'New Yorker' Writer Jia Tolentino On Her Book, 'Trick Mirror' : It's Been a Minute Writer Jia Tolentino has a keen eye for processing bits of internet absurdity and telling readers what they say about us. The 'New Yorker' staff writer's new book, 'Trick Mirror,' examines several different systems that impact our lives through a series of nine deeply researched essays. Tolentino and Sam Sanders discuss growing up in church, putting your life on the internet and what happens when your life becomes a quest for optimization.

Jia Tolentino On The Internet, Optimization And Other Late Capitalist Woes

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(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SAM SANDERS, HOST:

Seems like every week, one or two or three things happen on the Internet that make absolutely no sense to me. The youths asking celebrities to step on their necks - yes, that is a thing - the great fast-food fried chicken war of 2019, all the feral hogs - I could go on. My guest today has a really amazing skill. She can take those bits of Internet absurdity and tell us what all that craziness says about us. Her name is Jia Tolentino. My name is Sam Sanders. Today on IT'S BEEN A MINUTE from NPR, we talk about her new book.

So Jia - she is a staff writer at The New Yorker, former deputy editor at Jezebel. And her new book, it's called "Trick Mirror: Reflections On Self-Delusion." It just came out a few weeks ago, and it's already sitting pretty high on The New York Times' bestseller list. "Trick Mirror" is a book of nine deeply reported essays that attempt to make sense of our current moment of Internet insanity. It is full of equal parts questions and answers. It makes sense - with a capital S - more than a lot of other stuff I've read this year.

Jia and I talked about two weeks ago while she was on book tour. She was in D.C. I was in LA. We bonded over our shared Texas roots. And then we got down to business. Enjoy.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Hi.

JIA TOLENTINO: Hi. I didn't know you were from San Antonio.

SANDERS: Two-one-zero, Countdown City.

TOLENTINO: Second favorite city in Texas (laughter). I have to - Houston has to be my favorite.

SANDERS: Here's the thing about Houston. I...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: It is so culturally rich. It just has everything going on.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. But it's like...

SANDERS: But it's overwhelming in its vastness.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. It's like a nightmare. It's, like, three hours of freeways. It's like...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. It's like you can't - there's no public space. Like - but yeah, it's just, like, for the food alone. But...

SANDERS: Oh, totally.

TOLENTINO: ...Yeah. San Antonio is the most fun city, I think. Like...

SANDERS: Well - because everyone's just chill.

TOLENTINO: Everyone's chill. The food's also great. It's not, like...

SANDERS: And cheap.

TOLENTINO: ...Up its butt like Austin...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. It's cheap.

SANDERS: Well, Austin - I don't count Austin as Texas anymore...

TOLENTINO: (Laughter) Yeah.

SANDERS: It's so freaking...

TOLENTINO: I still love it, though. I still - you know, it's, like, nature-wise, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: It's nice to, like, be, like, at - like, by, like, a creek really fast, which like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Houston, there's like - you know? (Laughter) Like...

SANDERS: Exactly.

TOLENTINO: Like, I was there two days ago. And it was - you know, I got off the plane and it was 103 degrees. And, you know...

SANDERS: Whew.

TOLENTINO: ...And I was like, wow, I forgot what this was like.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I got to say, I am so excited to be talking with you today. So you are very, very popular. You've been on the circuit. You've been everywhere for this book...

TOLENTINO: (Laughter) I know.

SANDERS: ...This is, I think, your fourth NPR interview for this book?

TOLENTINO: (Laughter) I know.

SANDERS: So I bring this up - one, like, I'm so happy that we are - we get to be the, like, "Watch What Happens Live" interview...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: ...We're, like, at that stage in the game where you're just like, let it all hang out. One, I love that. But, two, I love that you actually wrote about the prep - or lack of prep - for your interview with Morning Edition, because...

TOLENTINO: Oh, yeah. Yikes.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: ...You did this thing for Grub Street...

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...And they have these writers talk about their diet. Can I read a bit of...

TOLENTINO: Please.

SANDERS: ...What you wrote? So this was you keeping, like, a diary of your diet. And you kept a diary of the day and night before your interview with Rachel Martin of Morning Edition. And you wrote, about Wednesday night, I sincerely regret to say that we went to Sing Sing - the four of us - and fully did karaoke for six hours until 2 a.m. Six hours of karaoke on a weeknight - it was objectively upsetting and so was consuming large quantities of Fireball at the age of 30. And yet, there we were.

