April 15, 2024

Writer Jia Tolentino on the state of the Internet and eating the rich

My heart beats faster than normal as I wait for Jia Tolentino to answer my call.

There’s something about interviewing another writer that’s specifically terrifying. Are they going to think my questions are stupid? Are they silently editing my ramblings in their head? Will they read the resulting interview and hate the way I represent them or, worse yet, the way I write?

In an act of self-preservation (or perhaps desperation), I let out my nerves to Tolentino almost as soon as he answers the phone. To my great relief, she understands my plight.

“The first thing I did when I went back to work this fall after having my second child was New Yorker interview with Naomi Klein, and after 30 seconds I thought, ‘This was the worst decision,’” he says, laughing. “I never find it difficult to interview people, but when it comes to other writers, I do. Especially someone like Naomi Klein. I thought, ‘Why did I put my postpartum brain into a conversation with one of the smartest women in North America?’”

Tolentino is editor of the New Yorkerand is the author of a book of essays called mirror trick which, when it was released in 2019, became a kind of millennial feminist Bible. Its success lies in its ability to marry intellect with identification, somehow making topics like scammer culture seem academic, or topics like bail funds feel anything but boring.

Ahead of her UBC School of Public Policy and Global Affairs talk at the Chan Center for the Performing Arts later this month, I speak with Tolentino about her feelings toward her book, the state of the Internet, forced marriage, and more.

mirror trick It came out in 2019. Looking back, how do you feel about the book now?

I have never voluntarily opened it since it came out. I don’t feel embarrassed about it; It’s the best I can feel about anything I’ve ever written. I think it’s a little agonizing to remember. I generally feel this way about my job. I realized, especially when that book came out, that what I’m looking for when writing is not having written something, but the process of writing it.

I was writing it as an essentially private endeavor, because it was the most time I’ve ever spent keeping a project to myself. I was writing it for this imaginary audience of one (myself) and then it came out and I had the incredible surprise of a lot of people reading it. Something about that made me feel ashamed and I have managed to recover from that. But I think it brought up a lot of complicated things: I wrote about the commodification of personal identity, and suddenly it came to light and my identity was much more of a commodity because of something I had done.

I think I feel proud that I was able to write a book about the present that was published when the era it was written about still felt like the era in which it came out. Due to the delay of a book, I was worried. about it. But like, damn, 2019: I felt like I understood the internet at that point. And four years later (I mean, six years after I wrote the Internet part) I really understand it less and less every day.

I’m sure we’ve both talked at length about the constant churn of the Internet. But I feel more and more like we’re all writing about the same things and talking about the same things. Have you ever wondered why we keep doing this?

Yes. My metric for the Internet was: as long as it gives me something, as long as it gives me more to my life and takes away from me, adds more to my day than it takes away from me, and as long as I have fun. Those were always the redeeming factors. I’ve always been immersed in pretty bad parts of the Internet working in women’s media and I feel like January 6th. [the United States Capitol attack] came directly from all these internet male subcultures we were trying to write about in Jezebel like 10 years ago. But, you know, as long as it was fun and as long as it was additive, I always thought, “I’ll keep playing this game.” And then, I don’t know if it was a pandemic or a post-book hangover or having a kid, or all of those things combined, but the internet got dramatically worse and less fun in 2020, when it was a lot bigger. than most of our physical lives.

I think there is a big gap. Journalists do not use Twitter in the same way; It’s really not fun anymore. Even TikTok was fun and chaotic, and now it’s primarily a commerce engine, as all of these platforms fundamentally are. So I think everyone is asking that question and it seems like most people are moving away from it in some ways.

In its heyday, Jezebel She was truly the pinnacle of women’s media. What do you think is the role of a women-focused magazine now?

There was a time when women-focused publications and blogs run by young women were, I think (I’m obviously biased), some of the most fun and interesting places on the internet. In general, there are no more fun and interesting places on the Internet. It’s part of this algorithmic flattening of things, like you said: We all seem to read the same six websites and I think that’s partly because we do. There are no more small publications; much of that energy has transferred to Substack and podcasts.

Aside from specific economic factors that made small publications generally unviable, the upside of why there is nothing like Jezebel Most importantly (although it still exists) many of these feminist publications were successful. They transferred their worldview, if not absolutely to the rest of the media industry, planted that word worldview with a firm grip on virtually everywhere. I think Me Too was the big sign that what might previously have been treated as some kind of crisis in women’s specific issues was properly treated as a story about the industry, power, and people in general.

If that work no longer seems revolutionary it is because everyone managed to transfer it to the mainstream.

I hadn’t thought of it that way.

Not that I wouldn’t love for a scrappy, weird, hard-hitting women’s publication run by a bunch of 20-somethings to pop up right now. I would really love to see that happen. I don’t think there is any need for something like that. But I think the basic principle that “women’s issues are people’s issues” is pretty well established now.

I saw on your Instagram that you were forced to get married because of a health insurance policy.

Yes. I’m still very unhappy about that.

I remember you wrote mirror trick about his anti-marriage views. Has being forced into this situation changed anything for you?

You are welcome. I harbor a lot of resentment toward the American healthcare system for effectively forcing me to get married. It feels a little childish to resent something related to a relationship that is the center of my life. I need my husband (I hate saying that word), but I need him in this relationship in a really new, very urgent, daily way since having kids.

But it’s like: I thought this relationship was the place in my life where I would be free to make of it whatever I wanted to make of it. Then we had to get married to have health insurance.

Still, there was one time we were all flying somewhere for work (Andrew, my son and I) and I forgot my wallet at home. I was literally trying to get on the plane without identification and I thought, “My husband and my baby!” I occasionally use terminology I hate when I feel like it will give me sympathy for a TSA situation or something.

Did you get on the plane?

I got on the plane. With nothing but a canceled check and a bill from my vet’s office.

Wow. America.

Honestly, the baby card really helped.

His talk in Vancouver is called Eat the Rich. Why is the topic of extreme wealth and the injustices of extreme wealth relevant to you right now?

In general, I am interested in the fact that in the last, say, six decades, the people represented on television and in films have become increasingly richer, to the point that in practice only the class is seen upper middle and upper class. people. The average sitcom no longer represents the working class at all, and that goes hand in hand with this rise in income inequality and decline in union membership. I’m interested in the way even the media covers strikes from the point of view of the uncomfortable passengers and not from the point of view of the people on strike.

Since approximately Parasite It was until last year with The menu and Sadness triangle and The white lotus and the Knives out In the sequel, we’re having this “eat the rich” pop culture excess. At the same time, in the United States presidential primaries, we said no to the two candidates who proposed eating the rich and elected a centrist. I think I have always been interested in the question: what function does it serve? Does it fulfill several functions at the same time? Is it an escape valve for a political impulse? Is it consolidating our political desire to take down the billionaires? Or is it a convenient pressure valve where we say, “Yeah, the rich, they’re evil,” and we get that in pop culture, and then we have less of an impulse to engage in civic engagement?

I feel like I alternate between: “Yeah, eat the rich! There is so much excess! and: “Man, wouldn’t it be nice to be rich?”

Hundred percent. I mean, so many emotional reactions come up. I have definitely seen The white lotus and I said, “Well, I’ve never had a bad time on vacation. When I have beautiful travel experiences, I feel grateful.” And I’m pretty sure all the incredibly rich people who saw that said the same thing. They say, “Well, at least we’re aware of our privilege and we would never treat staff like that.” There is a kind of distancing and desire. The two contradictory impulses… that seems to be the point.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Jia Tolentino: Who is afraid of eating the rich? will be held on January 25 at 6 pm at the Chan Center for the Performing Arts.


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