, but it is troubling that she demonstrates this by ventriloquizing the figure of a woman who falls for them. True, Tolentino actively implicates herself in the delusional behaviors that define Ideal Womanhood. She identifies “Optimization” as the freak offspring of Pop feminism and capitalism which constantly evolves to render expensive skincare and gym memberships the feminist praxis of the moment. All this thought is done in the spirit of radical-qua-feminist criticism. But its feminist impulse is dwarfed by the fact that her explanatory style relies on a deluded, ignorant woman figure to distance herself from. In this instance, Tolentino maintains her distinction from the Ideal Woman by implanting a frictionless interiority into her brain, rendering her the optimal victim of Optimization. She uses the Ideal Woman to expose Optimization as sexist and capitalist, thereby exposing the Ideal Woman’s own ideality as a delusion. “Women are genuinely trapped at the intersection of patriarchy and capitalism” (81), Tolentino writes. Being aware of our prison is the criterion that redeems one from embodying the pathetic obedience that “Always Be Optimizing” scoffs at.
By perpetuating a metaphor of woman that bolsters her self-construction, Tolentino uses the oldest trick in the authorial handbook. “Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of mine at twice his natural size,” says Woolf of these literary woman figures. This time, Tolentino occupies the traditionally masculine role of perpetuating metaphors of womanhood that reflect a subjectivity that is not her own. She renders her fellow barre-class attendees and Sweetgreen patrons surfaces that reflect back an image of Jia Tolentino as trustworthy and authoritative by virtue of having ethical quandaries. Back in the seventies, Rich anticipated the “extraordinary moment” when “women can stop being haunted, not only by convention and propriety, but by internalized fears of being and saying themselves.” This manner of self-expression would foreclose the era of women writers “writing for men even when, like Virginia Woolf, she was supposed to be addressing women” (Rich 20). Though Tolentino does write and say herself, she does so in response to a masculine presence that demands she perform authority and communicate truth. As such, I would not consider the abundant subjectivity in her writing as a culmination of that extraordinary moment. Her “personality as medium” style can’t help seeming a strategy of self-protection that responds to the specter of male judgment, the ghost of the killed author, that haunts Trick Mirror.
Rich conceives of women “being and saying themselves” as an inherently political act because doing so radically reorients their traditional role in literature. Writing the personal was political, because an entire legacy of objectification was upended in that act. Tolentino’s commentary that this was no longer quite as true in 2017 demonstrates her overarching point that capitalism and patriarchy had devoured many of the ideologies and actions fomented in resistance to them. The internet had converted the wave of attention these personal narratives received into currency, thus rendering a once-political praxis into just another resource to capitalize upon. In order to combat this devouring machine of optimization, Tolentino expands her personal subjectivity into an ego large enough to consume and digest it back. By placing herself on the perimeter of the overwhelming patriarchal-capitalist machine in order to declare the rest of womanhood “genuinely trapped there,” she constructs a mythology of self-exceptionalism that is magnified by her distance from Ideal Women. This purposeful distancing lapses Tolentino into a position of masculine authority that she weaponizes against other women, specifically those who she contends do not share her analytic faculties.
This is her crucial point of departure from Woolf and Rich, who both purposely attempt to establish an authority outside that distancing mechanism. They achieve this through opposite measures—Woolf wholly abandons the personal, whereas Rich ventures tentatively into it but then links it to the collective. Their methodologies differ, but they reflect the same desire to reflect on their observations of their own sex without distancing themselves from it. Rich, reflecting on A Room of One’s Own, expands the inclusivity of Woolf’s thought in order to outline the temptation and threat of the myth of the exceptional woman:
“And I am thinking also of women whom [Woolf] left out of the picture altogether—women who are washing other people’s dishes and caring for other people’s children, not to mention women who went on the streets last night in order to feed their children. We seem to be special women here, we have liked to think ourselves special, and we have known that men would tolerate, even romanticize us as special, as long as our words and actions didn’t threaten their privilege of tolerating or rejecting us according to their ideas of what a special woman was” (Rich 20).