And then you continue - I love this so much - Thursday, July 25 in the morning, before your interview with NPR, you say, I became conscious at 8 a.m. and started howling, club me, at my boyfriend as he was leaving for work. But he refused. So I got up and got ready to tape a book interview on NPR. I had set up my stovetop coffee maker the night before, apparently. And I made some coffee but could not really drink it. I drank water on the train and meditated on my shameful lifestyle.

TOLENTINO: (Laughter).

SANDERS: That's golden.

TOLENTINO: I did not mean to evince any disrespect for Rachel or Morning Edition whatsoever...

SANDERS: No. I'm sure it was beautiful.

TOLENTINO: ...It was merely a sign of my inability to...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: ...Not send off a friend to LA in style, you know (laughter)?

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. But you know what? I bet it was all worth it. And also I - like, that reveals to me a thing that I think makes your work stand out so much. Like, there is this inescapable candor you have as a writer and a person all throughout the book. And you do this really hard thing to do. Like, you help explain the difficulties of modern life for us by being an open book about modern life and you.

TOLENTINO: Thank you.

SANDERS: Yeah. And I think that not a lot of writers thread that needle right now as well as you do. And when I think of, like, how much of my personal life I want to bring into my work, it can be scary sometimes.

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: Do you - do you ever feel scared about sharing so much of you?

TOLENTINO: Well, I think that one of the things that the Internet - one of the things that I write about in the book and one of the things that has always - that has started to bother me about the Internet is that the Internet sort of, you know, being based around social media profiles, it kind of - it frames this idea of selfhood as something that should be, you know, really consistent and also consistently attractive and, you know - and kind of, quote-unquote, "on brand." And I - to me, you know, everything about monetized selfhood seems like such a nightmare...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...That the only way to approach these systems, that are completely entangled with our work and our life, is just to - I don't know how long this is going to work out (laughter) for me...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: ...But my - you know, the only way to make it bearable is just to be fully yourself - right? - and not to calibrate how you come off. And, you know, I think I'm - it might become more of a high-wire act later. Like, I've been, like - during book promotion, I've been like, oh, no, maybe I should put more thought into how I'm coming off. But it seems like the only way to, you know - I think one of the beautiful things about the Internet and all of these systems and, you know, capitalism and patriarchy - it's like we're all trying to still be human...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And for me, the only way to do it is just to really be myself, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: And as far as - like, unfortunately, I feel I was - it might be - this might be a function of my personality where I'm just like this no matter what. And it also might be a part of, you know, being born when I was and growing up, you know, being in elementary school when people started to get computers at their house and AOL and stuff. These - for better or worse, these structures of self-surveillance and self-broadcasting that are now kind of generalized, those have been available to me. Like, their infancy was also my infancy...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And I formed myself around them in a way that - I never really worry about showing myself online because I just always have.

SANDERS: You always have.

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Well, I mean, it's like, we end up in this spot now, you know, where the Internet has reached this certain level of maturity. It's almost as if, if you live a life and don't tweet about it, was it a life? It's like the, like, if the tree falls in the forest, nobody hears it thing. There's some days where it feels like you haven't really had a day unless you've shared about it on social media. It's weird, right?

TOLENTINO: Yeah. And this is something that I - and this is, again, something that I write about. But, you know, one thing that strikes me as really interesting, you know - and just kind of this fundamental difference between the Internet and real life even though these worlds are, you know, completely merged this point - you know, in real life, you can just walk around. You can walk around and you can just be...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And people will see you. But on the Internet, you can't just be. You can't just walk around, right?

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: You have to actively communicate and...

SANDERS: Yes.

TOLENTINO: ...Slash, perhaps, perform in order to be seen. And just that basic mechanism of having, you know, like, a parallel world...

SANDERS: A performance. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Yeah. And just having to communicate to be, to interact at all, that is - the Internet is only kind of exacerbating and systematizing and monetizing the structures that have already existed in ordinary life. But there are certain things that are different - fundamentally different - and that, to me, is one of them.

SANDERS: Yeah. What did you sing at karaoke that night at Sing Sing?

TOLENTINO: I mean, six hours - what didn't I sing?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: I think, like, there were - like, one of my friends put on, you know, the Whitney Houston national anthem. And then another one...

SANDERS: Listen.

TOLENTINO: ...Just started screaming, like, absolute...

SANDERS: Oh, my God.

TOLENTINO: ...You know, blasphemy. Like, don't you dare, you know?

SANDERS: But that's hard to pull off.

TOLENTINO: Oh, I know. I know. But, you know, after six hours, this - I think we ran through the entire Alanis Morissette catalog...

SANDERS: (Clapping).

TOLENTINO: ...You know, the basics.

SANDERS: I love it.

TOLENTINO: What do you sing at karaoke?

SANDERS: My go-to is "Push It" by Salt-N-Pepa.

