The media maven turns 18 today. What does her impending adulthood mean for her revolutionary media empire?
Tavi Gevinson, who celebrates her 18th birthday today, has accomplished more before graduating high school than most of us do our entire lives: At 11, she was writing a fashion blog, Style Rookie, from her bedroom that earned her 30,000 readers a day, profiles in such publications as the New York Times, invites to Fashion Week in New York and Paris, and clips in Harper’s Bazaar. And then, at 15, she redirected her focus from fashion to the issues affecting the 21st century teen girl, by launching Rookie Magazine, publishing the likes of Lena Dunham, Emma Straub, and Mindy Kaling. And suddenly she was on the couches of late-night TV talk shows, hanging out with Anna Wintour and New Zealand pop star Lorde, and giving TED talks.
In fact, when Lorde was on tour, she spent the day before her sold-out show at Chicago’s Aragon Ballroom, hanging out with her BFF in the Chicago suburb of Oak Park (which happens to boast a literary legacy—Ernest Hemingway attended Oak Park and River Forest High School, as did Charles Simic and Carol Shields). Naturally, it made the local news. But no one was famous when they were in high school, not like Gevinson, who insists that most of the kids she goes to school with either don’t know how famous she is—or don’t really care (her classmates may beg to differ). Gevinson’s father, Steve, a retired English teacher at her high school—told the LA Times that his daughter lives off of her $25 per week allowance, and that her fees from speaking engagements go into a savings account.
Though Gevinson admits that as hard as she and her family try to maintain normalcy, her situation is different from most high-school seniors thinking about college. She made her major feature-film debut last year with Enough Said, cast as the best friend of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s daughter’s best friend, and appeared in the season finale of Parenthood as Haddie’s new girlfriend; and in the fall, she will appear on Broadway in This Is Our Youth. Pile all of that on top of a celebrated media brand and you wonder, Does this girl really need to go to college? Probably not. But she wants to.
“I’m in a really, really lucky place,” she said, “because I get to go to college solely for the education and to enrich my brain and learn about the world and learn about myself, and that’s really a privilege.”
Though she is taking next year off, she listed a hodgepodge of creative fields she wants to try out at college, and said she’s excited to be around people who really want to learn. And she’s not worried about balancing the workload with running Rookie—she’s been doing it since middle school, after all.
“By now it feels more routine and I know how to manage it better,” she said. “I know how to prioritize, to not procrastinate.”
And while she’s aging out of her prodigy status and branching out into different ventures—be it acting or college life—she’s doesn’t believe it will have a major impact on Rookie. She says she’s confident that Rookie will maintain its trademark authentic youthful voice—even when it is no longer run by a kid. What started as a teen girl’s blog is now a bona fide brand, with a staff of 80 people (about half of whom are under 18) and the second edition of Rookie Yearbook, which came out from Drawn & Quarterly last October—it’s grown so far beyond its beginnings in Gevinson’s bedroom that a change in the direction of her life doesn’t necessarily mean one for the publication.
“The goal has always been to get it to a place where it could stand on its own two feet,” she said. “We have these staffers who come from all different kinds of backgrounds and tell their own stories. That’s the most important thing, not necessarily the one person leading the way.” Gevinson recalled a photo story from last year where one of Rookie’s younger photographers documented her friends riding the subway, playing basketball, making zines, getting dressed up, and just generally doing their everyday teenage thing.
“So many magazines that have been around for years try to create that feeling,” she said. “And it’s just so different when an actual teenager does it.”
Like any anthology, Rookie Yearbook Two is made up largely of hand-picked pieces from the last year of the website. But more like a yearbook, it feels like the tangible culmination of a bunch of friends having fun. There are illustrations, a sticker book, and, true to the real thing, signatures and notes from the staff on the inside covers. It has a nostalgic feel, as any yearbook does, but it’s all about taking from the past to create something new.
“A lot of my references, especially visual references, are from times past. But I don’t romanticize it. I’m not someone who’s like, ‘Oh I wish I lived in the ‘60s,’” Gevinson said. “I think the advantage of living now is that we can look at that stuff and be critical and take what we want from it.”
She applies the same principles to her very astute observations and hopes for modern feminism. “We’re often associated with Riot Grrrl, like we’re part of some Riot Grrrl revival,” she said of Rookie, “but I would hope that what we’re doing is a little different and has a wider reach.”
She was heavily influenced by Riot Grrrl as a tween, like many budding feminists, but maintains that it’s important to see the role that the movement played without clinging to it and trying to make it fit our moment. Because she was so young, so squarely in the spotlight, and so articulate about her feminist ideals, while she was being ushered in as a media prodigy she was also held up as the feminist messiah—the pixie-cut adolescent that would save us all.
“I once saw an article in a newspaper that was titled like ‘Is Tavi Gevinson girlpower’s last hope?,’ or something like that,” she said. “It gave me a panic attack.”
“We put certain feminists on a pedestal because we’re just so psyched that someone who’s in the mainstream will finally talk about this,” she said. “But then they mess up.” Even more than the pressure of being put on that pedestal, she said the problem is one of representation—there can’t be one face of feminism because it’s impossible for one human being to encapsulate all of the different things that are going on in feminism right now, from abortion rights to equal pay to representation of women on television.
“We want feminism everywhere,” she said. “In addition to the important issues we want it in pop culture. I don’t like it when you talk about something like ‘Robin Thicke is misogynistic and gross’ and people say ‘Who cares? It’s just music,’ or when you talk about how there aren’t enough women of color in movies and people are like, ‘it’s just movies.’” She argued that even if these cultural issues aren’t the most pressing things facing feminism today, they’re still important, still worth talking about and fighting for.
“But there’s a line,” she said. “There are some things that are just too small.”
She talked about a time that she posted something on Instagram about a Taylor Swift song she was listening to and accidentally sparked a huge debate about whether Swift is a bad role model for young women. Gevinson’s a big fan of Swift, musically and as a feminist. She pointed out that unlike so many other young, female pop stars, Swift writes her own songs and largely manages her own career, yet to many she’s seen as anti-feminist because her image is too feminine, a misconception that Gevinson sees as a barrier.
“We get stuff on Rookie all the time that’s like ‘I want to be involved in feminism but I feel like it’s not for me because I like girly things,’” she said. “An article that says that Katy Perry liking nail polish is demeaning to women is reinforcing a stereotype. It seems rooted in a place that’s so girl-hating.”
That’s why Rookie Mag is a feminist publication even though only a small amount of its content is directly about feminism. It’s a place for girls to express everything that’s important to them, from serious questions about growing up and falling in love to posts about nail art designs and favorite pop songs. It’s for girls who are just discovering Riot Grrrl and girls who love Taylor Swift, girls who are navigating their first crush and girls, like Gevinson, who are getting ready to go off to college. Because of that focus on a diversity of voices, even more than how established the publication is, it doesn’t even seem to matter whether the editor-in-chief is 18 or 80.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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