Books, Reviews

Jia Tolentino’s ‘Trick Mirror’ review: graceful ruminations on self-delusion

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Why would anyone – whatever gender – choose to wear unwalkable-stiletto-heeled shoes when at work, as a journalist, conducting an interview? As they say on Twitter – there, I said it. And it took a 30-year-old American whose essays are elegant, sharp, persuasive and yet provocative, to convince me that it’s ok to say it.

Before I came across Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino, I’d reached a kind of sad paralysis, convinced that things like silly shoes being worn in inappropriate situations was something few people noticed and even fewer cared about, and that those who do (such as I) must be horrible people anyway. Negative, critical, dark – such are the adjectives tossed at the heads of horrible people who wonder out loud about such things as silly shoes.

The stilettoed journalist was interviewing Malcolm Turnbull when his book came out, and, while the interview was competent, the journalist’s feet were not. I don’t know what Mr Turnbull had on his feet – could have been high-heels or ugg boots for all I know. While the camera angles set up for this discussion often showed the journalist’s feet, his didn’t feature. So, it seemed to this viewer that we were meant to see those spikey shoes. Even though this was an interview conducted by a serious, hard-working, respected journalist, there was a message being signalled that work does not cancel the need for women to be super-feminine.

You can’t say these things. It’s sexist, the tribe will shout, and if someone wants to wear uncomfortable-to-the-point-of-hobbling shoes, that’s their right. Back in the last century, a feminist-inclined commentator might have gathered her skirts around her and risen up on her toes to deliver a probably pompous diatribe about how fashion’s stereotypes delimit not just appearances but also behaviours, and how these behaviours are controlling and restrictive. In 2020, that diatribe would be hopelessly out-of-date: women can be powerful and still want to wear shoes they can’t walk in… apparently. Get over it.

Reading her was like having a whalebone corset removed: I realised how, when corseted by the rules of populist discourse, deep breaths are hardly possible.

I tried, truly, I tried (she says, aware, with the brilliant prose of Jia Tolentino still resonating between her ears, that she may be deluding herself here, and that she didn’t try at all, or at least, that she never really wanted to get over it). Blame French theory – those shoes are a signifier and they signified not (just) the right – the “freedom” – of someone to put on whatever they darn well want when they interview a very rich and urbane former Prime Minister but also (as the camera angle made clear) that the producers wished to frame this as yet another contest between a powerful masculinity and a super-femininity.

And the ostensible moral of the story – the putative reason for the framing, and also the reason no one anymore dares question those shoes – is that women are supposed to be in control of their own image, no longer slaves to the sexism of the past. Supposed to be, but aren’t. In fact, as Tolentino writes: “Feminism has not eradicated the tyranny of the ideal woman but, rather, has entrenched it and made it trickier. These days, it is perhaps even more psychologically seamless than ever for an ordinary woman to spend her life walking toward the idealized mirage of her own self-image.”

The nine essays in Tolentino’s Trick Mirror consider identity and the internet, feminism, religion and drugs, reality tv, even marriage; each and every one is also about self-delusion. Reading her was like having a whalebone corset removed: I realised how, when corseted by the rules of populist discourse, deep breaths are hardly possible, and how it’s difficult to comfortably scratch your belly in a ruminative fashion if you’re corseted within the strictures of insincerity and whoopy-positivity enforced via media, both social and commercial. Perhaps, in Tolentino’s case, her youth enables her, because she manages to be critical without causticity and without resorting to the self-deprecating lassitude of comedic women.

As they say in the classics, you go girl!

Tolentino cut her writer’s teeth on identifying the ways women are mirrored and tricked by popular culture, specifically as it’s disseminated via the internet. When she writes things like “all my life…”, it sounds quaint, a reaction I always have to memoirs written by people in their 30s. But then, in the opening essay, “The I in the Internet”, she recalls setting up her first chatroom, website, facebook page – 20 years ago when she was 10!

This is a generation just old enough to remember how it started, and at the same time to be comfortable with the speed of the changes ushered in by technology.

As a teenager, she took part in a reality tv show Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico, and in retrospect she recognises her lust for self-actualisation, for projecting her identity onto the screen/mirror of the world. “It is now obvious to me, as it always should have been,” she writes, once again slightly shocking a reader twice her age with this assumption that her lifespan of 30 years can be legitimately referred to as an “always” time, “that a 16-year-old doesn’t end up running around in a bikini and pig-tails on television unless she also desperately wants to be seen.”