TOLENTINO: Oh, that's a really good one. That's one of my friend's go-tos. It's real good.

SANDERS: Yeah. You know, it's easy. It's about 12 words...

TOLENTINO: (Laughter).

SANDERS: ...And it's very repetitive...

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...There's no actual singing. You're just talking...

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...And everyone joins in with you.

TOLENTINO: Yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: It is a nice way to, like, get the crowd amped without having do that much work.

TOLENTINO: Yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: It's so great. Have you ever had bosses, editors, colleagues say, well, if you keep tweeting like this, it's going to diminish your credibility, it's going to hurt you as a writer? Do you ever get resistance?

TOLENTINO: You know, I actually - so in the acknowledgements of my book, I thank David Remnick, the editor-in-chief of The New Yorker, for not firing me when I tweet about my bong.

(LAUGHTER)

TOLENTINO: As far as I see it, it's my responsibility to be a decent person and to know where the line is. Like, I would rather - I think that there are a lot of worse ways to tweet than, you know...

SANDERS: That's true.

TOLENTINO: ...Exposing your occasional, like, ordinary stupidity, you know?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: Like, I think I would - and so, actually, the answer is no because I think - so I used to work as an editor at Jezebel, which was part of the Gawker...

SANDERS: I remember. Oh, yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And, you know, that was - I became really painfully, brutally aware of exactly what the lines were for getting yourself in trouble on the Internet.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: And, you know - and I crossed it sometimes or the website crossed it sometimes. And I think - I think I learned - I think I learned what was, you know, what was borderline and what was OK and what was over the line. And, you know, again, I think - I think it's interesting. We're in a time where newsrooms are having to delineate policies for how we can - how...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Reporters can and can't present themselves on the Internet.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: But one thing that's different about being at The New Yorker is that I report plenty of the time, but I also write a lot of opinion. And even when I do report it's - you know, The New Yorker is not a newspaper, right? I can express my political opinions within the piece.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: And I actually find that so freeing, because I actually...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...I find that so much more honest than having to pretend to some ostensible, you know...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah. Pretend that you have no personal thoughts on politics.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. Exactly...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Because I don't think that that's possible anymore. It's, you know, the stance of, you know, objectivity is kind of a false one. You know, we're all - our views are all shaped by our position. And I find it really nice to be able to show my cards and try to be fair from there.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: I don't know if I could handle a world in which I really had to be a different version of myself in a realm that is inextricable from my entire life, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: All right. Time for a break. When we come back, Jia Tolentino tells me about the time she went on a reality show when she was only 16. Stick around.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: I was actually going to ask you to give me an elevator pitch for the book.

TOLENTINO: I think of it as - I mean, it's a book about how the self is constructed, you know, in context with systems. And so it's about basically nine systems that have shaped my sense of self and that nine things in our culture that seem particularly conducive to giving us an idea of ourselves that seems just as likely to be wrong as it is to be right. And so the Internet's definitely a central part of it.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. Well, because it's like - it's one of those things where, like, we're not going to fully understand just how much the Internet changed everything about life for a few decades. It's changing everything.

TOLENTINO: Yeah, it's the central organ of contemporary life. Like, every single thing is routed through it. You know, sometimes I feel silly because I'm kind of on the Internet beat at The New Yorker. I write about really dumb Internet stuff sometimes - memes, you know? And I sometimes feel ridiculous because there is something ridiculous about writing about a meme for The New Yorker. You know, there's this thing in...

SANDERS: There was one recently. Like, there's this phenomenon online of random people asking celebrities to step on their throats.

TOLENTINO: Yeah, I don't...

SANDERS: Explore. And it was good...

TOLENTINO: Thank you so...

SANDERS: ...You know, but it's like wow.

TOLENTINO: Yeah, yeah. And, you know, you don't want to make these things too deep. But it is interesting when you have a whole generation of, you know, teens on Twitter begging Harry Styles to kill them, you know? Like it's not, not worth writing about. But...

SANDERS: Exactly.

TOLENTINO: ...You know, sometimes I feel silly for writing about the Internet because, again, I think one of my biggest, you know, irritations with the Internet and this is a, you know, much more weighty problem. It's sort of - like I said earlier, it's this parallel universe that can keep us really busy figuring out how to explain our lives while the systems that actually structure that - our lives are being controlled by the people that had power, have power and always will, right? And so it's sort of the separate sphere that, you know, cordons off our attention and often our power and sense of civic duty and all of these things. Even if you avoid it, you live in the world that the Internet structures. You live in the world that Cambridge Analytica wrought, you know?

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

TOLENTINO: And so - and there's just - you know, it feels silly to, you know...

