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Review: ‘Self Care’ is a blistering fictional takedown of VC feminism

Leigh Stein's book "Self Care."
(Penguin Books)

February 2017. It was barely a month into Donald Trump’s presidency. Deportations were ramping up, national security adviser Michael Flynn resigned, Title IX’s gender protections were scaled back. Nordstrom announced it would no longer carry Ivanka Trump’s fashion line, and her outraged father began using the @POTUS Twitter handle to broadcast his personal grievances. Each day, some fresh horror awaited. It was so impossibly long ago, and yet a mere yoctosecond in the slippery fabric of American time. It’s also the month in which “Self Care,” a new novel by Leigh Stein, begins.

Picture “an inclusive community platform” called Richual, “a pioneer in the wellness space, using social technology to connect, cure, and catalyze women to be global change-makers through the simple act of self-care.” Richual is the millennial-pink stage upon which “Self Care” is set. Equal parts social network and content manufacturer, the startup could be an amalgam of any number of companies promising to empower women while simultaneously selling them a commodified version of feminism. It promotes vibrators that sync to an app to optimize orgasms, runs a regular rubric called “Healing Crystal or Dildo of Antiquity?”, commissions a web series called “Stay Woke, Y’All” and has a beauty closet stocked with lucid dreaming tea, mace-armed cheek tint and Winona- and Johnny-themed tarot decks.

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The inciting act in “Self Care” is a nasty tweet from Richual’s feminist chief operating officer directed at the president’s daughter — yes, Ivanka — which sets off a flurry of controversy while also galvanizing Richual’s base and, not coincidentally, boosting business. Looking back to 2017, it seems quaint that such an event might have made waves in the femi-verse, and yet … and yet. Toggling between satire and clear-eyed sincerity, “Self Care” is nothing if not extremely on the nose.

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“Self Care” is a three-part harmony, each of its narrators an archetype of a particular niche of contemporary womanhood in the jungle of capitalism. Cofounders Devin Avery and Maren Gelb both summon up white girlbosses running steel-hearted startups disguised as inclusive communities. CEO Devin is a living, breathing “after” photo with a fresh juice subscription and an open-plan apartment adorned with altars to the goddess Lakshmi and Mary-Kate Olsen; COO Maren, a size 14, Pinot Grigio-swigging know-it-all feminist, is still paying down student loans, white-knuckling it toward what the tech world calls a great exit. Khadijah Walker, the first Richual employee and SVP editorial strategy, is the tokenized POC workhorse — hiding a pregnancy for fear of demanding maternity leave, churning out content, putting out fires and cradling the 2.5% equity bestowed upon her “because of reparations,” according to Maren. (It’s worth noting that Khadijah was Muhammed’s first follower and wife, as well as an adroit businesswoman.)

Leigh Stein, the author of "Self Care."
(Brian Jacks)

After Maren’s tweet, Richual devolves into a politicized circular firing squad#MeToo scandal included — wherein women throw other women to the wolves in the service of advancing their own personal brands. Though the turmoil at the center of “Self Care” is entertaining, its twist ending a clawed swipe at the irony of the scarcity myth — the zero-sum foundation of capitalism — it’s not the thing that kept me reading. Instead, it was Stein’s deft navigation of the shades of superficial feminism, the lexicon of start-up culture and the tone of a generation reckoning with how to be honest with itself.

Stein, a memoirist and a poet (once ordained by “The Cut” as “‘The Bachelor’s’ de facto poet laureate”), has a knack for aping the internet’s rhythms and tics, and her fluency in its hyperbolic headlines, fluffy PR-approved statements and off-the-cuff Slack missives is superb (though the rendering of these elements, in text bubbles and press release formatting, felt a little twee). “Self Care” is peppered with delicious, hateful details — a woman whose tablet, when projected for a meeting, accidentally reveals her fertility app progress; beach towel swag emblazoned with the phrase “Believe victims”; a 6-foot-2 intimate-wipe company foundress named Arianna Tran; a former “Bachelorette” contestant turned investor with a “Sleeping Beauty” fetish.

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The pile-on eventually becomes a game for the reader, an updated, feminized riff on “American Psycho.” How many yuppie New York allusions can you spot? Are you so steeped in wellness culture you can name the reference point for the meditation studio, the workout method, the yoga bodysuit brand? And if so, should you be ashamed of yourself? And if not, should you be reading this book?

February 2017: Eight months before #MeToo. Half a year before our leader stared too long at the ominous eclipse. So many days before the first and only wave of the pandemic began to swell, long before America took its first steps toward what we all hope will be a true reckoning with racism as well as the limits of white feminism. (Just last week the death knell sounded for the troubled, outdated Girlboss — surely a Richual inspiration — when founder and CEO Sophia Amoruso stepped down.)

Published in a time of overlapping national emergencies, “Self Care” looks like a fully formed artifact, a portal back to a moment when catty tweets, the takedown of wellness charlatans and the spectacle of startup scandals felt urgent. Within its pages, conversations are started — particularly on the topic of social equity and ownership — but ultimately smothered by the window dressing. Though its copyright page bears the disclaimer, “this is a work of fiction,” Stein has drawn up a frightfully true portrayal of days gone by — days of distraction and a deep commitment to denial.

Pariseau is a writer and editor in New Orleans.

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Self Care
Leigh Stein
Penguin: 256 pages, $16


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