This is the writing mode that Tolentino does wonderfully well: she’s both confessional and analytical, able to use her self as the example that opens up understanding about how identities are shaped. The herd is made up of individual cows; every bellow is distinct but the same. The essay titled ‘Ecstasy’ is a brilliant example, both very personal and particular as she talks about her childhood in Houston and her drug use, as well as informative. It’s social analysis, documenting the mega-churches of that city and also the rise of rap music, its cultural influence and the associated rise of drug dependence (epitomised by the death of a famous rap DJ from cough syrup addiction). It’s heady stuff, kept grounded by this backbeat question always there: how do we delude ourselves and why?

This is the writing mode that Tolentino does wonderfully well: she’s both confessional and analytical, able to use her self as the example that opens up understanding about how identities are shaped.

She writes about the way opinion is confused with reporting, and how a celebrity having an opinion is counted as doing something – for better or worse. She also recognises her own place in this mirror world, and manages without sounding insincere to acknowledge how she benefits from it.

That’s quite a feat. Where Rachel Cusk, say, has found a disconcertingly tricky way to keep ahead of the debilitating accusations levelled at a confessionally astute writer (creating a never-stable blend of fact and fiction), Tolentino navigates around the Scylla of self-promotion and the Charybdis of sneering with such grace it’s almost impossible to see where she’s had to self-censor (which she surely must have had to in some of these essays). We learn just enough about her private life to be satisfied we can see where she’s come from and how she got to where she is, without feeling as though she’s playing us. Her writing has none of that stickiness created by needy writers.

She is also – despite the barre exercise classes, the recreational drugs, the full-time job and the New York life of a young woman of sufficient means to enjoy herself mightily and who even has a partner she loves and admires – competent and clearly hard-working. An essay that looks at the representation of females (girls, teenagers, married women) in books is widely researched and carefully constructed. It’s made me think I’ve misunderstood Elena Ferrante, too, so I’m pleased to have read this analysis and now have the will to look again at those books.

Tolentino says we match our reading and viewing to what we already are, seeking reinforcement of our self-identity. Some of that matching is based on self-delusion, and it’s uncomfortable to have that revealed. It also makes some people very angry, and even violent. Knowledge can be an antidote to self-delusion, but the quest for knowledge can seem like a mountain too steep to climb when life is lived on the slippery slope of the internet. Writing as smart and relevant as Tolentino’s offers a kind of recalibration, so that the slippery slope is less inevitable and the mountain once again a possible goal.

Her writing has none of that stickiness created by needy writers.

If you think what I began with (those shoes and why they bothered me) is unfair criticism of a woman and therefore sexist, here, to finish, is a paragraph typical of Tolentino’s writing, and which is an example of how she avoids the dogmatic either/or of opinion-framed argument, opting instead for what she calls in her introduction a trail of breadcrumbs leading towards something she (and we) might not yet know we’re going towards. It explains, I think, why shoes do matter, or at least, they don’t matter until we are made to notice them in a way that says they do matter:

“…when the case for a woman’s worth is built partly on the unfairness of what’s levelled at her, things get slippery, especially as the internet expands the range and reach of hate and unfair scrutiny into infinity – a fact that holds even as feminist ideas become mainstream. Every woman faces backlash and criticism. Extraordinary women face a lot of it. And that criticism always exists in the context of sexism, just like everything else in a woman’s life. These three facts have collapsed into one another, creating the idea that harsh criticism of a woman is itself always sexist, and furthermore, more subtly, that receiving sexist criticism is in itself an indication of a woman’s worth.”

How did it come to this? Tolentino’s essays are useful and often enlightening if you’re interested in that question. Of more urgency is whether it can change, whether the delusions that shape 21st-century identities and thinking are here to stay. With any luck, the breadcrumb trail will lead writers of the calibre of Tolentino along the path towards finding answers to such questions.


In the past week, Jia Tolentino has been accused of covering up her parents’ criminal trial, and the accusations that they were trafficking nurses and teachers from the Philippines for profit. It’s a messy and ugly story which, she says in a blog post, she was going to include in her book, but didn’t, on the advice of her mother. It’s a coda to all she writes about in Trick Mirror, which unfortunately reinforces everything she says about our contemporary social discourse and its power to take away our sense of a communal moral compass. 

Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino is published by HarperCollins.

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