SANDERS: Ignore it.

TOLENTINO: Ignore it, yeah.

SANDERS: Yeah. So in this book, you are very candid about a lot of stuff. You write about using hard drugs. You write about going on a reality TV show in Puerto Rico as a teenager. You write about your fraught relationship with religion. I realized as soon as I'm asking this question it's impossible for you to answer it, but, like, was there anything off limits and why?

TOLENTINO: Oh, there's lots of...

SANDERS: I guess you're not going to tell me (laughter).

TOLENTINO: There's lots of stuff that's off limits. I - you know, I write about myself very readily. I've always, you know, shared - I mean, as a person, I'm like this. You know, if, like, I meet a stranger at a bar - like, my friends 10 minutes late. You know, by the time my friend gets there, I - you know, this stranger and I will know - like, you know, I will have found out, you know, what his deepest secret is. You know, he'll know my worst fears. You know, it's - I'm like this.

But that being said, I am also careful. I am more careful about what I show of myself than what it might seem like. You know, I think with that essay - so there's one essay in there about how I grew up, which was 12 years in the school that's attached to the second biggest megachurch in the country, and what it was like to lose my religion and what came to be the - you know, what I left with, which is this desire for kind of ecstatic communion and transcendence and, you know, self-abnegation that I would later find through, like, rap and drugs, you know? And I think I adopt the strategy of - it's like if I'm going to talk about something, the details will be in there for a very specific reason.

SANDERS: I noticed you did not name the church or the school, this religious church or school, in the book or The New Yorker article. And you didn't even - you talked about the church at length with Terry Gross - didn't name it or the pastor.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. Well, part of that is because, you know, the church - it's a big deal in Houston. It's, you know, a relatively big deal in Texas. And I didn't want - I didn't want that essay to seem like it was - you know, if I was a reporter for The Houston Chronicle, I would be reporting on that church and its financials and, you know, tons of stuff there. But it wasn't about that church. It was about devotion. And it was about ecstasy. And it was about ecstasy as a link between virtue and vice. And it was about - you know, it's about something much more internal and universal than what that church specifically did. I didn't want it to seem like it was about them when it was about really ideas of God, I think.

SANDERS: Yeah. As a church kid myself...

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Who grew up, like, black Pentecostal...

TOLENTINO: Oh, wow.

SANDERS: ...Son of the church organist.

TOLENTINO: Oh, wow. That's so cool.

SANDERS: Like, it was - yeah, well. That's a word for it.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: But it hit so close to home because the thing no one understands about church kids - like, it's assumed that we are totally divorced from, quote-unquote, "the world" and we aren't engaging with the secular. We see the same stuff the other kids see. We just have to do this balancing act, this, like, these two separate performances. You perform for church and for school and for your parents, but you're also, like, doing all the crazy, weird stuff that all the other kids do.

TOLENTINO: Yeah, and you're - you're moved by the same things for the same reasons and you have the same desires and you have the same temptations. And I sometimes wonder - you know, we're talking about self-presentation a lot and, you know, the calibration of yourself in it and that's what I guess that's what the book is about. And, you know, there is something like you just said about - I thought about this when I went on this reality show my senior year of high school. And I...

SANDERS: Which is just amazing. One, let's back up and tell the folks what the show is because I - when I read it, I was like this should not be allowed.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: This is weird.

TOLENTINO: I know. Well, so this was 2004, and so we didn't know what reality TV would turn into yet. You know, it was still a novelty. It was still, like, very newly post "Survivor," sort of middle stage "Real World." We didn't really know. And I just - I spent a month of my senior year of high school in Puerto Rico filming a show called "Girls v. Boys: Puerto Rico" which was for...

SANDERS: How old were you?

TOLENTINO: I was - I had just turned 16.

SANDERS: OK.

TOLENTINO: You know, in retrospect, you know, no parent - you know, no responsible parent would ever let their kids do that now. But my parents, like, we're going through some, you know, some stuff. I was a fiercely independent child. And I was just like let me go. And - but one of the - one of the things that - when I was trying to persuade my school to let me go, one - my school had already sent two alumni to "The Bachelorette." Like, two men who had graduated from my school had already appeared on "The Bachelorette."

SANDERS: Really?

TOLENTINO: And I wonder if there's something about, you know, a religious - the, like, sort of religious panopticon as I describe it in the book. Like, you do have to sort of subtly and constantly self-calibrate how you're coming off for acceptability...

SANDERS: You get very good at performance.

TOLENTINO: Naturally.

SANDERS: You get very good at performance...

TOLENTINO: And it gets...

SANDERS: ...Very quickly.

