Have your cake: Jia Tolentino and the ironies of 'eat the rich' pop criticism

Jia Tolentino knows exactly why everyone is so obsessed with Succession.

A few hours before her sold-out lecture, titled “Who's Afraid of Eating the Rich,” Tolentino tells me that part of what makes content about the immorality of extreme wealth so popular — think Parasite, The White Lotus and Saltburn — is that as an audience, “we get the aesthetic satisfaction of getting to inhabit a world of luxury, but also the smug political satisfaction of watching it burn down.”

This newest insight in Tolentino’s history of cultural criticism strikes me as correct. Tonight at the Chan Centre, aesthetic satisfaction and political smugness are hard to miss. Onstage, behind the standard podium and armchairs where Tolentino and moderator Kimberly Bain will critique the super-wealthy, is a palatial set piece from UBC Opera’s Cendrillon. It’s from here that Tolentino emerges, literally descending the gilded steps of the palace to begin her talk.

The irony feels almost too heavy-handed to be true, but Tolentino has never shied from the paradoxical. Her career as a bestselling essayist and staff writer for the New Yorker is studded with pieces that hold the tension between competing ideas. One standout, “Losing Religion and Finding Ecstasy in Houston,” covers MDMA, a Texas Megachurch and the dilemma that “to articulate the desire to vanish is to reiterate the self.”

Tonight, Tolentino’s commitment to irony remains steadfast. After a graceful descent to her podium, she jokes that the only thing that could have made her entrance better is if she had fallen from the fake castle and died. We laugh — instantly, a satisfying ‘both-at-once’ tone is established.

Yes, we’ll all be listening to how gross extreme wealth is, but we’re also all astute enough to notice (and polite enough to laugh about) the fact that the venue is a massive theatre, the lecture is funded by former Rogers executive Phil Lind and the audience is constituted in no small part by the upper middle-class. Sure there’s a castle onstage, but at least the tickets were free!

In some ways, this is exactly Tolentino’s point. Citing theorist Mark Fisher, she outlines the particularly insidious way “Eat the Rich” media assimilates critiques of capitalism. While she misses an opportunity to explore the politics of recent WGA strikes in more depth, she does locate the material results of all these anti-rich movies and TV shows: more money for entertainment companies. Or, in her words, “taking in as much capital as possible under a surfactic bubble of ‘values.’”

So why do we keep watching? For the same reason we lap up Cinderella, this evening’s fairytale backdrop — hating on bad rich people (ugly stepsisters, for instance) lets us think that maybe there’s some way to be a good one.

While most of us don’t self-identify as “rich,” carrying the guilt of some degree of privilege — living on stolen land, buying factory-farmed meat or fast-fashion, etc. — is part of any conscious North American consumer’s day-to-day life. If we can relocate some of this guilt into the convenient vessel of Succession's Kendall Roy, so much the better.

During our interview, I ask Tolentino about these paradoxical impulses. How can we simultaneously want to get closer to wealth by seeing it on screen, and still want to distance ourselves from the culpability of wealth under capitalism? She acknowledges that this contradiction will be at the heart of her lecture, and then says something that surprises me.

“I don't know what the point of feeling these two things together is anymore,” she says. “I find myself wanting more than just ‘we want to have our cake and we want to eat it too.’ I guess I don't think you can have both.”

I don’t think we should have both either, but it seems as though we frequently do. I love Jia Tolentino, and I’ve treasured her book Trick Mirror since I was 16, but I left the Chan Centre with a weird feeling in my stomach. Inhabiting “both-and” spaces has long been a trendy and productive intellectual stance — one that thinkers like Tolentino have used to carve meaningful new territory between flat binaries like fat/thin, overdog/underdog and sacred/secular. But as Tolentino herself acknowledges, a binary like having cake/eating cake doesn’t offer such fertile middle ground.

In 2019, I passionately underlined a paragraph from Tolentino’s essay “The I in the Internet,” which reads that “the unhealthy focus on opinion … rooted in the way the internet minimizes the need for physical action [means that] you don’t have to do much of anything but sit behind a screen to live an acceptable, possibly valorized, twenty-first-century life.”

As usual, I think Tolentino’s diagnosis is right. So much of our engagement with social media and pop culture is about diffusing political affect away from action and towards feeling better about our personal brands. And here I am: typing my opinion about Jia Tolentino’s opinion about some movie’s opinion about some rich asshole’s opinion. It feels good to temper this irony with self-awareness, but I don’t think it lets me off the hook.

There is only so far that holding paradoxes can take us. At some point, we have to leave the lecture hall’s “surfactic bubble of values” and start actually eating the rich. This is Tolentino’s thesis, but what keeps her point from hitting its mark isn’t the ridiculous backdrop, or the tricky opposition of simultaneously wanting both proximity to and distance from wealth. It’s the most painful irony of all — the fact that tonight we are all engaging in the very phenomenon “Who’s Afraid of Eating the Rich” is all about.

Sitting in the third row taking notes for this article, I feel the same way I do in a lot of my classes at UBC. Aesthetic satisfaction mixed with a little political smugness — the kind that only comes from what contemporary philosopher Slavoj Zizek calls “interpassivity.”

Tolentino describes this idea — that an object can act on a user’s behalf — by invoking the social media activist’s Instagram story. In this case, posting an infographic calling for a ceasefire in Gaza can act as a substitute for the real action of, say, phoning your MP. Interpassivity is what “Eat the Rich” media does too. Succession is the class-conscious object standing in for the real objective of equality; Kendall Roy is the hated object standing in for the real objective of embodying our righteous anger.

Consuming cultural criticism about eating the rich (in any lecture hall, not just the Chan Centre), revelling in the virtuosity of your agreement and disgust and then going home with your stomach full from “having your cake and eating it too” has this same tendency.

It easily substitutes for the real, embodied and sustained action required for radical change.