Author photo / Penguin Random House / Elena Mudd / Wikimedia Commons
For those of us who grew up on, in or around the internet, it’ll always be contentious when slightly older folks tell us off for staring at our phones. I mean, yes, the internet at large is gradually destroying our lives, but the people who do the most bitching about the World Wide Web generally know almost nothing about it. Beyond cat memes or whatever, the internet (most notably, but not exclusively, social media) is increasingly shaping, informing and dictating the way we live (and the cat memes have lowkey never been better). We’re lucky, then, to have writers like Jia Tolentino.
Tolentino, the author of essay collection Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, deeply understands the powers and nuances of the internet – she makes her living from it after all. And while not all of the nine essays in this collection concern the internet, all of them are staunchly fixed in the internet age.
In the now-iconic Always Be Optimizing (read here) Tolentino opens, “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’s got glossy hair and the clean, shameless expression of a person who believes she was made to be looked at. […] Can you see this woman yet? She looks like an Instagram – which is to say, an ordinary woman reproducing the lessons of the marketplace, which is how an ordinary woman evolves into an ideal (my italics).”
Honestly, as the kids say, knock me out.
In The Cult of Difficult Women, Tolentino examines the rise of internet feminism (or how feminism has merged with and found a place on the internet). She laments the modern feminist instinct to idolise so-called difficult women, say, Britney Spears and Kim Kardashian, for the mere fact they’ve endured sexism (something, she explains, all women will go through, given that we live under patriarchy) rather than for their individual achievements. This, Tolentino argues, makes space for Kellyanne Conway and Melania Trump on the feminist pedestal – a phenomenon we’ve seen play out when Melania cried sexism over the backlash to this sartorial choice.
The end-point to all of this, she explains, is that it will become sexist to criticize a woman at all – and all women will be feminist heroes, never mind their politics.
These essays are all deeply personal, especially as she mines her own history as a reality TV contestant and the alumnus of a deeply problematic university. But it’s most interesting when she examines her own contributions to the internet, especially as a former editor of feminist site Jezebel – a badge she wears with equal parts guilt and defiance.
Trick Mirror is a profound, challenging, and deeply relatable collection of work. As with all anthologies, it has its weak and strong points – though none of the reviews I’ve read have been able to agree which is which. Anyway, you need to read it – at the very least, so you can share your opinion about it on the internet.Support Villainesse