TOLENTINO: And it gets embedded - and not even good at it, right? It seeps its way into your bones.

SANDERS: Yes.

TOLENTINO: And that is - I think that there are a lot of things in my life that have prepared me for this sort of hellish era of self-broadcasting...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: ...And I think that the church, like you said, it's one of them. It really - you are forced - because, as a teenager, to fit those ideas of virtue and acceptability, you have to perform. And, you know, this is what we're doing with the Internet. You know, we're not going to realize until 20 years from now how we'd be different if we hadn't - had to...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Adjust ourselves very slightly but constantly around all of these structures that determine our lives.

SANDERS: Exactly. And, like, there's some weird things that I'll still see myself doing now. Like, I - at this point, really, I only go to church for funerals, you know?

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: And, like, I still believe in God, but I am not a churchgoer.

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: But there'll be these weird things I do where I'm like, dang. It's still in my bones.

TOLENTINO: Oh, yeah.

SANDERS: Like, if I'm driving by a church, I'll turn down my music because I'm like, well, I can't play secular music in front of a church house - in my car...

TOLENTINO: Wow. That's really beautiful, you know, though, I think that's like - after I wrote that essay, you know, I got so many more - and for me, it was like - this was Houston, Texas, in the Bush era. Like, you know...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Our cultural relationship to power was never more deferential and worshipful than it was in, you know, post-Patriot Act America, Texas...

SANDERS: Yeah

TOLENTINO: ...You know, Christian church - all of it, right?

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: All of pop culture was structured around serving the powerful, basically. You know, it was like the era of...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Like, "Laguna Beach" even - just the most lowbrow pop culture was still, you know, wealth, you know, whatever.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: And...

SANDERS: And a very prosperity version - like, a very prosperity gospel version of it...

TOLENTINO: Absolutely.

SANDERS: ...And the fact that, like, those who were wealthy and powerful, well, obviously they're better than us. And they deserve it. And God gave it to them for a reason.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. And - which is the reason I left - you know, which is really the separation - my separation from the church was political above all else. And I - I'm still really in love with the idea of devotion in so many ways. And I I think that the way I write is so related to what being a church kid trains you to do, which is to sit down at the every - at the end of every day and ask yourself how you could be better, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: And I think - and little - and I'm glad that I have these, you know, these strains of reverence and longing in me, you know? Like, that thing, like, you - I'm glad for the sense of mystery that growing up in the church gave me...

SANDERS: Yeah

TOLENTINO: ...And that I've never lost it. Like, I feel grateful for that. And it's the same thing, like, I - you know, I never met a Democrat until I went to college. I never met...

SANDERS: Wow.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. I never met anyone that was pro-choice, you know, or anti-war. And I - and one thing that I - I just did my book tour stop in Houston. And it was, you know, it was strange thinking about growing up never meeting anyone whose political views were like what mine were turning into and that being totally fine and me learning to be completely comfortable with that...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...I think, like, as a writer and as, you know, someone, you know, people who are engaged with culture and politics kind of professionally - right? - there's no - there are few greater gifts than that - right? - than being...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Especially with the Internet, right? Like, being able to understand disagreement almost as a default state, I feel really grateful for that being something that the, you know, conservative church, prosperity gospel gave me.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: One more break. In a minute, I ask Jia about my favorite essay in her book, "Trick Mirror." It's all about optimization in our daily lives - from the food chains we eat at to the places we exercise. All right, back in a minute.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: I want to talk about my favorite essay in the book - I mean, like, literally, like, punch in the air being like, she did that...

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: ...The one on optimization.

TOLENTINO: Ooh.

SANDERS: Whew, boy.

TOLENTINO: Oh, boy (laughter).

SANDERS: It was so - well, one, I guess, lay out the premise of that essay without, I guess, giving it all away...

TOLENTINO: Sure.

SANDERS: ...Because I'm guessing half of our listeners will have read this and half will not. So how can we set this up for them?

TOLENTINO: Well, I think - so America right now runs on - I mean, it's such an American idea. Optimization, you know, the idea that we should be making things as perfect and efficient as possible...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...This has always been an open undercurrent of...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...American industry and...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Your self-narrativization. You know, we strive to be better. That's what America is for, right?

SANDERS: Yeah. We're the most productive workers on the planet. We work the longest hours...

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...Like, all of our mythology is this relentless strive for optimization.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. And one of the things that I think has changed over the last, you know, let's say, decade is that capitalism has accelerated to a point where optimization, which was formerly, like, you know, something that you would do if you wanted to get ahead - like, basically, what was advantageous has become compulsory over the last decade in general, I think. You know, like, working all the time - everyone works too much, everyone is basically required to. You know, we have this sense of, you know, inexorable acceleration in labor, in culture, in everything...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And the response to that is we have what I think of as optimization industries. Sort of - I think of this as, you know, like, high-end fitness or wellness or just those chopped salad chains that are in...

