Book notes: Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino

Trick Mirror by Jia Tolentino book summary review and key ideas.

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Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion by Jia Tolentino


“Jia Tolentino is a peerless voice of her generation, tackling the conflicts, contradictions, and sea changes that define us and our time. Now, in this dazzling collection of nine entirely original essays, written with a rare combination of give and sharpness, wit and fearlessness, she delves into the forces that warp our vision, demonstrating an unparalleled stylistic potency and critical dexterity. 

Trick Mirror is an enlightening, unforgettable trip through the river of self-delusion that surges just beneath the surface of our lives. This is a book about the incentives that shape us and about how hard it is to see ourselves clearly through a culture that revolves around the self. In each essay, Tolentino writes about a cultural prism: the rise of the nightmare social internet; the advent of scamming as the definitive millennial ethos; the literary heroine’s journey from brave to blank to bitter; the punitive dream of optimization, which insists that everything, including our bodies, should become more efficient and beautiful until we die. Gleaming with Tolentino’s sense of humor and capacity to elucidate the impossibly complex in an instant, and marked by her desire to treat the listener with profound honesty, Trick Mirror is an instant classic of the worst decade yet.” -Audible

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Opening thoughts:

When I got around to reading this book, I didn’t remember what it was about. But I remember it was on sale in Audible and had good reviews, and it seemed interesting. I was basically going in with an open mind and faith that I had good taste in books, or rather having faith in Audible’s recommendations.

Key notes:

The I in the Internet

  • Creating an identity requires some degree of self-delusion

Reader’s note: There’s a lot to unpack in this chapter, but essentially she’s talking about how the internet and social media has changed the landscape of how we interact and relate with one another, and how it has shaped our society. But not necessarily for the better

  • It’s essential that social media is mostly unsatisfying because it trains us to keep seeking it for psychological rewards

Reality TV Me

Reader’s note: Right now she’s talking about her experience on the reality TV show when she was 16. She later reconnected with those old cast mates to reflect on their experience together

Always Be Optimizing

  • The ideal woman is constantly optimizing to become the most presentable to the world
  • In this section, she’s talking about Barre classes, their origins, and her experience taking them and how it makes her feel
  • Learning how to function efficiently within an exhausting system is what the investment of barre classes is giving you, an investment that always gives returns
  • Women attribute implicit, moral value to the day-to-day efforts of improving their looks, and failing to meet the beauty standard is seen as a failure of the self
  • While it’s great to broaden the beauty standard to allow more people to feel beautiful, she questions if we should be doing the opposite and making beauty less important to us as a society 
  • The clothing style/category called athleisure is reliable, comfortable and supportive in a world that is not

Pure Heroines

Reader’s note: This section is discussing the roles society puts women in; their roles in literary works portrayed by fictional characters, and how their primary function in society is to be a wife. Another interesting statement was how it’s always portrayed that a woman’s rise to power is always through men

  • Male protagonists suffer for existential reasons
    • Heroines suffer, because of social reasons, because of male power, and men


Reader’s notes: Right now, she’s talking about her religious background and experience growing up as a Christian in Texas

Reader’s notes: She’s now dedicating a whole section talking about this DJ from Houston called DJ Screwed and his chopped-and-screwed style and how it affected the landscape of hip-hop in the late 80s and early 90s

  • To be an ecstasy is to stand outside yourself. It’s a wonderful feeling, accessible through many avenues
    • The cause matters less than the effect. What matters is not the thing itself but whether that thing moves you closer to God, or closer to damnation
  • Ecstasy, now, commonly called Molly, is an empathogen, which was named to describe the way, these compounds generate a state of empathy, or touching within
    • Its technical name is MDMA, which blocks serotonin re-uptake and induces the release of both serotonin, and dopamine
  • The drug’s first place is the attention on the self, stripping away inhibitions
    • Second, it prompts the user to recognize and value the emotional states of others
    • Finally, it makes the user’s well-being inseparable from the well-being of the group

