This recently released collection of essays has been getting a lot of praise from bookstagrammers and reviewers my age. It seemed like Tolentino’s writing was doing a great job capturing the frustrating and ridiculous parts of the millennial reality and, as a millennial myself (actually, I’m the same age as Tolentino), I was super curious to see what she had to say. Plus, I have read a few of her articles and I’ve always appreciated the quality of her writing.
“And here one of the most soul-crushing things about the Trump era reveals itself: to get through it with any psychological stability—to get through it without routinely descending into an emotional abyss—a person’s best strategy is to think mostly of himself, herself. As wealth continues to flow upward, as Americans are increasingly shut out of their own democracy, as political action is constrained into online spectacle, I have felt so many times that the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional—to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck.”
I usually start my reviews with a quick synopsis of the book/plot, but that doesn’t really apply in the case of a collection of essays. Especially since I kind of already did that in my little opener…whoops. Anyways, I suppose that means I get to jump right in.
This review is probably going to jump all over the place, because my feelings about this collection are all over the place. Tolentino’s ability to see and analyze and, for lack of a better phrase, call out the inconsistencies and (also for lack of a better word) bullshit of today is eagle-eyed. But the thing that I liked most about it was the way she was open and willing to share about how she too is “guilty” of many of the cultural aspects she was calling America/current generations out on – it made her insights and indictments more authentic and me, as a reader, more likely to listen. It would have been easy to fall into the “holier than thou” perspective, as the writer exploring these issues, and not admit her own complicity. And I’ll be honest, in this case in particular, that would have really turned me off – because I wasn’t as sold on this book as everyone else seems to have been. I am struggling a lot with how to explain this, because I deeply appreciated and identified with many of her points (I highlighted so many passages), both the ones I had already considered and the ones that opened my mind to new angles. And at the same time, there was something about the overall tone and presentation of the essays that sort of rubbed me the wrong way. I legitimately cannot figure out what it was. But even though I nodded and agreed and was into the majority of what Tolentino was saying, my overall feelings after finishing this are lukewarm. I am sorry that I can’t give you any better insight than that. And I would definitely not let my vague feelings on this front overly influence your decision on whether or not to read this collection, I just feel like it would be disingenuous not to mention my truthful reaction.
I do want to take a moment here to highlight a few of the essays and topics that I thought were Tolentino’s best. The first two chapters, about the internet (The I in Internet) and reality tv (Reality TV Me), were fascinating to me. I was fairly sheltered as a kid, so my intro to both the internet and tv of any kind other than sports came pretty late – at the very least, late enough that I missed those original iterations that Tolentino was involved in and talks about. So it was cool to hear about where many of the social media and tv phenomenon of today started, and how they become the monstrosities (both in the sense of their scope and the general “good,” or lack thereof, that they do) that they currently are. And the exploration of the dichotomy between who one really is versus how one “performs” for the world, and which of those personas is actually more true and/or more influential as far as our actions, was so nicely done. That concept is actually one that is carried through many of the other chapters as well, like how we “optimize” ourselves/our bodies/our time (Always be Optimizing), the concepts versus realities of the so-called “cult of the difficult women” (The Cult of Difficult Women) and more. Although some of those chapters weren’t my favorites, I loved the way this theme stayed constant throughout.
My favorite essay by far was The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams, looking at some of the biggest scams of our time (both one-offs, like the Fyre Festival, and ongoing ones like student debt, social media and the idea of girl bosses). To be honest, there were so many unique and insightful passages and comments in this section and, as far as the way I experience the word we live in, it was so unbelievably relatable. I learned a lot, now see some things from completely new perspectives, and really feel good about not being alone in my interpretation of others. My least favorite essays were the ones about UVA (We Come From Old Virginia) and marriage (I Thee Dread and, in part, Pure Heroines). The Virginia one was especially frustrating because overall, I support the POV that she clearly takes (and think the issue of sexual assault on college campuses absolutely demands more outrage and action against it), and to a large extent I agree with her perspectives in the marriage chapter as well. But for both, they came across more as lists of facts and data, with less actual analysis or vision, that the rest of the collection. In addition, they struck me as particularly self-indulgent in a way that just didn’t sit as well.
Overall, even after writing all this out (and taking days to do so), I am not any closer to being able to clearly articulate my feelings. I liked it and I didn’t like it. I felt seen by it, but also condescended-to by it. I thought Tolentino’s writing was phenomenal and her insights piercing, but I also felt like, sometimes, there weren’t any insights at all, just kind of an information dump. I want to encourage so many people my age to read this because it is the contradictions of our generation (and to others, outside my generation, to get an idea of the experiences that we’re living) and yet I’m not sure I feel confident enough about it’s great-ness (I guess that’s how I’d put it) to do so. And I thought she both did a pretty good job calling out the lack of diversity in her many examples/essays, yet cannot then understand why she didn’t try to fix that by adding in more perspectives there (specifically the sections that included data, etc.). Like I said at the beginning, my feelings about this collection were all over the place when I finished…and they remain so still. Basically, if you made it this far in the review, I’m sorry I couldn’t be clear about my recommendation to read it or not. However, I don’t regret my time with it, so if it seems interesting to you, then I’d say go for it and see for yourself. And then please come back and tell me your thoughts!