SANDERS: Yes.

TOLENTINO: ...You know, like, popping up in cities like mushrooms after the rain, you know?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: These things that don't necessarily feel - like, Lululemon doesn't feel like clothes to me. It feels like an adaptive mechanism that will help you, you know...

SANDERS: Optimize your body.

TOLENTINO: Yeah, and, you know, Sweetgreen doesn't feel like food. It feels like a refueling station that will allow you to order while looking at your emails, eat while looking at your emails, replenish yourself from the job that makes you send emails all day and continue to make the money that will allow you to afford a $15 salad that you eat in 10 minutes at your desk, you know? Your...

SANDERS: Yeah, just at me next time. Damn, Jia.

(LAUGHTER)

TOLENTINO: I mean, this is - look, so this is why. I wrote this essay because I worked upstairs from the Lululemon flagship store in Union Square. And so it was 17,000 square feet. And I never went in it because Lululemon terrified me.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: But I had this fantasy - do you remember that children's book "From The Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler?"

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

TOLENTINO: Like, where the kids hide in the Met. I was like, I want to do one...

SANDERS: And they fish out change from the pool.

TOLENTINO: Yeah, and they take a little - they take a bath in the fountain. So I was like, OK, I'm going to do that, but I'm going to hide for a week in Lululemon.

(LAUGHTER)

TOLENTINO: I would just walk by it. You know, and it's the most ordinary, mundane thing in the world. But my - you know, I'd walk by, and my brain was just - I would have these little earthquakes and be like, what are we doing - I would like to be clear about who I'm doing this for and why, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah. Well, like, you have this wonderful riff on, like, the very idea of barre class.

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: Like, it's almost obscene that the culture tells women, oh, it's really fun to strain your body and pay a lot of money to possibly look like a ballerina as a 35-year-old.

TOLENTINO: Yeah, and also to be doing it for these sort of vaguely feminist reasons, right? Like, you know, we've had this advent of mainstream feminism over the last 10 years, and what we've gotten is just this idea that you should be more perfect, more beautiful, more appealing, more productive for yourself.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: And it doesn't seem - that doesn't seem to be an improvement to me even as I find myself doing that, you know? And I think, yeah, there's something about barre specifically. So barre class...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: ...It's like this kind of faux ballet. Like...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...It's this, you know, hour-long workout class where I wrote that, you know, it makes me feel like a racecar getting serviced in the pit, you know?

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yes.

TOLENTINO: Like, someone's just adjusting - someone's adjusting body part by body part till it works 2% better. Then I'm just back, you know, sending emails on my way to Sweetgreen or whatever.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: Yeah (laughter).

SANDERS: And there's never an end.

TOLENTINO: There's never an end, right.

SANDERS: Like, even if you do barre to the point where you look like - I don't know - Natalie Portman in "Black Swan..."

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...You still got to keep going to barre. Like, there's never a moment with these pursuits to optimize our body where we get to stop and pat ourselves on the back.

TOLENTINO: And it's like with wealth, that position. It's like with anything. I think we feel systems accelerating like - I think in our heads we're sort of, like, at some point we'll be fine. But these systems - you know, a capitalist system is not set up to do anything but continually accelerate, right? Like, these systems are meant to make satisfaction inherently out of reach. And I think that's something that it was worth indicting myself and implicating myself in my participation and my eager participation in them.

SANDERS: Yeah. So speaking of that indictment of the self, like, have you found ways to push back against this culture of optimization? Like, are you personally able to fight it? And if so, how?

TOLENTINO: Yeah. Well, in general, there's sort of a - this sort of just because you can doesn't mean you should. I've been - like, that's kind of an internal motto for me, you know?

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: Like, just because I could take a car right now doesn't mean that I should, necessarily.

SANDERS: That you should.

TOLENTINO: Just because I - the world has allowed me to, you know, Postmates a bathing suit...

SANDERS: (Laughter) Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...You know, doesn't mean that I should operate...

SANDERS: That you should.

TOLENTINO: Like, just because I can take advantage of Amazon workers who have to pee in bottles, you know...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...To not get fired to, you know, get this thing at my doorstep by 6 p.m. today...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...It doesn't mean that I should. And so I think that what I've been trying to do in terms of me resisting all of these systems is to realize what freedoms are available to me personally to refrain from optimizing and to refrain...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...You know, from taking the bait to be better or to be more and to be - you know? And it's a strange thing to be thinking about as I am self-promoting, you know? But there are - I think that just that axiom, like, just because you can - you know, do you have the freedom to not? Then maybe you should not.

