THE BUZZ FOR JIA TOLENTINO’S new book, Trick Mirror, goes something like this: “Tolentino offers a millennial perspective that is deeply grounded, intellectually transcending her relative youth.” Here, Kirkus Reviews offers high praise, with a bit of condescension to the 30-year-old writer. Besides, the invocation of “millennial” might lead readers to miss the point of this collection. Tolentino’s book is about what it’s like to live right now, and its commentary is so up to date, and so close to our current moment, that it feels like a cheat code.
But Tolentino is reflecting quickly and efficiently. She deftly lays out an up-to-the-minute analysis of contemporary life without making the reader feel claustrophobic. She discusses the evolution of the internet, the shifting landscape of boutique fitness and the beauty industry, what it means to get married in our current gender-political era, and, in a tour de force chapter, she encapsulates how the horror of late capitalism has mutated into our current scam millennia. Tolentino also talks about the expectations of novelistic female characters and how they scan onto understanding how we make the stories of ourselves; explores her quest for transcendence in the forms of religion, music, and drugs; shares her experience on a reality TV show at the dawn of reality TV; and performs an excavation of Rolling Stone’s mishandling of the UVA rape story, investigating what women talking about rape looks and feels like in 2019.
The most resonant chapter, however, is “The Cult of the Difficult Woman,” in which she outlines how the feminist principles that have flooded the mainstream have resulted in a blurred feminism with meaning so dispersed that it’s vulnerable to being co-opted by anyone, for anything. This includes corporations, right-wing politicos, and anyone who wants to make a mushy feminist argument to serve their own interests.
Tolentino cites examples like Gina Haspel, who was nominated to be director of the CIA after she reportedly ran a black site in Thailand and destroyed the evidence. In response, Sarah Huckabee Sanders tweeted, “Any Democrat who claims to support women’s empowerment and our national security but opposes her nomination is a total hypocrite,” exemplifying how “power” in any form can be twisted into an all-encompassing stamp of feminist success. Tolentino also refers to a photo of Melania wearing a jacket that says “I Really Don’t Care, Do U?” on her way to visit caged children in the midst of the family separation outrage that was fomented directly from her husband’s policy at the Southern border in 2018. The incident was defended by Melania’s spokeswoman, who said, “If media would spend their time and energy on her actions and efforts to help kids rather than speculate and focus on her wardrobe — we could get so much accomplished on behalf of children,” thus adopting feminist rhetoric under the guise of a “stop critiquing a woman’s appearance” sentiment. Tolentino writes, “I have wondered if […] the legitimate need to defend women from unfair criticism has morphed into an illegitimate need to defend women from criticism categorically.” What has resulted from what Tolentino calls “adjudicating inequality through cultural criticism,” is a rhetorical structure whereby Republicans are able to translate their power grabs into a feminist edict — cloaking themselves under the purview of a mutant feminism: feminism as “a blanket defense, an automatic celebration, a tarp of self-delusion that can cover up any sin.”
But it’s not just Republicans who are taking up the chance to adopt the newly widespread appeal of feminism as a blanket defense or self-delusion. Liberals do it too. When it came out that Amy Klobuchar, the Democratic senator of Minnesota and a 2020 presidential candidate, fostered an extremely toxic office environment by throwing objects at her staff, demeaning them with rage and humiliation, and enacting a trick parental leave policy, people sprang to her defense in the name of sexism. As Charlotte Shane notes in an article for The Baffler, “When Jennifer Palmieri writes in Politico that ‘we still hold women in American politics to higher standards than men, which puts added pressure on female bosses,’ she speaks the truth.” But we are clearly missing the forest for the trees if we are going to classify a woman’s actively harmful behavior as immune under the protection of the overarching need to combat sexism in our society. One of the staffers who defended Klobuchar said, “As a strong woman, it was inspiring to work for another strong woman that was direct, incredibly smart, and a leader.” But just because a woman has access to power and “strength,” it doesn’t mean that they won’t abuse their authority. Not all power wielded by a woman is worthy of a victory by default. As Shane writes, “[W]e have to devise more constructive ways of combating sexism because going off like a car alarm whenever we spot it isn’t working.”
In a less politically substantial but, nevertheless, emblematic story, the “scam season,” which kicked off at the beginning of 2019 with the release of two documentaries centered around The Fyre Festival debacle, a spectacularly failed “luxury music festival” that involved fraud and deception on the part of the founder, Billy McFarland, led to a story on Caroline Calloway as reported by Madison Malone Kircher for The Intelligencer.
Caroline Calloway, who rose to Insta-fame by chronicling the details of a romance abroad, made headlines for what some people likened to a watered-down Fyre Festival. She vastly over-promised what would be included with her $176.68 (plus additional fees) “creativity workshops,” and she also sold tickets to do the event in multiple locations before she had actually planned them. Ultimately, Calloway backed out, but not before she, as Kircher writes, “asked her fans who bought tickets in Boston and Philadelphia if they would be okay with traveling to New York for their seminars. She asked this question in an Instagram poll where both answer options were some version of ‘yes.’ ‘No’ wasn’t a choice.”
