Mirror, Mirror On The Feed

Jia Tolentino explores the warping of post-internet life.

author : Joanna Scutts

art : Elena Mudd

A trick mirror is one that twists a reflection, making the viewer doubt what they see and who they think they are. In Jia Tolentino’s debut essay collection Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self Delusion, out August 6 from Random House, The New Yorker staff writer presents the internet as the ultimate trick mirror, shaping our self-perception in deceptive, damaging, and inescapable ways.

By turns pithy, nerdy, and righteously pissed, Tolentino’s essays draw on her personal experiences to explore larger questions of sexuality, spirituality, identity, and gender. Her stint as a teenager on a reality TV show becomes a lens to examine how young people perform and police their desires, while “Ecstasy” traces a connection between the mind-altering passions of evangelical Christianity, music, and MDMA. The first essay, “The I in the Internet,” sets this inquisitive tone, tracking the author’s relationship with the web from childhood wonder to adult rage at how the online world has turned on us or rather, what it has turned us into.

If technology is one distorting mirror, femininity is another. Tolentino’s sharp insights detail the ways modern American culture presses carefree girls into self-policing women, beginning with an “ambiently disordered” adolescence where eating neuroses spread like a virus. An essay nominally about the rise of athleisure builds to a rallying cry to reject individualistic, market friendly “empowerment” feminism; to Tolentino, overpriced butt sculpting leggings are no substitute for transformative collective action.

Her villain, then, isn’t Instagram or reality TV or the Kardashians, or even the internet; she’s not pleading for us to return to some halcyon pre-digital age where we can undo what we’ve messed up. She levels her critique at late capitalism’s exhausting and endless demands on our time and souls. She wants us to think more critically about the world we’ve created, to set down the toxic trick-mirror version of community that the internet has ensnared us in.

She also hopes to remind us that human experience isn’t reducible to a series of marketing opportunities. In the middle of the essay about her surreal teenage TV experience, Tolentino describes with beautiful clarity a night swimming with her castmates in a bioluminescent bay in Vieques, Puerto Rico. “I squeezed glittering water out of my hair,” she recalls, and tells herself, “Don’t forget, don’t forget.” It’s a bracingly alive moment that the TV cameras couldn’t capture and, since the bay has been closed to swimmers since 2007, can’t be replicated. It survives only in Tolentino’s own memory, a striking reminder that people are not the machines we build, and that our lives are much more than what those machines reflect.