The Scamming of the Self: On Jia Tolentino’s “Trick Mirror”

The book cover of Trick Mirror (solid yellow with pink text) overlays an image fractured by many reflecions.

In 2013, inspired by the cold-pressed juicing craze endorsed by the likes of Kim Kardashian and Gwyneth Paltrow, Doug Evans started Juicero, a company whose sole product was a WiFi-enabled juice press. The press only worked with special QR-coded packets of pulp sold by Juicero. The WiFi-connected press would then verify the QR code, a process meant to prevent any expired packets from being used. In the end, no amount of celebrity status markers could save Juicero; it began to unravel under the pressure of a Bloomberg article that argued hand-squeezing Juicero packets was as effective as using the machine.

In many ways, the Juicero story is the quintessential twenty-first century capitalism story: a solution in search of a problem. In Trick Mirror, a collection of nine meticulously researched essays, Jia Tolentino examines the effects of contemporary capitalism, tackling topics such as the campus rape crisis and the accelerated devolution into an economy where scamming is becoming the norm. In the introduction, Tolentino writes that a “well-practiced, conclusive narrative is usually a dubious one,” and if that is the case, there’s nothing dubious about these essays. They twist and turn around multiple narratives at once, rarely reaching a traditional conclusion. The work coalesces around a few recurring themes: the monetization of the self, women’s roles in a world that increasingly demands more and rewards less, and the futility of trying to ethically and morally navigate a culture that seems to only reward corruption.

In “The I in the Internet,” the collection’s first essay, Tolentino traces her digital presence from her childhood in the early 2000s to her current job as a New Yorker staff writer. The fact that her own coming of age coincided with the internet’s is not lost on Tolentino, and her own experiences from Angelfire to blogger to opinion writer provide the background for an examination of the social challenges the evolution of the internet presents. She skewers the dubious tenet the internet has given us “that speech has an impact, that it’s something like action,” and simultaneously acknowledges that her career has benefited from an online culture that prizes opinion over action. What does it say about the current, performative nature of the internet that putting a temporary rainbow or Black Lives Matter frame around your Facebook profile photo seems to carry as much weight as actual activism?

Tolentino arrives at an idea that, for me, permeates most of the essays in Trick Mirror: the centering and subsequent monetization of the self. The omnipresence of the internet has allowed capitalism to turn inward in ways that are persistent and unrelenting; we receive the message that if we’re not productive all the time or maximizing our potential at any given moment, we’ll miss out on the big break, the chance to get rich. It’s not easy to criticize the mechanisms of your success, but Tolentino turns each topic around like a Rubik’s Cube, looking at it from every side, rearranging possibilities but never quite solving the puzzle. That there is no ultimate solution isn’t a defect of these essays. The inherent ouroboros of logic at work here enhances rather than detracts from the structure and power of Tolentino’s ideas; there may be no satisfactory solutions, but that shouldn’t stop us from contemplating the problems.

“The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” begins with Fyre Festival, the 2017 music festival disaster in the Bahamas organized by Billy McFarland, noted grifter and founder of Magnises (a company that did absolutely nothing but shuffle money around under the guise of providing tickets and VIP access to events). Fyre Festival was Magnises gone global—so disastrous that a year and a half later both Netflix and Hulu produced documentaries on it (Tolentino appeared in Hulu’s documentary). The rest of the essay is a tour through seven formative cultural shifts, all occurring between 2008 and now, when most millennials came of age and began to realize they had been sold a bill of goods—unless, that is, your name is Billy McFarland or Mark Zuckerberg or Sophia Amoruso or any of the other grifters and scammers whose reputations might suffer marginally, even if their bank accounts never seem to.

Many of these scams are recognizable, and some are so over-the-top they read like satire. Tolentino’s astute recognition of America’s devolution into a scam-a-rama is what’s noteworthy here: “[Fyre Festival] came after the election of Donald Trump, an incontrovertible, humiliating vindication of scamming as the quintessential American ethos.” If you love the game, you can’t hate the players, it would seem. Often contempt for these scammers comes from a feeling that scams are the only way forward—sure, we’d like to do things morally, but we’d also like to survive, an increasingly lofty goal these days.