After this story made it to several news outlets, articles defending Calloway sprouted up. One Medium writer, Lisa Di Venuta, wrote, “Can you hate Caroline Calloway and still be a feminist?” and also that men typically don’t “spend hours dissecting someone’s failed business venture,” even though this story was only relevant because of the recent release of two Fyre Festival documentaries about a man’s business venture scam.
Feminism, originally the political movement for gender equality, has drifted and distended to cover more and more terrain to the point of providing near-limitless defense and explanation of phenomena. Moving from feminism as a blanket defense to feminism as a self-delusion, writer and comedian Blythe Roberson wrote a book called How to Date Men When You Hate Men, ostensibly about the intersection of feminism and heterosexual dating. In a Bookforum review, writer Lauren Oyler notes:
Versions of the word oppress occur more than thirty times, and Roberson believes she herself is among the disadvantaged. As is apparently required now for anyone writing about how her personal problems are political, Roberson feels compelled to acknowledge that, as a “white, straight, cis, able-bodied, college-educated woman,” she has “a lot of privilege.” Other things we learn about her: She went to Harvard, she has a supportive family and many friends she apparently likes, she works for a late-night television show (the celebrity host of which has blurbed her book), she writes for the New Yorker, she lives alone in a steal of an apartment in Brooklyn, she maintains a packed schedule of comedy shows she often hosts, she is “hot and funny!” One could be forgiven for assuming the only oppression she experiences is that the men she likes don’t want to date her.
Sexism is pervasive, but the pitfalls of this current saturation of feminist analysis are clear. Tolentino asks: is truly everything about being a woman politically meaningful? In her book, she states that “[w]omanhood has been denied depth and meaning for so long that every inch of it is now almost impossibly freighted.” Feminism has never been a monolith, but it’s easy to feel isolated by the ideological drift of important feminist realities getting sold for parts.
On the one hand, feminism does need widespread appeal to make lasting cultural change. And, as Tolentino argues in her chapter, it has in many ways. Beyoncé went from being hesitant to embrace the label “feminist” in 2013, to singing in front of the word FEMINIST in blinding white letters at the VMAs in 2014. Around the same time, “This Is What a Feminist Looks Like” T-shirts started popping up, women across party lines appeared to be comfortable calling themselves feminist, and ostensibly more women and men had warmed up to an interest in how to be more aware of the issue of sexism in our world. So perhaps misuse is par for the course?
But there are two sides to corpo-feminism. While all press is presumably good press, taking a closer look at the merchandise we are being sold is the key to seeing how feminism can get diluted. Most recently I have seen T-shirts that say, “Girls doing whatever the fuck they want in 2019,” and ugly-duckling ones that say, “Annihilate the Patriarchy” in red dripping Monster Energy drink font. While this paraphernalia might seem like harmless merchandising, it is a part of a long lineage of hijacking women’s very real desire for autonomy, power, and equality, and using it to sell them stuff — meaninglessly invoking a vague girl power, a “smash the patriarchy” style of “empowerment,” rendering feminism the potency of marshmallow fluff.
As Andi Zeisler, co-founder of Bitch Media, outlines in her book, We Were Feminists Once, the market has been capitalizing on female empowerment since the first wave of feminism in the United States. During the suffragette movement, Lucky Strikes hired women to hold cigarettes above their heads as “torches of freedom” in a walk for equality that they had orchestrated. During the second wave of feminism, Massengill sold an aerosol douche product with the tagline “Freedom Spray.” Advertising pivots on what Zeisler calls “decontextualized liberation,” tapping into women’s desire for equality and promising them a slice of it through specific goods and services. What results from this decontextualization is a toothless and palatable feminism that has a popularity in direct proportion to its ineffectiveness.
Empowerment feminism is vague enough to be highly marketable, which should give us a hint that it is too loose of a concept in the first place. It deals solely in the symbolic imaginary — “power” and “women” — with no assembly required. The things that most women struggle with on a daily basis — child care, health care, maternity leave, domestic violence, state violence, access to birth control and abortions — are usually not on the docket for empowerment feminism, which makes it well shaped for marketing purposes. Any emotional feminist arousal from marketing, however murky, is now tied to the product.
There was never a noble time when feminism was perfect and Good, and there never has been a single understanding of what feminism is. Blurry feminism is better than no feminism at all, but this is a false choice. On July 1, Vogue published a photoshoot of the female Democratic candidates running for president in 2020 (Marianne Williamson curiously absent). In one of the photos, Kirsten Gillibrand, Amy Klobuchar (binder thrower with a deceitful parental leave for staff), Tulsi Gabbard (drone supporter with a patchy LGBT record), Elizabeth Warren, and Kamala Harris (who appealed a judge’s decision to get rid of the death penalty in California among a slew of spotty criminal justice decisions), attempt a circle of awkward high-fives. The title of the article is “Madam President? Five Candidates on What It Will Take to Shatter the Most Stubborn Glass Ceiling.”