Oyler notes that Tolentino’s fears about marriage “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.” Again, the only difference between herself and the sexist institution she disowns is psychological. Her insistence that one cannot participate in it without lapsing into delusion constitutes a refusal to imagine a domesticity that can be redeemed even under the sign of traditional marriage. This is coherent enough, given her refusal to marry the man her readers know as Andrew. Her style of thought does not demand that she provide a re-imagining of this hallmark of feminine existence because it demonstrates her concern to extricate herself from its historical implications. Tolentino’s attitude toward marriage is consistent with her attitude toward other traditional patriarchal institutions—by collapsing her psychological awareness of sexism into a model of conscientious objection, she creates a defense against them, but a defense that is only applicable to her. She does not endeavor to reinscribe these traditions in less oppressive terms, which explains why her criticism so often ends in the same condition of entrapment. Because the stakes of her own awakening are limited to her own life, Tolentino does not feel the pressure to produce writing that re-names. Her perspective, which contemplates “being with a man in the old way of marriage, requires a holding-back, a putting-aside of that imaginative activity, and seems to demand instead a kind of conservatism” (23). That conservatism is another reason for her success.
Despite the deeply intimidating task of trying to parse together a coherent criticism of a book that came out less than a year ago, I know I chose to write about Trick Mirror partially because of how new it is. I was definitely attracted to the idea of being that person who picked an unlikely text for my Senior Essay, and as I wrote this, my fantasy that Jia Tolentino would somehow read this became alarmingly vivid. As such, even before I wrote this thesis, I had already conceived of the self-metaphor that would emanate from its pages. She was daring and a bit off-beat, as demonstrated by her chosen text, but her ability to elevate it to a serious realm of criticism is what made her special. One day, when she is colleagues and best friends with Jia Tolentino, they will crack jokes about the beginning of their intellectual affair being this very thesis.
As it turns out, this metaphor of Arielle and the reception of her thesis were quite detrimental to my progress. I spent weeks in quarantine in abject fear of her (myself? Tolentino?), and the wrath she would exact upon me if I failed to meet her absurd expectations. Typically, my response to my own tyranny would be the same as Tolentino’s—to write myself into the confidence and authority I felt was sorely lacking. This was, after all, what I did when I wrote for the Spectator. I created an exaggerated version of my own personality to filter my own stories through, so that nobody could say I was wrong. Though I do cringe at a lot of what I wrote, all of it was squarely within the sovereign domain of my own thoughts and feelings.
Unfortunately, I realized that I could not do the same for my thesis, as I planned to accuse Tolentino of a similar maneuver. And fortunately for everyone, a thesis is still not an entirely appropriate arena for blog-cum-criticism. As the task of completing this thesis loomed nearer and nearer, I was forced to reckon with my own dubious desires. In order to survive the thesis process without being driven to insanity, I knew I had to kick my self-metaphor out of the room I was trying to write in, and re-examine her intentions. As such, I felt that my thinking about Trick Mirror was as applicable to Tolentino as it was to me. After all, we were both so desperate to be heard and understood that we ended up backing ourselves into a cage. My desire to deconstruct Tolentino’s illusion of sovereign subjectivity was rooted in a desire to be freed from my own.
I still am not sure what similarities my editor saw between me and Tolentino. But whatever it may have referred to, the comment catalyzed a years-long identity crisis to determine what she had been saying, which initially took the (beneficial) form of enthusiastically reading Tolentino’s work, as well as the reception it received. When Trick Mirror came out, Tolentino was hailed as nothing less than a modern-day prophet in the millennial internet circles I frequent, and this only intensified my fascination with her. But as I began my research, my fairly straightforward question of “who is Jia Tolentino and why do we like her so much” revealed a fascinatingly complex philology of feminine authorship and feminist thought on the topic. My initial difficulty answering this question concerned me personally, as I felt it threatened the illusion of self-possession that I once considered the only true hallmark of good writing.
turned to Trick Mirror for answers, and all I got was more questions. I could not be more grateful for this, for the way my desire for self-knowledge was satisfied by the idea that I will never have what I thought I needed. I find an astonishing peacefulness in this deferred question of identity and feminine essence, in the way it has rendered the consistent emptying or indefinability of the “Woman figure” an essence of resistance. Tolentino touts writing as a way to refuse the question of woman, or the problematics of subjective femininity. But it turns out that simply being a woman refuses the question of woman. I hope that an increasing comfort with this idea of essential in-essence signals a new era in the feminist struggle with renewed terms of battle—terms that are constantly being revised and reimagined. This is the only way we can extricate our struggle from the anxieties of delusion and authority that are imposed upon us from the masculine discourse within. Reimagining our emptiness is the only way we can survive, if we desire a survival that the Author, locked inside his ivory tower, was never able to earn for himself.