The Story of a Generation in Seven Scams

Reader’s note: This section is talking about the fire festival scam

Reader’s note: This section is talking about the scam that is social media, particularly Facebook with Mark Zuckerberg. She also talks about how it has shaped the social landscape and affected it economically

  • #GirlBoss is an extended exercise in motivational personal branding in striving to idealize oneself while also denying being interested in any such thing
    • This section is talking about the #girlboss scam that corporations have benefitted from on so-called “women’s empowerment”
    • The problem is the feminism that prioritizes the individual will always be at odds with the feminism that prioritizes the collective
  • Amazon has been so successful because it treats everything including labor as maximally disposable
  • The final scam of the generation was the election of Donald Trump, an open con artist and scammer

We Come from Old Virginia

Reader’s note: Now she’s talking about the rape scandals and the reputation of the frats at UVA

  • It’s possible to be sincere and deluded. It’s possible and sometimes easy to believe a statement or story that’s a lie
  • Until recently in society, rape was never seen as a serious crime, but more of an offense against someone’s property
  • White fraternities have historically existed for the purpose of solidifying elite male power and entitlement
  • Violence against women is fundamentally connected to other systems of violence
    • These systems still mostly fail when it comes to sexual assault

The Cult of the Difficult Woman

  • We are all defined by our historical terms and conditions, and these terms and conditions have mostly been written by and for men
    • Any woman whose name has survived history has done so against a backdrop of male power
  • To argue against an ideology, you have to acknowledge and articulate it
    • When you write against something, you lend it strength, space, and time
  • For women, authenticity lies in difficulty
  • Sexism rears its head no matter who a woman is, no matter what her desires and ethics might be

I Thee Dread 

  • Wedding ceremonies became popular as we knew them after 1840 when people started to copy how lavish an event it was, similar to the Queen’s wedding and how it was all about the bride
    • Industries fabricated wedding traditions in order to profit from the lavishness of weddings
  • Throughout history, marriage has been great for men and terrible for women as she essentially entered servitude for him, and he could treat her like property

Reader’s note: This section is mostly her thoughts and arguments about weddings and marriage. She discusses why the concept of weddings and the societal push for women to marry essentially feels like a trick. It’s a scam to enter into a societal tradition that is categorically and historically detrimental to women.

Closing thoughts:

This was a very thought-provoking and interesting read. And it comes from a perspective I’m not used to, which is from an Asian-American writer/journalist who is about the same age as I am. It was definitely a unique perspective that I appreciated.

Admittedly, I was feeling a bit lost in the first half as she mainly focused on her experience on the teen reality TV show. But it started to get more interesting as it started to talk about the larger ideas and societal themes. Then halfway in, it was clear that the author’s main point was to not only call out the tricks and scams of our generation but how they’re particularly detrimental to women.

I’ve read a handful of great books that uncover the main points of race in our modern society, so it was refreshing to hear this author’s perspective on how sexism and the mistreatment of women in modern society.

Overall, I’d say if these topics sound interesting, I’d recommend picking up this book. The author is a fantastic and captivating writer. I didn’t really know what to expect going into this book, but I would say it’s one part memoir, one part social commentary, and one part historical account of American culture, especially as it pertains to women.

One Takeaway / Putting into practice:

There are a small handful of good takeaways in this book for me personally. I would say this point encompasses perfectly what I learned regarding her discussion of women in society:

  • We are all defined by our historical terms and conditions, and these terms and conditions have mostly been written by and for men

Similar to when books about race expose how the structures in society affect each racial group differently, this point explains why women have such a drastically skewed experience compared to men. And similar to race issues, these structures are hard to see when they don’t affect you.


A book of nine essays on self-delusion and the topics of reality TV, women, ecstasy, optimization, generational scams, male power structures, sexism, and the concept of marriage in our society.

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Rating: 3 out of 5.


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