SANDERS: Exactly, yeah. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: And I try to operate by that.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah. One of the most interesting points I found in the essay that I had never really thought about before - you were writing about, you know, athleisure and this culture of beauty and optimization and the way that, like, this version of female empowerment that we experience right now, it says beauty should always be pursued.

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: But also, everyone can be beautiful.

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: And so there's this thread in the culture to argue that all women's bodies are beautiful, which seems to be this really sneaky way to make sure all women are constantly spending money to be more beautiful.

TOLENTINO: Absolutely.

SANDERS: And what you write that I'd never thought about before was just what if we just prioritized beauty less.

TOLENTINO: Yeah, what if - you know, all my life I've been looking for a body neutrality movement, you know?

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: And I also say this as someone who - I mean, like, it's easy for me to say. I - you know, I have not been monstrously ostracized by the beauty ideal as so many people are for so many arbitrary reasons, right?

SANDERS: Yes. Yes.

TOLENTINO: And anyone - so it's this tension - right? - where the - you know, an expanded idea of beauty is a good thing, but there's a way in which feminism has really entrenched the beauty ideal further by making it sort of like - it's made sort of the work of getting it to be this vaguely feminist project.

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: And also, yeah, it's made it matter almost more and not less, that it's a feminist thing that we believe everyone's beautiful. But, again, this is one of those things where nothing in our world these days seems like it will de-escalate, right? And if our world is increasingly organized around self-surveillance - you know, 20 years ago, celebrities were the only people that could possibly see pictures of themselves every day. Now it is available to anyone with a smartphone. And it's impossible to imagine beauty mattering less under these structural circumstances.

SANDERS: Yeah, yeah, yeah. You close the essay on optimization with this beautiful riff on the idea of woman as cyborg. Like...

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...The demands of modern life are making women particularly have to just, like, optimize their body to the point where they're just, like, becoming something more than just human (laughter).

TOLENTINO: Yeah. Well, one thing that I think is interesting right now that I, you know, been writing about in different ways for a while is that the - you know, the Kardashian beauty ideal, which you could argue is now the mainstream one. It is - we have reached a beauty ideal that is impossible to achieve naturally...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And not only impossible, it's openly so.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

TOLENTINO: Like, they don't...

SANDERS: They're having - they're getting chopped up. They're getting chopped and screwed...

TOLENTINO: Yeah. They're getting chopped and screwed.

SANDERS: ...In the face, in the body, in the back.

TOLENTINO: And they don't try to hide it...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And that's, you know - so we are literally reaching a cyborg beauty ideal. And I think that, you know - and I - that ending is sort of - it's - one of my ways of making peace with all of this is to understand my desires as fundamentally adulterated by male power, by capitalism, you know, and understanding that I was formed by these systems, I participate in them, I have benefited from them, benefited from systems that have punished other people and kind of using that as a way to understand that any rebellion that I can foment is the kind of rebellion that a, you know, a cyborg formed in a compromised image could...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...You know? Like, you're going to have to - if you turn on it, you're going to have - it's going to have to start from a standpoint of implication.

SANDERS: Yeah. I love it. You write that this cyborg woman is, quote, "shaped in an image we didn't choose for ourselves and disloyal and disobedient as a result." Who is the most wonderfully, subversively disloyal? Who is the most cyborg woman in the culture right now?

TOLENTINO: Well, it's interesting. You know, obviously the person that comes to mind is Beyonce. I don't want to say that she's disloyal, right? But it's like she's playing an interesting long game where Beyonce is the most cyborgian human that we have.

SANDERS: That's true, though. You right.

TOLENTINO: You know?

SANDERS: She's just like - she is above human at this point.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. And she kind of openly is. Like, she - you know, she used to - like, the last time she spoke to a reporter, like, 10 years ago...

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: ...It was for a GQ piece. She talks about reviewing game - you know, reviewing concert footage like it's game tape...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Like alone in her room, you know.

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: She's been playing this long game of amassing this singular power...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And using it to, let's say, with the "Homecoming" Netflix special...

SANDERS: To change our focus...

TOLENTINO: To change our...

SANDERS: ...She said, everyone, look this way.

TOLENTINO: Yeah. And to - just even structurally - make sure that every person that worked on that special is going to have a job in their chosen field for the rest of their life. You know what I mean?

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: Making sure that black people are centered and, you know - you know what I mean?

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: And, like - and Beyonce, you know, increasingly for the last, you know, however many years, has been centering - you know, really been denying the white gaze as just...