A selection (yes that’s right, even this is not all of them) of the passages I highlighted while reading:
a “trick mirror that carries the illusion of flawlessness as well as the self-flagellating option of constantly finding fault.” (A line she wrote for another article, but that became the inspiration for this title – super cutting.)
“In part out of a desire to preserve what’s worthwhile from the decay that surrounds it, I’ve been thinking about five intersecting problems: first, how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity; second, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions; third, how it maximizes our sense of opposition; fourth, how it cheapens our understanding of solidarity; and, finally, how it destroys our sense of scale.”
“You don’t need to have directly suffered at the hands of some injustice in order to be invested in bringing that injustice to an end.”
“When you are a woman, the things you like get used against you. Or, alternatively, the things that get used against you have all been prefigured as things you should like. Sexual availability falls into this category. So does basic kindness, and generosity. Wanting to look good—taking pleasure in trying to look good—does, too. I like trying to look good, but it’s hard to say how much you can genuinely, independently like what amounts to a mandate.”
“The default assumption tends to be that it is politically important to designate everyone as beautiful, that it is a meaningful project to make sure that everyone can become, and feel, increasingly beautiful. We have hardly tried to imagine what it might look like if our culture could do the opposite—de-escalate the situation, make beauty matter less.”
“There is an exaggerated binary fatalism to these stories, in which women are either successes or failures, always one or the other—and a sense of inescapability that rings more true to life. If you can’t escape the market, why stop working on its terms? Women are genuinely trapped at the intersection of capitalism and patriarchy—two systems that, at their extremes, ensure that individual success comes at the expense of collective morality. And yet there is enormous pleasure in individual success. It can feel like license and agency to approach an ideal, to find yourself—in a good picture, on your wedding day, in a flash of identical movement—exemplifying a prototype. There are rewards for succeeding under capitalism and patriarchy; there are rewards even for being willing to work on its terms. There are nothing but rewards, at the surface level. The trap looks beautiful. It’s well-lit. It welcomes you in.”
“If the childhood heroine accepts the future from a comfortable distance, and if the adolescent is blindly thrust toward it by forces beyond her control, the adult heroine lives within this long-anticipated future and finds it dismal, bitter, and disappointing. Her situation is generally one of premature and artificial finality, in which getting married and having children has prevented her from living the life she wants.”
“The fear of sin often seemed to conjure and perpetuate it: abstinence education led to abortions, for rich people, and for poor people to children who would be loved and supported until the day they were born. There was so much beatific kindness, and it was so often undergirded by brittle cruelty.” (THIS is the crux of so much of my master’s education and feminist ideals and it was put so perfectly that I just couldn’t pass this by without calling it out and highlight it.)
“The con is in the DNA of this country, which was founded on the idea that it is good, important, and even noble to see an opportunity to profit and take whatever you can. The story is as old as the first Thanksgiving.” (OMG THIS – it’s from my favorite essay and just, OMG.)
“Our social potential is compressed to our ability to command public attention, which is then made inextricable from economic survival. Instead of fair wages and benefits, we have our personalities and stories and relationships, and we’d better learn to package them well for the internet in case we ever get in an accident while uninsured.”
“And here one of the most soul-crushing things about the Trump era reveals itself: to get through it with any psychological stability—to get through it without routinely descending into an emotional abyss—a person’s best strategy is to think mostly of himself, herself. As wealth continues to flow upward, as Americans are increasingly shut out of their own democracy, as political action is constrained into online spectacle, I have felt so many times that the choice of this era is to be destroyed or to morally compromise ourselves in order to be functional—to be wrecked, or to be functional for reasons that contribute to the wreck.” (AND THIS – I felt this TO MY CORE.)
“But the choice is not always between being sincere and untruthful. It’s possible to be both: it’s possible to be sincere and deluded. It’s possible—it’s very easy, in some cases—to believe a statement, a story, that’s a lie.”
“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.”
“Rewriting a woman’s story inevitably means engaging with the male rules that previously defined it. To argue against an ideology, you have to acknowledge and articulate it. In the process, you might inadvertently ventriloquize your opposition.”
“If I object to the wife’s diminishment for the same reason that I object to the bride’s glorification, maybe this reason is much simpler and more obvious than I’ve imagined: I don’t want to be diminished, and I do want to be glorified—not in one shining moment, but whenever I want.”