While “The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams” turns its eye to the big economic players of the millennial generation, “Always Be Optimizing” goes the opposite way, turning instead to smaller, less powerful individuals: the adopters of optimization. Tolentino paints a bleak picture of the modern worker: “The ideal chopped-salad customer is himself efficient: he needs to eat his twelve-dollar salad in ten minutes because he needs the extra time to keep functioning within the job that allows him to afford a regular twelve-dollar salad in the first place.” Of course, as is almost always the case, the picture is even bleaker for women. The elements of modern womanhood Tolentino examines are familiar, almost comforting in their ubiquity—barre, athleisure, weddings—because the ideal woman is generic, “an ordinary woman reproducing the demands of the marketplace.” The demands of the marketplace, which necessarily insists that hard work, not luck, determines outcomes, are so insidious that we confuse optimization with self-improvement. In capitalism, the market adjusts to any evolution in thinking that negates the necessity of capitalism. Sure, feminism might have taught us to eschew what Tolentino calls “beauty work,” but instead of refusing the demand, we just call it by a different name—“self-care” in this case. Nowhere is this marriage of self and market more evident than in the phenomenon of athleisure: “It is tailor-made for a time when work is rebranded as pleasure so that we will accept more of it—a time when, for women, improving your looks is a job you’re supposed to believe is fun.” The clothes themselves function as a self-feedback loop: you have to get the body to wear the clothes to continue doing the work of having the body that can wear the clothes. And maybe, somewhere along the way, someone pays you some money to hawk their product, or you get a job at Lululemon or teaching yoga, and the feedback continues because you’ve now been rewarded in some small way for this “work.”

It is fascinating to follow Tolentino’s paths through this essay, to watch the connections she makes between the Instagram influencer, barre workouts, athleisure, and finally the cyborg. Invoking Donna Haraway’s 1985 essay “A Cyborg Manifesto,” Tolentino sees the “female condition as essentially, fundamentally adulterated.” She points specifically to iterations of the cyborg in recent popular entertainment, such as the movies Her and Ex Machina. In these movies, the cyborg character is always female and always rebels against her adulterated form and the expectations of it. She turns dangerous, always. But these rebellions, Tolentino notes, instead of reflecting our own lives, are just fantasy: “In real life, women are so much more obedient. Our rebellions are so trivial and small.” As in so many other ways, the potential for rebellion with a cause is never quite realized. Technology, Tolentino says, “has made us less than oppositional: where beauty is concerned, we have deployed technology not only to meet the demands of the system but to actually expand these demands.” Similar, one might think, to how the demand for an ever-increasing internet presence elevates the performance of activism on the internet over real life activism.

The feeling of despair at seeing something good twisted inward—being used only to enforce the existing system—is deepest in “Ecstasy,” the best and most ambitious essay in the book. The writing is beautiful, and the braiding of topics as disparate as megachurches, chopped-and-screwed rap music, and of course ecstasy (of both the spiritual and drug variety) is so well done it feels ecstatic in itself. More timeless-feeling than some of the other essays, which poke and prod at particularly modern problems, this essay seeks to understand ecstasy, and the yearning for it Tolentino says she’s always had, as a spiritual if not a particularly religious enterprise. “I have always found religion and drugs appealing for similar reasons,” she writes, explaining that “both provide a path toward transcendence—a way of accessing an extrahuman world of rapture and pardon that, in both cases, is as real as it feels.” She examines the etymological roots of the word ecstasy, “coming from the Greek ekstasis—ek meaning ‘out’ and stasis meaning ‘stand.’ To be in ecstasy is to stand outside yourself.” Being outside oneself, then, is one way to confront or complicate the relationship with the self, which is always in danger of being lost to monetization. When thought of in these terms, does it matter whether that feeling comes from religion or drugs? Tolentino isn’t sure, partly because this relationship to the self is so intrinsic to being human, so incredibly incorruptible at its root, that watching her childhood church, which once taught her progressive values, turn to preaching the prosperity gospel soured her on religion to some extent.  “I can’t tell whether my inclination toward ecstasy is a sign that I still believe, after all of this, or if it was only because of that ecstatic tendency that I ever believed at all,” she writes near the essay’s end, making a compelling argument for the idea that what we seek spiritually as adults mirrors what thrilled us as children.

“Ecstasy” also showcases one of the things I love most about Tolentino’s writing: her pop sensibility. It’s not often a writer can write eloquently about the ecstatic feeling she gets from drugs and chopped and screwed and marry that with the intellectual and spiritual rigor of Anne Carson, but Tolentino pulls it off as if the internet were as natural to her as the library.

Trick Mirror breaks down the systemic problems of our modern world, examining the cultural and social phenomena that enable a company like Juicero, for example, to thrive, even for a short time. The illusion of a juice press as a marker of clout, of religion as a benevolent and benign source of ecstasy, of efficiency as an always laudable goal—all of these subjects feel explored fully, turned inside out. Each essay takes tangential subjects, some broad and some specific and personal to Tolentino, and runs them down separate tracks heading to the same station, turning them alchemically into a cohesive whole.