SANDERS: Oh, yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...Totally irrelevant to her life...

SANDERS: Which is so interesting...

TOLENTINO: ...And making people do things on her terms. And...

SANDERS: Yes.

TOLENTINO: ...It's a version, you know - which isn't to say she hasn't completely molded herself to all of the - you know, so many conventional - you know, she is the most beautiful. She's the most hardworking. And her body is perfect, you know, all these things...

SANDERS: Yeah. Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And yet, there's something about her long-term project that - you know, something about "Homecoming." It was like you were - you were undermining something that needs to be undermined.

SANDERS: Exactly. Well - and, like, just looking at her career trajectory as a black woman, it is quite interesting...

TOLENTINO: Oh, yeah.

SANDERS: ...Because she's always been black. She opens her mouth and sings, you hear blackness...

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...But her presentation of self has, at certain times, felt almost white.

TOLENTINO: Absolutely.

SANDERS: There's some music videos of her back in the day where she's very fair-skinned with blonde hair. And you're like, I don't know. I can't tell, right? And she also did this thing where she was making music early on in her solo career that was, in some ways, some songs, like, straight-ahead white pop.

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: And, like, some of those things, I guess, she had to do to amass this power. But then she got enough. And she just said, we are black AF now.

TOLENTINO: Right. And that question - right? - of, like, when it's enough that you can then turn and how much you then are able to is a very complex one. But, yes, it's really interesting. Also, can I say...

SANDERS: Say it.

TOLENTINO: ...My ninth grade cheerleading tryouts were judged by one of the women that got kicked out of the original foursome of Destiny's Child.

SANDERS: Shut up. LeToya or LaTavia?

TOLENTINO: LaTavia.

SANDERS: What? (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: I was, like, so scared. Like, I was, like, petrified. It was honestly the most - like, it was the - it was the closest brush with greatness I've ever had in my life....

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness.

TOLENTINO: Like, I was shaking in my boots. Like it was - (laughter).

SANDERS: Oh, my goodness. Oh, my goodness.

TOLENTINO: I also - the first time I saw Destiny's Child perform was Houston Rodeo 1999.

SANDERS: Yes.

TOLENTINO: Oh, my God.

SANDERS: Yes.

TOLENTINO: (Laughter).

SANDERS: They're for real.

TOLENTINO: They're for real.

SANDERS: You know, "The Writing's On The Wall" just turned 20.

TOLENTINO: I can't even think about that (laughter)

SANDERS: It's crazy. It's crazy. Last quick question for you, from one church kid to another...

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: ...What is your favorite praise and worship song?

TOLENTINO: Oh, my God.

SANDERS: (Laughter).

TOLENTINO: I was - oh, my God. Well, wait. Let me ask you a question. Were you doing "Baby Shark" in, like, youth group as a kid?

SANDERS: No.

TOLENTINO: Oh, OK. So I was just with a couple of friends last night, both of whom had like, you know, done the whole church camp, Young Life thing...

SANDERS: Yeah.

TOLENTINO: ...And we had all learned "Baby Shark" in, like, elementary school, like, Bible class.

SANDERS: Really?

TOLENTINO: Yeah, Bible study. OK. Do you remember the - do you remember the little - do you remember the song that was like - this is, like, elementary school. We were also remembering this, the one that's like, (singing) the big, big house with lots and lots of rooms.

SANDERS: Oh, yeah. Yeah. Yeah. OK.

TOLENTINO: Remember that one?

SANDERS: Yes.

TOLENTINO: (Singing) Big, big yard, where you could play football. Touchdown.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: I remember it, like - oh, yeah. It was like, (singing) come and join me in my father's house. Like...

TOLENTINO: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

SANDERS: Oh, I love it.

TOLENTINO: Yeah.

SANDERS: Oh, man. I am so glad we had this time. It was an honor and a treat to get to just sit with you and talk about these big ideas.

TOLENTINO: It was an honor to talk to you. It was so fun. Thank you for having me on.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

SANDERS: Thanks so much to Jia Tolentino. Her book is called "Trick Mirror: Reflections On Self-Delusion." It's out now. You can catch all of her other writing in The New Yorker magazine as well. And a reminder, you can catch me talking live with another author on September 11. I'll be in D.C. in conversation with the Malcolm Gladwell on the campus of George Washington University at Lisner Auditorium. Tickets are still on sale. Go to nprpresents.org - nprpresents.org. You don't want to miss it. I'm going to dress up for y'all, OK? I hope to see you there. Aunt Betty's coming, too. OK. That's a wrap. We're back in your feeds Friday as usual. Until then, talk soon.

(SOUNDBITE OF FLEVANS' "FLICKER")

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